Intelligent Design

The current flap within the Catholic Church triggered by Vienna's Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, chief architect of the official Catechism of the Catholic Church, has all the hallmarks of an attempt at a "course-correction", but one that has resulted in a bit of "oversteer". What the Cardinal was apparently attempting to do, with the new pope's approval, was to counteract some overly-permissive interpretations of the previous pope's 1996 admission that "evolution is more than just a hypothesis." It seems that some people took that remark to mean that the Church had gone over to a full-scale endorsement of the current neo-darwinian interpretation of evolution -- which of course it cannot. If most Catholics are generally accepting of evolutionary science as the only logical explanation of the workings of nature, they still see it as part of God's on-going creative activity. In other words, they hold to a Christian form of what philosophers of science call "deistic evolution". Thus they see God as both the origin of the universe and the goal of its existence. And they would also like to believe that they see divine Providence or God's wisdom at work throughout the whole evolutionary process. But it is this latter point that is the especially tricky one. Does this mean that nothing happens by chance? To those who advocate an "intelligent design" version of evolution (among whom are a few Catholic scientists) it seems that every critical turn in the evolutionary process -- for example, the appearance of "flagellae" as a propulsive appendage on simple cells, or to take a more basic example, the occurrence of life in the first place -- is the result of some kind of divine intervention, rather than simply the result of an "algorithmic" process of long-term trial and error. Some of these attempts to explain what seem to be highly implausible events in the evolutionary process are rather impressive. Yet, on the other hand, if the interplay of chance or indeterminacy with the determinism imposed by biological necessity are not given their full role, then the whole structure of the evolutionary theory seems to be undermined. More serious yet, I believe, is the effect on what is probably the strongest asset that the evolutionary explanation of nature can bring to religious belief and to theology, which is a logical explanation for the immense amount of evil and suffering in the world. It is only when the evolutionary origins of human freedom are recognized that the amount of evil that we are capable of begins to make sense, and that a greater purpose that God seems to have had in mind in leaving so much to chance emerges. To paraphrase Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), the Jesuit scientist who was Catholicism's foremost theorist of evolution, God, by "playing creatively with chance" has not so much made mankind but "made man to make himself." Are such thoughts subversive of Christian faith? Perhaps for those who still confuse genuine faith with beliefs about the world in concepts inherited from the stone age, such ideas are unthinkable. But for those who believe that God intended that nature would eventually evolve intelligent creatures such as we human beings, such ideas help deepen our faith rather than destroy it.

R W Kropf 7/11/05 Idesign2.doc 05-07-11.html