A passing comment from a certain learned Jesuit some months ago prompted me to dive into a subject of significant importance in the public square these days. After following through on his suggestion to pick up a copy of Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, the issues at stake were placed within the context of the larger debate over faith and reason within the long intellectual history that extends to the very roots of western civilization. This had the remarkable result of justifying my (vicious) inclination to buy books I have no immediate intention of reading, for when I came across a copy of Moral Darwinism sitting on my pile of untouched purchases, I experienced the temptation to read it, and gave in. It was written by Ben Wiker, a former professor of mine from Thomas Aquinas College, back when I didn’t have no clue ‘bout nothin’. He led me through 2400 years of intellectual history in a way that recast the way I discerned the principles (explicit or otherwise) that lay below the troubled waters of the “culture war.”
Following this, a thorough search through the First Things archive produced a 130-page collection of articles going back to the mid-nineties that I printed and read on an exercise bike during this ninth-circle-of-hell winter we’ve been having in Chicagoland. A recent exchange in that periodical between Cardinal Schönborn and Stephen Barr of the U. of Delaware has been particularly helpful. Other papers and theses by friends have made their way onto my desk since then, and it’s been a real joy to engage in the pressing philosophical issues of the day with the consciousness that a growth in competence will serve me very well in the mission to present the long tradition of the Church’s teaching on human reason to the faithful.
It’s certainly given me cause to approach the public dialogue with a heftier measure of cynicism than is my natural disposition; these are times that try men’s patience, after all. Without question it’s instilled in me a deference for minds far more capable than my own, on both sides of the issues. While I don’t feel my grasp of the questions would permit me to lay them out for others, I feel a greater confidence in filtering through the great deal of noise that various public figures continue to emit in one another’s general direction.
One thing in common among the authors that I found most compelling was their tendency to distance themselves from the parameters of the debate as it is presented in the media. It’s with this in mind that I’d like to weigh in with a few thoughts on Ben Stein’s new film “Expelled,” which will be released sometime next month, I believe.
I was given the chance to view a pre-production version of this film at the 2008 FOCUS National conference back in January. It is a film you must go watch on opening weekend (which, if the release date isn’t postponed again, happens to coincide with the papal visit). It is a well-done film that wins some points for the Intelligent Design movement, and clarifies some issues with the neo-Darwinian perspective that need to be clarified. It gets into some heavy matter when tracing out the potential consequences of rigorous Darwinism (eugenics, genocide) and its contemporary instantiation in organizations such as Planned Parenthood, while managing to not come across as wacky conspiracy theory. Stein, after all, in addition to being rather erudite, is Jewish, and while this doesn’t give him a license to brand his opponents an anti-Semite on a whim, it does allow the filmmakers to broach the subject convincingly. A visit to the Charles Darwin museum allows Ben to gaze upon a life-size statue of Darwin as if putting a question to him: “Did you see what we would do with your discoveries?” It is one of the most powerful moments of the film, all the more so for its subdued and earnest tone. There is some mockery of figures such as Dawkins in the film, which I could have done without, but overall the approach is civil and measured.
One exception to this is a conversation at the end of the film in which Richard Dawkins, with no real effort necessary on the producers, makes himself look like a deluded scientologist grasping at straws. I watched this conversation with great pleasure (and a new reluctance to acknowledge among the popular atheists even a thimbleful of good faith—which felt more like a wound than a victory). It would not be surprising if the popular scientific culture never takes him seriously again after his willingness to hypothesize that highly developed extraterrestrials are responsible for the beginning of life on earth.
At the very same conference, however, only a day or two before a talk was delivered to about eighty students by a certain Mark Ryland of the Institute for the Study of Nature, in which he laid out a critical perspective of the evolution / ID debate. Alluding to a number of different addresses and articles by Benedict XVI and Cardinal Schönborn, Ryland made it clear that both sides have succumbed to what is known formally as “scientism”: the refusal to acknowledge any form of knowing as valid other than the empirically verifiable. It can at times be referred to in terms of “materialism” or “positivism.” Whatever its specific form, its fundamental attitude is best summed up in the words of one of its foremost representatives, the geneticist Richard Lewontin:
We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counterintuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.
This sort of talk simplifies things greatly, for it allows people of religious belief to take issue not with those who work within the reductive bounds of science but those who claim that knowledge so gained is exhaustive. With this distinction in hand, we can let the scientists do their work without feeling threatened by their explorations and conclusions, though always conscious that it will be necessary at times to make corrections.
What does this look like? Ideally, science and religion—reason and faith—work to mutually encourage and purify one another. John Paul the Great succinctly noted in his 1988 address to the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences that “science can purify religion from error and superstition, [just as] religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes …” The operative word here is “ideally.” Stephen Jay Gould famously outlined this relationship as between “non-overlapping magisterial authorities,” in which reason and faith, science and religion, exercise sole authority over their respective domains. Only at the point of intersection will any wrist-slapping be necessary, with the net effect that by and large the two realms of science and religion can leave one another alone.
While this bifurcation seems reasonable, there is a catch. When science names itself the arbiter of what is empirical and verifiable, it is in effect denying any possibility for religion to make truth claims by confining the consideration of facts to science alone. What is left to religion (and other non-empirical disciplines, for that matter) are the fuzzy and ultimately unimportant questions of personal meaning, responsibility, and identity. Truth, then, is reduced to what can be verified by experiment—that is, by the scientific method.
This is the “self-limitation of reason” to which Benedict XVI referred so ominously in his highly misunderstood Regensburg address. The effect of this restriction is momentous. As he explains,
... if science as a whole is this and this alone, then it is man himself who ends up being reduced, for the specifically human questions about our origin and destiny, the questions raised by religion and ethics, then have no place within the purview of collective reason as defined by ‘science’ so understood, and must thus be relegated to the realm of the subjective.
Since the secularist wonks were busy trying to pin the explosive backlash of Islamic jihadists on the passing remark of this theologian to a university faculty, very few of the pope’s substantial remarks were able to gain a hearing much beyond his immediate listeners present with him that day. This is very unfortunate, because what he had to say was crucial. With regard to what's been said above, it makes clear that the NOMA principle of Stephen Jay Gould (non-overlapping magisteria), one that has been thoroughly internalized by the West, is unsatisfactory.
What is unsatisfactory about it is that it is ultimately a compromise of the human. The secular paradigm of “rational” public debate devoid of any reference to what cannot be assented to by all “reasonable” persons is nothing less than a dehumanized society that is ignorant of where it is headed and which has forgotten where it’s come from.
Just what needs to be done in the face of this situation will be taken up in a later post—perhaps even my next one. (Hint: Benedict has some interesting suggestions.) What’s of interest to me now is what the Intelligent Design movement in general and Ben Stein’s movie in particular can mean for us. Critics of ID point out that agency is never invoked in scientific explanations; the goal of science is to provide explanations of phenomena solely with reference to natural causes. Intelligent design, they claim, is not science, but something else masking itself as science in order to find an audience within our scientifically-minded culture—a Trojan horse of sorts. This seems to be a valid criticism.
However, to accept this does not render ID useless: I believe a particular example of this is Expelled. While it was produced by advocates of ID, the movie prescinds from much explicit endorsement of ID beyond whatever is necessary to establish a basic rapport with the audience over its viewpoint. It consciously restricts itself to two goals: pointing out the holes in Darwinian theory as it now stands, and loosening the deathgrip Darwinists hold over the scientific community that stifles the principled exchange characteristic of good science. This bears a remarkable similarity to JPII’s clarification of religion’s competence to “purify science from idolatry and false absolutes” quoted above.
I am certainly not saying that Expelled is at heart a religious film, doing religious work. What I am saying—nothing more than an echo of Schönborn, Benedict, and others—is that it is neither a scientific nor religious issue, but a philosophical one. This is their critique of the debate: no one wants to acknowledge that it will continue to go nowhere as long as materialists are allowed to determine its parameters through a restriction of the object of reason to matter. Philosophy, and indeed the Church, finds it(her)self in the unique position of having to defend human reason from those who would deny its applicability to the realm of purpose, meaning, and all things human. Expelled does a fine job of raising the question in a compelling way, and in that sense, religion finds its philosophical perspective a welcome bedfellow.
If there’s some back and forth on these questions, so much the better. After all, if it’s a matter of survival of the fittest, we wouldn’t want those Darwinists getting fat and happy, would we?
(By the way, if you are interested in that compilation of articles from First Things, which includes the relevant correspondence generated after each article or series of articles was published, post a comment indicating your desire and I’ll send it to you via email. This does, of course, presume you are not posting anonymously.)