by Mark Anthony Signorelli (January 2011)
It is glorious for religion to have enemies such as this. - Pascal
Considered in the light of intellectual history, the truly remarkable thing about the reception of Charles Darwin’s work is not the nature or the extent of its apparent theological implications; the remarkable thing is the fact that anyone could believe that it had any real theological implications at all. That great masses of men would come to consider – with either jubilance or indignation – a theory about how species of organisms change over enormous expanses of time an apt challenge to certain theological positions is certainly one of the perverse wonders of the modern world. To be sure, what goes under the name of Darwinism has long since morphed into something far beyond a biological theory, complete with metaphysical and ethical commitments that can hardly be regarded as scientific. Darwinians used to deny this, but not any more; now, they proudly trumpet the fact. Michael Ruse, for one, gloats that “evolution has always been more than just a scientific theory – it has ever been a philosophy, a metaphysics, a Weltanschauung, a secular religion (not so secular at times), even indeed an eschatology.”[i] Still, Darwinism began as, and at its core remains, a theory about how species of organisms change over enormous expanses of time, and as I said, it is a most remarkable thing that such a theory could become a serious rival to any theology, Christian or otherwise. Were one to travel backwards in time to visit Anselm or Duns Scotus, and inform them that in a far distant century, their Christian religion would descend into considerable quiescence in their native country, I suspect that they would have remained unsurprised and undisturbed; such men were not naïve about either the forces of history or the nature of man. But if one were to tell them further that their religion would be superceded in the minds of thousands and millions by a theory about how organisms change over enormous expanses of time, I am quite certain that they would have been incredulous. No doubt, they would attest that their convictions concerning God, the universe, and man’s relationship to both, were such that they were entirely consistent with all possible theories about how species of organisms change over enormous expanses of time, and therefore could not possibly be contradicted by any of them. And they would have been correct. The vaunted, and by now perfectly tiresome, conflict between religion and science is indeed a consequence of ignorance, as the Darwinians constantly insist. However, it is not the recalcitrant ignorance of religious persons towards science that is at the root of the controversy, as they would have us believe; rather, it is their own incorrigible theological and philosophical ignorance that has, from the beginning, generated the intensity of the debate. Let us “count the ways” of their folly.
The Darwinian challenge to theology takes a number of different forms. At its crudest, it triumphs over a literal reading of the scriptural account of creation in Genesis, which is itself the crudest mode of understanding that text. The necessity of reading Genesis literally was dismissed some 1500 years ago by no less orthodox a figure than St. Augustine, who abjured his readers, “let us never think in a literal-minded, fleshly way of utterances in time throughout these days of divine works,” and who moreover held that, in interpreting scripture, “our business…is to inquire how God’s scriptures say he established things according to their proper natures, and not what he might wish to work in them or out of them as a miracle of his power,”[ii] Indeed, he excoriates the rash folly of those Christians who presume to contest scientific questions from the authority of scripture, and thus, by an untutored literalism, bring their creed into disrepute with the scientifically knowledgeable:
There is knowledge to be had, after all, about the earth, about the sky, about the other elements of this world, about the movements and revolutions or even the magnitude and distances of the constellations, about the predictable eclipses of moon and sun, about the cycles of years and seasons, about the nature of animals, fruits, stones, and everything else of this kind. And it frequently happens that even non-Christians will have knowledge of this sort in a way that they can substantiate with scientific arguments or experiments. Now it is quite disgraceful and disastrous, something to be on one’s guard against all costs, that they should ever hear Christians spouting what they claim our Christian literature has to say on these topics, and talking such nonsense that they can scarcely contain their laughter when they see them to be toto caelo, as the saying goes, wide of the mark. And what is so vexing is not that misguided people should be laughed at, as that our authors should be assumed by outsiders to have held such views, to the great detriment of those about whose salvation we are concerned, should be written off and consigned to the waste paper basket as so many ignoramuses.[iii]
To be sure, such admonitions are as appropriately leveled towards today’s fundamentalists as towards the saint’s own contemporaries, for what Augustine insists upon is a reading of Genesis that is fully able to account for, and accommodate, any proven discoveries of science. It is a shame that so many present-day Christians do not display this same level of confidence in their creed and its foundations. Yet, even when the Darwinian establishes the impossibility of the literal scriptural account, he has not advanced his argument against Christian theology one millimeter past the 6th century. Nonetheless, prominent Darwinians are convinced that there simply must be some polemical hay to make out of this matter. Thus Michael Ruse writes, “it really must matter that we are evolved beings and not just the product of a Good God on the Sixth Day, molded in His image.”[iv] Philip Kitcher spends an entire chapter refuting what he calls “Genesis creationism,” and insinuates that anything other than a literal reading of Genesis inexorably leads to disbelief: “devout people fear that, when thought through, traditions of nonliteral reading that have dominated much of the history of Christianity, and that are present in liberal Christianity today, will not leave much standing.”[v] Remarkably, Professor Kitcher declines to expand on the great consternation which the reflections of St. Augustine have occasioned in the minds of the Christian faithful, and what a deep threat to orthodoxy may be discovered in the Confessions and The City of God.
More popular, and regarded by the Darwinians themselves as more conclusive, are attacks on the so-called “argument from design.” Central to this story is the thesis of William Paley, that complex things in nature require a special kind of explanation, one that includes the purposeful efforts of a conscious designer, who must be what we refer to as God. The theory of natural selection - so the story goes - demonstrates how, over eons of geological history, a process of small, incremental, and entirely mechanical causes can replicate the work of a conscious designer, in bringing forth biological organisms of such a complexity that they appear to all the world to have been the “contrivance” (Paley’s word) of a creative mind. The artisan God is replaced by Richard Dawkins’ “blind watchmaker,” mindless evolution.
It is impossible to make Darwinians understand that Paley is not a significant theologian, that his work has had little to no influence on the development of Christian theology, and that very few thoughtful Christians ever turn to his work to clarify the contents of their beliefs. Most importantly, his version of the “argument from design” is about as heterodox and unrepresentative as any argument could possibly be. Its not even clear what his version has in common with previous arguments referred to by that name.[vi] No matter how many times this is pointed out to Darwinians, they refuse to acknowledge the fact. Thus we find Dawkins, in introducing his alleged refutation of the design argument, claiming that Paley gave “the traditional religious answer to the riddle,”[vii] (and discovering Richard Dawkins peddling gross errors about the history of theology and philosophy is about as shocking as finding a bullfrog croaking). Traditionally, arguments attempting to deduce the existence and nature of God from the existence and nature of His creation trace their orthodox pedigree to a single passage in St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (1,20)[viii]: “for the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead.” Since it is the invisible characteristics of God which are demonstrated by his works, this would seem to obviate the search for traces of divine engineering in the biological realm, or the quest to identify the gap in efficient causality into which we can shove our conception of God. Most significantly, in claiming that it is God’s invisible characteristics which are revealed by the nature of the universe, the Apostle is obviously appealing to features of the natural world which are not subject to experimental observation or to measurement, and therefore his argument is entirely immune to either scientific verification, or scientific negation. What are the “invisible things” of God which are evident in His works, and which we are “without excuse” if we ignore? Consider the following passage from St. Augustine’s City of God:
We have the evidence of the world itself in all its ordered change and movement and in all the beauty it presents to our sights, a world which bears a kind of silent testimony to the fact of its creation, and proclaims that its maker could have been none other than God, the ineffably and invisibly great, the ineffably and invisibly beautiful.[ix]
Or the following passage from St. Bonaventure’s The Soul’s Journey Into God:
The entire sense world, therefore, in its three classes of objects, enters the human soul through apprehension…From this apprehension, if it is of a suitable object, there follows pleasure. The senses take delight in an object perceived through an abstracted likeness…After this apprehension and pleasure comes judgment…Judgment is an action which causes the sensible species, received in a sensible way through the senses, to enter the intellective faculty by a process of purification and abstraction. And thus the whole world can enter into the human soul through the doors of the senses by the three operations mentioned above. All these are vestiges in which we can see our God.[x]
Both authors point first and foremost to the beauty, the order, and the proportion of created things for the evidence of the work of God, who is “ineffably and invisibly beautiful.” They discover in nature signs (Bonaventure says “the creatures of the sense world signify the invisible attributes of God”) of those characteristics belonging to God, and since He is preeminently beautiful and preeminently felicitous, the beauty and felicity of our world point us ultimately towards Him. Biological complexity – or complexity of any sort, for that matter – has nothing to do with the argument, because biological complexity is not an attribute of God, since he is neither biological, nor physical, nor consisting of parts (that such things need to be iterated is evidence enough of how low the Darwinians have dragged the level of this debate). Of course, these arguments presuppose that beauty itself is something over and above the stimulation of certain neurons[xi], a position which the Darwinians, with their rampantly materialist conception of mind, will not likely concede. But this is less a testament to the inadequacy of these arguments, than to the desiccated condition of the Darwinians’ own dogmas.
Something else is hinted at in the passages just cited, in Augustine’s reference to “the evidence of the world itself,” and in Bonaventure’s subsequent reference to “the form that not only produces all things, as the being which sustains the form in all things and the rule which directs all things.”[xii] The thing about natural objects that reveals the work of God most fundamentally is simply that they are, that they exist, since God is, most fundamentally, total and authentic being, the eternal “I Am” of Exodus, and the fountain-spring of all contingent beings. This is the thesis that would be worked out with such profundity in Aquinas’ metaphysics.[xiii] Perhaps I am digressing here beyond the claims that are strictly included in an “argument from design,” but I mention this insinuation of the passages above in order to demonstrate the level at which these arguments are working. Paley’s argument rests on a distinction between a rock and a watch; we realize that their distinctive natures require different kinds of explanation. For the Darwinians, the watch is replaced by a biological organism – a leopard, say -and of course, viewed scientifically, the rock and the leopard require different kinds of explanation. But viewed from a certain ontological perspective, the rock and the leopard both require the same kind of explanation, an explanation that accounts (or attempts to account) for why they exist at all. After all, the existence of rocks is no less enigmatic than the existence of leopards. Why should either one of these things have emerged out of nothingness? Any attempt to answer this question must be formulated in terms that entirely transcend the scientific investigation of natural causes – the realm of “second causes,” in the Thomistic nomenclature - and therefore cannot be threatened or affirmed by scientific discoveries. It is at this transcendent level – the level of ontological inquiry – that Augustine’s and Bonaventure’s arguments operate. So too do all traditional “arguments from design.”[xiv]
This is especially important to remember when we examine the version of the “argument from design” presented in Aquinas’ famous “Fifth Way,” which, because of its brevity, can appear from a cursory reading to resemble the sort of argument that Paley is making.[xv] The argument runs as follows in the Summa Theologia:
We see that things which lack knowledge, such as natural bodies, act for an end, and this evident from their acting always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result. Hence it is plain that they achieve their end, not fortuitously, but designedly. Now whatever lacks knowledge cannot move towards an end, unless it be directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence; as the arrow is directed by the archer. Therefore some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God.[xvi]
As anyone familiar with the thoroughly systematic thought of Aquinas knows, each and every single proposition which he makes is qualified, enhanced, and interpreted in dozens of ways by every other passage. So we need to recall that Aquinas, in keeping with every major theologian in the Christian tradition, adheres to the principle that existence per se is a good; therefore, the “best result” towards which natural bodies tend must simply be their perpetuated existence. This is a premise which common observation confirms, and which Darwinism, committed as it is to the principle that all biological organisms tend towards their “survival” – that is to say, their perpetuated existence – can hardly challenge. Similarly, this very terse argument cannot be construed properly apart from a knowledge of Aquinas’ central doctrine of analogy, according to which all attributions we make concerning God’s nature are analogous to – and not univocal with - the sorts of attributions we make concerning the objects of this world. Aquinas’ reference to God as a kind of designer no more assigns to him the talents of a watchmaker, or the efficacy of natural selection, than the statement “God is good” asserts that He possesses the virtues of a hero or a saint.[xvii]
The starting point for the “Fifth Way” argument is the common sense observation that the universe is replete with regularities, and that these regularities imply an end-directedness. As the philosopher Edward Feser explains:
There is no way to make sense of these regularities apart from the notion of final causation, of things being directed toward an end or goal. For it is not just the case that a struck match regularly generates fire, heat, and the like; it regularly generates fire and heat specifically, rather than ice, or the smell of lilacs, or the sound of a trumpet….the causes don’t simply happen to result in certain effects, but are evidently and inherently directed towards certain specific effects as toward a “goal”…this doesn’t mean they are consciously trying to reach these goals…the Aristotelian idea is precisely that goal-directedness can and does exist in the natural world even apart from conscious awareness.[xviii]
Of course, evolutionary theory, with its constant talk of “selected for” and “adapted for,” verifies this inherent teleology of nature many millions and billions of times over, so there is not the slightest reason to think that Darwin’s theory contradicts Aquinas’ premise here either.[xix] Darwinians try to encounter this problem by recruiting a couple of quotation marks, and – profound thinkers that they are – referring not to the purpose or final causes latent in nature, but to the “purpose” or “final causes.”[xx] I hope it is obvious to everyone that this is nothing but a cheap gimmick. Beginning with the real teleology of nature, then, we can, according to Aquinas, infer a Supreme Intelligence which bestows upon nature that purposefulness, since “whatever lacks knowledge cannot move towards an end, unless it be directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence.” Consider the example Aquinas uses to illustrate his point, the archer and the arrow. Suppose we were capable of observing the arrow mid-flight, without simultaneously observing the archer. We would not deny that the arrow was moving towards the target; that is to say, we would grant that it was moving in some teleological fashion. But we would infer from the arrow’s directedness some intention, in the person of the archer, that accounts for that directedness. Of course, this is because we know, from experience, that when arrows move towards targets, it is generally because they are projected that way by archers. But Aquinas holds that we can argue in the same way about the objects of the world, that their end-directedness is evidence of a directing intelligence, which we call God. Perhaps we might characterize the argument as follows: if there is no directing intelligence behind nature, the teleology which we discover there is illusory, but since it is impossible that it is illusory (since, for instance, we find it impossible to speak about nature without drawing upon teleological language), then there must be an intelligence behind nature. Christopher F.J. Martin states the most suggestive feature of this argument: “but it is a plausible claim that unless the whole has a point, no part of it has a point, all appearances of final structure notwithstanding. Thus St Thomas thinks that if the world as a whole does not have a point, then the things in the world that seem to have a point don’t have a point either.”[xxi]
What are we to make of these arguments? They are not unobjectionable, to say the very least. Of the “design argument,” Cardinal Newman famously remarked “for forty years I have been unable to see the logical force of the argument myself. I believe in design because I believe in God; not in a God because I see design.” Other theologians have suspected that these arguments only suggest something about the nature of God, rather than constituting a convincing argument for his existence. Certainly, each rests on numerous controvertible metaphysical assumptions. But this just is the point. The traditional design arguments, if they are to be controverted, need to be controverted on metaphysical grounds. Which just is to say, evolutionary theory has nothing to do with these questions! As the theologian David Bentley Hart writes:
Neither intuitions of general indeterminacy nor discoveries of special complexity authorize us to pronounce any final verdict on the whole of being…The question of which judgments of finality are most plausible can be answered only metaphysically, for ultimately it is the question of whose primordial convictions are most rational and defensible.[xxii]
Even Daniel Dennett himself seems to admit this. In his notorious debate with Alvin Plantinga, he walked back from the position stated at the outset of Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, that Darwin’s theory somehow refuted, or at least attenuated, traditional theological accounts of man’s origins, and agreed instead that Christian theology is perfectly compatible with evolutionary theory. Yet this consistency amounts to little, he said, since evolutionary theory is equally consistent with the hypothesis that the world was created by Superman, or – in an example which displays the fair-mindedness and gentlemanly spirit so characteristic of the man – the hypothesis that the Holocaust never occurred.[xxiii] That is, according to Dennett, Christian belief has no more metaphysical support for its positions than belief in Superman. And this sort of assertion is akin to that incredulous question of Richard Dawkins, which drivels out of his mouth in nearly every one of his public appearances, as to why anybody would believe in the divinity of Christ anymore than in the divinity of Thor. In the libraries of the universities where these two men collect their salaries, there is amassed over two thousand years of intellectual endeavor, laying forth, with all conceivable philosophical sophistication and breadth, the case for belief in Christian doctrine, yet when these mountebanks drop the pretense of arguing from evolutionary premises, and engage the “primordial convictions” of their adversaries, they believe those convictions, with their two millennia of rational defense, can be summarily dismissed with some idiotic twaddle about Superman and Thor. Why exactly should any authentic seeker of the truth feel compelled to take these people seriously? And when we observe them rehearsing this asinine travesty of argumentation with the last degree of condescension and disdain towards their opponents – well, it would take a quite superlative Christian to refrain from returning those sentiments in kind. The whole pretense of the last two centuries, from Huxley on down to Dawkins, that there is a uniquely Darwinian rejoinder to the classical arguments of the Christian theologians - a rejoinder deduced from the facts of evolutionary history - is simply a consequence of the massive ignorance and presumption of modern Western persons regarding the contents of their forfeited philosophical traditions.
Standing behind, and implicated in, these impotent attacks on “the argument from design,” are a set of assumptions which need to be brought to light, in order to expose the genuinely catastrophic nature of the Darwinians’ confusion. Whether or not he tackles a literal reading of Genesis, every Darwinian who undertakes the anti-theological mission pretends to rebut something called “special creation.” According to this notion, God created the human species by a miraculous interjection of his power into this world, through means quite out of keeping with the universal and quotidian laws of nature. In a manner of speaking, the creature, man, is placed at the distance of one causal relationship from the Creator; the Creator acts, and the creature is made. There are no intervening causes, belonging to the natural order, through which the Creator brings his work to fruition. There is one efficient cause – namely, God – who, through one creative act, immediately fashioned man.
In contrast, natural selection purports to replace the singular and simple efficiency of God with a staggering, innumerable accumulation of small, unintended, and unexceptionally natural causes, which over an inconceivably large span of time, brought about the species homo sapiens As the process by which the human race differed in no essential respect from the process by which lemurs and horned toads came into the world, we can conclude that there was nothing “special” about the creation of homo sapiens. No special creation, no need for a special Creator. Thus Darwin, and the rest has been bliss and enlightenment for the better part of a century and a half, or would have been if not for the sectarian recalcitrance of a few young-earth fanatics.
This is the essence of the argument presented by Dennett at the outset of Darwin’s Dangerous Idea:
Darwin has offered us an account of the crudest, most rudimentary, stupidest imaginable lifting process – the wedge of natural selection. By taking tiny – the tiniest possible –steps, this process can gradually, over eons, traverse these huge distances. Or so he claims. At no point would anything miraculous – from on high – be needed. Each step has been accomplished by brute, mechanical, algorithmic climbing…[xxiv]
Dennett repeatedly contrasts “skyhooks,” supernatural or purposeful causes, with “cranes,” mechanical causes, and insists that a full account of the origins of man and his universe can be supplied by the latter. These mechanical causes operate in an algorithmic fashion, repeatedly producing orderly and predictable results over enormous expanses of time, thus creating the illusion of purposeful design: “the algorithmic level is the level that best accounts for the speed of the antelope, the wing of the eagle, the shape of the orchid, the diversity of species, and all the other occasions for wonder in the world of nature.”[xxv] Once we grasp this fundamental truth, we recognize that the theory of divine authorship is not so much refuted, as “dissolved,” demonstrated once and for all to be Laplace’s superfluous and unnecessary hypothesis: “one of Darwin’s most fundamental contributions is showing us a new way to make sense of ‘why questions…a clear cogent, astonishingly versatile way of dissolving these old conundrums.”[xxvi] Then we can securely conclude that any account of divine origins is a mere relic of pre-Darwinian superstition, “as obsolete as the quill pen…a fascinating museum piece, a curiosity that can do no real work in the intellectual world today.”[xxvii]
Dennett’s argument serves as an adequate précis of one of the primary forms of Darwinian anti-theology, yet the argument is so insufficient to establish its conclusion – the obsolescence of theological accounts of creation – that it is quite difficult to keep track of all the ways in which it fails. It contains the entirely illicit assumption that natural causes and divine ends are mutually exclusive, that once we have acquired a completely “naturalistic” account of any phenomena, we have discovered grounds for ruling out the involvement of supernatural guidance. But no assumption about the content of Christian theology could be more unwarranted. Church polemicists have repeatedly pointed to nature’s orderly appearance as itself a chief evidence for God’s superintending love. Accordingly, to the Christian mind, any and all accounts of natural processes, however detailed and precise they become, constitute a potential source of verification for God’s supernatural ends. In short, the assumption that God’s involvement in the universe must take the exclusive form of miraculous and non-natural acts is bogus.
Moreover, the doctrine of providence, which refers to the ultimate purposes God holds for his creation, has always been held to be consistent with the unhindered freedom of contingent things. As Hart puts it:
Providence works at the level of what Aquinas would call primary causality: that is, it is so transcendent of the operation of secondary causes – which is to say, finite and contingent causes immanent to the realm of created things – that it can at once create freedom and also assure that no consequence of the misuse of that freedom will prevent him from accomplishing the good he intends in all things…Providence, then – and this is what it is most important to grasp – is not the same thing as a universal teleology.[xxviii]
If this is the nature of God’s true purposes, then there is absolutely no way to infer from mechanical causes – even from a staggeringly huge complex of mechanical causes like evolutionary history – the absence of supernatural purposefulness, since this is held to be consistent with any and all efficient causes “immanent” in nature.
Consider a historical example. In his famous Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1789, George Washington asserted that the American people had been blessed during the course of the War for Independence, and led towards victory by “the favorable interpositions of (God’s) Providence.” Now, what if some Darwinian, magically transported to the past, were to remind Mr. Washington of all the “brute, mechanical” causes which led to that victory. Suppose he were to say, “but General, do you not recall the prevarication of the Howe brothers, and the great victory at Saratoga, and the attrition of Cornwallis’ forces in the south, and the arrival of the French fleet,” and so on. Would anybody, least of all Washington himself, consider this a sensible rejoinder to the assertion of providential design? No one knew better than Washington the thousands and millions of tiny, cumulative causes which led to the American victory, so how could someone hope to shake his belief in a superintending Providence by reminding him of those things? Similarly, if one believes that the emergence of mankind out of evolutionary history was part of God’s providential design, how in the world could anyone hope to disprove this conviction by adducing the millions and billions of biological causal sequences which needed to precede this emergence? The assertions are made at completely different explanatory levels – one concerning the acts of a necessary being, the other concerning the mutations of contingent nature. Since the belief in providence and evolutionary history are perfectly consistent, there is just no way to deduce the falsity of the former from the factuality of the latter.
Nor will it do to respond, as modern persons are accustomed to do, that since the phenomenon of our world – whether the long-neck of the giraffe, or the victory of the Continental forces at Yorktown – can be explained in an entirely naturalistic fashion, positing a role for the divine merely tacks on a superfluous and unnecessary hypothesis. Something of this sort is insinuated by Dennett’s argument. But this obviously just begs the question. A naturalistic account of events, evolutionary or otherwise, is complete only if there is in fact no supernatural dimension to those events, a possibility which, as we have seen, cannot be precluded by stating the “brute, mechanistic” facts with ever so much accuracy. And if there is such a dimension – if natural events are unfolding in a manner consistent with the purposes of a transcendent mind – then this is quite clearly the most interesting thing about those events. So an account that omits this dimension is anything but complete.
None of this is to deny that there are not excellent reasons for rejecting a belief in the providential superintendence of history. Nor is it true that the wastefulness and apparent randomness of evolutionary history do not present awesome challenges to the intellect of any serious Christian. Indeed, viewed properly, evolutionary history is simply one more manifestation of the problem of multiplicity, and the problem of evil, which have been perpetual dilemmas to theologians. In words more forceful than anything the Darwinians themselves could muster, Newman testified to the terrible confusion occasioned in our minds when we cast our eyes upon the “brute, mechanistic” tenor of human existence:
To consider the world in its length and breadth, its various history, the many races of man, their starts, their fortunes, their mutual alienation, their conflicts…the blind evolution of what turn out to be great powers or truths, the progress of things, as if from unreasoning elements, not towards final causes, the greatness and littleness of man, his far-reaching aims, his short duration, the curtain hung over his futurity, the disappointments of life, the defeat of good, the success of evil, physical pain, mental anguish, the prevalence and intensity of sin…all this is a vision to dizzy and appal; and inflicts upon the mind the sense of a profound mystery, which is absolutely beyond human solution.[xxix]
To reconcile our conviction in the reality of these two realms – the supernatural realm of placid beatitude, and the terrestrial realm of incessant agony – is a task of Herculean proportions for the human mind. Yet whether we even hold such an undertaking to be worthwhile depends on whether or not we believe in some form of supernatural reality, and this belief itself – again, it must be emphasized - is necessarily held, or disputed, on metaphysical grounds, which science and all of its discoveries can never touch.
But even to engage Dennett’s argument on theological grounds is to grant too much to its power, since the real problem with the argument is the gross philosophical error at its foundation. Dennett simply claims that once we have in hand a complete mechanical explanation of biological order, we have grounds for excluding the role of purposefulness from the process. Necessarily suppressed beneath this argument is the premise that efficient and final causality are mutually exclusive, that once we have constructed a satisfactory explanation of a phenomenon in terms of efficient causality, the role of finality in that phenomenon is automatically excluded. If this premise is not true, then Dennett’s argument does not go through. But of course, it is not true; it is not even close to being true. This is not what anyone has meant by teleology, certainly not what the pre-modern tradition (that tradition which has allegedly been refuted for all time by modern science) asserted concerning teleology. According to that tradition, explanations in terms of efficient causality necessitate the positing of finality. Aristotle makes this perfectly clear in the opening of his Metaphysics, where he criticizes the materialism of the Pre-Socratic philosophers, because their explanations of change in terms of efficient and material causality fail to address the “that for the sake of which” concealed in their explanations.[xxx] Finality presupposes mechanical operations, such that it remains illicit to conclude the absence of finality merely from a complete account of mechanical causes. As Martin writes:
So, prejudices aside, we can ask what this or that bit of the world is for; and we can, in some cases, get an answer. We get it, at least sometimes, by considering efficient causality: what this or that bit of the world actually does. There is, thus, no conflict between final explanations and efficient explanations, and it might be possible to maintain, as in the cases we have considered, that the one requires the other and vice-versa. They require each other, they even live off each other, given that the final explanation is just the efficient explanation read in the opposite direction, with the "because’s" substituted by "in order to’s", while the efficient explanation is just the final explanation read off in the other direction, with the "in order to’s" substituted by "because’s". This is certainly Aquinas’s doctrine: as he puts it, rather more elegantly, "causae sunt ad invicem causae", one kind of explanation explains the other.[xxxi]
Consider what would follow were this not the case. Dennett, and his fellow Darwinians, then need not allude to Darwinian theory at all, nor fill their books (as they so tediously do) with all of the biological contrivances which they take as prima facie evidence for the awesome power of natural selection.[xxxii] For on their premises, any example of mechanical operations is evidence of the absence of purpose, supernatural or otherwise. A Darwinian might as well say, “look, those leaves were blown off the tree by the wholly mechanical force of the wind; therefore there is no God,” or “you can see how the first billiard ball transferred its force to the second one, in order to propel the latter towards the cup; therefore there is no God.” These are not exaggerations or reductio ad absurdum’s, but assertions which are perfectly akin to the central Darwinian claim. Consider the following statement (quoted endlessly by adoring Darwinians) by the twentieth-century evolutionary theorist and Communist agitator, J.B.S. Haldane: “My practice as a scientist is atheistic. That is to say, when I set up an experiment I assume no god, angel or devil is going to interfere with its course…I should therefore be intellectually dishonest if I were not also atheistic in the affairs of the world.” What does this amount to, other than a paraphrase of the following: “cells multiply in my petri dish according to invariably mechanical laws; therefore, there is no God.” Such arguments amount to nothing more than a modernist revision of the opening of Psalm 19: “the heavens (and everything beneath) declare the glory of nothingness.” They represent, not conclusions derived from the observable facts of the world, but dogmatic convictions read into the facts of the world.[xxxiii]
It gets worse. If complete mechanical explanations are sufficient to discount the role of divine purposefulness, they are quite obviously sufficient to discount the role of human purposefulness. So if, for instance, we can provide an account of Jim’s stroll down the block in wholly material and mechanistic terms – this portion of the brain sends this kind of signal to this muscle to make it contract in this way – we can presumably exclude the causal role of Jim’s purposes in walking down the block – to visit his girlfriend, or to pick up bread from the store. Similarly, if we can offer a very precise neurological picture of what is taking place in Jim’s brain when he holds a particular belief – these neurons are firing at a faster rate, and this portion of the brain is metabolizing blood faster than this portion, etc. – then we presumably have the grounds for a completely mechanistic account of whatever behavior Jim is displaying, without the need to refer to Jim’s purposes, which is to say, we can explain Jim’s behavior without any reference at all to his beliefs (or to any feature of his subjective experience). Once we have the means to establish a fully mechanical explanation of any human action, we have the grounds to exclude the causal influence of human purposefulness, and as science produces more and more detailed explanations of more and more human behaviors, we have better and better grounds to exclude the causal influence of human purposefulness altogether. We can deny the real existence of mind altogether, for mind is inevitably purposeful. And this is precisely what Dennett does conclude: “Darwin’s idea thus also threatened to spread all the way up, dissolving the illusion of our own authorship, our own divine spark of creativity and understanding.”[xxxiv] In his other work, he has defended his notoriously awful position on the “intentional stance,” the upshot of which is simply to deny that human beings possess any distinctively mental life. And of course, he is joined by whole masses of modern academic materialists, who write books called The Illusion of Conscious Will[xxxv] and concur with statements such as “in principle you could explain all behavior without reference to subjective states,”[xxxvi] and in a thousand different ways, implicit and overt, deny the reality of human mental life. All of this is sheer lunacy, to be sure, but it is lunacy that follows directly from their grotesquely inadequate metaphysics.
And this is the crucial point to grasp, because that degenerate metaphysics was adopted specifically to forestall any theistic explanations of the universe, but the consequences of that adoption have been a profound deformation in the modern world’s conception of human nature, and how it is to be properly understood. We come back again (as we always do) to Plato, and that well known passage in the Phaedo in which Socrates considers what “causes” have led him to be seated in an Athenian jail, awaiting execution:
I fancy that these sinews and bones would have been in the neighborhood of Megara or Boeotia long ago – impelled by a conviction of what is best! – if I did not think that it was more right and honorable to submit to whatever penalty my country orders rather than to take to my heels and run away…If it were said that without such bones and sinews and all the rest of them I should not be able to do what I think is right, it would be true. But to say that it is because of them that I do what I am doing, and not through choice of what is best – although my actions are controlled by mind – would be a very lax and inaccurate form of expression.[xxxvii]
Twenty-five hundred years of accumulated scientific knowledge have not given us any reason to demur from Socrates’ position. More importantly, we ourselves cannot hope to arrive at a full appreciation of Socrates’ actions without reference to his purposes - to his “choice of what is best,” and what is so magnanimous in that choice; that is to say, we cannot appreciate his actions without understanding what was taking place in his mind, and not just in his brain. To omit the mental from our description of Socrates’ last moments (which the materialist must do, however much he tries to obscure the fact) is necessarily to omit the heroism of Socrates’ conscious intentions, but of all things, an appreciation of the heroism of Socrates’ conscious intentions is “the one thing necessary” for an adequate understanding of Socrates’ last moments. The Darwinian, and the modern materialist more generally, is committed to negating the basis of everything that gives to human life its unique dignity, potential, and value, and this because he has pledged loyalty to the only set of metaphysical presuppositions which could possibly validate his reflexive atheism. Determined to prove himself the enemy of God, the Darwinian has inexorably become the enemy of man.
Anybody wishing to appreciate the authentic nature of the Darwinian case against theology must turn to the concluding chapter of Philip Kitcher’s Living with Darwin. After several chapters spent quarrelling with “intelligent design” theorists (a debate which, I hope it is clear, is entirely superfluous and irrelevant), Kitcher delivers what he clearly regards as his coup de grace, his fatal and final debunking of religious belief. He begins by throwing out the usual Darwinian line concerning the wastefulness and misery entailed by evolutionary history. This is an awesome enigma to be sure,[xxxviii] but as it constitutes just one more version of the “problem of evil” with which Christian theologians have been wrestling for centuries, it quite obviously does not provide the clinching argument which Kitcher desires. He then concedes that Darwinism comprises only a part of what he terms the “enlightenment case against supernaturalism.”[xxxix] As Kitcher presents it, that enlightenment case includes – as anybody familiar with this sort of thing could guess – a reminder of the diversity and irreconcilability of the world’s religious traditions, a brief survey of the textual problems revealed by Biblical scholarship, and an appeal to sociological theories of religion’s origins. Along the way, the reader is treated to pure speculation:
An intriguing conjecture proposes that, in an urban world marked by filth and recurrent outbreaks of plague, the Christian injunction to comfort the sick would have raised rates in times of epidemic, simply because of the beneficial effects of giving water and other forms of basic care. Outsiders would have seen that Christians recovered more frequently, and might have attributed this to divine concern for their well-being.[xl]
The specific instances in which historical and sociological explanations can be given strongly suggest that the causes of success stem from the attractiveness of stories and alleged historical claims, on the emotions they provoke and the actions they inspire – and that they have nothing to do with the literal truth of those tales and histories.[xli]
And outright defamation:
The blindness with which (Christians) commit themselves to acting in accordance with their preferred interpretation of a particular text is no different from that of people who would express a similar enthusiasm for the Protocols of the Elders of Zion or who would regard Mein Kampf as divinely inspired.[xlii]
The book concludes with an appeal to the necessity of intellectual enslavement that would fit wonderfully on the tongue of Ivan Karamazov’s Grand Inquisitor: “Fortunate people, embedded in well-functioning communities, can feel, deeply and securely, that their lives matter, without interrogating why this is so.”[xliii] Throughout this chapter, it becomes evident that Kitcher’s Darwinism is a consequence, rather than an antecedent, of his atheism, that he will put forward any anti-theological objections he can get his hands on, and that he would have turned out a committed atheist if he never so much as heard of Darwin in his entire life. It is the so-called “enlightenment case” that serves as the basis of his disbelief. And this, in the end, is all that Darwinian anti-theology amounts to: a novel packaging of the unscientific assumptions of late decadent liberalism. Evolutionary theory does nothing more than provide the grammar for their expression. Darwinism, then, simply embodies the unexamined prejudices of a generation of self-designated mandarins, a generation which, incidentally, has proven that it does not possess a single one of the intellectual virtues necessary to counsel or edify a civil society.
As proof of this, consider the fact that Kitcher, in the entire course of presenting his “enlightenment case,” does not identify, let alone confront, a single objection to his arguments that a theist might make. Mr. Kitcher is employed by a well-known university; if another professor in that same university wrote a monograph on, say, the literary influences which shaped the style of John Keats, or the economic conditions at the time of the French Revolution, and wrote with a similarly evident indifference or ignorance to the positions of rival scholars on these questions, he would bring himself into immediate disrepute (though perhaps, considering the moribund condition of contemporary academia, I am overstating the matter somewhat). But when Mr. Kitcher, and dozens of Darwinians like him, write books on the origins, and ultimate significance, of human existence – the only subject that really matters – which reveal the last degree of insouciance towards rival positions, they receive varying degrees of acclaim and approbation from their confreres.[xliv] What could more perfectly testify to the incurable presumption, narrowness, and frivolity of our modern academic class?
I end with this point of emphasis, because my concerns here are not evangelical, but scholarly. As I have indicated more than once, there are good reasons for rejecting the traditional theological arguments. But there are no good evolutionary reasons for doing so. It just so happens that nearly every one of our contemporaries who embraces atheism does so because of their commitment to evolutionary theory, and evolutionary theory isn’t a good reason for embracing atheism – it isn’t a reason for embracing atheism at all. That an entire generation has become convinced otherwise attests to the unprecedented imbecility of those who regard themselves as our intellectual elite. A truly learned class is one that steeps itself in the accumulated wisdom of our predecessors, that approaches the most momentous of topics with reverence and humility, and that proffers conclusive assertions relative to these topics only with the last degree of hesitancy and care. Our alleged intelligentsia, on the other hand, smile broadly as they watch Daniel Dennett boast that he only needs six pages to dismiss the arguments for the existence of God,[xlv] and exult when they listen to Richard Dawkins claim that he doesn’t need to engage the arguments of theologians because, after all, theology is not a real subject.[xlvi] They are barbarians, in the truest sense of the word, and their ascendancy in contemporary academia remains perhaps the best evidence – though certainly not the only evidence – of what a barbarous age we inhabit.
[i] Ruse, Michael. Defining Darwin (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2009), 122.
[ii] St. Augustine, “The Literal Meaning of Genesis” in On Genesis (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2002), 185, 190.
[iii] St. Augustine, 186-187.
[v] Kitcher, Philip Living with Darwin (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2007), 42.
[vi] As philosopher Edward Feser notes “The Fifth Way (Aquinas’ formulation of the “argument from design”) has nothing to do with Paley’s ‘watchmaker’ argument; actually, even the most traditional followers of Aquinas often reject Paley with as much scorn as evolutionists do.” In The Last Superstition (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2008), 76.
[vii] Dawkins, Richard The Blind Watchmaker (New York: W.W. Norton, 1996), 4.
[viii] See Gilson, Etienne The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy (South Bend, IN: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1936), 72. “Everyone knows that the whole speculative effort of the Fathers of the Church and the thinkers of the Middle Ages concerning the possibility of proving God from His works, hangs directly from the famous words of St. Paul in his Epistle to the Romans (I, 20).” Everyone, that is, except the Darwinians.
[ix] St. Augustine, City of God (New York: Penguin, 2003), 432.
[x] St. Bonaventure, “The Soul’s Journey Into God” in Bonaventure (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1978), 71-72.
[xi] For a typical Darwinian account of aesthetic pleasure, turn to Chapter One of Dennis Dutton’s The Art Instinct and discover that the delight you may take in viewing a landscape painting is really the legacy of your Pleistocene ancestors’ hankering after a good steak.
[xiii] Etienne Gilson writes of the Thomistic proofs as follows: “thus we come back to our first general characteristic of the proofs: we have to start from an existence. When we can assign the complete, sufficient reason of any single existence, empirically given, we can prove the existence of God.” In The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas (South Bend, IN: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1956), 77. Or as Chesterton succinctly puts it: “though the stick or the stone is an earthly vision, it is through them that St. Thomas finds his way to heaven.” In St. Thomas Aquinas (New York: Doubleday, 1956), 148.
[xiv] As Feser notes, “Dawkin’s problem is that he doesn’t know the difference between probabilistic empirical theorizing and strict metaphysical demonstration, and thus misreads an attempt at the latter as if it were the former.” 101.
[xv] Gilson writes: “in its most obvious aspect, it argues to some supreme artisan or demiurge, more or less resembling the Author of Nature so dear to the 18th century Frenchman.” Gilson 1956, 75.
[xvi] St. Thomas Aquinas, “Summa Theologia”Q. 2, Art. 3. in Introduction to St. Thomas Aquinas (New York: Modern Library, 1948), 27.
[xvii] See Hewlett, Martinez and Ted Peters Theological and Scientific Commentary on Darwin’s Origin of Species (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2008), 107. “Thomas begins with the statement that we can, in principle, have no knowledge of God from intellect alone. Instead, he says, we can make analogous statements about God, using as the source for these analogies observations in the natural world. He admits at the beginning that these are only analogies that express in some way what God must be like, but they are not proofs, in Paley’s sense.”
[xix] Feser thinks that evolutionary theory might even provide some slight verification of Aquinas’ premise.
[xx] See for instance Ruse, Michael Darwin and Design (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard Univ. Press, 2003), 268.
[xxii] Hart, David Bentley, “Daniel Dennett hunts the Snark” in In the Aftermath (Grand Rapid, MI: William Eerdmans Publishing, 2009), 199.
[xxiv] Dennett, Daniel Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995), 75.
[xxvii] Dennett, 83. He regards such explanations as “mind-first” explanations, and claims that pre-Darwinian thinkers could not conceive how mind could emerge out of purely material causes. But of course, since Dennett himself does not believe in mind at all (as we shall see), he subscribes to this position as much as anybody ever did.
[xxviii] Hart, David Bentley The Doors of the Sea (Grand Rapids, MI: William Eerdmans Publishing, 2005) 83, 85.
[xxix] In Chapter 5 of the Apologia Pro La Vita Sua.
[xxx] Aristotle, Metaphysics Book I, 3-4. See also Aquinas’ early work On the Principles of Nature, part 3, in which he writes, “besides matter and form there must be a principle which acts, and this is called the effecting or moving agent or that whence motion begins. Because, as Aristotle says in Metaphysics 2, whatever acts acts only by intending (ie, with a tendency towards) something, there must be a fourth thing, namely, that which is intended by the agent, and this is called the end. Every agent, both natural and voluntary, acts for the sake of an end, though it does not follow that every agent knows the end or deliberates about it.”
[xxxi ]Martin. See also Gilson, Etienne, From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1984), 43. “Finally, perhaps it would be fitting to note once more that, far from excluding mechanism, Linnaeus’ finalism requires it. If living beings have been willed into existence in order to arouse admiration in the mind of the spectator, and the adoration of their author, nothing could serve this end better than knowing their mechanism. Once more then the close alliance of finalism and mechanism is here confirmed.”
[xxxii] Dennett, 47. “When they are confronted with a prima facie powerful and undismissable objection to natural selection…they are driven to reason as follows: I cannot (yet) see how to refute this objection, or overcome this difficulty, but since I cannot imagine how anything other than natural selection could be the cause of the effects, I will have to assume that the objection is spurious; somehow natural selection must be sufficient to explain the effects.”
[xxxiii] “(Dawkins makes) the frequently reiterated assertion that what we find when we look at the evidence of biological evolution is precisely what we should expect to find if we assume that the entire process is governed by nothing but random chance…It is after all, one’s prior expectations that are always at issue. For what one sees when one looks at the evidence of evolution is also what one might expect to find if one assumes that the entire process is the consequence of a transcendent intelligence drawing all things from nothingness and endowing them with form according to an internally coherent sequence of causes and a collection of magnificently intricate mathematical laws.” In Hart 2009, 199.
[xxxiv] Dennett, 63. Elsewhere (pg 80), he remarks that Darwinism leaves us with “a nifty mechanistic, behavioristic, crane-style mind.,” though a mind that is merely mechanistic is obviously no mind at all.
[xxxvi] See minute 51 at http://meaningoflife.tv/video.php?speaker=pinker&topic=complete
[xxxvii] Plato, Collected Dialogues (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1989), 80.
[xxxviii] The most poignant expression of the excruciating perplexity occasioned by nature’s brutality remains Tennyson’s In Memoriam.
[xxxix] Kitcher, 131. “Darwinism is entangled with what I’ll call the ‘englightenment case against supernaturalism.’ Evolutionary ideas form a separable part of the case, as well as amplifying other themes within it. It is wrong to give Darwin complete credit as the ‘anatomist of disbelief.’ But it would also be wrong to pretend that his ideas are not important to the ‘delineation of doubt.’”
[xliv] I am told from my cover of Kitcher’s book that it won something called the 2008 Lannan Notable Book Award.