Director of the Vatican Observatory Takes On A Cardinal

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Father George Coyne is Director of the Vatican Observatory. Writing in the Aug. 6th Tablet, Britain’s Catholic Weekly, Father Coyne, a distinguished astronomer, takes Cardinal Schönborn on head-on. He writes

For those who believe modern science does say something to us about God, it provides a challenge, an enriching challenge, to traditional beliefs about God. God in his infinite freedom continuously creates a world that reflects that freedom at all levels of the evolutionary process to greater and greater complexity. God lets the world be what it will be in its continuous evolution. He is not continually intervening, but rather allows, participates, loves. Is such thinking adequate to preserve the special character attributed by religious thought to the emergence not only of life but also of spirit, while avoiding a crude creationism? Only a protracted dialogue will tell. But we should not close off the dialogue and darken the already murky waters by fearing that God will be abandoned if we embrace the best of modern science.

The full essay is here (free registration required).

Hat Tip:Bob Park

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Murky Waters from Newton's Binomium on August 11, 2005 6:06 PM

Apparently, not everyone in the Church shares Schönborn's views. George Coyne, the Director of the Vatican Observatory and a distinguished astronomer, counter-attacked this week in the British Catholic newspaper The Tablet. Read More

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Father Andre Greeley does much the same:

The cardinal has muddied the waters of the discourse between science and religion. Religion, he seems to be saying, much to the delight of the Evangelicals, can dictate scientific conclusions – such as it once dictated that the sun revolved around the Earth on the basis of a couple of verses in the book of Exodus.

The cardinal’s assertion will upset most Catholic scientists and confuse many of the educated laity (something that the present pope has always deplored). Moreover, it provides the New York Times another chance to pursue its anti-Catholic bias. The cardinal has “redefined” the issue. Now a political alliance between Catholics and Evangelicals will be easier to achieve. A cardinal can’t do that. Only the pope and/or a General Council (acting in union with the pope) defines anything. The traditional bias against Catholics among conservative Christians (which my research shows still exists) makes such a political coalition most unlikely.

Now there are other clarifications appearing, including from Schonborn himself. The National Catholic Reporter reports on an interview with the good Cardinal:

Scientists debate, the paragraph [#69 of the document “Stewardship and Communion” of the International Theological Commission] said, whether life’s development is best explained by explicit design or random mutation and natural selection. This is not an argument that theology can settle. Following Thomas Aquinas, however, the document says that divine providence is consistent with either hypothesis. God’s causation can express itself through both necessity and contingency, so that even if the development of life seems random to empirical observation, it certainly doesn’t to God.

I had hoped to speak to Schönborn about all this, but unfortunately he was in Poland as I wrote the piece. This week, however, I was able to reach him. My question was, what does he make of paragraph 69 of the ITC document? In the end, is his problem with evolutionary theory itself, or with its potential philosophical and theological abuse?

This is his response:

“I agree completely with what was formulated in number 69 of ‘Stewardship and Communion.’ And I feel confirmed in my convictions by this document. In any case I think it is necessary to cite the whole paragraph 69, when it states: ‘In the Catholic perspective, neo-Darwinians who adduce random genetic variation and natural selection as evidence that the process of evolution is absolutely unguided are straying beyond what can be demonstrated by science.’

“For Catholic thinking,” Schönborn told me, “it was clear from Pius XII’s encyclical, Humani generis, that evolutionary theory can be valid to understand certain mechanisms, but it can never be seen or accepted as a holistic model to explain the existence of life.”

Schönborn’s point thus seems to be that in “absolute” form, meaning as a “holistic model” that would exclude design as a metaphysical(emphasis added) matter, “evolutionism” turns into a philosophy that parts company with Christianity.

In that light, observers say, Schönborn’s view does not seem to court a new Galileo affair, putting the church at odds with scientific discoveries. He’s making a philosophical point, not a scientific one. In the end, he’s warning that Christianity cannot accept a universe without God, and it’s fairly difficult to argue with that.

In other words, a Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church believes in God, and the immortal soul. Big whoop.

What is instructive is the trumpeting of DI propagandists who are rying to make this into an endorsement of IDC’s political and educational agenda. In this, they again show themselves to be completely without honesty. Or shame.

What is instructive is the trumpeting of DI propagandists who are rying to make this into an endorsement of IDC’s political and educational agenda.

Schönborn’s NYT op-ed was an endorsement of ID/C, and he’s now backpedaling.

Frank Schmidt said that Andrew Greeley said:

Moreover, it provides the New York Times another chance to pursue its anti-Catholic bias.

Andy, this is probably not a good time to argue that the catholic church is being unfairly abused.

The traditional bias against Catholics among conservative Christians (which my research shows still exists) makes such a political coalition most unlikely.

Apparently Padre Greeley has yet to hear of an interdenominational movement which calls itself “pro-life” (but which, oddly enough, does not entail the study of biology)…

steve says, in all good faith, presumably thinking of some priestly behavior and the ways in which the church has responded to it, that “this is probably not a good time to argue that the catholic church is being unfairly abused.”

On the contrary. Do the words Swift Boat Veterans call anything to mind? Attack is not a good defense; it’s the only thing available when your position is indefensible. The scandals as a bit of American media hysteria fueled by you-know-what prejudice got a good deal of play the last couple of years.

Father Coyne, however, is cool. By and large, the Jesuits gave up many years ago on defending the church’s role in some old embarrassments from the 17th century, and they want no revivals of that stuff. Hence, I suppose, his statement. When the Vatican made its official announcement exonerating Galileo ten years ago, he published some strong criticism of the weaknesses of paper and its inadequate treatment of the real errors the church had made.

The problem with anti-Catholic prejudice is not that it offends Greeley and those nice people at the Holy Offic,e but that it’s stupid–being, after all, prejudice.

Perhaps this is good place to ask a question that continues to flummox me. It has to do with this quote from the article excerpt above:

“God in his infinite freedom continuously creates a world that reflects that freedom at all levels of the evolutionary process to greater and greater complexity. God lets the world be what it will be in its continuous evolution.”

Maybe I’m just dense and metaphysically dull, but I don’t understand how anything created could also be free. Isn’t the notion of second-level islands of freedom a bit problematic? And doesn’t the idea of something (Somebody?) allowing another thing to be a certain way denote at least a subtle or implicit coersion? I seem to remember reading somewhere about a concept called dual agency and that it was a large and persistent theological problem. Has anyone else heard of that term? If so, I’d appreciate any info or comment about it.

And just to clarify my previous query:

Seems to me that if God is free and we are also free, then a kind of metaphysical crisis would occur. Seems that God would not be purely free, “his” freedom butting up against “our” freedom. Unless it is a kind of universal freedom, which would imply pure pantheism.

I realize this is an evolutionary science forum and that I’m drifting off into philosophical speculation. It’s just that I’ve read Fr. Coyne’s statement above over and over, and I just can’t make sense of what he’s saying.

The problem of “God’s freedom” runs headlong into the Judeo-Christian-Islamic definition of “God” - omniscient, omnipotent, etc.

To be omniscient means to know everything, including the future, including one’s own actions in the future. This means (however much mass & energy one commands) being essentially powerless, following the script in every detail. To exercise anything like actual freedom (i.e., changing one’s mind and acting differently), invalidates the previous foreknowledge - so, one is no longer omniscient.

The descriptions are mutually contradictory - one can be omni-potent or -scient, but not both. (Apparently theologians work around this paradox by stipulating that their god exists “outside of time” - I’m unaware of any calculations on this concept in peer-reviewed cosmology journals.)

Such “omniscience” also implies that everything created is pre-determined as well, which seems to leave the concept of free will in need of much hand-waving, with the vectors of each finger Known at least 6,000 years in advance.

yeah, the ‘outside of time’ magic wand phrase was used on me by a catholic former roommate named Jeff. I eventually disturbed him with the following scenario, which was possible according to his logic.

1 God, knowing everything, writes down in a book everything Jeff is going to do for the rest of his life, on a minute to minute basis. 2 He gives the book to me and I find the current moment. 3 I read ahead a little bit, so I know that, say, in 10 seconds Jeff’s going to turn on the stove. 4 I tell Jeff, “In ten seconds, you’re going to turn on the stove, because you have no free will. You’re a robot, and this book tells me exactly what you’re programmed to do. There is no possibility you will fail to turn on the stove at that time. Think you have free will? Prove me wrong.”

He got bogged down in sentences with confused tenses like “Well, at a later point god will have known that I did choose the stove of my free will…” and wasn’t very happy with the idea of me following him around telling him what he was going to do, and him being powerless to do otherwise.

When you start talking in phrases like “outside of time” you can easily throw away causality, and without a notion of causality, other concepts such as free will become insensible.

If a set of premises lands you in a immense tangle of apparent contradictions, it could be that you just aren’t clever enough to see how, for example, God’s foreknowledge coexists with human freedom or why it says “I was built by eternal love” over the gates of Hell. On the other hand, maybe the problem is with the premises–omnipotence, omniscience, benevolence, creation from nothing, deity. After all, from inconsistent premises, everything and nothing follow.

Related to this is the problem I have trying to visualize or imagine an Intelligent Designer at work in the field. Does some form of disembodied Mind magically enter the physical, finite being of other things in order to tinker with their parts, tweaking this and that? How can an incorporeal entity *do* physical work? Would this be like super-psychokinesis?

Please, any IDists out there. Explain to me in simple terms (I’m slow on the uptake) what constitutes the conceivable “space” where the incorporeal and the corporeal make contact? Is is through an as-yet undiscovered quantum theo-particle?…something partly divine and partly mundane? I mean something’s gotta touch something to make it move (even the breeze or a magnetic wave).

If human intelligence is used as a causal parallel to divine causation, one large thing seems to be missing – God’s brain, the substantial substrate or conduit through which acts become events.

I eventually disturbed him with the following scenario, which was possible according to his logic. 1 God, knowing everything, writes down in a book everything Jeff is going to do for the rest of his life, on a minute to minute basis. 2 He gives the book to me and I find the current moment. 3 I read ahead a little bit, so I know that, say, in 10 seconds Jeff’s going to turn on the stove. 4 I tell Jeff, “In ten seconds, you’re going to turn on the stove, because you have no free will. You’re a robot, and this book tells me exactly what you’re programmed to do. There is no possibility you will fail to turn on the stove at that time. Think you have free will? Prove me wrong.”

Not just his logic; replace “God” with “Laplace” and the argument still goes through.

When you start talking in phrases like “outside of time” you can easily throw away causality, and without a notion of causality, other concepts such as free will become insensible.

How does causality rescue free will? Many people think the opposite, that they can find free will in quantum indeterminism, but as Daniel Dennett has pointed out, that’s not the sort of freedom we want. If you’re interested in this subject you should read Dennett’s “Freedom Evolves”, where he argues that the sort of freedom we want is to be free to make those choices that achieve our goals, and that evolution has given us the cognitive tools to do that. Much as I like Dennett, I think it’s more straightforward to just accept that we lack free will. On that score, Dr. Susan Blackmore has some interesting things to say:

http://www.edge.org/q2005/q05_8.html#blackmore It is possible to live happily and morally without believing in free will. As Samuel Johnson said “All theory is against the freedom of the will; all experience is for it.” With recent developments in neuroscience and theories of consciousness, theory is even more against it than it was in his time, more than 200 years ago. So I long ago set about systematically changing the experience. I now have no feeling of acting with free will, although the feeling took many years to ebb away.

But what happens? People say I’m lying! They say it’s impossible and so I must be deluding myself to preserve my theory. And what can I do or say to challenge them? I have no idea–other than to suggest that other people try the exercise, demanding as it is. When the feeling is gone, decisions just happen with no sense of anyone making them, but then a new question arises–will the decisions be morally acceptable? Here I have made a great leap of faith (or the memes and genes and world have done so). It seems that when people throw out the illusion of an inner self who acts, as many mystics and Buddhist practitioners have done, they generally do behave in ways that we think of as moral or good. So perhaps giving up free will is not as dangerous as it sounds–but this too I cannot prove. As for giving up the sense of an inner conscious self altogether–this is very much harder. I just keep on seeming to exist. But though I cannot prove it–I think it is true that I don’t.

Explain to me in simple terms (I’m slow on the uptake) what constitutes the conceivable “space” where the incorporeal and the corporeal make contact?

It all happens in God’s pineal gland.

Tim Buck: Does some form of disembodied Mind magically enter the physical, finite being of other things in order to tinker with their parts, tweaking this and that? How can an incorporeal entity *do* physical work?

This sort of puzzle also occupied some of the pacesetters in the early Italian Renaissance. They proposed a mechanism called phantasy, action through a sort of soul substance (some may have looked for its receptor in clandestine dissections); then, as pacesetters must, they moved on to more rewarding questions.

Perhaps the Disco Institute would like to sponsor some research, and make the first breakthroughs in this field in 500 years. After all, their political allies have stacks of fresh bodies available, complete with pineal glands…

Pierce R. Butler,

You said: “Perhaps the Disco Institute would like to sponsor some research, and make the first breakthroughs in this field in 500 years.”

I suppose that’s kind of what I’m driving at. From what I’ve read about ID “theory,” everything seems put forward in vague generalities. They seem content to posit some unknown entity working in nature, but they offer no scientific hypothesis about what this entity could possibly be. Except that it is intelligent. They’re getting off way too easy. They need to either solve the philosophical action-space problem I presented above or they need to bring forth some falsifiable theory about the entity’s workings.

What good is it, epistemologically, to marvel at biological artifacts while not following through with an intellectual probing of their manufacturer? How did “He” do it? They should at least make a bold guess on this account, rather than try to replace evolutionary biology with metaphysical silence. (Unless, of course, this isn’t about science at all but is, instead, about the supernatural and the biblical.) If they’re gonna talk about Intelligent Design, then I want some specifics about the Designer.

In all of their institutional proclamations or public debates, have any of them addressed these quasi-concrete issues?…or are they content to merely stare up at the stars after noticing how strangely complex things have become?

In all of their institutional proclamations or public debates, have any of them addressed these quasi-concrete issues?

Nope. I’ve been asking for YEARS now for them to tell me (1) what the designer did, specifically, (2) what mechanisms it used to do whatever the heck they think it did, and (3) where we can see these mechanisms in action.

Never got any intelligible response.

They’re getting off way too easy.

Not at this site.

Tim Buck: What good is it, epistemologically, to marvel at biological artifacts while not following through with an intellectual probing of their manufacturer? How did “He” do it?

Suppose the ID position was true, and any sort of bio-architectural fingerprint or hammer-mark could be detected: we’d see an explosion of biological research surpassing the wave which followed discovery of DNA.

If, say, you found an answer to your own question, your name would eclipse Darwin’s in the history of science, and grumpy atheists would spread lies about your personal life for centuries. Hot science groupies would tear your clothes off every time you appeared in public.

Apparently the boys (no girls there I’ve heard of) at the Disco Institute are too modest and shy to start anything so unseemly and disruptive of the decorous world of scientific collegiality. Either that, or they’re blowing smoke up somebody’s orifices…

I’m still waiting for an ID advocate to address my questions. I don’t think they are unreasonable ones nor were those questions intended to be sarcastic. If serious people think ID is a serious endeavor and if the President of the United States considers ID a worthy vehicle of inquiry, then some ground-level deductions about the Designer should be forthcoming. What can be inferred? Omnipotence and perfection or clumsiness and wastefulness? If the latter, should God be ruled out as the Designer? If not, why?

Basic stuff. Keep it basic, but please do respond in the spirit of intellectual integrity.

Apparently the boys (no girls there I’ve heard of) at the Disco Institute

Odd, isn’t it. I can’t think of a single prominent creationist/IDer who is female.

Or non-white.

Hmmmm.

I wonder why that would be . … . .

I think it’s more straightforward to just accept that we lack free will.

If so, why bother to tell us? After all, you can’t change anyone’s mind about it anyway, right?

If so, why bother to tell us? After all, you can’t change anyone’s mind about it anyway, right?

Lack of free will doesn’t mean having an unchangeable mind; far from it. And anyway, I had no choice.

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This page contains a single entry by Dave Thomas published on August 6, 2005 11:01 AM.

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