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Catholics and Intelligent Design, Part Five


This is the fifth in a series responding to a handful of Catholic critics of intelligent design. In the previous installment, we considered two complaints against ID. The first was a simple misunderstanding. Some critics see ID as treating only "what science can't explain" as evidence for design. This is incorrect.

The second complaint--that modern ID arguments are different from arguments made by the Church Fathers and St. Thomas--is partially true, but also trivial and of no consequence in evaluating the validity of ID arguments.

In this installment, we consider the claim that ID arguments fall within the jurisdiction of natural science, and how that claim relates to common Catholic ways of demarcating science and philosophy.

For part one of this series, see here. For part two, see here. For part three, see here. And for part four, see here.
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Why Claim that ID is Science?

Though science is not the only way to learn about the world, many ID proponents have argued that ID arguments should be considered within the purview of natural science. I generally find these turf discussions, where we try to demarcate philosophy, science, theology, and so forth, tedious and fruitless. It seems absurd to expect that nature and reality should conform neatly to the departments of a modern state university. But the discussion is necessary because many people, including some Catholic intellectuals, misunderstand why many ID proponents claim that ID is science. They accuse ID theorists of accepting the same "scientistic" assumptions they otherwise oppose, by implying that only scientific explanations are legitimate. Moreover, and sometimes contradictorily, they insist that ID is at best philosophy or "religion,"i not science.ii

Methodological Naturalism

In objecting to ID, some Catholic critics invoke "methodological naturalism," the idea that science by its very nature must be limited to naturalistic, that is, non-intelligent, explanations like chance and natural law.

For instance, the late Catholic philosopher Ernan McMullin argued:


But, of course, methodological naturalism does not restrict our study of nature; it just lays down which sort of study qualifies as scientific. If someone wants to pursue another approach to nature--and there are many others--the methodological naturalist has no reason to object. Scientists have to proceed in this way; the methodology of natural science gives no purchase on the claim that a particular event or type of event is to be explained by invoking God's creative action directly.iii

A great deal has been written responding this type of objection, which I don't think survives scrutiny.iv But in any case, why would orthodox Catholics accept this limit on scientific inquiry in the first place?

To make things really complicated, this objection is often framed (as we will see) as if it were based on traditional Catholic categories. This allows the critic to pit Catholic tradition against ID. The result is quite bizarre. A certain kind of Catholic critic will accuse ID theorists of limiting God's action to a few discrete interventions. Then they argue, notwithstanding, that ID is bad science because it invokes divine causality and does not accept methodological naturalism.

There are several problems and confusions here. Let's consider each in turn.

A Hybrid of Traditional and Modern

St. Thomas and other scholastics bequeathed to Roman Catholics a positive view of reason that encompasses our knowledge of nature, morality, God, and other persons. We can have scientific, metaphysical, and moral knowledge. This is much broader than the modern view, which often limits our reason to knowledge drawn from natural science and perhaps mathematics. The traditional view of reason is often related to Aristotle's four causes. But some modern Catholics unwittingly impose Francis Bacon's anti-Aristotelian distinctions between science and philosophy onto Aristotle's four causes, producing a hybrid view that is part traditional/part modern. So they argue along these lines: Philosophy and theology differ from science because they focus on different causes, whether material, efficient, formal, or final. As one encyclopedist explains it, "these causes clarify the relations between philosophy, faith, and theology."v

Science, so the argument goes, deals only with efficient and material causes, but ignores other causes. That's okay, as long as the intentionally limited nature of the scientific enterprise is kept in mind. This way of framing science becomes a problem only when science becomes arrogant or forgetful, that is, when it either tries to explain everything in terms of efficient and material ("mechanistic") causes, or when it denies the reality of anything outside its domain--such as free will or morality. When let loose to thus ravage the countryside, it becomes scientism.vi

There's much to be said for this way of thinking. For instance, it offers the various disciplines some autonomy. It's possible to do chemistry, for instance, without adjudicating the dispute between Aristotelians, Platonists and nominalists on the status of universals, or passing judgment on the filioque clause in the Nicene Creed. That means that people of different philosophical and religious bents can practice science together. It's a public enterprise based on public evidence that doesn't depend on special revelation or philosophical conformity.

Moreover, this approach is non-reductionist. It doesn't try to make all of reality conform to the microscope, the telescope, or the calculus. It reminds us that natural science, however it's defined, does not exhaust either reality or human reason, or even our knowledge of nature.

The classical view also reminds us that our knowledge drawn from science depends on more basic, philosophical knowledge of truth, logic, and so forth. "Meta-physics" means, quite literally, "beyond physics." The traditional category of "natural philosophy" captured the breadth of reality and reason quite nicely.

So the classical view dignifies reason in its fullness. Quite contrary to being anti-science, it defends reason against the skeptics and post-modernists that haunt not just the halls of the humanities, but of current philosophy of science as well.

Now, if you're thinking both classically but also accepting modernist boundaries for and definitions of science and philosophy, it would make sense to say that intelligent design arguments are philosophical rather than scientific, since they seem to be appealing to something like formal and final causes. They often speak of "information," for instance, and appeal to purposes and ends. ID arguments could be rational, compelling, true, essential for completely explaining nature, and even more certain than anything derived from science. But they would still be philosophy, not science.

So distinguishing philosophy and natural science has value. Nevertheless, there's a serious rhetorical problem in fusing a classical understanding of reason with a Baconian demarcation of the disciplines, as many modern Catholics do. We'll discuss those problems in detail in the next installment.

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iThe director of the Vatican Observatory, José Funes, recently made this suggestion. When asked about ID, he said:


The problem is when religion enters the world of science, the scientific method; that could be the problem with intelligent design. On the other side there is a danger when scientists use science outside of the scientific method, to make philosophical and religious statements--using science for a goal that science is not meant for. So, for example, you cannot use science to deny the existence of God. You can believe whatever you want but you cannot use science to prove that God does not exist.

In Eugene Samuel Reich, "Pope's Astronomer: 'Science helps me be a priest,'" New Scientist (July 14, 2010), at: http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20727684.800-Quoted in Alvin Plantinga, Methodological Naturalism, Part 1, Origins & Design 18, no. 1, at: http://www.arn.org/docs/odesign/od181/methnat181.htm.popes-astronomer-science-helps-me-be-a-priest.html.
iiThe late Fr. Stanley Jaki made this objection against ID. He also defined Darwinism as philosophy or metaphysics rather than science. For discussion, see Mark Cole, "Dethroning the Monkey God: Catholics, Intelligent Design & Darwin's Theory," New Oxford Review (Jan. 2007), at: http://www.newoxfordreview.org/article.jsp?did=0107-cole.
iiiQuoted in Alvin Plantinga, Methodological Naturalism, Part 1, Origins & Design 18, no. 1, at: http://www.arn.org/docs/odesign/od181/methnat181.htm.
ivSee, for instance, Alvin Plantinga, "Science: Augustinian or Duhemian?" Faith and Philosophy 13 (July 1996): 368-94, esp. pp. 383-90; Alvin Plantinga, "Methodological Naturalism, Part 2," Origins & Design 18, no. 2, at: http://www.arn.org/docs/odesign/od182/methnat182.htm.
vFrom the entry "Saint Bonaventure" in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, at: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/bonaventure/.
viExamples of scientism aren't hard to find. For instance, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Anthony Cashmore argues against the notion of free will:

It is widely believed, at least in scientific circles, that living systems, including mankind, obey the natural physical laws. However, it is also commonly accepted that man has the capacity to make "free" conscious decisions that do not simply reflect the chemical makeup of the individual at the time of decision--this chemical makeup reflecting both the genetic and environmental history and a degree of stochasticism. Whereas philosophers have discussed for centuries the apparent lack of a causal component for free will, many biologists still seem to be remarkably at ease with this notion of free will; and furthermore, our judicial system is based on such a belief. It is the author's contention that a belief in free will is nothing other than a continuing belief in vitalism--something biologists proudly believe they discarded well over 100 years ago.

Anthony R. Cashmore, "The Lucretian swerve: The biological basis of human behavior and the criminal justice system," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA (February 8, 2010), at: www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.0915161107.