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More Muddle from "Catholic" Scientists

When Pope Benedict denied in his Easter homily that we are an insignificant product of a random evolutionary process, we were bound to get some confused news stories on Catholicism and evolution. Faye Flam of the Philadelphia Inquirer has delivered with a piece titled: "Catholicism and evolution: Are they contradictory?"

The article is chock full of unexamined assumptions and the sloppy use of ambiguous words like "science" and "evolution." For instance, she quotes Pope Benedict as saying:

It is not the case that in the expanding universe, at a late stage, in some tiny corner of the cosmos, there evolved randomly some species of living being capable of reasoning and of trying to find rationality within creation, or to bring rationality into it.
Flam describes this as "taking a swipe at science." But Pope Benedict is quite clearly denying a certain proposition of materialism, namely, the idea that human beings are a mere happenstance that evolved without plan or purpose. Flam is confusing science with scientific materialism. One can affirm the former but reject the latter. The Pope, because he is Catholic, does exactly that.

Her response to the Pope also suggests she's out of her depth: "Many biologists beg to differ: Evolution isn't completely random, they say, and neither is it geared to produce humans."

Of course Pope Benedict didn't say that evolution is completely random. He was using "random" as it is universally used in these discussions--to mean purposeless or unintended.

The rest of the story pursues the question, "Are Catholicism and evolution in conflict?" Unfortunately, as I point out in God and Evolution, questions like this are utterly unilluminating unless one defines "evolution." Flam doesn't offer any clarifying definitions. So instead, we get confusing statements from the usual suspects, such as Ken Miller and Stephen Barr.

For his part, Miller, a biologist, has no qualms about telling us what God would do: "And in Catholicism, he said, God wouldn't micromanage that way. 'Surely he can set things up without having to violate his own laws.'"

I am unaware of any tenet of Catholic theology that requires God not to micromanage. It is, however, a tenet of deism.

Martin Nowak, who probably said some interesting things that didn't make it into the story, is merely quoted saying he's not a deist.

Then we get Stephen Barr offering his private definition of "chance."

It is possible to believe simultaneously in a world that is shaped by chance and one following a divine plan. "God is in charge and there's a lot of accident," said Barr, also a Catholic. "It's all part of a plan. . . . God may have known where every molecule was going to move."
Well, that sure clears it up. The problem with Barr's claim is that one of the connotations of an event that happens by chance is that it is not following someone's plan, divine or otherwise. Moreover, Barr tells us that there may even be exhaustive divine foreknowledge of every event in cosmic history. If so, then everything that happens would be part of God's purposeful providence.

Since Barr says this sort of thing with some frequency, I know that when he speaks of "chance" or "randomness" in this way, he is referring to events that don't correlate in a law-like way with previous events. So they are unlike events that follow deterministic physical laws, which we can predict ahead of time. No one denies the existence of such events. And if there's a God, there's no reason such events couldn't be under divine guidance. Moreover, an event might appear purposeless in isolation but not actually be purposeless.

The problem is that Barr is not using these words as they are almost universally used when scientists talk about biological evolution. He's committing what we might call the "fallacy of private definition." When, say, Richard Dawkins, Charles Darwin, and Jerry Coyne talk about randomness or chance in evolution, they don't merely mean "uncorrelated." They don't mean, "looks random but is really under divine control." They mean purposeless, plain and simple.

Like it or not, this is the orthodox Darwinian meaning of the words. That puts Catholic scientists in a pickle, since few want to challenge such a powerful intellectual orthodoxy. So, instead of clarity, many Catholic scientists choose an accommodation-and-immunization strategy to avoid trouble.

As a result, they leave it to atheist Jerry Coyne to speak the truth:

Catholics "cannot accept evolution as we scientists accept it - as an unguided, materialistic process with no goal or direction," said University of Chicago biologist Jerry Coyne, who writes about science and religion in his blog, Why Evolution Is True.
Of course, by "we scientists" he means the good atheist scientists who agree with him. Nevertheless, Coyne is correctly summarizing THE orthodox understanding of biological evolution, and then offering a conclusion that is obvious to anyone willing to think clearly: Catholic theology is not compatible with a cosmic and biological history that is an "unguided, materialistic process with no goal or direction."

Thank God that at least Pope Benedict XVI is brave enough to state the obvious.