“Does the new Pope believe in evolution?” Thus begins an article published soon after the College of Cardinals elected Pope Francis. The answer, intended to surprise, is “yes.” Still, the author assures us, “Catholics have largely missed the point.”
Why? Because while the Church acknowledges the existence of an evolutionary process — in fact Saint Augustine suggested as much in the 5th century A.D. — the Church also insists that “God’s involvement” in that process must be “acknowledged.” But Darwinism holds that evolution takes place through the survival of random genetic variations without guiding purpose or design. Thus, popular commentators conclude, the Catholic Church only pays lips service to modern biology: evolution and creation cannot be compatible, really.
The atheist and the fundamentalist both agree: the Christian must choose belief over biology. This is what Nietzsche called the “truly Christian judgment of science,” viz., that it is “of secondary rank, nothing ultimate.” For the atheist, here is reason to repudiate Christianity; for the fundamentalist, reason to repudiate modern biology.
But here’s where popular commentators, not Catholics, have largely missed the point: Catholic theology never shared this “Christian judgment.” Intelligent Design arguments, especially popular in Protestant circles, assume that theological arguments can succeed only where biological ones fail. The appearance of design in nature, the reasoning goes, can only be explained by invoking a divine creator — not a scientific mechanism.
But from the Catholic perspective, this is a false dichotomy. The problem is not that Darwin got rid of design, but that people began believing that design stands or falls with natural science.
The supposition that biological evolution has no purpose or design does not conflict with theology because it is an answer to a scientific, rather than a theological question. As Saint Thomas Aquinas emphasized long before the Scientific Revolution, natural science and theology are not competing bodies of knowledge; rather they are distinct and complementary forms of inquiry.
“Why is there a chair?” According to Aristotle, such a question can be interpreted in four different ways: “who made it?”; “for what purpose?”; “what is its nature?”; or “what is it made out of?”
Each way of asking the question corresponds to a different “cause.” The ancient Greek word for cause, aitia, also means “reason” — the reason why. Confusing these produces nonsense: “Who made the chair?” “To sit in.” Each kind of question looks for its own kind of answer. A complete explanation, Aristotle thought, involves all four.
Whether the original four causes can be maintained within the framework of modern science is controversial. What Aristotle called the “formal cause,” which corresponds to a thing’s metaphysical nature, came under attack in the early modern period in the writings of philosophers such as Locke and Hume. Their idea was that modern science could explain what a thing is made of and its governing laws without saying much about metaphysical natures.
Whether or not formal causes were ever truly banished from science, what Aristotle called “final causes” — the “for what purpose?” questions — held out much longer, at least in biology.
Galileo, Newton, and others had dispensed with “for what purpose?” questions in physics. Modern science seemed able to explain the physical world in purely “mechanistic” terms, without recourse to non-scientific notions such as “design” or “purpose.” But many resisted modern science’s intrusion into biological territory.
The reason was that mechanistic causes appeared incapable of explaining the purpose or finality — the design — observable in biological nature. The “vitalists” claimed that this was because life was something metaphysically unique; even Kant, no proponent of traditional arguments about God, suggested that biological nature evinces a Creator-like design.
Then Darwin proved that modern science could explain design by showing that it is illusory: the complexity that appears to be the mark of a creator is in fact the end-result of random variations over a long period of time. Thus having been banished from physics, the “final causes” that had taken refuge in biology were routed out there too.
But to banish “final causes” from science is not to banish them from explanation as such. On the contrary, they might continue to thrive in the metaphysical domain whence they came.
Darwin only showed that biology — as opposed, say, to metaphysics, theology, or ethics — should dispense with “final causes,” as physics did in Newton’s day. This just frees biologists from the need to answer such purpose-questions, leaving the rest of us (non-scientists) free to wrestle with them, if we choose.
The problem is not Darwin, but the modern notion that theology can only discuss what science fails to explain. Because at one time science failed to explain biological order, people began believing that biological order was safe from scientific advance. But if you profess your religion from within the gaps of scientific knowledge, you will inevitably get crushed as those gaps close.
Better to follow Aquinas, who made a distinction of kind between theological and natural-scientific questions.
Both theology and modern biology ask: “Why are there humans?” But they understand that question differently. For modern biology, it means: “what are humans’ constituent parts?” “How and when did humans come onto the scene?” The answers to such questions — “cells and genes” or “random genetic variations over time” — are what Aquinas called “secondary” causes. These are mundane explanations of things in nature, which may invoke probabilistic laws, natural selection — whatever the latest and best scientific theory suggests.
But theology asks after what Aquinas calls “primary” causes: “What is the extra-mundane source of being?” “What is the meaning and purpose of creation?” Neither fossil records nor natural selection answer such questions — not, however, because those tools are faulty, but because they are not suited to the task. To confuse theological and scientific questions is to commit a category mistake.
The theological concept of creation is not a scientific concept. The God of Catholic theology is not, as Augustine emphasized, the ignition for existence, but rather its cause in a non-temporal and metaphysical sense. God gives rise to and sustains existence, suffusing it with meaning — whether or not man came from fish, ape, or stardust and whether or not the laws governing that evolution are probabilistic.
It is the contemporary ideologues of scientism who “miss the point” when it comes to evolution. Evolution doesn’t refute God any more than electromagnetism refutes moral conscience. Our new Pope isn’t the first one to have recognized this.
M. Anthony Mills is a PhD candidate in philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, specializing in philosophy of science.