“Beyond the horizons of empiricism”

I have yet to read a better exposition on the Church’s stance on evolution than this one by priest and anthropologist Fiorenzo Facchini from January of this year. (See #1 in Magister’s article.)

One choice quote:

In “Communion and Stewardship”, the evolutionary process is taken for granted. What must be reaffirmed in theology (and in any rational argument) is the world’s radical reliance on God, who created things from nothing, even though we know not how.

From this comes the importance of the current debate on God’s plan for creation. It is known that supporters of intelligent design (ID) do not deny evolution, but they do claim that certain complex structures could not have appeared as a result of random events. For them, such complexity requires God’s special intervention during evolution and therefore it falls within the purview of intelligent design. Apart from the fact that mutations to biological structures cannot by themselves explain everything since environmental changes must also occur, by introducing external or corrective factors with respect to natural phenomena, a greater cause is included to explain what we do not know yet but might know. In doing so though, what we are engaged in can no longer be called science but is something that goes beyond it. Despite shortcomings in Darwin’s model, it is a methodological fallacy to look for another model outside the realm of science while pretending to do science.

Below it is the now-infamous New York Times op-ed by Cardinal Schönborn, on which I do not wish to comment beyond to say that I think it was done in good faith, but has shot us (Catholics) in the foot by attempting to explain a fine philosophical point to an utterly unsophisticated audience.

(HT: Dr. Blosser)

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4 Responses to ““Beyond the horizons of empiricism””


  1. 1 nick September 1, 2006 at 5:30 pm

    That’s an excellent explication of the inherent fallacies of the anti-Darwinian or explicitly religious ID claims. However, I wonder if this holds up for all similar claims.

    For example, it seems as though an ID proponent could claim that certain inconsistencies could be better explained by some sort of creation based model. For instance, if the evidence that we would expect for a mutation based explanation did not exist, it seems that the best explanation would be that either the time-scale for the process or the process itself has changed (ie either natural selection hasn’t been happening as long as we thought or natural selection itself has changed). Since the latter thought isn’t really a possibility, the former would be the case. Essentially then, the result explanation is that the process is still the best explanation, but the time scale is off. I think this is the claim of the more cogent ID collaborators.

    It seems that this claim, though it easily slides into the fallacy of thinking that what we see is all that there is, would not rely on the ‘methodological fallacy to look for another model outside the realm of science’ as the priest suggests. (In the example that I gave, though, IDers would be saying that this is ‘the best explanation’, not that it ‘couldn’t happen by random events’, which seems to be a much harder case to prove but a much easier thing to say and to think about….absolutes just seem to be easier to digest, as politicians well know)

  2. 2 Edmund C. September 1, 2006 at 5:41 pm

    Nick,

    Do you have any examples of such arguments (that the time-scale of natural selection is off)?

    The only one that I can think of, off the top of my head (which is in dire need of caffeine right now), is the “Cambrian explosion.” If I remember the argument correctly, the appearance of so many new body forms and species in such an apparently short period of time is not easy to fit with the neo-Darwinian synthesis. But, since we’re stuck with fossils and, I suspect, know rather little about the environment in which these creatures lived, I don’t know that such evidence for an “explosion” is either evidence for ID or against the current model.

    I’d actually call myself a proponent of “intelligent design.” I just refuse to accept that evolution as we see it could not be the product and continuing product of an active intelligence. Randomness in our eyes may not be so in God’s. Have you read Simon Conway Morris’ book “Life’s Solution”?

  3. 3 nick September 6, 2006 at 7:32 pm

    I don’t have any examples of the argument off hand, and it’s totally possible that most of that style of argumentation comes from creationists (that seems to be the most common position in my area), so I can’t say all that much on the topic. It just seemed to me that the major area of contention (and the area hardest or least possible to test) was the time scale. It seems to me that that is where the different positions normally degrade into: a philosophical discussion of science and whether the data really goes where they think it does. For example, evolutionist might not have any problem fitting the data to a billion year cycle because he sees the possibility (or sometimes necessity) of such a time scale. However, a creationist, most likely try to fit that data to the ‘Biblical’ time scale. On the other hand, ID seems to be a little more flexible and points out that process was guided. People might say that we should just start with the evidence, but how do we know how long that evidence took to form? We seem to start with our preconceived notions of how ‘it all happened’ and then go from there. The evidence might tell us something about the DNA changes, but it tells us little of why it changed. Guessing might be an interesting game, but what test could you come up with that would reflect the insane number of variables over even a substantial period of time? I guess my thing is that unless we know tons more than I am aware of (totally possible and perhaps even probable), it seems silly to take a position (at least if you plan to call it ‘scientific’). The time scale is simply a good example of how limited we are in our testing (and thusly, how limited our ‘answers’ should be). However, our metaphysics often requires that we take a position, so I guess that our retreat back into our own systems of belief is the proper ending point. The problem comes when we want to use it as a sword to beat down everyone else. I think that God’s role as creator is necessary, and I think that that is the best explanation for what we see and experience today. However, to get all hoity-toity about how he did it seems silly to me. Sorry for the abnormally large paragraph, but I guess I felt like rambling. I hope it made some sense.

    As far as the book goes, no, I haven’t. Thanks for the suggestion. I’ll make sure to give it a try.

  4. 4 Edmund C. September 7, 2006 at 7:47 pm

    Nick, you made perfect sense, and I agree wholeheartedly, especially with this:

    I think that God’s role as creator is necessary, and I think that that is the best explanation for what we see and experience today. However, to get all hoity-toity about how he did it seems silly to me.

    I don’t know enough about paleontology, stratigraphy, etc., to make any kind of judgment on the time scale issue, and extrapolating DNA changes back is fraught with difficulties. There are way too many assumptions to make a firm answer and then bludgeon others with it. But, if you are an atheistic naturalist, it’s all you’ve got with which to bludgeon…


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