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(From The Catholic Observer, November 3, 2006)

By Mark E. Rondeau

WILLIAMSTOWN — When it comes to teaching evolution, theologian William E. Carroll thinks that rather than exclude Darwin from the curriculum schools should add Thomas Aquinas.

This was his lighthearted suggestion at the end of his lecture on “Evolution, Creation, and the Catholic Church” at Williams College Oct. 19.

Carroll, an American on the faculty of theology at Oxford University, said that the controversy in the U.S. about teaching evolution in public high schools reveals how discussions about creation and evolution can easily become obscured in broader political, social, and cultural contexts.

“For some, to embrace evolution is to affirm an exclusively secular and atheistic view of reality, and evolution is accordingly either welcomed or rejected on such grounds,” he said.

On the one hand are those who claim that science reveals human life to be the result of blind chance and evolutionary necessity.

Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist at Oxford University, has called belief in God “a computer virus of the mind.” In his view the universe disclosed by neo-Darwinian evolutionary biology has “precisely the properties we should expect if there is at bottom no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”

Opposing this is a theory which has come to prominence in the U.S. in recent years, Intelligent Design. Proponents of this think “there are irreducible complexities in nature, individual cells for example, which cannot be the result of random processes. Ultimately such design discovered by biology can only be explained by an appeal to a designer,” Carroll said.

Moreover, proponents of Intelligent Design say that their conclusion for a designer to explain what biology discovers is, in fact, a scientific conclusion. An attraction of this idea for some is that it seems to provide scientific evidence for the existence of God.

“Yet to refer to Intelligent Design as science troubles many scientists,” Carroll said.

The Catholic Church became involved in the controversy in July 2005 when Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, of Vienna, wrote an essay in The New York Times seeming in places to support a view similar to that of Intelligent Design proponents.

“Evolution in the sense of common ancestry might be true, but evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense — an unguided process of random variation and natural selection — is not,” Schönborn wrote. “Any system of thought that denies or seeks to explain away the overwhelming evidence for design in biology is ideology, not science.”

Critics feared that Schönborn’s essay represented a rejection of the basic tenets modern biology and would cast the Church as an opponent of modern science, Carroll said.

“Their concern was that in defending the Church’s traditional claim that nature and human nature fall under God’s providence, the Cardinal appeared to accept dubious claims associated with Intelligent Design,” he said. “I think that arguments offered in support of Intelligent Design do not really advance the cause of belief in God, and in some sense these arguments only add to confusion about creation and evolution.”

Carroll said the Catholic tradition, especially the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), has much to offer to help disentangle the confusion in the contemporary discussion. Aquinas thought that faith and reason are complementary, with the truths of science posing no threat to the truths of faith, since God is the author of all truth.

Aquinas also drew a distinction between creation and change. All things are totally dependent on the Creator for the very fact that they exist. “Creation accounts for the existence of things, not for changes in things,” Carroll said. “The natural sciences have as their subject the world of changing things.”

“For Thomas there is no conflict between the doctrine of creation and any physical theory whatsoever,” he said. “Theories in the natural sciences account for change...They remain processes. Creation accounts for the existence of things, not for changes in things.”

Science discloses the way the created universe operates in terms of principles in the created universe. God so transcends creation that he can be the cause of all that is without compromising the ability of created forces or beings to be causes themselves.

“God’s creative power is exercised throughout the entire course of cosmic history in whatever ways that history has unfolded,” Carroll said. “God accomplishes his purposes in and through the universe he has created.”

Aquinas argued that God causes chance and random events to be the chance and random events which they are, just as he causes the free acts of human beings to be free acts.

“For Thomas, God is at work in every operation of nature, but the autonomy of nature is not an indication of some reduction in God’s power or activity.” Rather, it is an indication of His goodness, Carroll said. “God as primary cause is not threatened by the existence of real secondary causes in nature, including those causes which evolutionary biology investigates.”

Catholic tradition teaches that evidence of design can be seen in nature. However, this does not require that God intervene in ongoing processes of nature, as if his original act of creation was inadequate to the ends he sought.

“To explain the development of complex biological features by an appeal to causes other than those in the natural order would suggest that God could not have created a natural order endowed with causal principles adequate to produce the changes in that order,” Carroll said. “Appeals to an Intelligent Designer do not really defend the agency of God in the world.”

Against those who would use contemporary science to deny Catholic teaching on creation and providence, the Church has ample philosophical and theological resources without rejecting central claims of science, he said.

“We must remember that God transcends the created order in which he acts in such a way that God differs differently from all other causes,” he said. “To say that nature discloses intelligence need not mean that there is an intelligent agent in nature as one of the causes which the empirical sciences need to take into account.”

“Thomas Aquinas would help us to recognize the error in absolutizing chance and randomness to universal principles of change or to think that their existence in nature is a challenge of God’s providential ordering of the world.”

Carroll said it’s highly unlikely the Catholic Church would adopt an Intelligent Design approach. “On this matter, Catholic thinking over centuries has been pretty sophisticated,” he said. “Part of the problem with Intelligent Design is that it lacks kind of an adequate philosophical foundation in natural philosophy. It wants to move directly from what the empirical sciences say to any number of philosophical conclusions in a strange way — without the mediation of a good natural philosophy.”

The Williams Catholic student group sponsored the lecture.

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