Commonweal

Material Principle.

Phillip E. Johnson

April 23, 1999

Rock of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life

Stephen Jay Gould, Library of Contemporary Thought (Ballantine), $18.95, 222 pp.

In October 1996 Pope John Paul II sent a statement on biological evolution to the Papal Academy of Sciences. After some general remarks, John Paul observed that Plus XII's encyclical Humani generis in 1950 had described the theory of evolution as "a serious hypothesis," worthy of in-depth study and not contrary to the Catholic faith--provided that it was not presented as certain, proven doctrine, and that it did not purport to displace entirely the role of revelation in questions of origins. John Paul updated that judgment, saying that since 1950 discoveries have been made in a variety of fields which support the theory, so that now evolution should be regarded as more than merely a hypothesis. "The convergence, neither sought nor fabricated, of the results of work that was conducted independently is in itself a significant argument in favor of the theory."

Rock of Ages is basically a heavily padded version of an essay that Stephen Jay Gould wrote about the pope's statement for his regular column in Natural History magazine. Gould quotes the part of the statement summarized above to support his interpretation that John Paul accepts evolution as "effectively proven fact." Gould ignores the remainder of the statement, which takes a different direction. The pope went on to say that the theory of evolution is not merely derived from data but also "borrows certain notions from natural philosophy." Next, he added that "rather than the theory of evolution, we should speak of several theories of evolution. On the one hand, this plurality has to do with the different explanations advanced for the mechanism of evolution, and on the other, with the various philosophies on which it is based. Hence the existence of materialist, reductionist, and spiritualist explanations."

Finally, John Paul carried over from Humani generis one very specific limitation on evolutionary thinking: "Theories of evolution which, in accordance with the philosophies inspiring them, consider the spirit as emerging from the forces of living matter or as a mere epiphenomenon of this matter, are incompatible with the truth about man." In the original essay, but not this book, Gould took note of the pope's "insistence on divine infusion of the soul," and described it as a concept having "metaphorical value," but which he personally suspects to be "a device for maintaining a belief in human superiority within an evolutionary world offering no privileged position to any creature."

What was the pope getting at? Gould thinks that Pius XII allowed consideration of evolution only reluctantly, with the hope that the theory would be discredited, whereas John Paul realizes that evolution is now so heavily supported by scientific evidence that even devout Christians must accept it unreservedly. Gould goes on from this premise to the conclusion that the church seems to have accepted in principle his own concept of "non-overlapping magisteria" (NOMA). The magisterium (teaching authority) of the church is over morals and values; the magisterium of science is over questions of fact. So long as religion sticks to questions of value and science sticks to determining issues of fact, Gould thinks that science and religion can live together at peace.

We might call this the Pax Scientifica, for it would be a peace that reflects the scientific materialist assumption that knowledge (as opposed to subjective belief) belongs exclusively to the realm of fact occupied by science. The realm of value assigned to the church is more like a radio talk show, where all opinions are equal and none is authoritative. Any attempt by the church to assert a genuine teaching authority would have to rest on assumptions of fact, such as the divinity of Christ, and these would be checkmated by science.

For example, Gould says that his settlement would forbid the church to teach that miracles have actually occurred, because that would be a claim of fact within the magisterium of science, which rejects supernatural interventions as a matter of principle. Among the questions of fact which scientists would determine, then, are such questions as whether God directed and guided the evolution of life, whether Jesus actually rose from the dead, and whether there is a factual discontinuity between animals and humans attributable to divine intervention. The answers would all be negative. The rules of NOMA give scientists exclusive authority to say which factual claims are real and which are illusory, and scientists will say that the alleged supernatural events upon which the church bases its magisterium are among the illusions.

I am sure that the pope never meant to accept so one-sided a peace, nor does he accept the fact/value distinction as propounded by scientific materialists like Gould. On the contrary, the heart of the pope's statement was its attempt to distinguish between empirical science on the one hand, and materialist philosophy on the other. The pope did bend over backward to say how deeply the church respects the methods and results of scientific investigation on questions of fact, but that is not all he said. He was equally careful to say that current versions of evolutionary theory are influenced by controversial philosophical notions, and that scientists step beyond the boundaries of their own magisterium when they insist that a materialist philosophy can explain all of reality.

The statement was bound to be misunderstood, because scientists like Gould do not recognize a distinction between science and materialism. As Gould's Harvard colleague and intellectual ally Richard Lewontin has put it, the essence of a scientific viewpoint is to understand that "we exist as material beings in a material world, all of whose phenomena are the consequences of material relations among material entities." To Gould and Lewontin materialism is one of the facts, and so they can make no sense of the pope's insistence that there is something in man which is not an epiphenomenon of matter. Hence they simply ignore the point and assume that when the pope accepts science he effectively accepts materialism, even if he is a bit slow to realize all the consequences. If there is to be an effective dialogue between science and theology, it will have to focus on distinguishing between the facts that scientists know because of their reliable methods of investigation, and the philosophical assumptions they are tempted to make because they want science to have a monopoly in the production of knowledge.

By Phillip E. Johnson

Phillip E. Johnson is professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds (Intervarsity Press).

Copyright (c) Commonweal

(Johnson P.E., "Material Principle," Review of "Rock of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life," by Stephen Jay Gould. Commonweal, April 23, 1999)

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