Intelligent Design or Mindless Evolution

BISHOP DONALD WUERL

The intuition of human experience that there is intelligent design in the universe is so overwhelming that only ideology would deny it a hearing alongside any other theories about the origin of life.

The ongoing debate concerning the origin of the cosmos and the beginning of human life focuses on a number of explanations. For some the answer is in what is called "creationism." Here the assertion is made that in the beginning God created all that is, basically, as we know and experience reality today. Others find satisfaction in what is described as "evolution by natural selection." In this camp are some who use this hypothesis to assert that there is no such thing as creation or divine initiation of reality.

What has confused matters is that some who espouse creationism see no room for a process of development or evolution that would unfold according to a divine plan or intelligent design, always keeping human life as a distinct and unique creation. Compounding matters all the more on the part of some proponents of evolution is their insistence on the need to exclude any possibility of God or intelligent design at any stage in the process.

There seems to be in both extremes an "either/or" mentality: either everything as we know it was created as it is now by God in the beginning, or there was no creation or God of creation at all.

Yet there clearly is a middle ground — "intelligent design." In this view we recognize both God's free creation of all that is and the possibility, or even probability, that creation carried within it the plan of development which we can call evolution.

In these reflections I want to explore the reasonableness of intelligent design and its rightful place among the theories that explain the origin and development of the cosmos and life.


To start with, all of us experience the reality of the world in which we live. This is a given. There are stars, planets, rational human beings, animals, fish and all kinds of other living beings as well as what were once called the basic elements of earth, fire, water and air. Both responses, intelligent design and mindless evolution, start with the same reality, the world around us. Both engage human reason to try to understand what we experience. Both offer a frame of reference that provides a coherent way to make sense of or explain the data.

On the one hand, in the years since Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in 1855, some scientists offer the theory that the best explanation for the existence of all life is random selection and the natural evolution of species.

On the other hand other scientists support the theory of intelligent design. This explanation of natural phenomena goes back, in a well documented manner, to the time of Aristotle and other Greek philosophers. The great Greek philosophers and naturalists lived some 300 years before Christ and attempted to explain the cosmos solely from the light of human reason.

Most humans, in fact, have experienced that same wonder which led so many philosophers, who were not necessarily at the same time theologians, to posit an ultimate reality that is responsible for all that is and how it operates. The conclusions of the Greek philosophers were derived from human reason alone. They made no claim to divine guidance in their search. Least of all did they recognize divine revelation as a norm for their thinking process. They concluded that intelligent design has nothing to do with religious faith and everything to do with reason and science as we name them today.

Anyone who, as a child, marveled at the sky full of stars on a clear, dark night and concluded intuitively that there is more to the heavens than one can see is an intellectual heir to the great thinkers of the Western World and a kindred spirit to almost all humanity who, in quiet awe, knows that there is order in the world around us.

Albert Einstein was once quoted grappling with the same human experience:

"We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they were written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn't know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God. We see the universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws but only dimly understand these laws. Our limited minds grasp the mysterious force that moves the constellations."

In the Yucatan Peninsula you can visit any number of archeological sites, such as Chichen Itza, and see the remains of the ancient Mayan observatories that charted the movement of the heavens over millennia. The ancient wise men of those observatories drew the same conclusion that their counterparts in Egypt did thousands of years before them and that their intellectual colleagues in other parts of Mexico, Babylon, and China did as well. Intelligent design in the world is a rational conclusion based on thousands of years of observation and reflection. It is not an a priori religious tenant superimposed on the facts. Rather it is the light of reason illuminating the universe.


With the most recent insistence that only the Darwinian theory of evolution should be taught to young people as they study the origin of the cosmos and human life, I went back to my old college philosophy books. First I dusted off the Richard McKeon volume The Basic Works of Aristotle (died in 322 BC). Then I got out the Benjamin Jowett translation of the Dialogues of Plato the famous philosopher who preceded Aristotle.


Anyone who, as a child, marveled at the sky full of stars on a clear, dark night and concluded intuitively that there is more to the heavens than one can see is an intellectual heir to the great thinkers of the Western World and a kindred spirit to almost all humanity who, in quiet awe, knows that there is order in the world around us.


In Aristotle's Physics, his study as a natural philosopher and scientist, not unlike Darwin's Origins of the Species except in its conclusion, Aristotle develops at length a reasoned explanation for what we find in the universe. His logical inferences lead to the conclusion that there is in the cosmos a design that requires an explanation beyond our limited natural world. In book two, chapters eight and nine, of the Physics Aristotle discusses what he considers to be an intrinsic part of the cosmos — teleology. Translated into the idiom of today what he is talking about is "purpose" or as some would define it, intelligent design. The principle of human teleology he discusses in an entire book reasonably enough entitled The Soul.

Plato who died some time around the year 348 BC discusses at considerable length the ordering principle of which the world is constituted. More than one scholar of Plato recognizes his "ideas" or "forms" as the ideas in the mind of God.

Centuries later Saint Thomas Aquinas, the master philosopher and theologian of the 13th century, applied the data and reasoning of Aristotle and Plato to the basic realities of motion, efficient causality, possibility and necessity, the gradation of perfection found in things, and order in the universe. I took down off the shelf once again the Summa Theologica of Saint Thomas Aquinas and turned to part one, question two, article three. What the philosophers had dubbed from their aversion to religious doctrine or revelation the Unmoved Mover, the Uncaused Cause, the Necessary Being, the Perfection against which perfection is measured, and the Purpose we see throughout the cosmos, Aquinas named "God."

One can easily conclude from reason alone that there is intelligent design in the universe. Most people, in fact, have. You do not have to invoke religious faith to arrive at such a reasonable conclusion. However, with faith you can bring unimpeachable support to that same conclusion. Our Judeo-Christian heritage presents us with the Book of Genesis. Here we find intelligent design and more. Our Catholic faith tells us that God created. But it also leaves to rational, intelligent reflection how we understand precisely in what manner God's initiative is worked out in space and time. For the faithful the intelligent design we find in reality is the mind of God at work.


The sacred writer of the creation account (cf. Gen. 1:1-2.4) portrays the work of creation as extending over a period of six "days," and says that on the seventh day God "rested from all the work that he had done in creation" (Gen. 2.3). This account is obviously not a technical report on the timing and mode of creation. As Saint Augustine noted centuries ago, the six "days" of creation could hardly have been solar days as we now know, for according to the account in Genesis, the sun was not made until the fourth "day." Rather the structure and literary form of the creation narrative are there to help us grasp what God is teaching us about creation.

Revelation tells us that only God existed forever and that God made all things out of nothing. There was nothing before God created what now is. In the marvel of that wondrous creation, there is a whole array of realities all of which reflect the glory of God. What God created is good. One can very comfortably believe that God is the Creator, and also hold the theory that creation had within it the seeds of an evolutionary development that would take place over eons.

Faith also holds that the glory of God's creation is the human being. God directly created the human soul. As the creation account reaches its climax, God is portrayed as creating man and woman as the crown of all that God had made. "Then God said 'let us make man in our image, after our likeness. Let them have dominion.'" (Gen. 1.26).

We are made in the image and likeness of God because God has taken the goodness of his physical creation and breathed into it an immortal spiritual reality called the soul. Because of that principle of life, we, like God, are capable of knowing and loving. We can mirror the knowledge and love that lie at the very core of God's being; hence we are called images of God.


Saint Augustine noted centuries ago, the six "days" of creation could hardly have been solar days as we now know, for according to the account in Genesis, the sun was not made until the fourth "day." Rather the structure and literary form of the creation narrative are there to help us grasp what God is teaching us about creation.


One can argue, as many do, from reason alone that there is clearly an intelligent design at work constantly unfolding in our universe. This "theory" is as good, valid and rational as any other theory that tries to explain the same facts. While leaving to science many details about the history of life on earth, the Catholic Church proclaims that by the light of reason the human intellect can readily and clearly discern purpose and design in the natural world, including the world of human beings.

Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, Austria, wrote in an op ed piece in the July 7, 2005, New York Times: "Evolution in the sense of common ancestry may be true, but evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense — an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection — is not. Any system of thought that denies or seeks to explain away the overwhelming evidence for design in biology is ideology, not science."

God directs his creation toward its completion or perfection through what we call Divine Providence. This means that God has absolute sovereignty over all that he has made, and guides his creation according to the divine plan of his will. At the same time, both the evidence of the world that we discover by our human intellect and the testimony of Sacred Scripture show that for the unfolding of his plan God uses secondary causes, including the laws of physics, chemistry and biology, as well as the cooperation of our own human intellect and will.

The Second Vatican Council in its pastoral constitution The Church in the Modern World addressed the rightful independence of earthly affairs: ". . .if methodological investigation within every branch of learning is carried out in a genuinely scientific manner and in accord with moral norms, it never truly conflicts with faith. For earthly matters and the concerns of faith derive from the same God.Indeed, whoever labors to penetrate the secrets ofreality with a humble and steady mind, is, even unawares, being led by the hand of God, who holds all things in existence, and gives them their identity" (36).

As Pascal in his Pensées said many centuries ago: "The human heart has its reasons that reason cannot know." When I hear a six year old express marvel at a starry sky, or see the wonder in the face of parents as they gaze at their new born child, or admire the resilience of enduring human love at every wedding anniversary celebration, I agree.

The intuition of human experience that there is intelligent design in the universe is so overwhelming that only ideology would deny it a hearing alongside any other theories about the origin of life.

The millennia long human intuition about the cosmos and human life explained over and over again by philosophers from just about every conceivable culture on this planet, and all done in the light of reason, should not be dismissed simply because the Darwinian theory is the politically correct version and the new secular dogma that demands acceptance.

When we examine with the light of reason the origins of the cosmos and human life then we must be prepared to respond to all the reasonable, rational, intellectually sustainable theories. Academia must never become arbitrarily exclusive of the conclusions of rational investigation.

 

 



ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Bishop Donald Wuerl. "Intelligent Design or Mindless Evolution." Pittsburgh Catholic. (October 26, 2005).

Reprinted with permission of the Diocese of Pittsburgh. All rights reserved. To subscribe to the Pittsburgh Catholic call 1-800-392-4670 or click here.

THE AUTHOR

Bishop Donald Wuerl is bishop of Pittsburg, Pennsylvania.

Copyright © 2005 Pittsburgh Catholic




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