While responding to the foolishness of IDolators has become increasingly dull business, there are occasional opportunities in it. The problem is that they offer nothing essentially new, which is why it isn’t science. The advantage is that they give us insights into how they view the world, and by doing so, teach us what the misunderstand, and what other people might not understand either.
This is all by way of introduction to a comment at Billy Dembski’s blog in which “BarryA” attempts to explain theology to Jesuit theology professor Father Edward Oakes. Oakes makes some quite sensible comments about Aquinas, causation, and the factual status of many of the things IDolators find so befuddling. Oakes, for instance, says that “As with the doctrine that all life began as a single-celled organism, I hardly see how such an obvious insight [as natural selection] can be regarded as controversial.”
Asked about the flaws in intelligent design, he explained “ID advocates seem regularly to confuse finality with design.” Which is exactly right. They think that function implies teleology (that something was intended to fulfill a function) and that thinks intended to fulfill function are inevitably designed by some intelligence. They fail to appreciate that biological function is not teleological, and need not be teleological to exist. All the other errors they make, from insisting that irreducible complexity exists, to thinking they can filter products of design out from products of chance or law, are derived from that first failure. Oakes nails it.
The deeper flaw that BarryA’s interaction with Oakes illustrates is that IDolators have no way to separate the physical and metaphysical, indeed insist on destroying any attempt at such a separation. That’s bad theology and meaningless science. I discussed that point in February, after hearing the Dean of the University of Chicago’s Divinity School discuss how theologians view IDC. At the time, I summarized his argument as:
Science studies proximate causes, testable relationships between processes and events. Evolution is a proximate explanation for the modern diversity of life, and it provides a proximate cause for the details of modern life. Proximate causation is the “how.”
Ultimate causes are the cosmic “why” questions. Ultimate causation, as Rosengarten described it, is not testable, and claims about ultimate causes of creation represent a “fundamental trust,” one not necessary for proximate causes.
The problem emerges when people use the language and mindset of one approach to try to go beyond the limits of their field. Creationists trying to wedge ultimate causation into science are as bad as scientists trying to treat proximate causes as suitable for ultimate questions.
As a society, we need both, and each depends on the other. We need a language for relating one to the other, and a way past the “either/or” dynamic of the creationism/evolution battle.
He pointed out that John Calvin, no pantheist, acknowledged that “it can be said, provided it is said with reverence, that nature is God.” There are ways to have a conversation about ultimate causes for humanity in a context that acknowledges the proximate answers science offers about the process.
He continues by explaining how he isn’t a deist, and how standard theistic philosophy can account for a world of common descent by means of natural processes. “For Aquinas,” he explains, “God’s primary causality does not refer to an initial moment of creation, after which secondary causality kicks in and runs things from then on out [as in deism]. No, God must sustain the world in each moment of its existence. God keeps the world in being because God is ‘He Who Is.’ God is Being itself; and because of God’s self-sufficient Being, the universe ‘is,’ albeit derivatively.” This is standard church theology, and a common part of modern theology in many realms, exemplified by the widely accepted concept of process theology. God is a part of everything in the universe, but exists beyond it as well. Standard theology in many religions, uncontroversial and distinctly not deism.
Bearing in mind that IDolators have generally set themselves against “materialism” and “reductionism,” identify where BarryA refutes himself in attacking Oakes:
The problem with Oakes’ contention is that he anthropomorphizes (gives human qualities to) nature and thereby attributes creative ability to an abstraction. There is no such thing as “nature” in the sense of an agent that causes trees to grow and, from the trees, fruit to be produced. Nature is matter and energy and information. A tree grows not because “nature” causes it to grow. It grows because matter combined with energy combined with the information in its DNA work together pursuant to physical laws to produce a result, i.e. a tree. ID posits that the complexity of the tree and its subcomponents and the information content of its DNA are most reasonably explained by the act of an intelligent agent. While ID does not speak to the issue, some people believe that intelligent agent is God. ID is a scientific theory. It does not address the essentially metaphysical Aristotelian concept of the finality of nature, much less confuse it with the act of an intelligent agent.
Set aside that Oakes doesn’t talk about “nature,” let alone Nature. He talks about God. A God who is part of all that is natural, but is not itself natural and does not have to change the natural. Misunderstanding that is a biggie. But it gets worse.
BarryA manages to assert a bizarre materialism in order to defend IDolatry. He objects to someone finding theology in the elegance of the system that trees fit into, the way they curve and bind the world. BarryA sets himself at odds not only with Catholic theology, but with what many IDolators claim, in asserting that trees and all life are products of chance and law. He does this to reject the panentheistic God that Oakes and the Catholic Church advocate. But in doing so, he cuts himself and his ideology off at the knees. He boxes God in so tightly as to make God irrelevant.
Standard theology is totally compatible with science, because it gives each a distinct frame of reference. Oakes is proud that “the Church has no … a magisterial teaching on how human consciousness arises from the electrical firings inside the neurology of the brain,” and also that “if a neurologist were to say that, because consciousness depends on brain activity, there is therefore no such thing as a soul — that too would be an invalid conclusion.” Science does something different from theology, it tackles proximate causes, not ultimate causes. Theology handles questions that science cannot answer. IDC’s theology (which is all it offers) is intentionally at odds with that idea. Science may be right, or theology may be right, but one must choose. As they see it, science is all there is, and if God isn’t part of science – if teleology (ultimate causation) isn’t part of science – then God and God’s will must not exist.
This is wrong. It’s bad theology. If it were science, it would be bad science.