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By Ric Machuga

Clockwork Origins? Part 3

(continued from Part 2)

Though he is certainly no Thomist, Hilary Putnam makes this point with simple elegance. We all understand perfectly well what it means to say that the cause of the pressure cooker exploding was a stuck valve. Now, from a purely technical standpoint, we could say that the reason the pressure cooker exploded was the absence of randomly placed holes in its lid. The only reason for preferring the stuck-valve explanation is that pressure cookers by design are made with a single hole in the lid controlled by a valve. Had pressure-cooker makers not intended there to be a single hole in the lid, we would not identify a stuck valve as the cause of the explosion. A purely "scientific" explanation begs the question, because, as Putnam concludes, the "notion of things 'causing' other things is not a notion which is simply handed to us by physics."12

The same problem arises when one tries to give a purely "scientific" explanation of any biological organism without invoking intentional terms. It is impossible to say what a heart is, much less what it does, without specifying what a heart is for. Organisms conceptually must be intentionally ordered such that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. A heart that serves no function is no heart!

The ultimate failure of biological reductionism is that it assumes the whole is nothing more than the sum of its parts. But as Aristotle noted a long time ago, this is a fallacy of composition. Music is composed of acoustical disturbances, but it is not merely acoustical disturbances; written words are composed of ink lines on paper, but they are not merely ink lines on paper.

When doing biology, Aristotle himself made this point absolutely clear. Asking whether a philosopher's explanation of animal behavior in terms of efficient causes or an explanation in terms of intentional causes (or final causes) is to be preferred, he concluded, "Is it not rather the one who combines both in a single formula?"13

Darwin's response to Asa Gray's theistic understanding of evolution is instructive here. Darwin well understood that the issue--Is the universe the result of chance or design?--is one of philosophy, not science. Did God ordain, Darwin asked, "that the crop and tail-feathers of the pigeon should vary in order that the fancier might make his grotesque pouter and fantail breeds? Did he cause the frame and mental qualities of the dog to vary in order that a breed might be formed of indomitable ferocity, with jaws fitted to pin down the bull for man's brutal sport?" Surely no one could admit divine providence in these matters! Darwin concluded, then, by parity of reasoning, that "no shadow of reason can be assigned for the belief that variations, alike in nature and the result of the same general laws, which have been the groundwork through natural selection of the formation of the most perfectly adapted animals in the world, man included, were intentionally and specially guided."14 Darwin's objection to Gray is not that he is importing illicit matters of faith into science; rather, it is that Gray's theistic evolution creates an insuperable philosophical problem: What kind of God would permit so much evil?

Once again, our analysis of evolution leads to a perennial philosophical issue, exactly as Thomistic philosophers have long been saying it must. Christians can thus approach the purely biological evidence with the calm assurance that wherever it leads, the really difficult philosophical issues will remain the same, and the standard philosophical defenses of the faith that have served Christians well since the time of Augustine will continue to serve us well in the future.

Phillip Johnson responds:

I see no reason to complain about a review that pairs me with Richard Dawkins as setting the boundaries of the debate over evolution and creation, regardless of what intermediate position the reviewer personally favors. So, with appreciation for the attention, I will respond only on one important point.

The question whether Darwinism fits the scientific evidence is prior to the question of whether Christianity can or should be reconciled with Darwinism. Although he relegates the prior question to an endnote, Mr. Machuga actually agrees with me that Darwinism does not explain "biogenesis" (origin of genetic information), but only "diversification of existing species."

Although this distinction leaves open the question of exactly where the line between origin and diversification is to be drawn, it acknowledges that there are scientific as well as philosophical defects in Dawkins's Darwinian argument for atheism. I urge theists (and atheists too, for that matter) not to overlook the scientific objections to the more expansive Darwinian claims in their determination to pursue a philosophical objective--whether that objective be to further materialism, or to show that Thomistic philosophy can incorporate just about any scientific theory about material causes.


1. Darwin's title, "The Origin of Species," hides an ambiguity. The "origin of species" can refer to either biogenesis (the origin of life) or the diversification of existing species. While Darwin is himself clear that these are two distinct issues, and that he only has an answer to the second, other writers have glossed over the distinction and treated them as a single issue. But even speaking from a wholly scientific view, these are distinct issues. There is a wide range of arguments, each supported by independent evidence, to support that claim that, on the whole, older species tend to be biologically less complex or developed than younger species. The geographic distribution of species, vestigial organs, similar anatomical structures put to differing uses, the distribution of fossils in the geologic column, and so on all point to the same explanation--natural selection, either gradual or punctuated. However, when it comes to the origin of life, while there are a number of independent explanations that scientists are currently exploring, the evidence does not currently converge toward a single explanation. The convergence of many arguments and independent sources of evidence toward a single explanation is a measure of the coherence of a theory--that is, a theory's ability to organize a wide range of data into a single, interconnected whole. It is now generally acknowledged that the truth of a theory is more established by the theory's coherence than any single fact or observation. It is thus misleading for Dawkins to treat the origin of life and the diversification of species as if their scientific status were the same. Dawkins needs a scientific theory of the origin of life if his assumption--that science will refute theism in a way that philosophy has not--is to remain even plausible. But philosophical needs are nothing more than wishes in science!

2. Though these events are a commonplace among historians of science, one place to begin study is W. M. O'Neil's "Fact and Theory: An Aspect of the Philosophy of Science" (Sydney University Press, 1969).

3. "Science and Theology," edited by Murray Rae, Hilary Regan, and John Stenhouse (Eerdmans, 1994), p. 43; see note 1 above.

4. Ronald Numbers, "The Creationists" (Alfred A. Knopf, 1992), p. ix. In a response to William Hasker in a recent theme issue of Christian Scholar's Review (Vol. 24, No. 4 [May 1995]) focusing on "Creation, Evolution, and Christian Faith," Johnson writes, "Let's face the facts. All the leading scientific authorities who write for the general public--including Weinberg, Hawking, Davies, Sagan, Crick, Futuyma, Dawkins, Johanson, and Gould--are engaged in promoting metaphysical naturalism." While there is no question that these scientists are so engaged, the poll numbers belie Johnson's worry that Christians are in danger of losing the propaganda war to pbs and the popular press.

5. "Historic Documents of 1982" (Congressional Quarterly, 1983), p. 9.

6. "A creationist is simply a person who believes that the world (and especially mankind) was designed, and exists for a purpose." "Darwin on Trial," p. 115.

7. "Christianity Today," Oct. 24, 1994, p. 26.

8. See "Reason in the Balance," pp. 225-26.

9. A. Hunter Dupree, "Asa Gray 1800-1880" (Harvard University Press, 1959), p. 368. Paley's own famous proof is not itself inconsistent with an evolutionary account. If a person found a watch in the desert, he would immediately infer the existence of a designer. But what if, says Paley, "The watch is found, in the course of its movement, to produce another watch similar to itself; and not only so, but we perceive in it a system or organization separately calculated for that purpose. What effect would this discovery have, or ought it to have, upon our former inference? What, as hath already been said, but to increase beyond measure our admiration of the skill which had been employed in the formation of such a machine?"

10. For an excellent, philosophically informed critique of Darwinism from a Thomistic point of view, see Etienne Gilson, "From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again: A Journey in Final Causality, Species, and Evolution" (University of Notre Dame Press, 1984).

11. Asa Gray, in response to his critics said, "As I have said before, what you want is … [a system] which theism only can account for. That, it seems to me, you have. And again, It has been and always will be possible to take an atheistic view of Nature, but far more reasonable from science and philosophy only to take a theistic view. … It is the best, if not the only, hypothesis for the explanation of the facts." "Natural Science and Religion" (Cambridge University Press, 1880), p. 91.

12. "The Renewal of Philosophy" (Harvard University Press, 1992), p. 50.

13. "On the Soul," 403b7. See also "On the Parts of Animals," 642a.

14. "Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication, II" (D. Appleton and Company, 1875), p. 415. And as Johnson himself notes (but without drawing a similar conclusion), the problem of evil was more than a mere philosophical puzzle for Darwin. Johnson quotes from Gertrude Himmelfarb's "Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution" (1959): "One of the passages which was deleted from [Darwin's] autobiography explained why Charles not only could not believe in Christianity but would not wish to believe in it. Citing the 'damnable doctrine' that would condemn all disbelievers to eternal punishment, he protested that 'this would include my Father, Brother, and almost all my best friends.' " Himmelfarb concludes, "There may be more sophisticated reasons for disbelief, but there could hardly have been a more persuasive emotional one" (quoted in "Darwin on Trial," pp. 163-64).

Copyright (c) 1995 Christianity Today, Inc./BOOKS AND CULTURE Review


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