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January 01, 2005

Aquinas on Science; Intelligent Design, Religion, and Evolution; Geology

Over at Transterrestrial a comment-blog debate on Intelligent Design and What is Science has been going on. We have that debate at the Indiana Law and Econ Lunch every now and then. I just came across an interesting snippet from Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologica which is relevant. In Question 32, Article 1 he is discussing his claim that existence of the Trinity, unlike that of God, cannot be proved philosophically:
Therefore, we must not attempt to prove what is of faith, except by authority alone, to those who receive the authority; while as regards others it suffices to prove that what faith teaches is not impossible. Hence it is said by Dionysius (Div. Nom. ii): "Whoever wholly resists the word, is far off from our philosophy; whereas if he regards the truth of the word"---i.e. "the sacred word, we too follow this rule."...

Reply to Objection 2: Reason may be employed in two ways to establish a point: firstly, for the purpose of furnishing sufficient proof of some principle, as in natural science, where sufficient proof can be brought to show that the movement of the heavens is always of uniform velocity. Reason is employed in another way, not as furnishing a sufficient proof of a principle, but as confirming an already established principle, by showing the congruity of its results, as in astrology the theory of eccentrics and epicycles is considered as established, because thereby the sensible appearances of the heavenly movements can be explained; not, however, as if this proof were sufficient, forasmuch as some other theory might explain them. In the first way, we can prove that God is one; and the like. In the second way, reasons avail to prove the Trinity; as, when assumed to be true, such reasons confirm it. We must not, however, think that the trinity of persons is adequately proved by such reasons....

Aquinas seems to be distinguishing between proof of facts (that the stars move across the sky at constant velocity) and proof that a theory conforms to the facts and is self-consistent (that planetary movements can be explained by epicycles). The epicycle example is especially apt because it has now been discarded, in favor of a theory of elliptical orbits (and a central sun) that is simpler and expains more facts.

Applied to Intelligent Design: If you already believe in God based on other evidence, then Intelligent Design is an easy way to make the theory of evolution fit with facts such as extreme complexity and nondiscovery of intermediate species. If you do not believe in God already, then Intelligent Design still works to make evolution fit with the facts, but it is less satisfactory because it requires the introduction of a major new force, God.

The "Intelligent Design is not science" objections are (1) we cannot think of ways that the Intelligent Design could be disproved and (2) Intelligent Design theory is empty because it does not make any new predictions. Perhaps these are the same objection, really.

Intelligent Design could be disproved, in a sense, by the disappearance of the need for it. If it turns out that it is not so hard to create life from chemicals, evolve the Krebs Cycle, and so forth, and if we find intermediate species for most evolutionary ladders, then while Intelligent Design has not been shown to fail to explain the facts, it has been shown to be unnecessary. That is enough to kill a theory.

Note, by the way, that Standard Evolution is subject to the same criticism. Darwin predicted that although in his day there were lots of gaps in the fossil record, missing intermediate species, those gaps would be filled. That was a reasonable prediction. It has largely failed, though. This does not kill Evolution as a theory, because there is a good fallback: conditions have to be just right for fossils to be created, and also if evolution occurs in spurts during times of crisis (e.g., after a meteor wipes out most of life) fossils might not be created. Standard Evolution becomes a weaker theory the longer no intermediate species are discovered, but it can never be shown to be inconsistent with the facts.

I have not looked into it deeply, but I find Intelligent Design very appealing. Since I believe in God already, it adds no extra forces to complicate the world. In fact, since I believe in both God and evolution, it helps a lot. Intelligent Design supports Evolution, and Evolution supports Christianity.

Intelligent Design supports Evolution because it solves problems such as complexity and missing intermediate species. Adding divine intervention, the objections of the Fundamentalists can be answered easily.

Evolution supports Christianity because it solves the problems of the age of the Earth and the wastefulness of extinct species. Sound geological evidence tells us that the Universe is billions of years old and that many species went extinct well before Man appeared. Why would God create such a Universe, which wastes almost its entire history? Evolution says that if God wished to use natural processes, with just a touch of divine intervention, then the Universe must be very old and many species must go extinct.

I do not understand why Evolution has attracted such opposition from Fundamentalists, by the way. Even for someone who believes in the Inerrancy of the Bible, it is reasonable to take the story of the seven days of creation as a metaphor. Treating Adam and Eve as metaphorical is a bit more of a stretch, though not an unreasonable one, but someone could accept Evolution for most species and still reject it for Man. In any case, even if Evolution is refuted, Geology remains. The age of the Earth is a far bigger problem for Inerrancy than Evolution is.

Two of my earlier posts are connected to this. See the post on a Scientific American article on speciation in general and the post on sunflowers in particular.

Posted by erasmuse at January 1, 2005 11:31 AM

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