Getting Beyond Darwin

There are numerous scientific challenges to Darwin’s theory. The Roman Catholic public intellectual and biographer of John Paul II, George Weigel has an essay in First Things on an article by the distinguished scientist, David Gelernter on Giving Up Darwin. Some years ago I wrote a review of Etienne Gilson’s book From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again which included a reflection by Gilson on the dispute between French biologists and French mathematicians about the improbable probability statistics that would be necessary to make Darwin’s theory work. Gilson’s main critique was philosophical, with Aristotle he thought you couldn’t explain animals without teleology. It is becoming increasingly clear that Darwin’s theory works well for relatively small adaptive changes but fails as an explanation of the origin of species. Gilson said that natural selection was not an explanation but a placeholder for a lack of explanation. Below is my review of Gilson’s book.

Etienne Gilson, Translated by John Lyon. From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again: A Journey in Final Causality, Species, and Evolution. Notre Dame, Indiana: Notre Dame Press, 1984. (Originally published in 1971 as D’Aristote a Darwin et retour. Librairie Philosophique J. Vrin) XX and 209 pages.

In order to help its readership make wise decisions about the allocation of precious reading time, a theological journal should alert its readers not only to promising new books but to existing books which are of enduring value, particularly if these books might otherwise escape notice. I have known the name Gilson for many years but have only recently become aware of his work on Darwin. Gilson was a distinguished French Thomist philosopher of the twentieth century who was a central figure in the renaissance of Catholic thought and culture in the years following World War II. He was invited to give both the Gifford lectures and the William James Lectures. He founded a famous center of Medieval Studies in Toronto which in turn produced a generation of scholars dedicated to retrieving the treasures of the Christian centuries. He lived into his nineties and wrote more than 600 titles. In his middle eighties, he decided to take on a philosophical analysis of Darwin’s Origin of Species, thus the title of this volume. The book is a magisterial treatment of the history of the interplay between the discipline of biology and the philosophy of science from Aristotle to Darwin and back again. Gilson carefully sorts out the dividing line between science and the philosophy of nature and the places where Darwin and others promote questionable philosophical conclusions that cannot properly be established by the scientific method as though they were the results of that method. If you look among the footnotes of contemporary critiques of the Darwinism of such writers as Richard Dawkins you will find numerous mentions of this book.

The hero of Gilson’s book is Aristotle. According to Gilson, in The History of Animals Aristotle identified the issues that have to be addressed in order to comprehend the existence of living things. In Gilson’s eyes, Darwin’s book is full of precise observations and shrewd generalizations but is not as adequate an analysis of the fundamental questions of biology as Aristotle. For Gilson Darwin describes many things and explains very little. To the extent that Darwin’s theory is frustrated in its explanatory power it is because Darwin resists Aristotle’s way of stating the problem.

For Aristotle living beings present a unique challenge to understanding. There are things that are made up of homogeneous parts and there are things that are made up of heterogeneous parts. Aristotle described four causes of things. These were the material, formal, the efficient and final. The material and efficient causes answer the questions of immediate causality, of how the thing works. The formal and final causes tell you what sort of thing it is and answer the question of why and what for. Homogeneous things, stones for instance, can be understood in terms of material and efficient causes but living things are different, says Aristotle; they can be understood only in light of their final cause. This is because really different sorts of things are in an organism organized in proportion and in favor of a principle and that principle is what the thing is for or its final cause. So for instance all the varied parts of the eye are organized to the purpose or end of seeing, which is the eye’s final cause, its telos. When we come to living things, Aristotle says, we come to the inescapable fact of the operation of final causes in nature. The end is present in the beginning. There is in nature teleology or the final causality in the title of the book. For Aristotle the perception of the proportion between an organism and its final cause was a source of contemplative joy.

Gilson relates the story of the mounting war against “finality” or teleology in the natural sciences. It takes a decisive turn with Descartes and Bacon. Both want to bracket the consideration of teleology and focus on the material and efficient cause because of the practical usefulness of this type of investigation. Focusing on the material and efficient cause, the how does it work questions, gives modern science its explanatory power and helps drive research toward technology. The desire to bracket the final cause turns in modernity into a campaign to develop a science which disproves the existence of teleology in nature. Darwin’s book is the decisive chapter in that campaign. His special interest was to disprove teleology in nature and especially that version of teleology based on the belief that God had created at the beginning of the creation all the species as they exist.

Gilson points out that Darwin does not actually undertake to explain the origin of species in his book. His book is really about how some species transform themselves into others over time. Darwin says that the process by which this happens is analogous to the process by which a breeder of livestock improves the breed or develops new varieties by selecting desired traits over time. The difference is that in what Darwin calls “natural selection” there is no final cause or teleology at work. The selection process is unconscious and advances by chance mutations which fit particular individuals to succeed especially well in the struggle for survival and who are thus able to reproduce in disproportionate numbers. By the accumulation of these very small changes brought about entirely by chance over very long times, new varieties or species emerge.

The problem is that it is very hard to see how this process can account for the complexity of organisms. Darwin himself was worried about how his theory could account for the complexity of the eye. The eye is made up, as Aristotle would say, of heterogeneous parts. The parts need to be organized to the end of seeing and it is very hard to imagine the small random steps that would lead suddenly to the emergence of a new organ. Gilson says some sort of final cause must be at work. In order to imagine a selection which is not driven by teleology Darwin invoked the “unconscious” selection made by a group of livestock breeders who do not set out to consciously develop a new breed but who do so unconsciously by simply preferring as a group the same sort of animals. Gilson points out that this is none the less an example of teleology and is an example of organization toward an end. Gilson argues that Darwin needs to make the selection process of the mythical livestock breeders unconscious so that he can make the same process in nature unconscious, the blind watchmaker of Richard Dawkins. So Gilson finds that Darwin cannot dispense with the final cause and in his attempt to evade the issue uses a metaphor that is simply a sort of crypto-teleology. Gilson believes that what drives this move in Darwin is not science but an attempt to discredit any kind of creationism by developing a biology without recourse to the consideration of teleology.  Gilson says that chance functions in Darwin’s system not as an explanation but as the place marker for the absence of explanation, an explanation that will not be forthcoming as long as teleology is deprived of its due weight. In addition Gilson finds Darwin giving himself over to the same kind of teleological contemplative joy that was known by Aristotle. Darwin is in awe of the fittingness of the adaptation of organisms to their environment. “Adaptation” is, according to Gilson, the word whose chief virtue is that it allows Darwin to enjoy the proportion between an organism and its final cause, all the while denying the existence of the thing he is enjoying.

 Reviewing theorists in contemporary theoretical biology that are grappling with the inadequacies of a purely mechanistic approach to biology, Gilson says “it brings to our attention the disturbing fact that the very existence of the biological is not susceptible of a mechanist explanation, and that, of course, not only insofar as it exists but insofar as it implies the existence of organized beings. . . . The facts that Aristotle’s biology wished to explain are still there. He is reproached, sometimes bitterly, with having explained them poorly, but to the present no one has explained them any better. Mechanist interpretations of these facts, which Aristotle formerly said had failed, have not ever been satisfactory; they have only displayed more and more the inevitability of the notions of organization and teleology invoked by Aristotle in order to explain the existence of mechanistic structures of which science is the study. Contemporary science itself attests to the unavoidable necessity of notions of this sort.” (p.119).

A little further on Gilson says, “We could say that, scientifically speaking, we ignore the question of why birds have wings, but to say that the conjunction of conditions necessary to the flight of birds was accidental is to say nothing. To add to chance the astronomical extent of billions of years during which it has been at work is still to say nothing, for whether the absence of a cause lasts a year or billions of years, it remains forever an absence of cause, which as such, can neither produce nor explain anything.” And finally from Gilson this coup de grace, “scientifically as well as philosophically, the mechanism of natural selection is simply a nonexplanation.” (131).

Gilson makes only modest and properly philosophical claims for teleology. The effects of final causality are observable in nature. The cause itself is not observable in the nature of the case. We observe the end at the end but we cannot make sense of other observations without postulating this final cause.  The final cause is, as Aristotle first observed, that which makes an organism an organism. The observation of these effects begs the question of the nature of the final cause. Proponents of intelligent design give one set of answers to this question which stands or falls on both the scientific and philosophical issues involved. Affirming final causality or teleology in nature does not automatically endorse any one philosophical or theological proposal about the true nature of the final cause. Gilson says that teleology is analogous to intelligence but that is all that can be said on the basis of observation itself. We cannot say without making further philosophical and theological moves that the final cause is an intelligence. The various sorts of creationism from young earth creationism to the episodic interventionism of intelligent design to theories which conceive of God directing the evolutionary process from within are all possible versions of final causality. Adjudicating between these claimants and other non-theological possibilities includes reference to the scientific record but requires philosophical and theological reflection as well.  Gilson makes the modest point that science cannot exclude the category of purpose from the explanation of reality a priori because science itself, especially as it attempts the comprehension of living things, bears testimony to the enduring necessity of final causality.    In this masterful book a philosopher in the tradition of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas with a sure grasp of contemporary biology rings the front doorbell of an over-reaching, reductionist and mechanistic Darwinism and gives a better account of both the successes and the persistent failures of this hugely influential theory than the Darwinists themselves are able to give, and in the process deconstructs the myth of the blind watchmaker and sets the question of purpose in the universe as a kind of stumbling block that can’t be avoided or easily dismissed. The book is a hard read but foundational to the conversation between science and theology and profoundly significant for the apologetic and evangelistic task in these Darwinian times.


Why Beauty Matters

The English Philosopher Sir Roger Scruton explains in this visually beautiful documentary why beauty is important and how it relates to the true and the good. Beauty calls to us from beyond. Beauty opens our hearts and minds to the eternal and the transcendent. Sometimes beauty and art can be a substitute for religion but for Roger Scruton they share a joint witness to that reality that calls to us from beyond and offers the experience of homecoming.

The Crisis of Modernity

I have been reading the work of the Italian philosopher Augusto Del Noce. Recently two of his major works have been translated into English, The Crisis of Modernity and The Age of Secularization. Del Noce devoted his scholarly life to understanding the rise of totalitarianism in the twentieth century. He had a unique understanding of the emergence of both Communism and Fascism. The standard narrative is that the massive brutality of both of these regimes represents a reaction to the progressive forces of modernity. Demagogues are able to rally people afraid of the progress and liberation of the modern world and are able to usurp power with the rhetoric of scapegoat and security. The descent into barbarism is a parenthesis in history, an interruption in the inevitable forward progress of history in which reason, science and technology will bring in a more just and equitable society.

Del Noce who was a young man when Mussolini came to power and who briefly embraced Marxism but was ultimately unable to reconcile himself to revolutionary violence. Del Noce came to believe that the rise of totalitarianism was not a parenthesis in the march of modernity but that totalitarianism is quintessentially modern. He came to believe that what makes the modern age modern is atheism. Del Noce’s study of the early philosophical writing of Karl Marx convinced him that atheism is foundational for Marxism. In order for man to be free he must be liberated from all dependencies. The greatest of all dependencies is the dependency on God. God must not exist or else man cannot be free. Marx insists that we make ourselves by our own labor or engagement with the world. This absolutely autonomous self is the idol of the modern world and millions have been slaughtered on its altar.

This radical atheism of Marx has profoundly influenced the intellectual culture on both sides of the Atlantic in the Twentieth Century. It is a radical atheism because it is not only faith in God that is attacked but the reality of any transcendent point of reference for humanity. One of the consequences is a change in the nature of philosophy. Philosophy ceases to be a search for the truth and becomes merely instrumental. The question is no longer is it true but does it advance the cause of the revolution, or progress or sexual liberation or whatever the cause may. The worth of ideas is judged by who proposes them and not by any inherent quality. Philosophy is collapsed into politics and politics is collapsed into war. The war can be cold or hot but all that is left is raw power when any sense of universals or moral absolutes is gone.

Del Noce predicted the collapse of Soviet Communism. He thought there were two elements in Marxism, the destructive atheism and relativism, and the romantic, revolutionary impulse which functioned like an atheistic religion. He thought it inevitable that the relativism would consume the romantic, revolutionary and religious side of Marxism and history has born him out. Del Noce said that Marxism failed in the East because it won in the West. But what comes as the result of the triumph of the negative pole of Marxism is not the revolution but the nihilism of the technocratic society. Rather than overturning the bourgeoisie, the atheistic and relativistic side of Marxism has produced a hyper bourgeois society in which any transcendent restraints on capitalism have been rendered impotent. People are controlled by a new totalitarianism that oppresses chiefly by restricting and managing desire. The desire for the transcendent must be anesthetized at all costs.

In the same way the hyper individualism that comes with the radical atheism and the loss of the transcendent must, because of the logic of ideas, lead not to greater and greater individual freedom but to a new kind of totalitarianism where dissenters to the anti-religious and anti-metaphysical mode of the technocratic society will be exiled to “moral concentration camps.” Modernism is not the tide of history running against totalitarianism but the tide running toward it. But also Del Noce said it does not have to be so and religious and metaphysical reality can be rediscovered and indeed cannot be forever suppressed.

Carlo Lancellotti, the translator of Del Noce can explain his work far better than I can. I recommend this YouTube video from Notre Dame and this video from Biola. I think the implications of Del Noce’s work for Christian mission are significant. Among other things opening the religious and metaphysical dimension through beauty and art and serious philosophical discussion become important for reawakening the deepest desires of the human heart so that contemporary people can recover their hunger for the true, the good and the beautiful and the hunger for God.

Burial Homily for Gay Hadden Watson.

Below is the homily I preached at the funeral of the widow of the priest that sponsored me for ordination.

Burial Homily for Gay Hadden Watson

St. John’s Episcopal Church, Bangor, Maine, July 25, 2015

By The Rev. Dr. Leander S. Harding

Jesus says a remarkable thing to his disciples. (John 14:12). He says to them, greater things than I have done you shall do. He has healed the sick. He has fed the multitudes in the desert. He has driven out the evil spirit and set the captives free. He has raised the dead.

Yet he says to his disciples – greater things than I have done you shall do. And this prophecy has come true. Think of the millions that have been helped through the ministry of Christian hospitals. People forget that hospitals are a Christian invention. Millions also have been helped and healed by the ministry of Christian prayer often working hand in glove with the practitioners of the healing arts. Think of the millions of poor that have been fed and people of all sorts who have been liberated from addictions and depression and other oppressions of the spirit. Think of the worldwide effort to eliminate slavery – heroically led by Christian disciples such as William Wilberforce and John Newton – the author of the hymn Amazing Grace. Literally millions upon millions of captives have been set free.

The lame walk and the blind see not only literally but figuratively. People who have been limping through life – they find Christ or better Christ finds them – the church enfolds them – embraces them – they become part of the community of the Holy Spirit – of Christ’s body the church where the lifeblood of his sacrificial love comes through the whole body –and people who have been limping through life begin to walk and run. The prophet Isaiah says that they who wait upon the Lord will rise up as on eagle wings. They shall walk and not tire. They shall run and not faint. People who have been blind to the reality of God – to the significance of eternal and holy things – now see a whole dimension to life they could not see before. Their eyes are opened to see who God is, who Jesus is and to recognize the Lord in the stranger at the door.

And the dead are raised by the millions, as people who are dead in their sins without the knowledge of God and without hope for this life or the life of the world to come discover new real and abundant life – a new life with God and with their neighbors that begins now and which the grave cannot hold.

We are here today to give thanks for the life of Gay Watson and to renew our hope in Jesus Christ the Lord and our faith in the resurrection of the dead in the life of the world to come.

One of the things that we can give thanks for is that Gay completely identified herself with this great work of Christ that he does through his disciples.

Given her family background and the schooling and the social circles with which she was well acquainted, Gay could have married someone with tremendous prospects by the world’s standards. She fell in love with and married a seminarian soon to be a mission priest and spent the best part of her life supporting his ministry and making a home for her husband and sons – a home with enough love and welcome to extend to include the people in the parishes they served. Many, many people were blessed by that warmth and welcome and genuine Christian hospitality and I am one. I shall always be grateful for it and for the many kindnesses that Father Watson and Gay showed to me.

I run into a lot of people who been very successful and around midlife they are looking for a change. They are looking now for significance rather than success. I think Gay chose significance right from the start. She knew she was choosing a sacrificial life. She had clergy in her family. One of her relatives was a Bishop. She knew it would be a life of real sacrifice. There was of course financial sacrifice. Clergy salaries are a bit better now – though still modest by worldly standards.

I remember being in Aroostook County with Father Watson and going to hear a talk on eligibility for food stamps with a view to helping our parishioners and realizing that we were probably qualified.

There are other sacrifices the rectory family makes. If you live in a rectory you have 100 landlords – some of whom think it is their personal mission to keep an eye on the rectory family. You live in a fishbowl. While the parish can be a wonderful support and web of Christian friends for the rectory family – nevertheless, original sin strikes everywhere – and the rectory family can be the victim of great unkindness and of an unfair judgmentalism. It is part of the cost of the ministry. Nobody I think would volunteer for this scrutiny. Some flee from it – unwilling to stick it out and take the good with the bad and soldier on and do their duty. Gay stayed the course.

Some of the sacrifices that the clergy make are quite visible. Some are invisible. The same is true – especially true for rectory families. There are many invisible sacrifices the rectory family makes that make the ministry go and today is a good day to feel the weight of those sacrifices and to give thanks for them – to ask the good Lord for forgiveness and healing for what has been endured that should not have had to be endured and to look at the fruit of that sacrifice.

To be part of what Christ is doing – the greater things that he is doing through his disciples – is to make an investment of Christian love in others not knowing the fruit – not knowing the ultimate significance.

Monica was a widow, and strong Christian. Her son was not. He was a brilliant academic with a playboy lifestyle. She prayed for him every day. She showered him with motherly affection. She prayed for decades. He became St. Augustine, perhaps the greatest Christian thinker of all times.

To be a Christian and to practice the Christian faith and live the Christian faith is to be involved in a ripple effect and you don’t know where the ripples will end. We do know this – St. Paul in the course of talking about the resurrection says – that nothing done in the name of Christ is ever done in vain. We will not know until we get to heaven the full effect of our efforts that look so small and seem so defeated in this life. Our sacrifices are not in vain. God uses them in his plan to accomplish more than we can ask or imagine.

I don’t like it when preachers talk about themselves but I am going to talk about myself for a moment as a way of talking about the impact of the witness of Gay and Father Watson.

It was through Gay that my wife and I were introduced to Father Watson. I had a lot of trouble getting ordained. I was stopped one time. Another time a rector forgot to turn in my paperwork. I had a seminary degree but no strong advocate for my ordination. During the summer after I graduated from seminary my wife and I were shearing sheep in Nova Scotia. We sheared sheep for a woman named Ann Priest. She was a well-known New York actress who owned Blue Island in Nova Scotia. We went out to Blue Island and sheared her wild island sheep. With the door to ordination closed, my wife and I had decided to go back to farming and had bought a farm in Presque Isle, Maine. When Ann Priest asked us what we were going to do after the summer shearing, we said we were going to Presque Isle. Oh, she said. The wife of the rector there was my roommate in prep school. I will give you an introduction.

Ann and Gay talked. Gay and Father talked and before I ever arrived in Presque Isle Father Watson had talked the Bishop of Maine into not closing St. Anne’s mission in Mars Hill because he had the vision to place me there. So let me give you a progress report on one life that was touched by the warmth of the rectory in Presque Isle.

I am now 34 years ordained. I have served 8 churches including a cathedral. I have preached well over 1000 sermons – celebrated the Eucharist more times than that – presided over countless baptisms marriages and funerals. I have obtained a PhD in pastoral theology from Boston College. I have authored four books. I have been a seminary professor with direct teaching of over 500 students. Several of my students are now bishops in Africa. One of my students has started a seminary in Brazil and another teaches at a seminary in Africa. One of my students is leading the renewal and turnaround of a major historic New York City parish. Many of the students that I taught are serving the kinds of places the Watsons served their whole life, places clergy are not standing in line to serve. Who can know where it will end? None of it would’ve happened without Father Watson. Father Watson would not have happened without Gay Watson. And this is just one life they touched. There are many more. Gay’s life was in many ways humble and quiet but it was a life of great significance.

We give thanks to God for all of it.

We did not pretend that Gay was a perfect person. One of the great consolations of the faith is that our hope ultimately does not rest on our accomplishments or our virtues.

Our hope is in the mercy and love of God made known to us in Jesus Christ the Lord. We cling to that and rest our hope in Him and we commend our sister to that never failing love and mercy, knowing that he will bring to perfection the good work begun in her. Amen