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August 31, 2006

Pope may ditch evolution

Kevin Drum spots a bit of bad news out of Vatican City:

Philosophers, scientists and other intellectuals close to Pope Benedict will gather at his summer palace outside Rome this week for intensive discussions that could herald a fundamental shift in the Vatican's view of evolution.

There have been growing signs the Pope is considering aligning his church more closely with the theory of "intelligent design" taught in some US states. Advocates of the theory argue that some features of the universe and nature are so complex that they must have been designed by a higher intelligence. Critics say it is a disguise for creationism.

A prominent anti-evolutionist and Roman Catholic scientist, Dominique Tassot, told the US National Catholic Reporter that this week's meeting was "to give a broader extension to the debate. Even if [the Pope] knows where he wants to go, and I believe he does, it will take time. Most Catholic intellectuals today are convinced that evolution is obviously true because most scientists say so." [Guardian]

Maybe he'll re-condemn Galileo next.


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The historical relation between embracing/attacking science and the Protestant/Catholic split is fascinating. The scientific revolution was helped immeasurably by the fact that the new science simultaneously attacked Aristotle's view (and therefore Papal infallibility) and the idea that knowledge was accessible to anyone and did not require a heirarchical organizational structure (if it was true for natural facts, it might also be true for theological ones -- a major split between Catholics and Protestants).

But what is interesting is that it is in the parts of the US, where the Portestants have the sort power once held on the Continent by the Church, that you see the strongest anti-evolutionary movements.

At the same time, the evangelicals have been clobbering the Catholics in their traditional strongholds in the developing world and it seems like the new Pope came in with the desire to stop the hemmoraging by reshaping Church doctrine to look more like the more fundamentalist Protestant doctrines, including the scientific ones.

I'd be very surprised if the Pope ditched evolution.

In 1996, in what was seen as a capitulation to scientific orthodoxy, John Paul II said Darwin's theories were "more than a hypothesis".

There is not necessarily any inconsistency between this and Intelligent Design. It's not uncommon for those who believe God created things to believe that he tweaked/directed some evolutionary process, perhaps by interceding in subtle ways when needed to arrive at a result proper to his plans.

I don't see any reason someone who believes God created the world shouldn't also believe that there could be signs of this in the scientific facts. It's the most logical view. If God did anything more than just wind the world up like a clock at the Big Bang and leave, there ought to be traces of those other actions, in the form of unexplained discontinuities in the scientific story, possibly some of them showing some kind of intentionality. And even if God did stop creating after the Big Bang, there could conceivably be some evidence of intention in the original set-up. I don't see the evidence of such things myself (might be happier if I did), but it's a reasonable expectation for those who believe God created things.

It may be this kind of thing that the Vatican addresses, along with its implications for the meaning/purpose of creation and such. Whether such ideas should be presented in science classes is a further question, one the Vatican would be wise to leave alone, as there is already a scientific process in place to decide that. We'll see.

the theory of "intelligent design" taught in some US states.

Which states? Are there states teaching this (i.e. statewide)? Last I heard there were a couple school districts required to include it, but I haven't been keeping close track of it.

it seems like the new Pope came in with the desire to stop the hemmoraging by reshaping Church doctrine to look more like the more fundamentalist Protestant doctrines, including the scientific ones.

I doubt this is the reason. This isn't a burning issue in the conversions to Protestantism, for one thing.

Yes, there's nothing that would help the Catholics keep 'em Catholic in South America like embracing intelligent design! That has got to be one of the most idiotic hypotheses forwarded on the comment space of this blog.

The Church has always been, and will always be, committed to intelligent design in the weak sense that the emergence of rational beings was not accidental, but purposive; and for it to be purposive requires some sense in which the processes that brought about human beings would have to be foreseen to have that result and to exist because they would bring about that result. As Sanpete rightly says, that's perfectly compatible with evolution.

G.W. is proof against :intelligent design!"

This pope is a political cat, and he's already found ways to stoke the old anti-gay, anti-women attitudes that the right wingers love. And to assert his authority on those issues wherever he can.

Some of his Cardinals, although theologically conservative, have been honest enough to see so-called "intelligent design" as the shoddy fundamentalist-creationist bait-and-switch tactic that it is.

(Following Samuel Beckett, why not argue the equally plausible "malevolent design" position if you're going to get all purposive in your faux-scientific language? Anyway that's a bit of an aside here....)

Back to my point, a little patent intellectual dishonesty may be hard for some of the old-line rigorous Jesuitical Cardinals to swallow, but Papa Pope is enough of a Rovian to ride a horse for its useful effects politically, whatever its inherent contradictions.

I don't think that there will be a "fundamental shift in the Vatican's view of evolution". In my opinion, Tassot wants to create some public interest and support for his strange scientific views (the Sept. 1-3 meeting in Castelgandolfo is a meeting with the Pope's former doctoral students). He believes that recent experiments by Guy Berthault, a French colleague, on sedimentation support a quasi-literal interpretation of Genesis regarding the physical age of the earth. For a detailed interview with Tassot, see here.

Tassot is the director of Centre d’Etude et de Prospectives sur la Science ("Center for Studies and Prospectives on Science" or CEP), a group of 700 European Catholic scientists and intellectuals based in France. But AFAIK there are not very influential in the Catholic world. Really "big players" like the Jesuits strongly represent "theistic evolution" and are very angry at junk science like Berthault's sedimentation experiments or "intelligent design".

See for example the following statements in response to the "Finding Design in Nature" article by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn in 2005.

Text of talk by Vatican Observatory director on "Science Does Not Need God. Or Does It? A Catholic Scientist Looks at Evolution"

Interview with Professor Nicola Cabibbo, president for 12 years of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences

Peter Schuster, president of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, will also speak at the upcoming meeting with the pope. Schuster, a microbiologist, regards the evidence for evolution as beyond dispute. Tassot will not be at the meeting. For an interview with Schuster, see here.

I am looking forward to the day when it is beyond evident to all people of faith that setting up disputes between religion and science will always, in the end, make religion look bad. No truly religious person in their right mind wants to be in the same arena battling out scientists as long as evidence is the standard for scientific inquiry. Eventually, those scientists are going to take off their gloves and start pointing out that it is silly to attack the deficiencies of evidence in science when religion provides no evidence at all for any of its claims.

And Steve G., if the Pope thinks that dumbing down the Church is an effective way to keep Latin Americans in the fold then he's really stupid. JPII all but destroyed the Latin American church by caring more about European communism than Latin American justice. The blowback has been enduring and painful and won't be stanched by showing solidarity with scientific error.

Aren't the Jesuits an enemy of Benedict in intra-Church politics? Or did the enmity end when he and his boss appointed their own head of the order as a way of suppressing liberation theology?

If this guy Dominique Tassot buys the sedimentation BS from Guy Berthault, he's nuts. If the pope buys it, he'll be as crazy as he is homely. So Berthault finds a few cases where sediments reflect differential settling of suspended material rather than strictly chronological bedding. So what? Exceptions prove the rule. This is a misunderstanding of undergrad geology 101 and nothing more.
As soon as the oil companies, whose profits so far have accrued nicely based on the findings of non-creationist geologists, start hiring creationist/catastrophist rock docs cast in the Berthault mold, I’ll believe the fundies. I’m not holding my breath though.

The church does have a problem if they want to ascribe creation of living things to a divine force and somehow reconcile that idea with evolution as it is now understood by science. Doesn’t matter if God creates the whole shebang de novo, or just tweaks it ever so gently now and then, science rules out teleological origins completely. The church and evolutionary biology are at loggerheads as much or more than they have ever been.

Homely? Cfrost, I've got to say, the Pope is pretty hot for a guy his age. Heck, for any age. Ratz is like, a 7 to Wesley Clark's 10 in their age division.

It's just that, unlike Wes Clark, Ratz is not very bright, which totally ruins the hotness quotient. To make matters worse, certain celibate lunatics who don't get out very much have told him he's some sort of genius.

It's sort of like Atlas Pam for those of you who prefer females. Objectively, s/he's pretty hot (minus the makeup and weird costumes), but as soon as the talking starts... Sigh.

"Ratz is like, a 7 to Wesley Clark's 10 in their age division." !!!???!!!
Well, I guess there's still hope. You just made a gargoyle's day.

As for Atlas Pam, Yeah, she's a looker and I, for one, really like the New York J.A.P. accent, but jeesh, you'd think at least some of the prettiness would soak through into her skull.

science rules out teleological origins completely

I'm not sure what this means. If a scientist wants to give an explanation of the existence of pottery shards arranged a certain way in an archaeological site, she will of course refer to the purposive activities of the people who left them there, and quite possibly to the purposes themselves as explanatory. Equally obviously, if it happened to be true that God or even some kid playing a cosmic version of the Sims (i.e. if we're part of a simulation) played a causal role in making the world the way it is, that fact would have to form a part of any full scientific explanation.

Lindsay, Ratz is pretty smart. The people who rise in hierarchies like the Catholic Church, the Soviet Communist Party, the military, etc., are always smart; they just suffer from advanced bounded rationality.

Ratz is smart in the way Donald Rumsfeld is smart--he's a cunning political operator who knows how to operate within a bureaucracy. That's one kind of intelligence, to be sure. However, he's not nearly as good a moral philosopher as he thinks he is, even within the highly circumscribed bounds of Catholic theology/ethics.

Sampete, you're just shoving the problem up one level. Where did God or the kid come from? As it happens, we have a very, very, very good scientific theory to explain the origin and history of the biosphere. Where's the theory to explain the origin of God or the cosmic Sims-player? They would actually be far more difficult explain. To put it another wam you're simply indulging in petitio principi by toying with the idea of "explaining" organized complexity on earth by... simply postulating the existence organized complexity on a far grander scale. I'm afraid that's just not on.

By any normal scientific standard, (and understanding that science ultimately deals in probabilities not certainties), that means it would be insane to take the alternative God- or Sims-player "theories" seriously. And that's what's meant by ruling out something in science. Ergo, the statement you objected to is entirely correct. I'm terribly upset that this conflicts with many people's emotionally-charged beliefs... not.

Steve, you're taking what I said as support for a particular theory, which it wasn't. I don't believe in God, don't believe in a cosmic Sims player. I think both are possible, though. I was simply pointing out how such ideas can fit into science as explanatory, if they happen to be explanatory. Many scientists (who are generally very poor philosophers) deny that God or purpose can be part of any scientific explanation of the origin of life, in principle.

If the comment that science rules out teleological explanations "completely" only means that in the context of the origin of life current scientific theory doesn't include such explanations, that may be true. That doesn't mean such explanations are ruled out in principle, which would be a natural way to understand the comment.

The point you raise about the regress of explanation seems to apply equally well to the scientific theories we now have. Why were the conditions of the Big Bang the way they were? There has long been theorizing among philosophers about a self-existent, self-explanatory or necessary ultimate reality that would respond to this point, but I don't personally find such reasoning compelling.

I'm sorry if my lack of belief in God robs you of the glee you seem to feel at the prospect of upsetting me on that score.

In other news, evolved humans have decided to ditch the Pope, leaving their very similar-looking but unevolved co-species to make their lives and observations of nature fit into the doctrines the Pope gives them.

Sanpete, I neither knew nor cared about your personal beliefs when I wrote that (the closing remark was addressed to belivers in general).

And no, your Big Bang / infinite regress argument is not valid. In the case of the origin of life we have viable theories (howevef difficult the ultimate confirmation of any one of them may be) of chemical evolution, and there is no danger of an infinite regress. Such is not the case with "theories" of celestial designers- where we are indeed faced with such a regress, for who designed the designer? (As has been known for millenia the rejoinder "he always existed" doesn't cut it, since if you can postulate that you may as well elimiante the middleman ans say the unverise has always existed.) So, my objection to your objection stands. "Design" "theories" of life are ruled out by science, and indeeed that has been the state of play ever since 1859.

Steve, an explanation doesn't have to be ultimate to be explanatory. This is indeed illustrated by current scientific explanations, which do not arrive at ultimate principles that themselves don't call for further explanation. At least that's how it appears to me. Why do you say there's no danger of an infinite regress? Do you think we've arrived at the ultimate explanations that themselves neither have nor call for further explanations? Why couldn't explanations regress infinitely? Not that I've raised that issue--you brought that up.

If it happened that God or some designer created the world, in part by interceding causally at various points of evolution, that intercession would be part of a proper scientific explanation of the evolution of life. The fact that God or whatever would call for further explanation doesn't change that, no more than the fact that "chemical evolution" calls for explanation of the principles underlying chemistry.

Again, I'm talking about principles of explanation. You seem to be talking about actual explanations. That actual explanations don't include design, and therefore strongly suggest that such explanations don't really form part of the true explanation of life, doesn't rule out such explanations in principle.

When I said science rules out teleological origins completely, I meant strictly in the domain of natural selection and speciation. People frequently want to jump from speciation and its causes to the big bang, stellar, and chemical evolution and such grander items when they have nothing to do with each other, at least in the mechanistic sense that science attempts to address. If, for instance, you are trying to determine the evolutionary origins of the diversity of anolid lizards around the Caribbean, your most parsimonious explanations are almost (like almost 100 percent likelihood) certainly going to involve natural selection and not (like asymptoting with zero percent likelihood) teleological intervention. Which latter, in any case, would be so difficult to prove that it’s not worth anyone’s time or money investigating. You’re just asking about where the lizards come from, nothing more. And in that narrow sense, i.e. speciation, there is no evidence whatsoever, so far anyway, that teleological intervention of even the subtlest kind has ever existed.

Which brings up scientist’s competence at philosophy. It’s not in the job description. Scientists are no better at philosophy than philosophers are at science, or oral surgeons are at architecture and for the same reasons.

Thanks for the explanation, cfrost. My lack of clarity about your comment wasn't related to which areas of science it applied to, but whether "completely" meant "in principle" or something more like "in practice." It appears from your explanation you meant the latter. I (and some adherents of Intelligent Design as well) would agree with what you said about that. (Though rather than saying that there is no evidence whatsoever of design in speciation I would say something like that there is no good evidence, all things considered. Long story, but I think we would mean the same thing.)

My comment about scientists being bad philosophers is no reflection of their intelligence, of course. We all know scientists are smart, especially rocket scientists. And we might wonder whether being a good philosopher is a sign of intelligence or not. My comment was motivated by the fact that scientists often opine rather firmly about what seem to me philosophical issues related to science and Intelligent Design, and don't do it very well. No doubt philosophers would do no better trying to explain what is known about anolid lizard speciation around the Caribbean.

"Though rather than saying that there is no evidence whatsoever of design in speciation I would say something like that there is no good evidence, all things considered."
Notice I said that the likelihood of teleological intervention asymptotes with zero. No one has proved it is zero.

The hope that that will change strikes me as futile, but then hope is what the church is all about.

In science (as opposed to mathematics) nobody ever proves anything is zero. Next time you put a pot of water over the flame on your stove, the probability that it will freeze instead of boiling is very, very, very... minuscule but strictly speaking it is not zero. Any demand for a probability of one or zero in the real world is a straw man.

Regardless, there is no room for teleology in biology. (I'll let the physicists worry about their own bailiwick.)

Since you both seem to catch on what I said about "no good evidence, all things considered," maybe I should explain that I wasn't holding out for some possibility of design, however small, though of course there is some. Rather, the reason I would say it that way is that there is plenty of prima facie evidence for design in speciation (or whatever aspect of biology) to the extent that one can build a theory that is plausible on its own terms (i.e. apart from alternatives) explaining it in that way. That was indeed the kind of theory that most of the world's brightest and best informed naturalists inclined towards for many centuries because it had good claim to be the best explanation available. However, when that kind of explanation is considered in the context of evolutionary theory, which offers different explanations of the same evidence, the teleological view becomes far less compelling. It can't account for the evidence in the same fine-grained ways without becoming arbitrary, it isn't as parsimonious, and so on. So I say that there's no good evidence for the teleological approach, all things considered. (I said it was a long story.)

hope is what the church is all about.

Very true. I'd be reluctant to try to convince my believing friends that they should trade what they have for what I've got in that regard.

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