instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

As a theologian, he's a great astronomer

Fr. George V. Coyne, SJ, Director of the Vatican Observatory, reportedly gave a talk titled "Science Does Not Need God, or Does It? A Catholic Scientist Looks at Evolution" last night at a university in Florida. If that link does indeed "represent[] the essentials" of his presentation (I don't know why it wouldn't be, but I wasn't there), then my reservations regarding him as an authority on the intersection of science and faith are only strengthened.

A post at Cosmos-Liturgy-Sex raises several detailed objections to that text. Let me add two or three others.

After mentioning a few historical incidents showing "the ups and downs of the view ... of the Catholic Church, with respect to Darwinian evolution," Fr. Coyne proceeds:
The most recent episode in the relationship of the Catholic Church to science, a tragic one as I see it, is the affirmation by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn in his article in the New York Times, 7 July 2005, that neo-Darwinian evolution is not compatible with Catholic doctrine and he opts for Intelligent Design.
This is one of those "Only Genuine Pre-War American and British Whiskeys Served Here" statements, remarkable for the number of inaccuracies it contains. I count three.

The first and most forgivable is the assertion that the Cardinal's July 7 op-ed piece is the "most recent episode." Since then, Cardinal Schönborn has begun a series of public lectures on creation and evolution; the third has just been translated into English. In addition, he published a substantial article in last month's First Things, in which he summed up his clarification of his op-ed piece and responded to his critics. Events have moved far past July 7.

As I say, though, this is forgivable. The speech may have been written several months ago and the provided text not revised to account for what has happened since.

What is less forgivable -- not even entirely understandable, to my mind -- are the other two errors. Fr. Coyne claims Cardinal Schönborn made a double affirmation, but he is wrong about both prongs. The Cardinal did not affirm that "that neo-Darwinian evolution is not compatible with Catholic doctrine," nor did he affirm that "he opts for Intelligent Design." That Fr. Coyne would say otherwise, even without the benefit of the Cardinal's subsequent elaborations, suggests that he was reading into the Cardinal's op-ed piece opinions he expected to find, rather than what was actually there.

When Fr. Coyne turns "to interpret the scientific picture of lifeÂ?s origins in terms of religious belief," I think he demonstrates he would be better off sticking to the scientific picture. He writes:
Do we need God to explain this [scientific picture]? Very succinctly my answer is no. In fact, to need God would be a very denial of God. God is not the response to a need... We should not need God; we should accept her/him when he comes to us.
Without further development, this is simply guff. It depends on an equivocation on "need," using it first in a scientific sense of something required to explain something, then in a psychological sense of something stoutly desired.

Even leaving out the scientific part, though, it strikes me as underbaked theology. How do you square, "We should not need God," with the empirically observable fact that we do actually happen to need God? Why the false dilemma between needing God and accepting Him when he comes to us? How does needing God imply God is a need?

Fr. Coyne goes on to write:
If they respect the results of modern science, religious believers must move away from the notion of a dictator God, a Newtonian God who made the universe as a watch that ticks along regularly. Perhaps God should be seen more as a parent or as one who speaks encouraging and sustaining words.
This I would call a straw man argument. "Perhaps God should be smoremroe as a parent" than "a dictator God"? In blog lingo, ya think?
God lets the world be what it will be in its continuous evolution. He does not intervene, but rather allows, participates, loves.
I agree with David that this sort of language suggests "that Fr. Coyne seems to fall into a sort of scientism." He wants religious belief to stop sticking its nose into modern science, yet he insists that modern science -- which operates only by assuming axioms that are not true -- gives a true picture of God. The argument looks like this:
  1. Modern science assumes God does not intervene.
  2. Modern science does not observe God intervening.
  3. Therefore, God does not intervene.
Even setting aside the tendentiousness of implying that "God intervenes" makes any theological sense, the argument is question-begging as structured.

There is a sort of milquetoast theology in claiming that God deals with the universe like a parent allowing a child to grow up, but to properly engage it (which I suspect would involve shredding it, with all parties involved agreeing not to mention it ever again) it would need to be disentangled from the scientism which, in Fr. Coyne's case at least, gave it birth.