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Pope Benedict on Intelligent Design and the Dangers of Darwinian Materialism

Source: Bruce Chapman via evolutionnews.org
Reprinted with permission

Recalling the legacy of Pope Benedict XVI, I will always appreciate the fact that he recognized the dangers of Darwinian materialism, perhaps most strikingly in the homily he delivered at his installation in 2005. “We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution,” he said on that occasion. “Each of us is the result of a thought of God.” But Benedict spoke clearly on the subject on other occasions as well. Almost lost by the mainstream media were two statements about intelligent design, in contrast to Darwinian evolution. First was a 2006 homily in Regensburg that was eclipsed in the news by his other, more famous address there that mentioned Islam. The second statement was made later that year in Verona, as covered by the Vatican Information Service (VIS). 

A Meaningful World

As someone familiar with the 2006 book A Meaningful World, by Discovery Institute Senior Fellows Benjamin Wiker and Jonathan Witt, I was amazed at the time by how closely Pope Benedict’s statements about science and rationality resembled the arguments offered by Dr. Wiker and Dr. Witt. The Pope’s address to the Italian Ecclesial Congress sounds like it came right out of Chapter 4, “The Geometry of Genius.” Here is an excerpt from Benedict (translated from the Italian by VIS):

“At the roots of being a Christian, there is no ethical decision or lofty idea, … but a meeting with the person of Jesus Christ,” said Benedict XVI. “The fruitfulness of this meeting is apparent … also in today’s human and cultural context,” he added, using the example of mathematics, a human creation in which the “correlation between its structures and the structures of the universe … excites our admiration and poses a great question. It implies that the universe itself is structured in an intelligent fashion, in such a way that there exists a profound correspondence between our subjective reason and the objective reason of nature. It is, then, inevitable that we should ask ourselves if there is not a single original intelligence that is the common source of both the one and the other….This overturns the tendency to grant primacy to the irrational, chance and necessity.”

And here are Wiker and Witt, A Meaningful World, p. 103:

For scientists, the greatest and most peculiar intellectual exhilaration occurs when they find that the order of mathematics illuminates the order of reality. This is not a passionless, accountant-like correspondence of lines and legers, but a participation in an ethereal union of beauty and truth, the beauty and truth of the mathematical order matching some aspect of the natural order. It is interesting that, as biologists (following Darwin) have become more reductionist in regard to beauty, physicists had come to a new appreciation of the centrality of beauty in regard to the relationship of mathematical equations to reality.

From A Meaningful World, pp. 99-100:

We have spent some time focusing on beauty because our appreciation of mathematical beauty extends to the most abstract intellectual realms, including those inhabited by theoretical physicists. We may now ask a crucial but frequently overlooked question: What right have we to expect that our human capacity for mathematical abstraction and our human appreciation of elegance would yield any knowledge of nature? If, after all, the universe itself were randomly produced and did not have us in mind, and if our own reasoning capacities and love of beauty were likewise randomly produced, could we reasonably expect mathematics to be an effective tool for us in ‘working out the meaning of the data’?

And finally, p. 109:

As we have argued, if the order of nature preexists our attempts to grasp it, and consequently, if the strange effectiveness of mathematics depends upon the preexistent order of nature to be effective, then nature is intelligibly and ingeniously ordered. Exemplifying both surprising depth and a stunning harmony and elegance, such ingenious design necessarily implies a designing genius.

Resisting the Idol of Mathematics

What makes this even more interesting is that both Benedict (in his famous Regensburg address) and Wiker and Witt warn against making an “idol” of mathematics — i.e., we must not confuse the wonderful effectiveness of mathematics in helping us discern the order of nature, with reality itself. Neither reason nor reality is reducible to mere mathematics; they are both supra-mathematical. Hence, Benedict argued that we need to have a “broadening [of] our concept of reason.” According to Wiker and Witt in A Meaningful World, pp. 106-107, idolizing mathematics ends up in assuming that

the only meaningful language is mathematics; and since our everyday language and experience are not governed by mathematics, then our everyday language and experience are not meaningfully related to reality. As a consequence, deep reflections based on our everyday language and experience are taken to be groundless.

The world of mathematics is a world of abstraction, a step away from reality, not reality itself. It is through mathematics, not in mathematics, that scientists find meaning in the data. The data are about reality, about the order of beings in nature. That is why reality always determines whether any particular mathematical formulation is applicable and effective.

The Unity of Reason

Finally, both the Pope and A Meaningful World argue for the unity of reason and insist that both nature and human culture point beyond mere matter to a creative reason as the source of nature’s order. The entire book, A Meaningful World, is given over to making that argument. The Pope makes the point more briefly and draws theological implications

On these premises, it again becomes possible to broaden the horizon of our rationality, open it to the great questions of truth and goodness, and unite theology, philosophy, and science, … respecting their reciprocal autonomy but also aware of the intrinsic unity that holds them together.

And here:

We believe in God. This is a fundamental decision on our part. But is such a thing still possible today? Is it reasonable? From the Enlightenment on, science, at least in part, has applied itself to seeking an explanation of the world in which God would be unnecessary. And if this were so, he would also become unnecessary in our lives. But whenever the attempt seemed to be nearing success — inevitably it would become clear: something is missing from the equation! When God is subtracted, something doesn’t add up for man, the world, the whole vast universe. So we end up with two alternatives. What came first? Creative Reason, the Spirit who makes all things and gives them growth, or Unreason, which, lacking any meaning, yet somehow brings forth a mathematically ordered cosmos, as well as man and his reason. The latter, however, would then be nothing more than a chance result of evolution and thus, in the end, equally meaningless. As Christians, we say: I believe in God the Father, the Creator of heaven and earth — I believe in the Creator Spirit. We believe that at the beginning of everything is the eternal Word, with Reason and not Unreason. With this faith we have no reason to hide, no fear of ending up in a dead end. We rejoice that we can know God! And we try to let others see the reasonableness of our faith, as Saint Peter bids us do in his First Letter (cf. 3:15)!

Ideas and Their Consequences 

Why were the media so reluctant to pick up on Pope Benedict’s exciting statements? I don’t know and won’t speculate. However, I do know that unlike Darwinists such as Richard Dawkins, who makes an impassioned case against God, most of the media want to pretend that Darwinism is theology-neutral. It’s not. It has implications. Wiker and Witt don’t make a religious case, but they do show that design is intricately linked with the truly intricate, irreducibly complex fine-tuning of the cosmos, of life on earth, and of the very elements that make life possible. And they find a compelling link between the nature of genius in human beings and genius in the universe. The Pope seemed to be thinking along the same lines. He will be missed. 

This article is adapted from earlier comments by Mr. Chapman.

Bruce Chapman

Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State’s Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.

Header image: Mazur/thepapalvisit.org.uk via flickr.com