Thursday, August 24, 2006

thoughts on cosmology and evolution from the former head of the vatican observatory

A bit off the beaten path of my usual topics, here is an article by the (former) director of the Vatican observatory trying to reconcile his belief in scientific cosmology and evolution with his religious faith. I write "former" in the preceding sentence because as of this week, he was replaced (supposedly) in part because his views are inconsistent with Church doctrine. In affirming that the scientific worldview is not inconsistent with creationism, Father Coyne acknowledges that he is forced to reinterpret the whole concept of a “designer G-d” that Genesis suggests – even though the scholastic philosophers did adopt such a view, he finds support for his approach in earlier Church writings like Augustine. The money quote – “But, if we confront what we know of our origins scientifically with religious faith in God the Creator – if, that is, we take the results of modern science seriously – it is difficult to believe that God is omnipotent and omniscient in the sense of many of the scholastic philosophers. For the believer, science tells us of a God who must be very different from God as seen by them.” He further writes, "If they respect the results of modern science and, indeed, the best of modern biblical research, religious believers must move away from the notion of a dictator God or a designer God, a Newtonian God who made the universe as a watch that ticks along regularly."
I am not going to enter the debate which is ongoing in the our Jewish world on these same issues other than to say that I think much of the reluctance to accept scientific theories that reread ma'aseh Braishis is rooted in the clash Father Coyne notes between the scientific approach and the concept of G-d as omniscient and omnipotent. Father Coyne is honest enough to admit that acceptance of "modern science... and biblical research" forces a philosophical reassessment and is not simply a matter of how to read Genesis; I think many Jewish supporters of evolution or intelligent design are not sufficiently attuned to the philosophical consequences of the theories they choose to embrace.


  1. even though the [achronim] scholastic philosophers did adopt such a view, he finds support for his approach in [obscure rishonim] earlier Church writings like Augustine
    I would remove the compariosn between the great Gedolim of previous generations and church leaders. It is inappropriate and you can make your point without the snide brackets.

  2. jeffrey smith5:30 PM

    And I think Coyne is wrong to say there's contradiction between the traditional view of the All-Knowing Almighty, and modern science. The traditional view of Divine Providence forms the basis of the idea of guided evolution. And while most people think of the concept of evolution as involving random mutations--that is, unguided--that is really just inserting atheistic bias into the concept. A proper scientific theory of evolution can safely acknowledge that the apparently random mutations are really guided by Divine Providence. Coyne, in other words, if presenting a false choice.

    If you want to provide a meatier challenge to the traditional idea of Omnipotent Omniscient, then you need only revert to the problem of how those two attributes can be combined with that of Omnibenevolence and the existence of evil, and join a discussion that's being going on since the scholastics/acharonim at least.

  3. Rachack,
    You miss the point if you think I am comparing gedolim to church leaders, but in deference to your critique, I removed my bracketed comments.

  4. Jeffrey,
    A basic of science is that theories must be parsimonious - ockham's razor. There is no atheistic bias here. If science can account for the entire creation process without postulating the existance of a Divine creator guiding things behind the scenes, then why, from a scientitic standpoint, should you introduce an innecessary variable into the equation? If anything, your desire to do so reveals a religious bias - you have introduced evidence with no supporting facts other than your belief. That is hardly consistant with a scientific outlook.

  5. jeffrey smith9:19 PM

    Science says that mutations are the mechanism of evolution. To say they are random is as much an "extra" as to say G-d guides them. To assert the randomness of mutations is simply to assert that one's materialistic worldview does not allow one to consider anything in the way of guidance. To assert that Divine Providence guides the mutations is to assert that one's spiritual worldview does not allow one to consider anything in the way of randomness. My way reveals a religious viewpoint (I would object to it being called a bias); the other way (randomness) reveals an atheistic viewpoint (or, if you think bias is appropriate in the one case,then it should be also be called bias). The science behind evolution is actually neutral; we are simply so used to the usual materialist-based presentation that we assume it is part of the philosophy of science. But it is not. In fact, to make that assumption is really to fall for one of the prime atheistic gambits--that since one can construct a fully logical worldview based on the premises of materialism, bringing G-d into the equation violates Occam's razor. But in fact, it does not.

    (And I won't go into the argument that utilizing random mutation alone calls for more violations of Occam's razor than would fill a philosophical barbershop.)

  6. >>>To assert the randomness of mutations is simply to assert that one's materialistic worldview does not allow one to consider anything in the way of guidance.

    Randomness is the absence of proof that there exists any controlling force. Science says without empirical proof, there is no grounds for belief. Where is the empirical proof to this Divine guidence thing?
    Deny the need for empirical evidence and you have thrown the foundations of science out the window.

  7. I understood your point, I was just saying you didn't the comparisons to make your point.