Is the Vatican’s Astronomer a Deist?
Jesuit George Coyne dogmatizes Darwinism while questioning the existence of the omnipotent, omniscient God of the “scholastic philosophers.”
Last year, Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna published an article in the New York Times, taking issue with neoDarwinism. “Scientific theories that try to explain away the appearance of design as the result of ‘chance and necessity’ are not science at all, but as [Pope] John Paul put it, an abdication of human intelligence,” he wrote. Last November, Pope Benedict referred to the universe as a “progetto intelligente,” translated as “intelligent design” on the Vatican’s website.
The Magisterium of Modern Science has been displeased by this Vatican backsliding. It was as recently as 1997, after all, that John Paul II called evolution “more than a hypothesis,” (as translated by L’Osservatore Romano). Anyway, a response to the Vatican was called for, and the Rev. George V. Coyne, S.J., has taken up the task. In the past year, his criticisms of Cardinal Schonborn have been a feature of the lecture circuit.
Coyne’s claim to fame is that he is the director of the [Editor: now former director] Vatican Observatory, a position he has held since 1978. In addition to his Vatican duties, he spends several months a year as an adjunct professor at the University of Arizona in Tucson. His research interests have concentrated on the polarization of light, studies of the interstellar medium, and stars with extended atmospheres. Born in January, 1933, he has been a Jesuit since he was 18. He obtained his licentiate in philosophy at Fordham in 1958 and his doctorate in astronomy at Georgetown University in 1962.
Coyne launched his initial attack on Schonborn in the British Catholic weekly The Tablet, last August. At the outset, Coyne sought to reposition the conflict on the more comfortable terrain of “the divisions between the Church and science.” For those who didn’t get the allusion, he mentioned “the treatment of Galileo,” over which “disquiet still rumbles.” Now, said Coyne, with Schonborn’s intrusion, those “murky waters” have once again been darkened. A “high profile and influential figure in the Church,” the Cardinal had claimed that “neo-Darwinian evolution is not compatible with the Church’s belief in God’s purpose and design in creation.”
But this was a red herring, an attempt to put churchmen on the defensive by portraying them as the enemies of reason and perhaps incapable of keeping up with the modern world.
Science is “completely neutral with respect to philosophical or theological implications that may be drawn from its conclusions,” said Coyne. That may be true; it all depends on what counts as science. For Coyne, the evolutionism that he defends is not just science but “the best of today’s science.” And Cardinal Schonborn was not just denying it, but doing so “on religious grounds.”
There’s a real question, however, whether the Darwinism Coyne champions, far from being science or the best of science, ever belonged in the science column in the first place. The facts needed to support it have remained elusive for almost 150 years and the mechanism alleged to drive it – natural selection – has been demonstrated only in trivial ways (pertaining to the beak size of finches, for example). Moreover, the philosophy that undergirds it remains hidden – sometimes deliberately or subconsciously concealed (as Darwin admitted).
That is the philosophy of materialism, or naturalism – the belief that atoms and molecules in motion are all that exist. Since life is a reality, atoms must have whirled themselves into bees, beetles, bats and people. Materialists therefore feel confident in claiming that evolution is a “fact.” There is no other way (given their philosophy) that organisms could have materialized.
But Coyne carefully disavows naturalism since he knows that atheism is its necessary corollary. Given his clerical office, that would put him in a difficult spot. So, naturalism is “not true,” he allows. Then he introduces God into his equation, and, yes, “God’s creation.” But let no -ism be added thereto. That has come to mean something “fundamentalistic,” “literal.” Still, the Judaeo-Christian faith is “radically creationist,” he insists – rooted in a belief that “everything depends upon God.” Indeed, the universe “cannot exist independently of God.”
On the other hand, “if we take the results of modern science seriously” (and of course we must) it is difficult to believe that God is either “omnipotent or omniscient.” “Science tells us” (all knees must bend) of a God who is very different from the God of the scholastics. Coyne also urges us to “move away from” the notion of “a dictator God, or a designer God.” So we have a creator and a creation but not a designer (heaven forbid). We don’t want a Newtonian God, either. That would give us a “clockwork universe that ticks along regularly.”
Coyne thinks of God “more as a parent, or as one who speaks encouraging and sustaining words.” He works “with” the universe, which has a “certain vitality of its own.” But it’s not clear that He ever does much of anything. He is not “continually intervening.” (Sometimes, then?) In short, “God lets the world be what it will be in its continuous evolution.”
Coyne’s permissive God was content to create matter in elemental form. Hydrogen atoms, “trillions and trillions of them doing the same thing,” wander “through the universe.” They bump into one another and eventually many of them “combine with oxygen to make water and so on.” And so it goes, until, to cut a long story short, we get “the human brain.” So here we are.
It’s all a very great muddle, I’m afraid – an amiable blur of wishful thinking dressed up in scientific lingo. In spots he begins to sound like a disciple of Teilhard de Chardin, who also devoutly believed in evolution.
My overriding impression is that Coyne wants to have it both ways. He wants an evolutionary process based on “random genetic mutations and natural selection,” for that has been “established” by science and there, if not with cardinals, he submits to authority. He also wants to believe in a God – for he surely doesn’t want to think of his decades in the priesthood as having been based on error.
Not long ago, the Oxford University evolutionist Richard Dawkins was asked how he responded to Christians who argue that “God is the designer of the whole evolutionary system itself.” That I take to be Coyne’s position. Dawkins is a materialist, and yet there is something refreshing about his refusal to mince words or to support the accommodationists, even when they are on his side.
“In the 19th century,” he replied, “people disagreed with the principle of evolution, because it seemed to undermine their faith in God.” Then they, or some of them, decided that evolution was true. “So they found a way to smuggle God back in by suggesting that he set up the conditions in which evolution might take place. I find this a rather pathetic argument,” Dawkins said. Above all, it was superfluous.
“The whole point – the whole beauty of the Darwinian explanation for life – is that it’s self-sufficient. You start with essentially nothing – you start with something very simple – the origin of the Earth,” he said. “And from that … you build up from simple beginnings and simple needs easy to understand, up to complicated endings like ourselves and kangaroos … Nothing extraneous needs to be smuggled in. Smuggling in a God who sets it all up in the first place is simply to smuggle in an entity of the very kind that we are trying to explain.”
In short, since we already have a natural explanation of the design that we see around us, why do we need a supernatural explanation as well?
Dawkins is right, surely. If you accept that random mutation and natural selection are sufficient to account for the design that we see, what need is there for a creator – especially one who declines to interfere with the wandering atoms? Coyne does accept that natural sufficiency, mainly (as far as I can see) in a spirit of deference to Science. If one wishes to take issue with Dawkins, the appropriate place to do so is not in his conclusion about the superfluity of theistic evolution, but earlier, in the assertion that evolution by random events has been established as factual. That, of course, Coyne cannot do without being excommunicated by the great and the good. (One might add that it is not so much God who is permissive as the Church, whose senior prelates he contradicts without fear.)
Coyne deplores the Church’s retreat from “dialogue” on this issue. But he himself seems not much interested in dialogue with the proponents of Intelligent Design. In a subsequent talk at Palm Beach Atlantic University in Florida, he said that “intelligent design isn’t science, even though it pretends to be.” He could make a contribution to dialogue by explaining what is unscientific about its claims.
Rather arrogantly, Coyne said that Cardinal Schonborn was “in error on at least five fundamental issues.” Some I have already touched on. None is an error. One, however, is an error on Coyne’s part. He says that “neo-Darwinian evolution is not, in the words of the cardinal: ‘an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection.”‘ But that is exactly what it is. Coyne wants to introduce into his cosmic picture something novel called “the fertility of the universe.” But that’s just fog. The truth is that neo-Darwinism doesn’t just exclude God, it was intended to do so (as Dawkins nearly reveals in his intriguing slip of the tongue in the quotation above).
As the evolutionist Will Provine has said, Darwinism is the greatest engine of atheism ever devised. Richard Dawkins said much the same thing, and so have other forthright evolutionists. Perhaps the Vatican astronomer should take issue with them as loudly as he does with the Viennese cardinal.
Coyne notes more than once that some scientific claims cause Church officials to “tremble somewhat.” Clearly he likes to champion these claims even if (or perhaps especially when) they “disquiet” believers. He thereby puts himself in opposition to the forces of reaction. That’s understandable, but first, perhaps, he should take greater pains to establish that those claims really are scientific.
This article was originally published on page 34 of the August/September 2006 issue of the THE CATHOLIC WORLD REPORT.
Permission to post this article was received by the Editor of CWR, George Neumayr, on September 9, 2006.