Philosophy and Science in Contemporary Culture


By Josef Seifert

(Full text article from Dr. Seifert can be requested at )

Summarized by Rev. Victor P. Warkulwiz, M.S.S.

In this paper Professor Seifert examines the role of philosophy and science in shaping the image of man and in forming culture in the contemporary world, for the formation of a correct image of man and a respect for human dignity are of crucial importance as we enter the third millennium. Specifically, he concentrates on two opposite images of man derived from philosophy and science. One poses a threat to civilization; the other provides hope.

Professor Seifert observes: “Science and philosophy are not only parts of culture but they also shape decisively most of the other manifold cultural and artistic expressions as well as the ethical standards and laws, along with political actions and systems, of a given civilization” Philosophy and science exercise a vast influence on culture and moral standards. They strongly influence the popularly accepted image of the human person and society’s vision of man’s place in the cosmos. On the one hand, philosophers and scientists have made many contributions to what Pope John Paul II calls the “culture a life,” a culture formed by the Christian faith. On the other hand they have a large share of the responsibility for the ghastly “culture of death” that surrounds us.

Ultimately, the opposition is between a culture in which man is recognized as a human person made in the image and likeness of God and a culture built on an image of man as machine, a mere product of matter and chance.

Professor Seifert begins the development of his theme by discussing the nature of philosophy and science. He makes the Platonic distinction between “authentic and certain knowledge” and “unfounded or insufficiently founded opinion.” Science, in its traditional and broadest sense, is directed towards the former. For Plato, the highest object of all science and knowledge is the supreme and absolute Good, which is the source of all authentic culture. Only knowledge that reaches truth about the good of man and the absolute Good can be, according to Plato, science in the full sense. Today, the term science is applied almost exclusively to natural science. Furthermore, modern science consists of knowledge in the genuine sense along with many theories, paradigms, constructs and philosophical interpretations that are frequently false. It is a mixture of “authentic and certain knowledge” with “unfounded or insufficiently founded opinion.” And there is an increasing subjectivization of certainty in the thought in some modern philosophers of science that is moving toward the ideal of a purely hypothetical science without any certainty. Empiricist philosophy abandons the search for truth and reduces science to opinion and hypotheses subject to falsification. Professor Seifert’s reflections favor a philosophy of science that upholds the high values of truth and certainty, a philosophy that is not a mere handmaid of science but one that orders science and distinguishes between “authentic and certain knowledge” and ‘unfounded or insufficiently founded opinion.”

He goes on to make the distinction between philosophy and science. Philosophy is called to judge pseudo-philosophical theories proposed in the name of science, but the two disciplines are autonomous because they have different objects and employ very different methods. Philosophers study necessary natures, and natural scientists study non-necessary natures. Philosophic methods are unable to investigate such natures as those of animals or chemical elements. Such natures are non-necessary and must be studied using the empirical methods of natural science. Conversely, it would be absurd to study questions of ethics and oughtness by means of empirical studies of human or animal behavior. Scientists cannot solve philosophical problems by observation and experiment. Philosophy studies the intelligible and necessary aspects of reality, which are not susceptible to empirical methods. Natural science studies the sensible and contingent aspects of reality.

In the past some influential philosophers, such as Aristotle, have attempted to solve empirical problems by philosophic methods, thereby closing many minds to experimental sciences. But today philosophers are much less prone to intrude into the sphere of empirical matters than are scientists to pontificate about philosophical questions. Seifert gives a number of examples in which scientists tread on areas proper to philosophy. Konrad Lorenz and Wolfgang Wickler wrongly deduce ethical conclusions from observations of animal behavior. Albert Einstein ventures outside the domain of natural science when he speculates about the essence of time and the relativity of simultaneity. The same is true about the quantum physicist Werner Heisenberg when he makes far-reaching philosophical deductions regarding indeterminacy, freedom, causality and the first principles of being. Jacques Monad in his Chance and Necessity makes outrageous metaphysical claims about chance, necessity and God. And the theory of evolution is, in most of its forms, a philosophical theory for which scientific research provides at most a starting point. False philosophical theses that are blindly held by scientists as if they were empirically demonstrated become the source of many errors.

The mutual autonomy of philosophy and science, however, does not mean that they are completely independent of each other. Scientists presuppose many philosophical categories such as reality, existence, proof, argument, logical laws, matter, space, time, indeterminacy, determinism and finality. Only philosophy can give express answers to philosophical problems concerning truth, the scope and purpose of each science, and the value and limits of scientific knowledge. Seifert states that the work of physicist/historian of science Stanley Jaki shows that only a creationist metaphysics, which sees the origin of nature in a free divine act and therefore recognizes contingency in nature, is able to provide the proper metaphysical basis for the empirical sciences.

The philosopher is called to be a critic of science. But he also profits from science in many ways. Philosophical questions are presented by science to the philosopher. Experience has a different role for philosophy than it does for natural science. It can widen the scope of philosophy and confirm its conclusions. Philosophers can be pleased when the experiments of the scientists corroborate the results of their philosophical studies. But the philosophical method is never the experiment. It is another kind of knowledge. It is insight into the highly intelligible and evident essences and states of affairs; it is knowledge of existing beings in cognition and the knowledge of other persons through empathy; and it is knowledge acquired from deductive demonstrations.

Everything discussed so far was in preparation for the main topic, viz.: “the image of man provided by scientific knowledge in the described sense of science.”

Professor Seifert next discusses the theory of evolution as an example of scientifically inspired “unfounded or insufficiently founded opinion.” He says that the theory of evolution is one of the most widespread and dangerously confused philosophical opinions thought up by scientists. “The evolutionary account of the origin of all living things possibly shaped the image of man on which contemporary culture rests more profoundly than any other scientific or pseudo-scientific theory.” He distinguishes two elements in the theory of evolution. The first concerns the trans-species development of organic beings, which can be confirmed or refuted by observation and experiment. The second concerns the causes and principles that bring about trans-species development of organic beings, wherein lies the philosophical content. In Darwinian evolution, this philosophical content includes the vague concept of chance and the extension of certain natural principles, such as natural selection, into domains where they are not supported by scientific facts.

The author goes on to discuss the ambiguity of the notion of “evolution.” He distinguishes three senses in which the theory of evolution can be understood. The first is “orthodox Darwinism” in which there is no purpose in nature, no personal Creator, and no vital principle that is irreducible to matter. Even though Darwin himself was not an atheist, the theory attached to his name is virtually an atheistic one. Orthodox Darwinism is not a scientific theory but a philosophical one. Therefore, it can be neither proven nor refuted by empirical methods but only by philosophical ones. But these must confront the facts of nature and withstand the “test of reality.” Empirical facts cannot contradict authentic philosophical insights, but they can very easily contradict false philosophical claims.

In the second form of evolution, which is often associated with Teilhard de Chardin, the role of an intelligent Creator-God is not denied. The Creator uses evolutionary techniques that give rise to the hierarchy of living organisms from life-less matter. Although His intervention to produce the first primitive living being is not precluded, it is not seen as necessary. Neither the emergence of life nor that of the human person presupposes any new creative act. There is no essential distinction made between living and lifeless beings and between human beings and subhuman living organisms. Teilhard de Chardin goes so far as to suggest that Christ is the highest product of evolution.

The second form of evolution can possess two features that the first one lacks. It can admit finality in evolution, and it can assume an intelligent cause (even a divine one) of all design in nature. But it retains the evolutionary mechanisms of the first form, such as the principle of natural selection. And, like the first form, it lacks an immaterial principle of life. Therefore, it is essentially a materialistic theory because it views all life as nothing more than an epiphenomenon of matter.

The third form of the theory of evolution is the least reductionist. Within it are a number of degrees of evolutionism. The most extreme version is like the second form in that it allows for life to spring from lifeless matter. But it draws the line at human life. It excludes an evolutionary account of the human soul. Other versions of this third theory of evolution draw even more lines. Seifert sees only the least radical version of the evolutionistic theory admitted as a possibility in the recent Papal speech to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. This version does not claim that life could spring from life-less matter by evolution or that animals come from plants through evolutionary laws or that human minds could evolve from animal life. It only allows for evolutionary processes within the most fundamental living genus (plants or animals) or with respect to certain biological traits of humans. It does not attempt to explain the origin of life or of human personhood and the human soul through evolution. It does not even attempt to explain the origin of animals that way. This version could even further restrict evolutionary processes to within a given kind, group or genus of plants or animals. [This is what some other authors might call “microevolution.” or “variations within a kind.”] Church documents such as Pope Pius XII’s Humani generis and Pope John Paul II’s address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences regard evolution in some version of the third form as possibly compatible with Genesis.

Professor Seifert next turns to St. Augustine’s theory of rationes seminales, which develops the idea of trans-species development of organic beings in a way quite different from Darwin or the Neo-Darwinians. Augustine may have believed in far-reaching cross-species development and so proposed an “evolutionist” theory for the origin of species. But he developed a profound metaphysical theory of the causes of such an evolution that is wholly opposed to the atheistic spirit of Darwinism and Neo-Darwinism. Seifert says that the Church too has to separate the “evolutionary” idea of the transformation of species from the idea that Darwinian principles are sufficient to explain the origin of species.

Augustine employs many different terms when speaking of the so-called rationes seminales. He mentions it in at least seven places in three different works, chiefly in his Genesis ad litteram. It is not easy to discern what he means by rationes seminales, but one meaning seems to imply a sophisticated and profound theory of the origin of new species from existing ones. It is clear that Augustine rejects the first two forms of the theory of evolution described above. But he seems to say that God inserted into matter at creation rationes seminales (seminating/germinating ideas or plans) for different forms to be possibly developed in matter. This seems to leave room for the transformation of one species into another. But Augustine replaces the Darwinian principles of “natural selection” and “survival of the fittest” with a principle similar to Aristotle’s entelechy. That is an inner active principle that contains in potency an elaborate form and potentially dynamically unfolding teleological plan that could originate only in a supreme intellect. Thus not mindless “natural selection” but an ingenious creative plan of God “inserted into matter” is the cause of evolutionary development. Augustine did not believe that all living things could spring from any matter. Rather, he held a more restricted view that allowed for the transformation of species subject to limitation by some nature. Augustine also held that living beings are distinct from non-living beings. In living beings the rationes seminales involve a soul that is not reducible to properties of matter. Finally, Augustine sounds as if he meant that the rationes seminales are not principles immanent in matter, but that they are divine creative ideas that exist in God long before the things exist that correspond to them. This is a sign of the influence of Platonic philosophy on the thinking of Augustine.

Seifert then goes on to give a philosophical critique of the theory of evolution in its first two senses. He shows them to be examples of “unfounded or insufficiently founded opinion” and therefore classes them both as pseudoscience. He says that many arguments can be advanced in favor of rejecting the theory of evolution in the first sense (Darwinism and Neo-Darwinism). Some of them apply to the second form and extreme version of the third form as well because they concern implausibilities common to all three. He says that the first theory is completely absurd because it rejects the role of an intelligent Creator, which is absolutely necessary to explain the origin of species. Its absurdity is so glaring that it doesn’t deserve to be treated seriously. But because it is taken so seriously by many scientists it has to be addressed. He takes on the argument that the generation of life came about by mere chance and the laws of chemistry and physics. He quotes Jay Roth who says that the probability that even a single protein can form by chance is about 1 in 10300. [I think that a case can be made that the probability is exactly zero.] And even the chance production of a protein would not explain that of a cell and the phenomenon of life. The idea that life was originated by chance processes could not be given credence even if scientists succeeded in making life emerge from lifeless materials in the laboratory. For, as Johannes von Uexcüll pointed out, this would not prove that chance can produce life, but only that the highest terrestrial intelligence, after years of study, was able to produce one simple form of life. And Seifert says that only a madman can believe that both a man and a woman sprang up together by chance to give birth to the whole human race. It is almost incomprehensible that generations of intelligent persons could believe it! Seifert then says that one might object saying that his arguments apply only if nature was entirely chaotic. But nature is dominated by laws, and these laws can lead to the production of new species according to non-random principles. Seifert would reply by asking where the laws came from. They themselves require a sufficient reason for their existence; they cannot be explained by the invocation of “chance.” But if their origin lies in an intelligent maker of nature, we are no longer dealing with the first form of the theory of evolution.

Professor Seifert then devotes a section of his paper to argue why the phenomenon of life is not reducible to mere material causes. First of all, living organisms violate one of the basic laws that governs all non-living matter, viz., the second law of thermodynamics. The second law of thermodynamics condemns nature to greater and greater states of disorder. But living organisms escape this condemnation. Through its faculties of assimilation, nutrition, growth and reproduction the living organism creates higher order from less ordered materials. Quantum physicist Erwin Schrödinger in his book What is Life says that the living organism “drinks order from its surroundings” and that only death subjects organisms to the second law of thermodynamics. Also, the phenomenon of consciousness cannot be reduced to a material causes as atheistic evolutionists would maintain. Scientists are unable to produce empirical evidence or convincing arguments to support such a claim.

Seifert’s next argument concerns the human soul. He states that the existence of the mind and the human soul as subject of consciousness constitutes an absolute refutation of an evolutionism that believes that matter can produce the life of the human spirit. And so it is a refutation of the first two forms of the theory of evolution. He says that we are on epistemological high ground here from which we can refute any reductionist interpretation of life. This is because we are appealing to the immediate inner experience of our own conscious experience. [We know and we know that we know.] Seifert states that any reduction of consciousness to an epiphenomenon of brain events or to those events themselves is untenable. He supports this assertion by first looking at the indivisibility of the subject of conscious experience. He quotes Leibniz who reasons that “it is in a simple substance, and not in a compound or in a machine that perception must be sought for…”. A conscious experience, such an aesthetic experience, the enjoyment of music, for example, clearly calls for an indivisible subject. This rules out material substance, which by its nature is divisible. This is because conscious experiences would lose their being and unity if there was not the one and same identical and indivisible self as their subject, the non-composed simple “I.”

Next, he demonstrates the existence of the non-material human soul through the freedom of the human act. The existence of free acts cannot be denied. A man even presupposes some free acts when he resolves to defend materialism and deny the existence of free acts. Material processes cannot produce a promise, for example, or any other free act because such an act proceeds from the self. And the self, who is master over the free act’s being or non-being, is not reducible to material causes. For matter cannot transcend itself to abstract the essence of something or perceive and respond to a good for its own sake.

One of the favorite arguments of scientists in support of Darwinian evolution is that countless scientific discoveries have been made under the influence of Darwin’s theory. Seifert points out first of all that scientists have ignored many empirical facts not favorable to evolution because evolution has been accepted like a religious creed. He refers to Darwin on Trial by Phillip E. Johnson for details. He then proceeds to make the following objections:

Both philosophical truths and philosophical errors can inspire scientific discoveries. But that fact does not vindicate any errors that may inspire such discoveries. The scientific success of a theory does not guarantee the truth of the philosophical assumptions underlying the theory. As an example he chooses the concept of the relativity of time in Einstein’s theory of relativity. The concept of the relativity of time is not the reason for the scientific success of Einstein’s theory. That time is relative is a purely philosophical thesis, not a scientific fact. H. A. Lorentz explained the same phenomena as Einstein did but with a non-relativistic concept of time. [Physicist J. S. Bell is in agreement with Seifert here. In his Speakable and Unspeakable in Quantum Mechanics he states: “The approach of Einstein differs from that of Lorentz in two major ways. There is a difference of philosophy, and a difference of style. The difference of philosophy is this. Since it is experimentally impossible to say which of two uniformly moving systems is really at rest, Einstein declares the notions ‘really resting’ and ‘really moving’ as meaningless. For him only the relative motion of two or more uniformly moving objects is real. Lorentz, on the other hand preferred the view that there is indeed a state of real rest, defined by the ‘aether’, even though the laws of physics conspire to prevent us identifying it experimentally. The facts of physics do not oblige us to accept one philosophy rather than the other.”] The truth of Einstein’s philosophical conceptions is in no way guaranteed by the practical success and universal acceptance of his scientific theory. The same is true of Darwin’s theory of evolution and of certain of Heisenberg’s metaphysical musings.

In contrast to philosophical errors, which can lead to both good and bad results for empirical science, philosophical truths per se can never lead to scientific regress. Only the incorrect interpretation or application of them can do so. Philosophical truths can and have led to experimental findings and scientific progress. Seifert gives the example of Sir John Eccles who, by recognizing freedom in human acts, was led to important discoveries in brain research.

False philosophical ideas frequently impede scientific progress. The false ideas of Darwinism have already done so. Embryologist Erich Blechschmidt demonstrated that the evolutionism of Darwin, Spencer and Haeckel led to serious prejudices and false assumptions concerning human embryology and other empirical matters.

In the last section of his paper, Professor Seifert concludes that only a very restrained version of the third form of the theory of evolution is true and possible. He starts the section by pointing out that the raison d’etre of the theory of evolution lies in the first form and, to some extent, in the second form. Evolution was designed to be a substitute for the doctrine of creation by God. Within that doctrine it is pointless and useless to accept a general evolution of living species. Darwinian evolution makes sense only if there is no Creator-God. If God created nature, why would He use such a primitive technique as Darwinian evolution with its countless mishaps and chance events to realize his creative idea? What artist, sculptor, architect or engineer with great skill at his disposal would even consider using chance events and innumerable failures to produce his masterpiece?

In the third form of the theory of evolution, the Darwinian explanation for trans-species development must be rejected for the reason given above. The Augustinian version of “evolution” is acceptable, but it should no longer be called “evolution” because that is a term that invokes Darwinian principles. The Augustinian version of trans-species development would be divinely organized and based on a well-ordered finalistic plan executed through a new and wondrous capacity of living species. Living species would then not only have the powers of nutrition, growth and reproduction, but would also be able to undergo mutations, adapt to new environments, and thus engender new and enduring species.

All three forms of evolution meet serious difficulties when faced with empirical facts. The first is the lack of transitional forms in the fossil record. These theories have to demand countless “links” from one species to another. Such links are missing in the fossil record. The only explanation for this seems to be that a true explanation of the origin of species does not lie in a “complete evolution” of all plant and animal organisms. The next difficulty that Seifert sees is that Darwinism is based on a mere morphological consideration of nature. That means that it relies on a mere examination of external forms. But studies on bacteria, for example, show that even though external appearances between certain species may be very similar, close examination shows that they use totally different ingenious systems, of swimming for example. Such phenomena as the “geographic distribution of species” and “adaptation to surroundings” are explained much better as coming about by divine creative planning than by evolution.

Professor Seifert states that he rejects the theory of evolution, except in part for extremely limited biological trans-species developments. He says that even great geneticists as Jerome Lejeune doubted a restricted theory of evolution of the third form. That, he goes on to say, confirms his purely philosophical conviction that “universal evolution” as an explanation for the origin of species is not an established fact but is merely an implausible hypothesis.

But Seifert does not reject the fact that a restricted theory of evolution of the third form is theoretically compatible with all purely philosophical and theological truths and might therefore be regarded, as some Church documents assert, as one possible theory of how the Creator generated the immense variety of life and the human body. But many empirical facts and philosophical considerations about the dignity and origin of the human body should move us to re-examine very critically even those versions of the third form of the theory of evolution that Church teaching allows us to accept.

Rev. Victor P. Warkulwiz, M.S.S.