Friday, September 01, 2006

Dualism defended

The New York Times reports:
They meet every year, the eminent German professor and his old doctoral students, for a weekend of high-minded talk on a chosen topic. For years it was nothing more than that.

But now the professor, once called Joseph Ratzinger, has become Pope Benedict XVI. And this year, for three days beginning Friday, the topic on the table is evolution, an issue perched on the ever more contentious front between science and belief.
This apparently is a serious discussion of evolution — and Ratzinger is a sophisticated thinker. His problem, as expressed by Rev. Joseph Fessio, an American priest and former student of the pope’s is the following.
[T]he pope, based on his statements and writings, remains deeply concerned specifically about the contention among some supporters of modern evolution that the theory refutes any role of God in creation.

“Given this ideology, the temptation or danger is real to say that you don’t have any need of God [emphasis added], that the spirit doesn’t exist,” said Msgr. Fiorenzo Facchini, an Italian priest and paleoanthropologist. “And the church should keep guard against this and denounce it.”
It's fine with me for Pope Benedict to be concerned about and want to defend the need for God. Need is a subjective experience. He may very well need the idea of God, no matter what evolution says — and he may think everyone else needs God also.

The problem arises when the church fails to distinguish between statements about the physical world and statements about subjective experience. The church gets into trouble whenever it espouses a view about the material world as a consequence of religious doctrine. That is simply not supportable. Science is the road to knowledge about the material world. What we still don't understand, though, is subjective experience and the meanings and values we associate with it. That's where the church can play a useful role. Ratzinger seems to know that.
In his book “Truth and Tolerance” (Ignatius Press, 2004), written when he was Cardinal Ratzinger, he wrote of what he called an effort to turn evolution into a “universal philosophy” that explained all of life.

“This evolutionary ethic that inevitably takes as its key concept the model of selectivity, that is, the struggle for survival, the victory of the fittest, successful adaptation, has little comfort to offer,” he wrote. “Even when people try to make it more attractive in various ways, it ultimately remains a bloodthirsty ethic.”
This concern has nothing to do with the theory or mechanics of evolution. It is about the meaning of evolution. The theory of evolution doesn't discuss meaning. If some people see it as bloodthirsty, that's up to them. If others see it as the working out of God's plan, that too is up to them. Those sorts of issues are outside the realm of science. Ratzinger would do all of us a great service if he made clear that the bounds of the church stop at the end of subjective experience and do not include theories of the material world.

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