Creationists offer imprudent, improbable claims
BY C.S. MORRISSEY
Catholic apologist Karl Keating writes of The New Geocentrists who deny the earth orbits the sun. The geocentrists lament the Church’s apology over Galileo, and allege the Church has gone horribly off course ever since.
They self-publish entire books to prove, not just that the entire universe orbits a stationary earth, but also to prove that they themselves are even more Catholic than the pope.
Much like the geocentrists’ denial of scientific fact, creationists deny the fact of evolution. Evolution is both a scientific fact (like the fact of the earth’s orbit), and a sophisticated scientific theory (like the current theory of gravitation which explains the orbital path of the earth).
Einstein’s theory of gravitation has improved on Newton’s theory, yet this development of theory can only happen in tandem with admission of the facts of gravitation. There is no such thing as “just a theory” in modern science. Scientists test hypotheses against the facts of observation and measurement; but a theory is more than a hypothesis.
A theory explains facts, generates testable hypotheses, and cannot be considered scientific without the solid facts it is founded upon.
Moreover, scientific theories by their nature always invite informed speculation and generate further hypotheses, because this is how human knowledge naturally develops (moving from the known to the unknown on the basis of what is known); but that does not mean a scientific theory is equivalent to a guess or a hunch or even a hypothesis, because it would not be a theory without the facts it both explains and offers testable predictions about.
Scientific theory landed humans on the moon. It launches into orbit satellites upon which our social and economic systems depend. We use GPS devices on a daily basis to get directions and navigate.
It is unreasonable to call this scientific knowledge of gravitation “just a theory” (because it uses facts to allow us to accomplish many other facts); it is likewise unreasonable to deny the facts of modern biology about genetics, which doctors use daily.
One book that advocates “progressive creationism,” and which is currently being promoted as “authentic Catholic reflection,” criticizes all the popes and bishops who, ever since Pius XII’s encyclical Humani Generis, have embraced evolution. It argues that any reconciliation of evolution with Catholic theology, although “permissible” if pursued along the lines set out by Pius XII, is still neither “probable” nor “prudent.”
Opposing the consistent approach of St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis to evolution, the book darkly warns that the embrace of evolution will “undermine classical, orthodox Christianity altogether.”
What’s unsettling in the versions of geocentrism and creationism promoting themselves as “authentic Catholic reflection” is the way they assume the role of watchdogs of the magisterium. Do we really need these watchdogs to protect “classical, orthodox Christianity”?
Observe how different their position is from the admirable synthesis of faith and reason found in the Catholic tradition and its magisterium. These watchdogs reject reason’s best scientific achievements as being improbable, and they impugn the faith’s highest teaching authorities as being imprudent.
On the one hand, the creationists, for example, imprudently dissent from recent papal guidance. They prefer to pooh-pooh papal statements in favor of evolution as “almost at the lowest level of authority of papal utterances.” But do they seriously expect a pope to use papal infallibility to endorse a scientific theory? That would be absurd. Science doesn’t need the magisterium to ratify its latest results. Catholicism famously embraces the integrity of reason and its access to truth.
Therefore, the popes perfectly calibrate their utterances at the level of papal authority that best reflects the faith’s authority on matters of reason: i.e., they utter statements directly to scientists (on the level of reason, not from above it) that show the Church celebrates the impressive achievements of scientific reason in understanding creation.
On the other hand, the creationists make recklessly improbable denials of actual scientific advances. St. John Paul II’s 1996 message on evolution updated Pius XII’s caution in Humani Generis (#35) about then-current evolutionary “hypotheses, having some sort of scientific foundation” in the facts, that seemed to point in 1950 to a multi-regional, polygenetic model of human origins.
Since 1950, science has so advanced in its understanding of the fossil record and the genetic data that it has now attained the single-region, out-of-Africa theory of human origins.
In other words, the theory no longer generates scientific hypotheses that could be interpreted to deny genetically that all humans share a common human nature, fallen but assumed and redeemed by Christ. That crucial theological truth is not contradicted by the theory of evolution.
As much “more than a hypothesis,” evolutionary theory includes the genetic science that in 2003 finished mapping the human genome. The creationists, however, close their eyes to such facts and invent millions of miracles to replace natural causality in genetic variation. But that’s not even science. It’s less than a hypothesis.
As the great Dominican Thomist, Benedict Ashley, O.P., wrote on the significance of St. John Paul II’s message on evolution: “the pope acknowledges human evolution as a fact, but then adds that more than one theory of evolution is current and further research is needed to understand that fact.”
The best philosophical and theological resource recommended by the magisterium for understanding evolution is Thomism, which is the straightforward meaning of Pope Francis’ recent remarks rejecting creationism.
C.S. Morrissey is an associate professor of philosophy at Catholic Pacific College.