Philosopher and scientist Fr Stanley Jaki tells John Beaumont why Catholics can't afford to ignore Charles Darwin Fr Stanley L Jaki has often said that his work must be judged by his books. By that test, the work that he has done is remarkable. Aged 81, he is the author of 40 books and nearly 100 articles, many of which have been translated into various languages, on subjects as wide-ranging as the history and philosophy of science, general philosophy. Cardinal Newman, the nature of the Church, priestly celibacy, the miracle at Fatima, and spirituality.
The late Pope John Paul II appointed Fr Jaki — a Benedictine priest — an
honorary member of the
Pontifical Academy of Science, on which he continues to serve. He delivered the Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh (the first Catholic priest to do so) and the Fremantle Lectures at Balliol College, Oxford. In 1987 he won the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. Fr Jaki's record of achievement is one without parallel in the Church today.
I met Fr Jaki earlier this month on the latest of his many visits to the United Kingdom from his base at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, where he is Distinguished University Professor. He was in Britain to speak on his main area of expertise: the relationship between science and religion. Fr Jaki has just given a lecture at the annual Darwin Festival, held every year in February at Shrewsbury, the birthplace of Charles Darwin.
It is particularly appropriate that he should be here at this time. Recent weeks have seen a further onslaught on religion generally, and the Catholic Church in particular, by the atheist Professor Richard Dawkins, whose two-part television series on Channel 4 has been the subject of considerable criticism in the pages of this newspaper.
There is no one better qualified than Fr Jaki to set out the authentic Catholic position on the questions raised by Darwin in the 19th century, and by Dawkins today. His thinking is simple and begins with an appreciation of the nature of science.
"Science, and by that I mean exact science, has quantities for its foundation," he says. "Indeed it is nothing else than the quantitative study of the quantitative aspects of things in motion. Nothing more and nothing less than just quantities."
It is, of course, to physics and astronomy that this definition best applies. "Other branches of science, such as sociology and psychology, can be a form of reasoned discourse, but exact science they can never be," he explains. "In exact science, numbers and measurement are everything. It is this matter of quantities that is vital."
Why is that, I ask?
"It is because quantities are very different from all other concepts.An action can be more or less emphatic — goodness admits degrees — but the number five cannot be more or less five. Five is either five or not five. Herein lies the crux of all talk about science and religion."
He expands on his reasoning: "Whenever an assertion contains non-quantitative propositions, science becomes irrelevant. This means there are significant limitations on what science can do. It is why questions of philosophy cannot be answered by science. Similarly, theology, which ultimately is about purpose, should not look for support in science.
"There are no two grams of purpose and five nanoseconds of free will. There is no way even to evaluate scientifically the most elementary phrases. such as 'This book is there.' There are no units of measurement for the word 'is', the most important word in human life. No wonder that almighty God gave His name as I Am who Is."
Is Darwinism, then, a scientific'theory? Fr Jaki says it is. "The Origin of Species was a vast panorama of changes in the world of the living, as revealed by palaeontology, or the study of the fossil record. It implied two basic considerations: one was the fact that the offspring was always slightly different from the parents. The other
was the equally undeniable fact that the physical environment had to have. therefore. an impact on the, prospects of the offspring other than it had on the prospects of the parents. This differential impact is usually referred to as natural selection, though it must always be remembered that nature does not select anything, other than metaphorically." So, the answer to my original question is that the theory is a scientific one, because, in principle at least, its two main factors can be evaluated quantitatively.
"Quantities make a science exact. Anything else in it is philosophy."
This, according to Fr Jalci, is the reason why credit should be given to Darwin for putting evolutionary speculations on the road toward the status of exact science.
So, are there any weaknesses in Darwinism'? Fr Jaki indicates that there are many, far more than can be covered in a short interview. He instances the fact that Darwin's theory leaves no room for the mind, to say nothing of love, and points to the views of another Darwinist, J B S Haldane: "If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain. I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true. They may be sound chemically, but that does not make them sound logically. And hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms."
Fr Jaki continues: "For all its value as a scientific theory of evolution,
Darwinism, if taken consistently, cannot say anything about existence. purpose, and mind. But, Darwinists will not accept this, precisely because for them the theory is an ideology, and one that is brazenly materialistic.
"A N Whitehead once said — and he was referring to mindless Darwinists — 'Those who devote their whole lives to the purpose of proving that there is no purpose constitute an interesting subject for study.' When Darwinism is taken as ideology, it cannot be
reconciled with Christian
belief, whereas the scientific theory can, because it cannot touch on the basics of that belief."
How, I ask, does "intelligent design" fit into all of this? Is this theory of any value? "No intellectual merit is to be found in this theory," he insists. "Protagonists of intelligent design fail to realise that design is a philosophical factor which cannot be measured. While a form can be measured and therefore can be made part of science, one cannot do the same with design At the same time, design cannot be denied, unless the denial is made for no design, for no purpose. What Whitehead said of purpose can be said of its synonym, design." . I point out the furore caused by Richard Dawkins's recent television programme. Do his ideas have any merit?
Fr Jaki thinks not.
"Any who seek support for their theological gurgitations in philosophies grafted by prominent scientists on to their science should be the object of profound pity," he says.
"As to those who extol selfish genes, they should at least try the contrary experiment, boastful as they are of the experimental method. They should try to imitate Mother Teresa's unselfish love for others. This they would never do. Their reluctance is par for the course in a world which does not wish to admit that it is profoundly fallen."
How would Darwin proceed today?
"Today Darwin might not start writing the Origin. Not only have the arguments in favour of the effectiveness of natural selection increased, but also the arguments against it. Still, we must stick with it because it gives the only view whereby justice can be given to the phrase in the Book of Wisdom: 'God arranged everything according to measure, number, and weight.' Yet, while every thing has ;quantitative properties, there is much more to any thing than its measura bility. By focusing on this difference it becomes possible to stake out some ground where one may not be trapped by such designs of Darwin as are rudely non-scientific."
For further information see S L Jaki, Questions of Science and Religion (2004), The Purpose of it All (2005), and two of his booklets: Evolution for
Believers (2005) and Intelligent Design? (2006). All are published by Real View Books (www.sljaki.com or www.realviewbooks.com)
John Beaumont is a freelance writer. He is the author of Converts to Rome: A Guide to Notable Converts from Britain and Ireland in the Twentieth Century (Real View Books, 2006)