Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Pope speaks on evolution

Herr Doktor Pope Benedict has spoken publicly about his views on evolution. I'm not going to fault the man too badly. He expresses opinions that are far more progressive and scientific than the average American citizen ("average? surely you just mean those fanatical right wingers..." no, I mean average), although they are most certainly wrong. I don't expect the pope to fully understand any scientific theory, and I'm glad that he has remained mostly silent on the subject until now.

I would love to see a pope simply state that evolution and christianity are part of non-overlapping magisteria and refrain from any further comment. I've got my qualms about the whole notion of non-overlapping magisteria (see Dawkins) but it would be a huge step in the right direction.

As for the pope's specific inaccuracies regarding evolution, I'd like to comment on the very end of the article linked above:

"Both popular and scientific texts about evolution often say that 'nature' or 'evolution' has done this or that," Benedict said in the book which included lectures from theologian Schoenborn, two philosophers and a chemistry professor. "Just who is this 'nature' or 'evolution' as (an active) subject? It doesn't exist at all!" the Pope said.

Benedict argued that evolution had a rationality that the theory of purely random selection could not explain.

"The process itself is rational despite the mistakes and confusion as it goes through a narrow corridor choosing a few positive mutations and using low probability," he said.

"This ... inevitably leads to a question that goes beyond science ... where did this rationality come from?" he asked. Answering his own question, he said it came from the "creative reason" of God.

The Robed Avenger seems to come SO CLOSE to a full understanding of the theory, then right at the end it all falls to hell. He sounds like an intelligent man who has never really been exposed to a complete explanation of evolution. Of course he's correct when he exclaims that there IS no active subject involved in 'nature' and 'evolution' much the same as there is no active subject guiding mathematical terms through a complex integration, or guiding the bits through a circuit in a computer. Evolution is based on very simple and elegant premises, that when followed to their logical conclusion result in highly complex and organized emergent properties.

Random mutations followed by non-random selection over billions of years produced you and me. There is no forethought, no intelligent rationality... it is simply an emergent property that groupings of genes that appear rational work better than those that don't. The church has accepted similar arguments in other areas of science: sure the sun and the earth appear to have been designed, that is an emergent property that falls out when natural physical laws are applied to large clouds of hydrogen. The pope knows this, and he accepts it. Hopefully it's only a matter of time until he or his successor comes to understand that the origin of life is merely an extension of physical laws working on clouds of hydrogen. Benedict doesn't want to fall back on a god of the gaps, but that is precisely what he is doing.

There are more comments to make here, like how the pope's specific misunderstandings are so maddeningly common in ID "theorists" and creationists in America, or how the book containing the pope's evolution arguments also includes philosophers and a chemist but no evolutionary biologists; also an all too common crime of American creationists. I've said my peace though, and I'll leave further criticisms to PZ Myers, as he is more versed in the particulars.

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