The Vatican has indicated that it will publish the minutes of Pope Benedict XVI's meeting with former students held last summer in his holiday residence at Castel Gandolfo. Surely a meeting (that would have brought memories of a "tute") between a professor and his former students wouldn't merit a yawn in the world press. But if your prof became Pope and the topic was evolution, this would really, really attract the attention of opinion editors and of course bloggers like me.
Even if his predecessor John Paul II had apologised for the Galileo affair and said before the Pontifical Sciences Academy that evolution "was more than a hypothesis" the public perception that the Church still is in conflict with science is hard to kill. And it's no longer just the Catholic Church's fault. The separated brethren churches (read as Protestants) that read the Bible literally have added fire to the controversy. Having lost legal battles in the USA about equal time for Creationism in State schools, the creationists have championed "intelligent design" or ID as an alternate hypothesis. Fine. But never, never in a science classroom, say scientists.
Benedict's inaugural homily has been dissected for meaning countless times since his Papal installation. In his homily, the new Pope said "We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God." This perhaps is the root of all the fuss, what does evolutionary theory contribute to meaning?
We would probably find Pope Benny in the middle, between that of the Darwinian atheists and the Creationist- ID camp. The question is where do most people and most of the scientists stand? Pope Benny is unlikely to wade into the debate whether ID should be taught in public schools. That is mainly an American debate, unheard of in Europe and his Germany. But before we do dip our heads in the issue, the Darwinian atheists such as Richard Dawkins believe that there is no teleology in evolution. The ID camp led by Michael Behe say otherwise that a superior intelligence is responsible for biodiversity's complexity and mere chance is not enough to explain it.
True, Dawkins may say that there is no teleology. Natural science really does not deal with teleology. But Dawkins himself became a theologian of Atheism by saying there is no need for God in the cosmos. He cannot even be sure if God exists! Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
The Creationist-ID camp is criticised for using religious interpretations as science. Again this presupposes a teleology. Given the evidence we have, we can never be sure if there is a God. We may construe evidence for a Creator but can never be sure that the evidence was really caused by a Creator.
Both Dawkins and like minded scientists and the Creationist-ID camp have practised non-science. Gould's NOMA should be applied both ways and cut off Dawkins' evolutionary atheism and Creationism from natural science and should be relegated to philosophy and theology. Atheism as well as Theism requires faith. One requires faith in the non existence of God and the other his/her existence.
Nor should Darwin's evolutionary theory be made as a philosophical idea to explain everything about being human. John Paul II explicitly warned Catholics about the soul being a mere epiphenomenon of evolution.
But natural science should be free to study religion as a natural phenomenon and that systems of belief may have arisen as way to confer evolutionary fitness. Assuming all humans have a capacity for faith (a phenomenon that can be verified by science), what advantage does religion hold for survival in the natural world?
Probably the Pope and his students discussed these issues and more. But in the public discussion, poor Alfred Russel Wallace, Darwin's co-proponent of evolution is again forgotten. Wallace towards the end of his long life drew the line and wrote that natural selection cannot explain the mind. This is somewhat similar to John Paul's position. Wallace's position was criticised by Darwin.
It is refreshing that the Pope and the scientists are once more talking about evolution. And in writing this essay I recall the Jodie Foster's Dr Arroway character in "Contact" saying before a US Congressional hearing " Yes! I concede I may have hallucinated, but everything that I am as a human being says that it is true."