In Thomas Fleming’s otherwise excellent article “Dead Monkeys and the Living God” (Perspective, April), he makes a couple of minor missteps that add undue credence to the modernists’ case.  I have not read Steven Weinberg’s books, so I am only going on the evidence presented in Dr. Fleming’s column, but, if Weinberg does lump Intelligent Design theory into the same category as Saint Anselm’s proof of the existence of God, he does so wrongly.  The arguments of Michael Behe and other Intelligent Design proponents are not, and (I think) are not intended to be, the undeniable syllogistic demonstrations of science.  They are merely strong evidence in favor of the proposition that a creator exists (a creator who does not, we should note, need by any means to be the God of Abraham; he could well be Carl Sagan’s space aliens as far as Intelligent Design is concerned).  Saint Anselm’s proof, on the other hand, is just that: a syllogistic proof, intended to demonstrate rationally and definitively the God of Abraham’s existence.  Thus, Intelligent Design and the Ontological Proof are two different creatures entirely and should not be lumped together at all.

Indeed, if Intelligent Design should be lumped in with anything, it would be with evolutionary theory.  For evolution concludes in the same manner that Intelligent Design does: a purported consistency with the facts that suggests that the theory itself might be true.  Evolution no more proves the nonexistence of a god than Intelligent Design proves his existence.  In fact, evolutionary theory has nothing whatsoever to say about the existence or nonexistence of God.  While its modernist champions, such as Weinberg and Dawkins, are fond of claiming that random mutations are all that are required in order to explain the supposed descent of man, they are entirely unable to prove that there is anything random about such mutations in the first place.  Physical science is simply incapable of pronouncing upon the question of whether there is the hand of a god behind the workings of the material world.

If physical science is incapable of proving the existence of God, is His existence unprovable?  The answer is no.  St. Thomas Aquinas gives five perfectly valid philosophical demonstrations of the existence of God and cites scriptural support besides: “The invisible things of Him are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made” (Romans 1:20).  However, in proving the existence of a First Mover, a Necessary Being, etc., Saint Thomas proves only the existence of a Being Who cannot be a creature; he does not prove the actual nature of that Being.  This is because the proof of God’s nature requires Divine Revelation in order to be known; His nature cannot be known and proved naturally the way His mere existence can.  Hence, I cannot agree with the implication of Dr. Fleming’s question, “If God’s existence could be proved, what need would there be of faith?”  While everything else about Him requires faith in order to be known, His existence does not—which jibes perfectly with our experience, since man naturally, in every place and clime, believes in a God or gods, while, at the same time, being unsure about His (or their) nature.

        —James Newland
Santa Clarita CA

In “Dead Monkeys and the Living God,” Dr. Fleming asks: “If God’s existence could be proved, what need would there be for faith?”  Surely a classics scholar and a Catholic does not really mean to reject philosophical theology?  Did Aristotle not prove God’s existence?  Is the medieval tradition of natural theology a mistake?  Must we all be fideists now?  To be sure, natural knowledge of God should not be confused with Christian faith, but even John Paul II (no conventional Thomist) recognized that it does faith no favors to deny reason its “sapiential dimension” and “genuine metaphysical range.”  Nothing perpetuates the modern separation and weakening of faith and reason as much as the denial that God’s existence can be proved by reason.

There are many problems with the Intelligent Design movement—not the least of which is that it inadvertently perpetuates a false dichotomy between “science” and “religion,” ignoring the more fundamental discipline of philosophy—but its insistence on reason’s ability to discover something about God is not one of them.

        —Joshua Hochschild
Emmitsburg, MD

Dr. Fleming Replies:

A monthly magazine aimed at general readers is a strange place for a theological debate.  In a learned journal or academic book, one might take dozens of pages to develop an argument, which, in a magazine, will occupy, at most, a paragraph.  Worse, the magazine writer must eschew technical arguments, logical nitpicking, and elaborate citations.  For all of these reasons, I was somewhat reluctant to write my broad-brush critique of Weinberg and Dawkins.  My hope was that readers who found fault with one or another aspect of the piece would either refer to my more academic work or at least give the benefit of the doubt to a self-declared Christian Aristotelian and admirer of Saint Thomas.  In reading the critical response we have received, I now think my first inclination—not to attempt such a piece—was correct.

In essence, the criticism boils down to whether or not the existence of God is provable.  By “provable,” I obviously do not refer to arguments that merely satisfy me, nor to arguments that, while they satisfy all serious minds, would not convince someone who is mentally deficient or incurably ignorant.  Thus, if the existence of God were demonstrable, the proof should satisfy all rational and serious men and women.  But that is not now and probably has never been the case.  Now, we might evade this problem by saying David Hume, Bertrand Russell, and Steven Weinberg are not rational, but then we should have erected a bar so high that none but ourselves could jump over it and qualify as rational beings.  The best that a philosopher can do is to show that God’s existence is more probable than the alternative.  Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, and Saint Thomas have all made excellent arguments with which I am generally in agreement, but that is as far as a cautious man should be prepared to go.  To go further is to enter the realm of dogmatic theology, into which I am not qualified to go.

In my experience, few people become  theists, much less Christians, as the result of logical proofs, though such proofs are often very useful in demolishing the false or inconclusive arguments against the Faith.  None of us is a blank slate, ready to receive and interpret without bias the evidence of our senses or the logic of an argument.  If we are Christians, we are prepared to listen to Saint Thomas’ citations from Scripture; if we are not, we shall dismiss them.  This has nothing whatsoever to do either with fideism or with attempts to distinguish science and theology.  Yes, as I have argued repeatedly, we appear to have a natural inclination to believe in supernatural powers, and this inclination, when disciplined by religion, myth, and theology, can lead to a variety of concepts of divinity.  Even E.O. Wilson argues that such ideas confer a competitive advantage.  Why, then, is he a passive atheist?  We might say that the minds of scientific atheists have been darkened—and, to some extent, I believe that—but where does that take us, except to an attitude that might justify pity or contempt but not, certainly, rational debate?  When people assert that belief in God is universal, they are misled by the capital G.  What we think we mean is a god who has either created the universe or at least manages it justly and effectively.  Can this really be said of a voodoo idol or even of the folk conception of Zeus or Odin?  To believe there are gods is not necessarily related to our belief in God, however demonstrable we might think His existence.

If fideism is a danger, as it certainly is, then so is rationalism, especially the misplaced rationalism against which I argued in my last book.  The Christian understanding of the universe, like the materialist understanding of the universe, rests on a series of mysterious questions.  Why and how is there something rather than nothing?  Why and how is there life in addition to nonlife?  Why and how is there a mind that is conscious of itself and of existences higher than itself?  I am entirely convinced that we have more probable answers to these questions than the materialists have—and, by probable, I mean answers that rely on strictly natural and logical arguments.  I am also convinced that the specifically Christian mystery of the Incarnation, while not rationally demonstrable, is more satisfying to the mind and more conducive to deep understanding of the human condition than are alternative religious points of view.  Reason is a necessary tool—it is the only tool I have—but we should not overestimate its power or misapply it.

As for Anselm’s proof, perhaps I should have spelled out more clearly what I had in mind.  My point was not to criticize an elegant argument or to lump it in with Intelligent Design in any way but one: Both work if you are willing to accept certain premises, but a radical materialist would be no more persuaded by an argument drawn from the nature of the human mind than he would be from the conviction that God must exist and the universe must make sense.  As I wrote, both Intelligent Design and Anselm’s Ontological Proof “are useful in persuading a believer that the concept of God is not inconsistent with a rational or scientific view of the universe, but they cut no ice with an intelligent atheist.”

If we are to engage, at any level, in apologetics, then we must understand what and whom we are arguing against, lest we fall into the circular argument of fundamentalists who, when asked to prove the infallibility of Scripture, inevitably reply that the Bible says so.  It is just as important, in discussions of these matters with allies and friends, that we try to understand the argument before we rush into refutation.  For example, I never insisted or said or even came close to implying anything like reason’s “inability to discover something about God.”  Such an argument is a misuse of reason that tends to darken, rather than to illuminate, important questions.