National Catholic Register


The Cardinal, the Haberdashery, The Eskimos and the Third Thing


June 25-July 1, 2006 Issue | Posted 6/26/06 at 11:00 AM


If there was one moment when it became obvious that the intelligent design discussion was an opportunity for the Church, it may have been when The New York Times published a contribution by none other than Cardinal Christoph Schönborn. Predictably, the Austrian cardinal’s short article, “Finding Design in Nature,” received a great deal of negative criticism.

But by no means, however, has the archbishop of Vienna embarrassed himself. His mind is most acute and soundly philosophical. Philosophy, in our day, does not carry anywhere near the kind of prestige that science enjoys. It is inevitable, therefore, that philosophical points will either be scoffed at or misunderstood.

A postscript to the intelligent design debate of last year appeared earlier this year when Cardinal Schönborn answered some of his critics in an essay in First Things magazine under the tantalizing title, “The Designs of Science.” I want to call attention to but one philosophical statement the cardinal makes in this article that not only illustrates the philosophical tenor of his mind, but also warrants further elucidation. This is the statement he borrows from St. Thomas Aquinas: “Res ergo naturalis inter duos intellectus constituta” (The natural thing is constituted between two intellects).

For Aquinas, the intelligibility inherent in nature, that is, the pattern or principle of organization that renders natural things suitable objects of knowledge, is established by God the Creator. By applying our intelligence to nature, we begin to discover or “read into” nature what God originally put there. Aquinas sees fit to remind his readers that the Latin word intelligere (to understand) is composed of two parts: intus (into) and legere (to read). Hence, one uses his intelligence to “read into” something that is already there. God’s intellect comprehends the whole of nature that he intelligently created, while man’s intellect, which is a discovering power rather than a creative one, comes to know it, though in a piecemeal fashion.

The intellects of God and man, consequently, both mirror nature. In the words of Cardinal Schönborn, “The natural world is nothing less than a mediation between minds: the unlimited mind of the Creator and our limited human mind.” In reading nature, man is leaning something about God.

The great Thomistic scholar, Etienne Gilson, has said that, “The central intuition that governs the whole philosophical and theological understanding of St. Thomas is that it is impossible to do justice to God without doing justice to nature, and that doing justice to nature is at the same time the surest way of doing justice to God.”

Man’s mind is like a camera that can take pictures of nature. Just as a camera must be designed to capture what it photographs, the human mind must be designed to apprehend the world of nature.

Suppose a person went into a haberdashery and tried on the first suit he saw and was then surprised when he realized it fit like a glove.

This might be explained as a coincidence or merely the luck of the draw. But suppose every suit in the store, despite the wide variety of sizes, fit him like a glove. This would be much more than a surprise, but surely not something that could happen by chance. Yet, as the pagan Aristotle pointed out, “The mind can know all things.” A quart bottle can contain no more than a quart of ingredients, but the human intellect can contain all things.

This cannot be explained on a purely material level.

One does not need to be a Thomist, however, to appreciate the astonishing fact that man’s intellect is tuned in some mysterious way to the intelligible content of nature. It is simply a matter of understanding the implications of the axiom that “man is a knower.” And every person — scientist or layman — is a “knower.”

No less a scientific luminary than Albert Einstein once commented that for him, the most incomprehensible thing of all is that the universe is comprehensible. The implication of his statement should be evident. How did it come to be that the mind of man and the intelligibility of the universe matched up with each other? Does it not seem that this matching was orchestrated, perhaps even pre-established, by God?

Einstein also commented, and rather famously, that God does not play dice with the world (Gott wurfelt nicht). There is more to knowledge than meets the eye.

We turn on the radio, set it to a certain frequency and receive a signal corresponding to that frequency. We know, of course, that this correspondence has been pre-arranged. The radio station transmits signals at certain frequencies. Radio receivers are designed to pick up those frequencies. The fact that a radio receiver receives certain frequencies that originate apart from the radio does not happen by chance.

The ancient Greeks were onto something when they distinguished the “microcosm” mind of man from the “macrocosm” of the world to which the mind was magnificently attuned. Man is not only a part of the cosmos, he can behold it! This special and extraordinary attunement requires an explanation that cannot be found within the material universe itself.

Similarly, if 350 relatives and friends show up at a particular time and at a particular place to celebrate a wedding, one can be sure that the attendees had been invited and duly apprised of time and place.

Their joint arrival at the church did not happen by chance, but was the result of a prior arrangement. Likewise, for Aquinas and Cardinal Schönborn, the fact that the human intellect, by nature, is structured to receive the intelligible imprint that is embedded in nature, is not something that can be satisfactorily explained either by the mind or by nature alone.

The well-known cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead had a surprising and yet illuminating experience when she was studying the life and habits of Canadian Eskimos of the far north. She happened to bring with her two copies of one of her books.

The Eskimos were utterly flabbergasted when they encountered for the first time in their lives, two things that were absolutely identical. To the Eskimos, no two faces, personalities, sunsets or ice floes were ever the same. Being human, and therefore philosophically curious, they knew that there must be a third thing that explained how two separate objects could be utterly identical in appearance, page for page, word for word, letter for letter.

Not having ever seen a printing press, they could only wonder what that third thing might be. But they knew, instinctively, that there must be a third thing.

Philosophy begins in wonder. We know that the startling things we perceive must have a cause. Although we might not know how to imagine their causes, we know that they must exist. Every child reflects this instinctive realization when he asks, “Where did I come from?”

Galileo did not receive much criticism when he declared that he was “reading the book of nature.” His colleague Johannes Kepler, who formulated the three great laws of astronomy, proclaimed, “My thoughts are following thy thoughts.”

Norbert Wiener, the Father of Cybernetics, reminds his fellow scientists that the laws of induction in logic cannot be established inductively, and advises them to take seriously the notion that “science is a way of life that can flourish only when men are free to have faith.”

In the absence of the faith that the universe is consistently intelligible, scientists would have neither the basis for believing that their scientific pursuits would yield fruit nor the motivation for expending the considerable effort that science demands.

Yet, the aforementioned scientists were expressing, in their own way, the very point that Aquinas made back in the 13th century and that Cardinal Schönborn reiterates; namely, that a third factor must exist in order to explain how man’s intellect and the intelligibility of nature happen to conform to each other.

This third factor, because it is not present in itself but only through its effects (like a footprint), is not an object for the empirical scientist. But if empirical scientists deny its reality as a result of a method that formally excludes it before they set to work, then, in this regard, they have crossed over from science to ideology.

Hence, as the cardinal states, “My essay was designed to awaken Catholics from their dogmatic slumber about positivism in general and evolutionism in particular.” And, let us note, the alarm clock he employs is the provocative ring of sound philosophy, an enterprise that is a universal human possession.

 Donald DeMarco is adjunct

professor at Holy Apostles College & Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut.