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The Return of the Aristotelian Repressed

Everything old is new again. For years I have argued that embracing evolutionary theory as Darwin formulated it makes nonsense of any coherent belief in God. As an analogy, I’ve cited a medieval philosophical debate pitting Aristotelians against religious traditionalists, notably Maimonides.

I never dreamed that the debate itself would be revived — and within the walls of the Vatican, no less.

This fall, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences will host a conference in Vatican City titled “Scientific Insights into the Evolution of the Universe and of Life.” A notable presentation will be by Cambridge University theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, the most recognizable face in today’s scientific world. The title of his presentation: “The Origin and Destiny of the Universe.”

Hawking’s view represents a daring revival of an ancient philosophical doctrine, associated with Aristotle, that the universe has no beginning. That much a fascinating 2006 article in The New Scientist makes clear.

The article notes how “unsatisfying” today’s cosmological thinking is because it requires the extraordinary fine-tuning of physical constants at the first moment of cosmic history, the Big Bang. The tuning was so fine that it suggests — God forbid! — an intelligent designer, precisely setting the control knobs to produce you and me.

From the perspective of secularism, this implication is unacceptable. The famous and totally hypothetical case for undetectable multiple universes is one attempt to get around the difficulty. In the infinity of such universes, one was set just right, totally by chance, to allow for the existence of life.

The Hawking model offers another way to bypass the challenge to secularism. According to this startling idea, there is only one universe but it somehow weirdly comprises a blend of all possible histories of the cosmos. Our scientific observation of the universe has the effect of selecting one of these possible pasts and making it the actual past. As Hawking himself has said of his theory’s prime appeal, “It doesn’t need fine tuning.”

An additional feature of Hawking’s scenario is that it eliminates any possibility of the universe having one particular beginning. Call it a point A, with point B being the present. As The New Scientist summarizes it, “In terms of the universe’s history, that means there is no point A. Like the surface of a sphere, the universe… has no definable starting point.”

You could call it the return of the Aristotelian repressed. Which brings us to Maimonides.

When religiously literate Jews argue about the evidence for design in nature, the argument typically comes down to a game of capture the flag. Most often, the flag is Maimonides. Every self-respecting Jewish intellectual wants to identify himself with Maimonidean rationalism and respect for science.

Besides being a rabbi and a physician, the great sage was an Aristotelian who, at the same time, had a bone to pick with Aristotle.

A few years ago in The New Republic, literary editor Leon Wieseltier tried to enlist Maimonides as a premature evolutionist. Wieseltier repeated the customary falsehood about Intelligent Design being biblical literalism in disguise. He then pointed out that in “The Guide of the Perplexed,” Maimonides rejected the literal interpretation of Scripture when scientific knowledge makes such an interpretation untenable.

About that last point, Wieseltier was right. But Maimonides taught it in a particular context, that of a conflict between biblical faith and the philosophy of the Aristotelian school. Proponents of the latter, secular tradition believed the universe to be eternal and thus without a beginning. Sound familiar?

Maimonides replied to the Aristotleans that on this point, he rejected their opinion. As he explained, that was for two reasons. First, as a scientific proposition, it was not proven. Second, it would make nonsense of the Torah as a philosophical and religious doctrine, because it would make God superfluous: “If the philosophers were to succeed in demonstrating [the universe’s] eternity as Aristotle understands it, the Torah as a whole would become void.”

In the Middle Ages, as in 2008, you can’t coherently affirm a creator deity and a process of cosmic and biological evolution that never required such a transcendent designer, or that rules him — or her, or it — out of consideration by definition.

We’re left wondering how Hawking came to be invited to address a Vatican audience given his view, whose main interest lies in the way it undercuts religious faith.

The great psychologist William James, for one, would not be surprised. He observed that most of us arrive at our opinions — whether on religion, politics or science — based not on a judicious weighing of evidence, but rather on the prestige of the ideas in question. That is, the prestige they confer on us. Even Vatican officials aren’t immune from such human tendencies, and the fact is that, the merits of his theories aside, Stephen Hawking is a very prestigious scientist. As I have come to realize from countless frustrating personal interactions, lots of religious folks feel a social need to affirm certain ideas, including scientific ones, outside the realm of their expertise. With their personal prestige at stake, they will not be dissuaded.

As an admirer of the Catholic Church, I’m disappointed to say that, in the Vatican’s strange embrace of Hawking, we can observe that same depressing dynamic at work.

David Klinghoffer, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, is the author of the forthcoming “How Would God Vote? Why the Bible Commands You to Be a Conservative” (Doubleday).

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