What a convincing lie the Enlightenment spread. The world was suddenly divided into two: the realm of faith and the realm of reason. The small gap between these realms became a chasm in the hands of Protestants, who did not have the Magisterium or the philosophical background to make sense of the advancement of science. While the realm of faith gave birth to Intelligent Design, the realm of reason produced countless atheists who claimed that science could provide all the answers.
Gerard Verschuuren’s In the Beginning takes apart this false dichotomy not just for the atheist who falls short of explaining why we are here, but also for the Christian who tries to swim against the tide of scientific discovery. Verschuuren is a biologist specializing in human genetics who also holds a doctorate in the philosophy of science. His resume as scientist and a man of faith provides him a unique perspective Catholics need to stand against the tide.
In the Beginning is written for the layman who is interested in understanding where the Faith falls within the spectrum of knowledge. Thankfully, for those of us who do not have advance degrees in science, Verschuuren starts with explaining some basic concepts, like timescales and different dating techniques.
Before getting into the nitty-gritty yet fascinating aspects of the physical universe, an explanation of Aquinas’ often misunderstood primary and secondary causes is in order, because this understanding of where mortal human beings and the finite universe stand in regard to God, who created time and space, is essential. This distinction of causes is what leads us to a Creator who is love, as he has revealed himself in the Scriptures. He is also the Primary Cause who does not need to be enslaved to the happenings of secondary causes, i.e., the nature. He holds all in existence.
With a better understanding of the Primary Cause, Vershuuren spells out what came after God created the Universe out of nothing. The regularity of the physical laws of nature, precision of physical constants, and fine-tuning of anthropic coincidences all point to a Lawgiver. The author fleshes out these arguments as he presents opposing ideas of randomness, and weak and strong anthropic principles, all of which attempt to explain why the universe is perfect for life to exist on Earth.
Then, Verschuuren tackles the notion of chaos in the chapter titled “The Evolution of the Universe.” He claims that what many call chaotic is in a grand scale simply probable: “Whereas a single random event may not be predictable, the aggregate behavior of random events is.” Scientists cannot explain the predictability of this randomness by calling it “blind” and “without memory or favorites.” However, as Catholics, once we step outside of the secondary causes, which science deals with, we can see the hand of Divine Providence. While this belief in Divine Providence will not make the randomness more predictable, we can expect statistical randomness to be tested by scientists.
The series of random events that formed the Earth prepared an atmosphere for carbon-based life forms to flourish and multiply. How could God still be in charge if there is so much randomness? The author quotes William Carrol to answer this question: Aquinas “argues that God causes chance and random events to be the chance and random events which they are, just as he causes the free acts of human beings to be free acts.”
Finally, in the second half of the book, Verschuuren delves into the question of why life came to be on Earth. He lays out the three common explanations and expounds on each: 1) the statistical law of large numbers made it possible; 2) God’s divine intervention took care of it; and 3) the laws of nature made it possible.
This chapter, admittedly, was the most interesting section of the book for me, since the Catholic Church’s claim that faith and reason are not opposed to each other was one of the main reasons I became Catholic. As an atheist, as inexplicable as it was, I subscribed to the first option: that life as we know it sprang forth through coincidences and chances, like the apes randomly hitting typewriters to produce Shakespeare’s works. Needless to say, the possibility of such an unlikely event occurring is a desperate attempt to avoid other explanations.
The second explanation is propagated as the Intelligent Design Theory, which argues that God actively guided the process of evolution through periodic divine interventions. The theory of “irreducible complexity” has attracted many in the Christian circles. However, there are objections to irreducibility of this complexity and to intelligence of this design. The ID theory reduces God to a secondary cause who needs to intervene regularly to fix what he had set in motion. Without a proper distinction between the primary and secondary causes, ID theorists fail to understand that God doesn’t need to keep winding the watch. Verschuuren quotes St. Thomas: “The same effect is not attributed to a natural cause and to divine power in such a way that it is partly done by God, and partly by the natural agent; rather, it is wholly done by both, according to a different way” (Summa contra Gentiles, 3, 70, 8).
The third option, Verschuuren claims, offers the most satisfactory scenario by taking design seriously while allowing randomness to work within the design. Random events like mass extinctions, ice ages, volcanic eruptions, composition of the atmosphere, and impacts of meteorites all eventually contributed to the dawn of humanity. Once Planet Earth became the perfect home for human beings, a new life form that was unlike any other appeared. The author describes the five faculties that make human beings stand apart: language, rationality, morality, self-awareness, and self-transcendence. These faculties cannot be sufficiently explained in scientific terms.
Verschuuren concludes this chapter with a visual analogy of what he calls the Cosmic Design: “The road to humanity is a process that meanders like a river. On the one hand, it follows a path that is coincidental and random. On the other hand, in spite of its winding flow, it also moves in a specific direction, steered by a path of least resistance… In other words, evolution follows the path of least resistance in the landscape of the cosmic design” (131-132). This analogy provides an alternative to atheistic chaotic evolution and the incompetent God of Intelligent Design Theory. Here we can imagine in our finite minds how the Primary Cause may have directed the course of the natural world so that His love can be witnessed.
In the Beginning explains the evolution of the universe and Planet Earth using simple terms so that Catholics can see that the Primary Cause is beyond the secondary causes with which science deals. This is a book for people who have to weather questions from atheists or ID supporters. Within its pages, the Catholic can rely on the rich philosophy and theology of saints who remind us that faith and reason indeed work together: “Science always creates a fragmented reality that only religion can piece together” (90).
In the Beginning: A Catholic Scientist Explains How God Made Earth Our Home
By Gerard Verschuuren, Ph.D.
Sophia Institute Press, 2019
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!
Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.
Little writes that Vershuuren “describes the five FACULTIES that make human beings stand apart: language, rationality, morality, self-awareness, and self-transcendence. These faculties cannot be sufficiently explained in scientific terms.”
Not having read the book, may we POSSIBLY ADD FROM (1) Gaudium et Spes, (2) the International Theological Commission, (3) St. John Paul II (with added terms and possible new insights), and (4) a playwright who subtracts terms to very good effect. (Scholars for Intelligent Design will likely comment on the caricature of ID summarized in this article).
EACH body and soul person is created “for its own sake” (Gaudium et Spes, 24) in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:27-29);
EACH person “carries within him the seed of eternity, which cannot be reduced to matter alone . . . .” (International Theological Commission, Communion and Stewardship, 2004). And, the PRECISE MOMENT of emergence as an integral human person is termed the “ontological leap (into) the uniquely human factors of consciousness, intentionality, freedom, and creativity.”
The term “ONTOLOGICAL LEAP” (sometimes translated falsely as an “evolutionary leap”?) appears earlier in John Paul II, “Message on Evolution to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences,” (October 23, 1996). He proposes that the ontological leap— “a moment of transition to the spiritual” and a DISCONTINUITY—-is not incompatible to the “physical continuity which seems to be the main thread of research into evolution in the field of physics and chemistry” (n. 6).
Of the scientific method, John Paul II writes:
“The MOMENT of transition to the spiritual cannot be the object of this kind of observation, which nevertheless can discover at the experimental level a series of very valuable signs indicating what is specific to the human being. But the experience of metaphysical knowledge, of self-awareness and self-reflection, of moral conscience, freedom, or again of aesthetic and religious experience, fall within the competence of philosophical analysis and reflection, while theology brings out its ultimate meaning according to the Creator’s plans” (n. 6).
But then there’s the agnostic Robert Bolt who, nevertheless, in A Man for All Seasons, soars. (Thomas More speaks to Will and Meg:) “God made the angels to show him splendor—as he made animals for innocence and plants for their simplicity. But Man he made to serve him wittily in the tangle of his mind! [….] And no doubt it delights God to see SPLENDOR where he only looked for COMPLEXITY.”
Yes, the broad-stroke dissing of intelligent design theorists in this otherwise helpful discussion is unfortunate. Not sure if its Little’s or Vershurren’s or both. They are a diverse group and to imply that they as a group cannot and do not distinguish primary from secondary causation is unfair and betrays I’m afraid a certain nose-in-the-air attitude by someone. I doubt if St. Thomas himself would be so dismissive of a group, ferociously attacked by secular materialists, who have against strong odds opened the space for real discussion of the matters involved.
I’d love to hear what you think of the book, if you get a chance to read it. Disagreement doesn’t necessarily mean dissing. Intelligent Design theory has many flaws, and those flaws need to be addressed as ID theory is a stumbling block to many. Verschuuren’s term, Cosmic Design, provides a better image of the creation without taking away from God’s omnipotence and nature’s randomness. As Catholics, we have a much stronger philosophical and theological ground to end the misperception that faith and reason are opposed to each other.
Are Verschuuren’s books also translated into Dutch?
I find many people of faith, especially the educated, trying to accommodate the creation of God with evolution; they want to satisfy both sides, saying that God created the universe through evolutionary processes, but many willingly ignore what Scriptures say that God created the physical universe with all its laws and Adam and Even on planet Earth in six- 24 hours period- days. Many deny the account of Genesis 1, and by extension they deny the only God and Creator because it was Him who gave us the Scriptures. It is true that we now can understand many secrets in the universe thanks to the discoveries made by modern science, but whoever denies what God has revealed in His Word, let him or her be anathema( cursed ), especially those who say they believe in the God of the Bible. Furthermore, if the Genesis account is not true, that life didn’t come into existence the way that Book says it did, then the Gospels account are not true either and there is no hope mankind. But since the book of Genesis is true, mankind has hope in the Blessed Savior, JESUS CHRIST, that whoever believes in Him will not perish but have will have everlasting life.
Totally agree!! Thank you for your thoughtful comment!!
Evolutionary theory is a supposal/proposal – it cannot be proven, even though many so-called Catholics want to accept is as a truth — on a par with biblical revelation. Evolutionary theory is just that – a theory. It is not a scientific fact.
I agree with C.S. Lewis, who concluded in concert with Bernard Ackworth, that evolution is “the central and radical lie in the whole web of falsehood that now governs our lives.” Think about it!
“The small gap between these realms became a chasm in the hands of Protestants, who did not have the Magisterium or the philosophical background to make sense of the advancement of science. While the realm of faith gave birth to Intelligent Design, the realm of reason produced countless atheists who claimed that science could provide all the answers.” This is nonsense as is clear to anyone who has put the slightest effort into researching this. In fact the ID researchers and protestant groups like CMI and Answers in Genesis have done yeoman’s service in furthering both science and faith as opposed to bowing to the unproven and unfalsifiable paradigm that is pushed by the culture as “science.”