William of Ockham died in Munich in 1349, and the Franciscan friars have a memorial marker for him. It is right next to the way into their crypt. I saw it again while in Germany for my holidays, as I spent a few days in Munich friary. Brother William’s remains are not in the crypt, as the friars did not move to their current location until several centuries later. Nevertheless, they proudly remember him as one of their own.
I also noticed a book in their used book bin, available for a small donation: Evolution and Creation by Hans-Eduard Hengstenberg. I had heard of it, and finally I had a chance to read it. It is a critique of what he calls theological evolutionism, and it is a very good one. Evolution and creation are distinct concepts, and each is the correct answer, but to very different questions, and they ought not be confused or commingled. Evolution is only the description of a biological process of mutual adaptation over time. It is about the development of the ecosystem as a whole, through mutual adaptation of individual living beings and their offspring to each other. This describes a process that makes our life possible and sustains it. It is the common context in which distinct living beings exist. But, this process is not life itself, and it is not the living beings themselves. The origin of newness within this context must still be understood as creation: creation of distinct living creatures, each of a particular kind. And, in time, it is the creation persons, each of whom is a unique and irreplaceable individual, each of whom is a new beginning.
The conditions of their existence are indeed determined by evolution. The reason that they exist is the result of creation.
“Ockham’s razor” is how my Franciscan brother William is remembered in popular culture, on account of his having begun the path towards an understanding of reality that stripped away all that seemed superfluous. Philosophers since times immemorial have struggled with a fundamental question: what does it mean for two beings to be of the same kind? Does it mean that they share something that is the same in both? But how could this be, if they are separate beings? Whatever it is that they share, it would have to be both one, as it is the same, and many, as it is shared by many individuals. How can something be both one and many? Ockham gets rid of the problem by saying that what is real is only individuals, but not whatever it is that individuals of the same kind share. Whatever it is that they have in common is only a concept of our understanding.
The power of this step is in that concepts can exist on several levels. We can look at an individual animal and use concepts to describe atoms and molecules, or organs, or a whole animal, or the ecosystem of which the animal is part. Whether the animal is real or whether the atoms are real and the animal is only an assembly of atoms is a question that can be avoided if atoms and animals are just concepts on different levels of the description. Concepts can exist on many levels and describe the world at many levels. This is the hallmark of the modern scientific view of the world: a layered system of concepts describing the world at various levels, with the concepts of higher-order structures building on the concepts of lower level structures. It goes all the way from elementary particles to the cosmos, with us somewhere in the middle.
However, Ockham’s lack of realism about the kind of thing that a thing is has consequences. It is too far removed from our self-understanding of being persons, both as individuals and as part of a community of persons. The contradiction between being both one and many, separate and united, is lived and known in our own existence, long before we worry about individuals and kinds and creation and evolution.
Explanatory concepts are useful, as long as they are not confused with reality. And evolutionism (or, more generally, scientism) does just this. In our own lives, we know us to be individuals yet sharing the same nature as created persons with all others of the same kind. This knowledge is prior to any scientific study, and it is what allows us to make sense of the world. And the knowledge of being a person is much more important for theological thought than the knowledge of the biological conditions in which we were created.