Rational Responses to Skepticism: Three Special Intellectual Contributions

Following Vatican Council II, most of the previously orthodox Catholic colleges and universities slowly abandoned their firm commitment to the Catholic intellectual heritage, especially by decreasing both the number and traditional content of required theology and philosophy courses – and even by changing theology courses into what they called “religious studies.” This tendency was especially evident in their failure to continue to teach the Thomistic philosophical sciences, such as Aristotelian logic, philosophical psychology, metaphysics, natural theology, and natural law ethics. Such courses were routinely replaced by far fewer ones, which were then taught using an historical method inherently inimical to the truth status of competing historical positions. This, in turn, has led to generations of otherwise educated Catholic college graduates who have little or no real understanding of the Church’s intellectual heritage, and especially, its unequalled contributions offered by the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas.

In 2022, my book, Rational Responses to Skepticism, a rather large volume (569 pages), was published – offering robust rational defenses of the philosophical foundations of authentic divine revelation, specifically as seen in Catholic doctrine. It also contains defenses of certain central revealed truths, such as the genuine scientific possibility of a literal Adam and Eve.

Rational Responses to Skepticism includes detailed analyses of three major areas of extensive intellectual disputation and offers perspectives and conclusions on each that are relatively unique and original.

Number One: The Philosophical Impossibility of Naturalistic Evolution

Most people think that the theory of biological evolution by itself can explain the origin of new and higher species of life. Atomism, materialism, and naturalism maintain that chance interactions of physical particles alone can, over vast periods of times, result in the production of new and higher species of life. By “new and higher,” I do not mean merely biological species, such as mice or elephants, but philosophical natural species, which have essentially different levels of operational powers, for example, the difference between a carrot and a mouse. The carrot is alive, but lacks sensation, whereas the mouse has both life and can perceive the world around it by means of its five senses. Thus, the mouse belongs to a higher philosophical natural species of life than does the carrot.

Although certainly not a materialist, even Thomistic philosopher John Deely argues that chance encounters of physical particles can, through mutual interaction, cause such changes in the disposition of matter as to produce new and higher living forms. All this could take place without any outside interference from superior non-material agents, such as the God of classical theism.

It turns out that the usual facile understandings of the mechanisms proposed to make evolution possible fail to grasp the precise role of form in the organization of matter. A relatively simple, but totally overlooked, key insight renders these superficial explanations of evolution essentially unworkable.

Indeed, even what is called “theistic evolution,” such as Deely proposes, entails the claim that God does not work directly or supernaturally to produce biological evolution from one philosophical natural species to a new and higher one. God does not engage in any direct causation in the process of evolution, but merely lets it proceed by natural causes. In this, while God somehow “oversees” the whole process, it is not really distinct from materialistic evolution in that only natural causes are a work at any given stage of development from lower to higher species.

On the other hand, Australian philosopher and theologian, Austin M. Woodbury, points out the simple, but profound, truth that it is the substantial form of any being that dictates the exact organization of matter, not vice versa. Careful application of this key insight proves beyond doubt that an adequate understanding of things above the atomic level requires that new forms must be created by non-material agents in order to give the final organization of matter.

In a word, it cannot be the final organization of the matter that gives the form, but rather, it is the form that places the matter into that unique organization which belongs to the new and higher species.

This understanding enables the reader to see precisely why chance interactions alone could never produce the new and higher forms needed in order to account for the exact specificity of any organism produced by interaction of physical components. This insight dictates that evolution by atoms alone is impossible. Moreover, since direct and immediate causation by some higher power is required to account for new and higher species, even most forms of theistic evolution are incorrect.

Since Rational Responses to Skepticism (57-70) shows that neither Darwinian naturalistic evolution nor even theistic evolution adequately accounts for the evolutionary ascent to life and higher forms of life, its content represents a rather unique contribution to the discussion about life origins on planet Earth.

Number Two: Philosophical Critique of Ape-Language Studies

A great deal of public fascination with ape-language studies began in the 1930s and continued until near the end of the last century. Their findings were widely interpreted as proving that lower primates possessed true speech — just like human beings. This fascination with “talking apes” was manifested by the continued Hollywood production of Planet of the Apes films beginning in 1968 with the original Planet of the Apes movie and continuing to the present time with 2024’s Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes—some ten films in all!

The central question was whether such impressive chimpanzee and other lower primate communication abilities refuted the presumed uniqueness and superiority of human beings or not.

The extensive analysis of ape-language studies in Rational Responses to Skepticism (177-234) is one of the most complete scientific and philosophical treatments of the subject available online or in print. This content alone should justify the reading of this material that is not readily available elsewhere. While there are a number of essays on this subject written from the perspective of natural science alone, what makes this work different is the definitive philosophical interpretation of the scientific data.

One must realize that natural scientists usually cannot help but interpret lower primate communication skills with those of true human beings in terms of materialistic biological evolution. That is to say, they tend to view man as simply a highly-developed primate. As such, human communication abilities tend not to be viewed as qualitatively superior to lower primates, but rather as simply more complex and advanced forms of communication skills already beginning to emerge in earlier stages of animal evolution.

Most animal researchers do not expect evidence to show that modern man is radically distinct from other primates. They do not anticipate evidence of human intellectual abilities that radically transcend the world of apes. This gives such researchers a proclivity to over-interpret the behavior of chimps and gorillas in such fashion as to attribute to them human understanding and intentionality where none exists.

In a word, animal researchers have a hard time avoiding the infamous anthropomorphic fallacy. This is what happens when you put yourself in the place of the animal and think to yourself, “If I were doing that, I would be thinking such and such.” But we are not animals and we have no way of knowing directly what their immediate subjective experiences may be or not be.

The classic example of the foregoing is when a chimp made the sign for eating, but did so at its ear, rather than its mouth. The animal researcher inferred from this that the chimp was trying to be humorous. He did not consider the evident alternative, that is, that the chimp was literally a dumb animal.

While most animal researchers are technically aware of the dangers of the anthropomorphic fallacy, many are all too human not to slip into it at times. The famous animal anthropologist, Jane Goodall, after living with the chimps in Africa for decades, finally came to the conclusion that they really do have a sense of humor. My personal inference from this is that, perhaps, she lived in their midst a bit too long.

Early ape-language studies succeeded in convincing many people that apes could, indeed, be taught to talk—especially using the non-spoken symbols of American Sign Language. But in 1979, Columbia University psychologist H.S. Terrace and Indiana University anthropologists Thomas and Jean Sebeok published articles in Psychology Today (November 1979) challenging the correctness of the ape-language claims. Not only was the anthropomorphic fallacy pointed out, but also the unintentional cuing entailed in the “Clever Hans effect” was criticized. Other scientific researchers raised further challenges to apes linguistic abilities in later years.

In 1993, the Christendom College journal, Faith & Reason, published an article by me on recent ape-language studies which is largely replicated in Rational Responses to Skepticism.

In my detailed work on this subject, I reprise the scientific critiques of recent ape-language studies. But, I also present a fully developed philosophical analysis showing that, beyond the natural sensory abilities we share with animals, human beings possess intellectual faculties that are essential to the creation of true language. An extensive treatment of the radical difference between sense images and intellectual concepts provides definitive philosophical proof that human use of language stands essentially different from and superior to any and all forms of animal communication, even when we teach them sign language. Animals may use the symbols we attach to a conceptual meaning, but it is clearly evident that they possess no genuine conceptual understanding of the meaning of such symbols.

Finally, a positive demonstration of the absence of all intellectual ability in lower primates is given, based on the work of the eminent Australian philosopher and theologian, Austin M. Woodbury. This philosophical proof definitively terminates all claims that lower animals possess true language.

My original publication of this philosophical analysis of ape-language claims in 1993 appears to be both early and decisive.

Number Three: Rational Defense of a Literal Adam and Eve

Today many people think that the biblical story of Adam and Eve is simply pious, archaic mythology – having no literal meaning or credibility. Evolutionary biology speaks about human beings having evolved from primitive hominins in which lower sentient consciousness gradually evolved into intelligent and self-conscious modern man. There was no sudden appearance of the modern intelligent creatures that we are today. So, the notion that there would suddenly be a first true human being, Adam, with essentially superior intellectual abilities, makes no sense in such a gradualistic scenario.

Moreover, in 1995, geneticist Francisco J. Ayala did a study leading him to conclude that the 32 ancient allelic lineages of the HLA-DRB1 gene existed at the time of the Homo (human)/Pan (chimpanzee) split. Since this is far more than the merely four allelic lineages of the HLA-DRB1 gene that can pass through a single mating pair, Ayala inferred that a single mating pair of first true human beings, such as Adam and Eve, was scientifically impossible.

Worse yet, gradual evolutionary changes leading to modern man are understood to have taken place in terms of whole populations with “bottlenecks” of no less than several thousand individuals—never in terms of a single mating pair of first true humans.

On the other hand, many Christians follow a biblical interpretation that places Adam and Eve a mere six to ten thousand years ago. This is clearly contrary to anthropological evidence from ancient artifacts, such as Acheulean symmetrical stone hand axes, and the controlled use of fire that indicate much earlier dates for true human beings — dates ranging from at least 750,000 years ago or, perhaps, even much earlier.

Despite the foregoing difficulties, readers of Rational Responses to Skepticism (451-471) will be pleasantly surprised to find demonstrated therein a theologically and philosophically correct model for a literal Adam and Eve that is entirely compatible with sound science.

Solving this enigma is akin to employing a mathematical formula with three variables which must all be correct at the same time. This means, for example, that philosophy requires that the first true human being must possess an intellective soul whose nature is inherently spiritual. At the same time, orthodox theology requires that Adam must be the first true human being and that all true men on earth must be his biological descendants. Moreover, natural science requires both that the first true men lived at least as long ago as mentioned above and that present genetic diversity somehow permits the existence of a single mating first pair of true humans. That is to say, at some point over half a million years ago, there must have existed a “bottleneck” of a single mating pair of two first true human beings, Adam and Eve, from which present genetic diversity has somehow come to be – despite the objections presented above.

Some writers salvage the appearance of a single pair, Adam and Eve, with true human intellectual abilities. They are also depicted as fully modern-type humans who are the first parents of all the rest of mankind. But they are conceived as being directly created only six or so thousand years ago, which directly conflicts with the scientific evidence for true men hundreds of thousands of years ago. This view must be false.

Others allow that man appeared hundreds of thousands or millions of years ago, but simply deny that a literal Adam and Eve ever existed. This view is clearly contradictory to unquestionable Christian doctrine.

Still others, such as Kenneth Kemp, save the theological and philosophical requirements for a single mating pair of first parents as well as allow for this event taking place hundreds of thousands of years ago, but account for the genetic diversity we see today through widespread interbreeding with non-human hominins who might be otherwise very attractive, but lacking in true intellect and spiritual souls.

The problem with this solution is that it appears to make God’s plan for man inherently entail large amounts of the sexual intercourse between true human beings and subhuman animals. Such acts are conventionally condemned ethically as the sexual perversion of bestiality. It seems difficult to attribute such perversity to the deliberate plans of the All Holy God. This objection to Kemp’s interbreeding hypotheses is affirmed by Vincent Torley: “The possibility of rational human beings inter-breeding with biologically human but sub-rational beasts is not even considered in the Judeo-Christian tradition. That doesn’t bode well for Professor Kemp’s thesis, I’m afraid.”

The only remaining view which satisfies all the philosophical, theological, and scientific criteria for truth is one that affirms a literal first true human mating pair, Adam and Eve, but has them appear on earth at least half a million years ago.

Such a model for a literal Adam and Eve is precisely that which Rational Responses to Skepticism defends and demonstrates as both possible and necessarily true. In this, my book is, perhaps, relatively unique—thereby rendering belief in a literal Adam and Eve to be rationally coherent.

Conclusion

This concludes the short highlighting of how Rational Responses to Skepticism contains definitive treatments of at least three very important topics not readily available to readers elsewhere and which receive full development in this volume. While the book itself is rather lengthy (569 pages), readers should not find exploring its contents all that challenging, since it is composed of forty-one separately-published online articles – each one of which was intended to be read as largely complete and understandable in itself.


Dr. Dennis Bonnette retired as a Full Professor of Philosophy in 2003 from Niagara University in Lewiston, New York, where he also served as Chairman of the Philosophy Department from 1992 to 2002. He received his doctorate in philosophy from the University of Notre Dame in 1970. He is the author of three books, Aquinas’ Proofs for God’s ExistenceOrigin of the Human Species, and Rational Responses to Skepticism: A Catholic Philosopher Defends Intellectual Foundations for Traditional Beliefas well as many scholarly articles.


Featured: The Garden of Eden, by the Limbourg brothers, from the Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, Folio 25, verso, ca. 1411-1416.