Monday, January 22, 2007

Plantinga on the religious neutrality of science

Is evolution religiously neutral? Plantinga says no.

A. Evolution religiously neutral?

According to a popular contemporary myth, science is a cool, reasoned, wholly dispassionate attempt to figure out the truth about ourselves and our world, entirely independent of religion, or ideology, or moral convictions, or theological commitments. I believe this is deeply mistaken. Following Augustine (and Abraham Kuyper, Herman Dooyeweerd, Harry Jellema, Henry Stob and other Reformed thinkers), I believe that there is conflict, a battle between the Civitas Dei, the City of God, and the City of the World. As a matter of fact, what we have, I think, is a three-way battle. On the one hand there is Perennial Naturalism, a view going back to the ancient world, a view according to which there is no God, nature is all there is, and mankind is to be understood as a part of nature. Second, there is what I shall call 'Enlightenment Humanism': we could also call it 'Enlightenment Subjectivism' or 'Enlightenment Antirealism': this way of thinking goes back substantially to the great eighteenth-century enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant. According to its central tenet, it is really we human beings, we men and women, who structure the world, who are responsible for its fundamental outline and lineaments. Naturally enough, a view as startling as this comes in several forms. According to Jean Paul Sartre and his existentialist friends, we do this world-structuring freely and individually; according to Ludwig Wittgenstein and his followers we do it communally and by way of language; according to Kant himself it is done by the transcendental ego which, oddly enough, is neither one nor many, being itself the source of the one-many structure of the world. So two of the parties to this three-way contest are Perennial Naturalism and Enlightenment Humanism; the third party, of course, is Christian theism. Of course there are many unthinking and ill-conceived combinations, much blurring of lines, many cross currents and eddies, many halfway houses, much halting between two opinions. Nevertheless I think these are the three basic contemporary Western ways of looking at reality, three basically religious ways of viewing ourselves and the world. The conflict is real, and of profound importance. The stakes, furthermore, are high; this is a battle for men's souls.

Now it would be excessively naive to think that contemporary science is religiously and theologically neutral, standing serenely above this battle and wholly irrelevant to it. Perhaps parts of science are like that: mathematics, for example, and perhaps physics, or parts of physics-although even in these areas there are connections.7 Other parts are obviously and deeply involved in this battle: and the closer the science in question is to what is distinctively human, the deeper the involvement.

To turn to the bit of science in question, the theory of evolution plays a fascinating and crucial role in contemporary Western culture. The enormous controversy about it is what is most striking, a controversy that goes back to Darwin and continues full force today. Evolution is the regular subject of courtroom drama; one such trial-the spectacular Scopes trial of 1925-has been made the subject of an extremely popular film. Fundamentalists regard evolution as the work of the Devil. In academia, on the other hand, it is an idol of the contemporary tribe; it serves as a shibboleth, a litmus test distinguishing the ignorant and bigoted fundamentalist goats front the properly acculturated and scientifically receptive sheep. Apparently this litimus test extends far beyond the confines of this terrestrial globe: according to the Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins, "If superior creatures from space ever visit earth, the first question they will ask, in order to assess the level of our civilization, is: 'Have they discovered evolution yet?... Indeed many of the experts-for example, Dawkins, William Provine, Stephen Gould-display a sort of revulsion at the very idea of special creation by God, as if this idea is not merely not good science, but somehow a bit obscene, or at least unseemly; it borders on the immoral; it is worthy of disdain and contempt. In some circles, confessing to finding evolution attractive will get you disapproval and ostracism and may lose you your job; in others, confessing doubts about evolution will have the same doleful effect. In Darwin's day, some suggested that it was all well and good to discuss evolution in the universities and among the cognoscenti; they thought public discussion unwise, however; for it would be a shame if the lower classes found out about it. Now, ironically enough, the 'shoe is sometimes on the other foot; it is [he devotees of evolution who sometimes express the fear that public discussion of doubts and difficulties with evolution could have harmful political effects.8

So why all the furor? The answer is obvious: evolution has deep religious connections; deep connections with how we understand ourselves at the most fundamental level. Many evangelicals and fundamentalists see in it a threat to the faith; they don't want it taught to their children, at any rate as scientifically established fact, and they see acceptance of it as corroding proper acceptance of the Bible. On the other side, among the secularists, evolution functions as a myth, in a technical sense of that term: a shared way of understanding ourselves at the deep level of religion, a deep interpretation of ourselves to ourselves, a way of telling us why we are here, where we come from, and where we are going.

It was serving in this capacity when Richard Dawkins (according to Peter Medawar, "one of the most brilliant of the rising generation of biologists") leaned over and remarked to A. J. Ayer at one of those elegant, candle-lit, bibulous Oxford dinners that he couldn't imagine being an atheist before 1859 (the year Darwin's Origin of Species was published); "although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin," said he, "Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist."9 (Let me recommend Dawkins' book to you: it is brilliantly written, unfailingly fascinating, and utterly wrongheaded. It was second on the British best-seller list for some considerable time, second only to Mamie Jenkins' Hip and Thigh Diet.) Dawkins goes on:

All appearances to the contrary, the only watchmaker in nature is the blind forces of physics, albeit deployed in a very special way. A true watchmaker has foresight: he designs his cogs and springs, and plans their interconnections, with a future purpose in his mind's eye. Natural selection, the blind, unconscious automatic process which Darwin discovered, and which we now know is the explanation for the existence and apparently purposeful form of all life, has no purpose in mind. It has no mind and no mind's eye. It does not plan for the future. It has no vision, no foresight, no sight at all. If it can be said to play the role of watchmaker in nature, it is the blind watchmaker (p. 5).

Evolution was functioning in that same mythic capacity in the remark of the famous zoologist G. G. Simpson: after posing the question "What is man?" he answers, "The point I want to make now is that all attempts to answer that question before 1859 are worthless and that we will be better off if we ignore them completely."10 Of course it also functions in that capacity in serving as a litmus test to distinguish the ignorant fundamentalists from the properly enlightened cognoscenti; it functions in the same way in many of the debates, in and out of the courts, as to whether it should be taught in the schools, whether other views should be given equal time, and the like. Thus Michael Ruse: "the fight against creationism is a fight for all knowledge, and that battle can be won if we all work to see that Darwinism, which has had a great past, has an even greater future."11

The essential point here is really Dawkins' point: Darwinism, the Grand Evolutionary Story, makes it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist. What he means is simple enough. If you are Christian, or a theist of some other kind, you have a ready answer to the question, how did it all happen? How is it that there are all the kinds of floras and faunas we behold; how did they all get here? The answer, of course, is that they have been created by the Lord. But if you are not a believer in God, things are enormously more difficult. How did all these things get here? How did life get started and how did it come to assume its present multifarious forms? It seems monumentally implausible to think these forms just popped into existence; that goes contrary to all our experience. So how did it happen? Atheism and Secularism need an answer to this question. And the Grand Evolutionary Story gives the answer: somehow life arose from nonliving matter by way of purely natural means and in accord with the fundamental laws of physics; and once life started, all the vast profusion of contemporary plant and animal life arose from those early ancestors by way of common descent, driven by random variation and natural selection. I said earlier that we can't automatically identify the deliverances of reason with the teaching of current science because the teaching of current science keeps changing. Here we have another reason for resisting that identification: a good deal more than reason goes into the acceptance of such a theory as the Grand Evolutionary Story. For the nontheist, evolution is the only game in town; it is an essential part of any reasonably complete nontheistic way of thinking; hence the devotion to it, the suggestions that it shouldn't be discussed in public, and the venom, the theological odium with which dissent is greeted.

8Thus according to Anthony Flew, to suggest that there is real doubt about evolution is to corrupt the youth.

9Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (London and New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1986), pp. 6 and 7.

10Quoted in Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976), p. 1,

11Darwinism Defended, pp. 326-327.

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