Thursday, January 29, 2009

Darwin, Dawkins and I

As a former biology student--but that was many moons ago, in the time of Theodosius Dobzhansky--I've been watching, listening to and reading about the current "debate" over evolution vs. so-called "Intelligent Design" (creationism's new mask) with mounting frustration. It's less a debate than a dialogue of the deaf. My regular sparring partner in the comments and chicken-wings buddy Peter has challenged me to post something on this, and now is as good a time as any.

My very first post ever was called "The Theory of Unintelligent Design," but I was using the concept mostly as a metaphor for the foibles, vices and stupidity that win the race against virtue almost every time. Surely, I suggested, this can be no accident. Are we genetically programmed through evolution to make dumb choices, like propping up the Harper government, or were we made out of fingerpaint, flour-and-water paste and construction paper by a kindergarten god? Or--am I really saying the same thing twice here?

As I grow older, and experience a few unexplainable phenomena in my own life, and read about near-death experiences and the like, I find myself retreating from an aggressive atheistic or materialist position--at least, from the way that these positions are presently framed. And at the same time, I dislike the current debates intensely, because it seems to me that a number of errors are being made by all of the participants, and there is little room to widen the discussion.

I'm an unreconstructed Darwinist, as appalled by the pseudo-scientific shenanigans of Denyse O'Leary and the intellectual dishonesty of Ben Stein as anyone in the atheist/materialist camp. And, while I reject utterly the fundamentalist religious "explanations" for our existence, and find myself equally appalled by the credence given to stealth Catholics like Margaret Somerville, who abandon religious imagery but not the perfidious imperatives that underlie it,* I'm not much happier with the polemical Darwinist materialists among us.

I'm simply not in the Richard Dawkins camp, or even in the same place as the wonderfully entertaining PZ Myers. I won't put up the scarlet "A" that appears on many of the websites of those I generally respect. That's too much a statement of faith, it seems to me (although not as much a leap as belief in a God or gods), and it closes off debate. And, while some might argue that there really is no debate as such, because the two positions (materialist atheism v. theology) are incommensurable, I believe that a third approach is possible, and that there is indeed a valuable debate to be had, but on a different footing.

I rather liked Marylynn Robinson's review of Dawkins' The God Delusion (Harper's Magazine, November 2006), because she points, with some sophistication, to a fundamental flaw in his approach that applies equally well to the creationists' position--in a word, reductionism. Much of the current discussion has become a binaristic Us v. Them approach that fosters just that. It's God or Matter and nothing in between.

What if we simply abandoned both concepts, each of them as metaphysical as the other? And what if we demanded logical consistency, such that we would not expect science to answer metaphysical questions and not demand that metaphysicians subject their claims to scientific "proof?"

Science cannot refute the metaphysical--it simply proposes to do without it. I would go further, and argue that science is a technique, not an ontology, and there are plenty of scientific instrumentalists who would agree with me. But, by the same token, those who enjoy the metaphysical speculation that religion entails should not (in the moral sense) require confirmation of their truth-claims in the "phenomenal world." It seems to me to be a weak strategy to confront scientists on their own turf. It's compounding the naturalist felony, in a way, to attempt to derive the existence of a God/non-material realm from natural facts. It makes as little sense as asking a scientist to define the Holy Ghost in scientific terms, and to explain of what the sin against it consists.

What if we were to establish, as a departure-point, that nothing about natural evolution refutes the existence either of a God or of a greater "reality" than the phenomenal one? There are plenty of religious who find evolution and metaphysics compatible--Teilhard de Chardin comes immediately to mind. Why the urgency to refute evolutionary theory and look for the hand of a Creator in nature using scientific observation? One might as well look for "goodness" with a telescope. And why the equivalent urgency to reject all religion and with it the profoundly human impulses that it codifies, blaming every human ill upon it (although, in fairness, organized religion seems to be rather too much of this world, replacing actual religious experience with systems of command and control)?

It seems that we are too prone even in the twenty-first century to look for "theories of everything." Fundies do it; so do scientists; so do crass materialists. It appears to me that we can avoid a lot of the traps that abound in current discussions by accepting that even seemingly immutable categories like "life" and "death" and "time" and "space" may be artificial constructs; that we exist, perhaps, in all of the constructed realms of our philosophy at once, and that what really matters is wonder and openness.

Space does not permit even a superficial discussion of consciousness; suffice it to say that attempted scientific "explanations" of it seem deeply unsatisfactory, at least to me. In Derek Parfit's seminal work on identity, he just shrugs the question off as unimportant. But religious "explanations" are equally unsatisfactory. So what if--imagine this--some of the greatest mysteries simply can't be reduced to "explanation?" Including what we are?

Perhaps the debate worth having is the degree to which we can flourish without the need for a battle for supremacy of what can only be seen as partial and all too often flawed systems of explanation. Whether it's crude, mouth-breathing creationism, its (relatively) more sophisticated and politically savvy sibling, "Intelligent Design," or a reductionist scientism that misses so much and so much, current engagements do little more than entrench positions that either lack coherence and sense (in the case of creationism/ID) or fail dismally to address the full scope of our existential humanity (in the case of over-extended science).

The worth of science as a productive procedure is, or should be, self-evident. But the varieties of religious experience cannot easily be reduced to a set of scientific observations. (For that matter, neither can our relatively mundane experiences of pain or pleasure.) Must we caricature and debase both by turning them into polemics and counter-polemics when--just perhaps--they are both important facets of what it is to be human?
Somerville seeks to prove, for example--or, rather, she simply asserts--that same-sex marriage is wrong, that adoption is unnatural, that abortion is unacceptable, and that we should depend upon such profoundly objective criteria as "the yuck factor" to make our moral way in the world.

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