A World Suffused with Value
Spending parts of the last few days writing an article about atheism has given me the opportunity to revisit some of the notes and quotes I accumulated during my thesis research a few years ago. Discussions about the relationship between the discoveries of science and the claims of faith seem to occur quite regularly, both on this blog and in my everyday conversations. This quote from John Polkinghorne’s Beyond Science: The Wider Human Context isolates an important dimension of the conversation, in my view:
No adequate account of reality could fail to recognize that we live in a world suffused with value. The rational beauty that science discovers in the structure of the universe, and the sense of wonder enjoyed by scientists in the face of such discoveries, is part of that encounter with value. A world made up of quarks and gluons and electrons is also a world that is the carrier of a deep aesthetic beauty and the arena in which we exercise moral choice in accordance with those ethical intuitions that are part of our knowledge of reality. As part of its own peculiar style of inquiry, science may choose officially to neglect this dimension of value, but such a methodological limitation does not warrant the conclusion of a corresponding ontological poverty.
I see a number of problems with Polkinghorne’s expression here. For one thing, it is not an argument, it is a put down. And also it is not true.
Re: “No adequate account of reality could fail to recognize that we live in a world suffused with value.”
Darwin’s theory that natural selection is the main agent of evolution is an example of an account of reality that works quite well that says that the world is not suffused with value.
Re: “The rational beauty that science discovers in the structure of the universe …”
Science has not discovered “rational beauty.” And it is quite a stretch to say anything about something like the “structure of the universe.” It is more accurate to say that today we don’t think the universe has a structure.
Re: “As part of its own peculiar style of inquiry, science may choose officially to neglect this dimension of value, but such a methodological limitation does not warrant the conclusion of a corresponding ontological poverty.”
To say that science is a “peculiar style of inquiry,” is to overlook its obvious advantages and its historical pedigree. And does he really want science to apply its method to “the dimension of value?” Is leaving the dimension of value out a “methodological limitation?” Not in the science I know. Surely he has read Bacon. And “ontological poverty?” Even if he disagrees with the ontology associated with ideas of an emergent universe, it is untrue that it represents ontological poverty.
It seems like Polkinghorne believes he can throw negative expressions against science, or the emergent view of the universe, and make his point in favor of religion. But he sounds like a man of prejudice. He sounds like a curmudgeon.
I think your own way of expressing things is better. We need not bother with putting down science. It is enough to say as you have said that the very fact that we seem so programmed to search for meaning and beauty is highly suggestive. Even a man famous for saying that life has no meaning, has written this: “Poverty kept me from thinking all is well under the sun and in history; the sun taught me that history is not everything.” (Camus) Ironically, I think it is more worthwhile to read Camus than to read Polkinghorne.
I looked into the Stackhouse blog yesterday [see link] and noticed a discussion of suffering and animals that lead directly to emergence style arguments such as you raise. Thought of you 🙂 It doesn’t prove anything except that these are lively, historic discussions in evangelical circles.
On your response to Polkinghorne- I think you are being unfair to a very sharp thinker with a strong science background. I say that in spite of disagreeing with him that the material world is “suffused with meaning” and agreeing with you that meaning emerges from within people.
Emergence theology is not the only explanation that works. While I disagree with both you and Polkinghorne, I do think his explanation is more comprehensive than yours. It attempts to create a place for meaning where emergence doesn’t.
And I don’t know how you can argue that science is not a “peculiar style of inquiry” with “methodological limitations.” It is profoundly limited and its limits hit the wall when it cannot distinguish between the morality of creating atom bombs to drop on Japanese cities and delivering aid to Haiti.
That is a big limitation. Polkinghorne not putting science down by noting science has “methodological limitations” and he certainly is not a “curmudgeon” 🙂
James, I think Polkinghorne’s use of so many negative words to describe science make his prose sound cranky and prejudiced. Look at these adjectives and nouns that he associates with science: inadequate, fails, peculiar, limitations, neglect, poverty.
I don’t think Polkinghorne can persuade many people that such words fit science. Certainly not me, even while I agree with Ryan about the telos in the universe.
Instead of assaulting science in a way that destroys his own credibility like Polkinghorne does, Ryan’s approach is much better at accomplishing the objective of assuring people that life and the universe have meaning. What I remember him writing here more than once is something like: the very fact that we seem so programmed to search for meaning and beauty is highly suggestive. Even Camus agrees with that.
Science doesn’t claim to have morality. Nor should it. It’s a tool set, rules, guidelines and a methodology.
Morality only enters the scientific realm when it is mistaken for an ends rather than a means.
I suggest reading Galileo’s letter to the Grand Duchess, it is a beautiful description of what the role of science is and the role of the church is.
Perfect, freely available on the net.
I certainly wasn’t drawn to the quote because I thought it was disparaging of (much less prejudiced against!) science. Polkinghorne is a scientist, after all. Presumably he thinks reasonably highly about the endeavor. I think he is simply drawing attention to the limits of science in a cultural context that tends to think that if a scientific story can be told about some feature or other of life on this planet it has therefore “explained” said feature without remainder (John Haught refers to this as a tendency toward “explanatory monism”).
I do not interpret the phrase “ontological poverty” negatively; I see Polkinghorne as simply pointing out that just because meaning and value cannot be discovered by science (which, again, is no slight against science—it’s just not the tool for the job), it does not mean that they do not exist.
(I love the Camus quote by the way. I’d rather read Camus and Polkinghorne than choose between them :).)
Yes, I know that what you saw in this quote is that it “isolates an important dimension of the conversation,” the dimension of value, as Polkinghorne called it. It does. And, let me say it again, I think you say it better than he does, you isolate it better than he does.
I think Thomas Kuhn does a better job of explaining the boundaries of science.
Well, I still think you’re being a bit hard on Polkinghorne, but thank you for the kind words.
You’re right, Thomas Kuhn is very good on these matters as well.
It almost seems as if you find Darwin’s views “suffused with value.” Why else would you defend them so vigorously? It seems like you’re demonstrating the exact point that Polkinghorne is making about the aesthetic appreciation for truth (i.e. it’s better to believe Darwin than Polkinghorne because Darwin is closer to “the truth”).
Even if you’re convinced of Darwinism as an ideology you still have to answer the question of how “valueless” processes produced creatures who virtually cannot think or speak without conferring value.
I think you may be referring to my sentence in a comment several levels above that says: “Darwin’s theory that natural selection is the main agent of evolution is an example of an account of reality that works quite well that says that the world is not suffused with value.” When I wrote that I was thinking about how natural selection is indifferent to goodness and evil.
I would not say that I am “convinced of Darwinism as an ideology.” I would say instead that Darwin’s argument that natural selection is the primary agent that explains the origin of species is persuasive to me and to many other people. That theory is the scientific paradigm of our day. Under that theory, natural selection is considered sufficient to explain why we confer value, even though the process of evolution itself is indifferent. The theory is that conferring value has enhanced the survival of humanity or, at least, it did not inhibit it.
To me this points toward the deep incoherence at the heart of a Darwinism (recognizing the key difference between science and ideology): we are forced to reduce every feature of human experience to the realm of adaptive utility.
We may need to use words like “value” or “goodness” or “love” or “beauty” in the normal course of our lives but these things are not what they appear to be. They are really nothing more than illusions foisted upon us by an amoral process of natural selection. I can’t see a way to avoid pure nihilism if this is taken to be true.
This kind of ideology eventually devours itself because it gives no basis for relying on our brains to tell us the truth about anything. All you can trust your brain for is to give you whatever illusions are necessary for your survival. If things like value and love and beauty are illusions, so is rationality.
Re: “I can’t see a way to avoid pure nihilism if this is taken to be true.”
Me too. (Nietzsche could not either.)
Re: “If things like value and love and beauty are illusions, so is rationality.”
Indeed. If the premise is true, the conclusion seems inescapable.
My hope is that the premise is false – that love and beauty and rationality are real and dependable. Surely an explanation of life and the universe that says our love means nothing and our hope is vain is too macabre to be true.
Seems to me, Ken, that the question you need to answer is “What would be different if either premise is true or false?” Hope doesn’t change truth or falsity. If my hope- to paraphrase Paul [the NT writer 🙂 ], is based on a false premise I am pathetic. That goes for either side of the argument. The stakes are very high.
Yes, Nietzsche is one of the few who dared to look into the full implications of the death of God (and at a significant personal cost). I think the fact that so few of us (including the most strident atheists) can seriously consider this as a possibility is suggestive. It seems to me that if a Darwinian worldview requires a premise that renders all subsequent conclusions meaningless then this makes Darwinism at least as unstable as any worldview it is alleged to have overthrown.
I share your hope that love, beauty and rationality are dependable.
This quote is beautiful. Thank you.
I am reading a book that I imagine you too might enjoy. By a professor of literature at Standord, Robert Pogue Harrison, the book is Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition. It is a cultural critique through literary criticism. In the background I see contemporary currents – ecofeminism and emergence – woven beautifully together with religion, especially Christianity. An important theme is the ethic of care, and that is the connection with gardens. It is quite different from the God books on your list. Nevertheless, it deals in its own way, a soft way, with theodicy and how to live. And that is why I imagine you might enjoy it.
I found that Camus quote in the preface to the book.
Oops, I accidentally attached that comment to the wrong thread. I meant to attach it to the one above.
Sounds like a fascinating book Ken. I’ll have to add it to my list of books to read (I like to read the odd non-“God book” every now and then :)).
I’m working on a diagram for my tutorial’s neverending discussion of sacramentalism and nominalism, and it seems to me that the spectrum between pantheism – sacramental ontology – neo-scholasticism/charismaticism – nominalism – deism – atheism is not a line but an almost closed loop, where atheism and pantheism almost touch, if you can visualize that. Is that fair?
The movement from atheism to pantheism seems fairly inexorable, despite the best efforts of the atheist magisterium. (If atheism had a Congregation for the Doctrine of the (un)Faith, who would be its Cardinal Ratzinger? 🙂
Yes, I can certainly visualize the loop, Michael, and I think it is a very fair assessment. I think the bare fact that virtually all of us find it necessary to attribute some value to the world makes the gap between atheism and pantheism a very small one—much smaller, at least, than many seem prepared to admit. Even Richard Dawkins—the chief evangelist, if not “Cardinal Ratzinger” of atheism :)—seems to come close to pantheism at times!
One of the questions your picture provokes is, are those who preserve belief in some kind of a providential God inside or outside of the loop?
Oh happiness there is grace enough for us. 🙂