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A “Thick Enough” Worldview

The controversy around the Bruce Walke story has led to some interesting conversations (on this blog, and elsewhere) about the relationship between science and faith, questions about how we read Scripture, and others. One of these conversations took place this morning.I was talking to my brother (who just happens to be in the middle of teaching a apologetics course, where such controversies are part of the fare) about Waltke, evolution, the perceived battle between science and faith, etc. He said something that I thought was very interesting and worth sharing:

[A]fter all of my reading on this, it seems like the strongest arguments are not in defense of the “compatibility” of evolution with Christianity; it’s of the incompatibility of materialistic Darwinism with almost every aspect of human existence.

In other words, perhaps we are coming at some of these questions from the wrong angle. Or at the very least, that there are other important ways of addressing the evolution question or the general relationship between science and faith. We could approach the question this way: Here is what we know (or think we know) about the universe. Does it line up with the the Christian story or the Bible (as we interpret it)? This is a common enough approach, from either side of the theist/atheist divide. On this approach, achieving harmony between evolution and faith will be among the goals.

But the question doesn’t have to be approached that way—at least not exclusively. We could also approach it this way: Here is what we know about what human beings are like, here are some of the things they care most deeply about, here are some of the rock-bottom existential realities that are observable across time and space, here some of the things that we know to be necessary for a life of flourishing. Do they line up with a purely materialistic account of who we are and how we got here? Can a purely naturalistic account not only tell a story about how such human features may have arrived on the scene, but also give us a compelling reason to nourish and preserve them and in a way that doesn’t reduce them to mere by-products of a grinding struggle for survival?

On this approach, it is not Christian faith (or any other faith) that must brought before (and survive) the examination of sovereign scientific rationality; rather, it is Darwinian naturalism that must pass the test of human experience. The first approach starts with the material world, the second with human experience. Both approaches get at important elements of the issue and need to be factored into how we think about these questions.

I think that John Polkinghorne is getting at the same thing as my brother in these quotes from Beyond Science: The Wider Human Context:

Our scientific, aesthetic, moral and spiritual powers greatly exceed what can convincingly be claimed to be needed in the struggle for survival, and to regard them as merely a fortunate but fortuitous by-product of that struggle in not to treat the mystery of their existence with adequate seriousness.

We are entitled to require a consistency between what people write in their studies and the way in which they live their lives. I submit that no-one lives as if science were enough. Our account of the world must be rich enough—have a thick enough texture and a sufficiently generous rationality—to contain the total spectrum of human meeting with reality. The procrustean oversimplification of a fundamentalist reductionism will not begin to suffice…. The deliverances of science constrain our metaphysical understandings but they do not determine them. There is much else that must also be taken into account.

20 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    Re: ” Can a purely naturalistic account not only tell a story about how such human features may have arrived on the scene, but also give us a compelling reason to nourish and preserve them and in a way that doesn’t reduce them to mere by-products of a grinding struggle for survival?”

    Many people in the West now believe it does. That belief is common in ecological movements and writings, for example. It is common among faculties at universities. It is has been justified in the writings of many prominent contemporary philosophers such as Richard Rorty and Jurgen Habermas.

    Re: Polkinghorne’s argument that “Our scientific, aesthetic, moral and spiritual powers greatly exceed what can convincingly be claimed to be needed in the struggle for survival, and to regard them as merely a fortunate but fortuitous by-product of that struggle in not to treat the mystery of their existence with adequate seriousness.”

    Within the sciences and humanities faculties at universities, Polkinghorne’s view in the second half of this quotation is not widely held. He may not personally like the answer evolutionary biology offers here, but it does not lack “adequate seriousness” as he charges.

    April 13, 2010
    • Gil Dueck #

      I’m not sure that vague references to the ecological movement or “university faculties” (does such a category even exist?) really address the issue here. Precisely how are Polkinghorne’s objections actually addressed?

      As I understand Polkinghorne, he’s objecting to a reductionist “scientism” that explains every feature of human experience as “nothing more” than biology. I think this kind of reductionism is the inevitable conclusion of naturalism. Do you agree with this? If so, then I think Polkinghorne’s critique is a serious indictment of the deficiencies of naturalism.

      It may be that a number of people have come to peace with a certain version of naturalism that, in their opinion, affords dignity to human beings and provides a compelling reason to work toward the preservation of the planet. In my view, this would only be an illustration of the fact that it’s possible to affirm intellectually a worldview that cannot be consistently lived or practiced in any meaningful way.

      April 13, 2010
      • Ken #

        Gil,

        In a comment below Ryan mentioned that the passage he quoted was in a chapter in which Polkinghorne was discussing Richard Dawkins. In that context, I agree with Polkinghorne’s assessment.

        I generally don’t read the hateful anti-religious writers like Dawkins and Dennett, so I was not thinking in the same context as you and Ryan. I read the the softer, kinder naturalist stuff.

        I think of Richard Rorty as a good example of someone presents a naturalist perspective that is not reductive and that takes all the dimensions that concern Polkinghorne (and us) seriously. In addition, I think of nature writers like Joseph Wood Krutch and Loren Eiseley as people who have naturalist perspectives that are not reductive. Those writings show me that the naturalist perspective is not necessarily reductive, even though it is reductive in the cases of “scientism” and anti-religious atheism you have in mind. I certainly do not want to defend Dawkins and his type.

        April 13, 2010
      • I agree with you, Ken. Richard Dawkins is (thankfully) not representative of all naturalists. But the one thing he does try to be is consistent. As silly as some of his arguments are, he at least tries to consistently live as though scientific knowledge really was the only kind available.

        I would echo Gil’s comments and his question. I think reductionism is an inevitable conclusion of naturalism. How is this conclusion avoidable, in your view? Naturalists may not particularly like the consequences of their view or find them tolerable to live with (as the vast majority clearly do not), but that doesn’t change the logic. I’ve read bits of Rorty and Habermas and I’m not convinced they pull off what they’re trying to do. Inevitably, they seem to import objective value from outside the system.

        April 13, 2010
      • Gil #

        Thanks for clarifying Ken. I’d also be interested in how specifically the authors you cite conceive of a non-reductive naturalism.

        April 13, 2010
      • Ken #

        Ryan and Gil,

        I am not quite sure how to answer your questions about how reductionism is avoidable in naturalism or how the authors I mentioned conceive of naturalism in a way that is non-reductive. I think if you mean by reductive that naturalism is inherently reductively in the sense that it leaves out supernaturalism, then they are reductive. On the other hand, if you mean naturalism is reductive when it is an expression of scientism, then they are not reductive because they don’t take that position relative to science or what is knowable. Rorty, for example, as a pragmatist, did not view science as revealing truth. Eiseley and Krutch were essayists. Their work is artistic and so they did not argue points or theories directly. Proponents of scientism probably object to some of the things they say, and say that their work is religious, although their writings reflect a naturalist perspective. Evolution and natural selection figure greatly in their writings. Ultimately I guess I can only say that their work is naturalist and nonreductive through the exercise of literary criticism, which is, of course, a subjective thing.

        I think I would add Thoreau to the list of examples of someone who wrote from a naturalist perspective and who is yet nonreductive. Another example might be the religion scholar, Mircea Eliade. He wrote about religion in a naturalist way that, unlike his predecessors (Frazer, for example,) does not reduce religion to something else.

        I think it was Wittgenstein who wrote about how we can only define words by giving examples. I think he is right. And so, I can ultimately only say that I find in these writers examples of naturalism that are not examples of reductionism.

        April 14, 2010
      • Perhaps it does boil down to the fact that I really do think that a naturalism that is consistent is inherently reductive. Ultimately, whatever values and judgments we might want to attribute to life on this planet or our own lives, they do not represent anything real. Attributions of value are simply fictions we impose upon an amoral, dysteleological world. To me, the examples you cite simply prove Polkinghorne’s point: “no one lives as though science were enough.” It is always science + something—science interpreted within some framework of meaning-making, whether it is Christianity, moralistic atheism, deep ecology or whatever else.

        April 14, 2010
      • Ken #

        I don’t expect to persuade you to change your mind. I don’t find them as dark as they sound in your description. We do at least agree that the naturalist perspective and the Christian one of which you write are quite different.

        April 14, 2010
      • Gil #

        Well if nothing else we have a bit of a role reversal here: Ryan, the purveyor of “dark truths” and Ken the hopeful optimist 🙂

        April 14, 2010
  2. “Can a purely naturalistic account not only tell a story about how such human features may have arrived on the scene, but also give us a compelling reason to nourish and preserve them and in a way that doesn’t reduce them to mere by-products of a grinding struggle for survival?”

    Ryan, I think you make an interesting change, and an important one, in Darwinian thinking. The “mere by-products ” you describe I believe wouldn’t be by-products but rather just products. By calling it a “by-product’ it somehow downplays the significance of certain traits surviving in a lineage and others not. By-product suggests it was something that kind of just popped up out of accident in the creation of something else. This is not how evolution works. Mutations occur and they either survive or they do not. The ones that do are products of surviving in the current environment. Yes, there can be leftovers from a time when a certain trait was necessary and now no longer is, but this is very different from a “by-product.” In this world-view, if we view these as products in their own right, then what we give value to is ultimately part of what it is to be human, the good with the bad.

    “Our scientific, aesthetic, moral and spiritual powers greatly exceed what can convincingly be claimed to be needed in the struggle for survival, and to regard them as merely a fortunate but fortuitous by-product of that struggle in not to treat the mystery of their existence with adequate seriousness.”

    I agree that to treat it as a by-product it fails, but as a a product it begins to.
    However, I must suggest here the Darwin’s book is the “Origin of Species,” which it describes very well. It is not the Origin of Life, in which Darwin or contemporary evolutionists have nothing to offer other than speculation. This is why I believe the two views are not contradictory at all, as the Origin of Life is what we all are truly ignorant to. It takes faith to hold either view point.

    “The procrustean oversimplification of a fundamentalist reductionism will not begin to suffice…. The deliverances of science constrain our metaphysical understandings but they do not determine them. There is much else that must also be taken into account.”

    Agreed. If I may suggest here that science and evolution narrows down the possibility for meta-physics rather than closes it. It is what separates crack pot ideas from serious ones. It shows us which ideas are worth further exploration and which are not.

    A quote from Galileo that is always important:

    “For the Bible is not chained in every expression to conditions as strict as those which govern all physical effects; nor is God any less excellently revealed in Nature’s actions than in the sacred statements of the Bible. Perhaps this is what Tertullian meant by these words:

    “We conclude that God is known first through Nature, and then again, more particularly, by doctrine, by Nature in His works, and by doctrine in His revealed word.”

    From this I do not mean to infer that we need not have an extraordinary esteem for the passages of holy Scripture. On the contrary, having arrived at any certainties in physics, we ought to utilize these as the most appropriate aids in the true exposition of the Bible and in the investigation of those meanings which are necessarily contained therein, for these must be concordant with demonstrated truths. I should judge that the authority of the Bible was designed to persuade men of those articles and propositions which, surpassing all human reasoning could not be made credible by science, or by any other means than through the very mouth of the Holy Spirit.”

    April 13, 2010
    • Clearly just made my e-mail public… if you are able to change that, please do.

      April 13, 2010
    • Gil #

      Hi Tyler,
      Quick question on the distinction you make between “by-product” and “product”: If I understand you correctly you see the word “product” as an upgrade because it avoids some of the unwelcome connotations of “by-product”. Can you help me explain the difference between the two when it comes to their significance?

      Clearly evolutionary theory does not argue for traits accidentally “popping up” out of the blue and this is an important clarification to make. Yet we are still talking about a process that is unguided and therefore random in nature. Does it not follow that any trait would still be “accidental,” in that there is no ultimate purpose behind it other than “selfish” utility?

      Basically, I don’t understand how a term like “value” can apply. On this assessment, we observe existing human characteristics and confer value on them simply because they have survived. If that is the case then it seems to me that the meaning of the word “value” has changed.

      April 13, 2010
      • “Can you help me explain the difference between the two when it comes to their significance?”

        If we call it a by-product it is as if something else was being intended. In my opinion, to carry that implication in a framework of evolution is fallacious. As Ryan informed me in these comments, the term is used by Dawkins and Dennett. I see this as problematic in their work now, not just of the content of the post. What we are comprised of genetically cannot be anything other than a product of a long process. The significance in this is that we can then say that projecting value onto something is the product of what it means to be human. It cannot be anything else.

        “Does it not follow that any trait would still be “accidental,” in that there is no ultimate purpose behind it other than “selfish” utility?

        Basically, I don’t understand how a term like “value” can apply. On this assessment, we observe existing human characteristics and confer value on them simply because they have survived. If that is the case then it seems to me that the meaning of the word “value” has changed.”

        Here is where I also view the argument to break down in a pure material universe. If we can perceive that we do value something but then realize that the value is meaningless it leaves us in an interesting position. Even if we say that value transcends the individual through some sort of existential imprinting on one and another, it becomes a choice to accept that value. As Taylor highlights so well that choice is essentially trivial. Your assessment, which I 100% agree with, is that in a purely material and meaningless universe value stands for nothing other than a choice, or the opinion of the majority. I don’t believe there is a hand guiding evolution, but I do believe in meta-physics which allows us to understand what does have true value. Something I deduce even Dawkins believe, although unacknowledged by himself.

        I hope I have articulated why I perceive it to be problematic to use the term ‘by-product,’ but still share the belief with you that value is meaningless if it does not transcend humanity.

        April 15, 2010
    • Tyler, I can’t speak for how Polkinghorne is using the term, but I know that “by-product” or, more frequently, “misfiring” language features quite prominently in the writings of Daniel Dennett and especially Richard Dawkins (who was, interestingly, the subject of the passage I lifted the Polkinghorne quote in Beyond Science out of). Not surprisingly, it is most frequently used to “explain” (away) religion.

      Dawkins uses the example of moths flying into flames – this isn’t suicide, they’re simply hard-wired to orient themselves by the typically available “night lights” – the moon and the stars. Artificial light is a recent invention, therefore what appears to be weird, suicidal behaviour, is actually a normally useful compass. Religion, presumably, is a similar kind of by-product of what was once an evolutionarily useful behaviour. Here’s a few quotes from The God Delusion:

      [R]eligious behaviour may be a misfiring, an unfortunate by-product of an underlying psychological propensity which in other circumstances is, or once was, useful. On this view, the propensity that was naturally selected in our ancestors was not religion per se; it had some other benefit, and it only incidentally manifests itself as religious behaviour.

      Could it be that our Good Samaritan urges are misfirings analogous to the misfiring of a reed warbler’s parental instincts when it works itself to the bone for a young cuckoo? An even closer analogy is the human urge to adopt a child.

      Of course Dawkins doesn’t tell us what criteria we might use to differentiate the good evolutionary by-products (altruism, adoption) from the bad ones (religion). Religion is a “mind-virus” while altruism is a “blessed, precious Darwinian mistake.” All evolutionary by-products/misfirings are not created equal, I guess…

      April 13, 2010
      • Ken #

        I thought Polkinghorne was using that metaphor (“by-product) to refer to traits that are not necessary for survival but do not harm it. I don’t believe Darwin ever used that metaphor, so I don’t know where Polkinghorne got it.

        The way the modern synthesis says evolution occurs is variations most often originate from genetic “copy errors.” If a copy error results in a trait that improves the survival rate it leads to more offspring with that same trait. If it reduces the survival rate, the new genetic arrangement is not passed on. If it has no effect on survival rate, then it may or may not be passed on. I thought this last category is the one Polkinghorne was referring to. I think he was proposing that our excess “scientific, aesthetic, moral and spiritual powers” are too significant to be explained by the modern synthesis. Many other writers have made the same objection to the modern synthesis and to Darwin’s theory. Still, the paradigm survives this criticism, rightfully or not. In addition, not all scientists agree that “science, aesthetic, moral and spiritual powers” are excessive or “by-products.” I don’t think Darwin did.

        April 13, 2010
  3. “[R]eligious behaviour may be a misfiring, an unfortunate by-product of an underlying psychological propensity which in other circumstances is, or once was, useful. On this view, the propensity that was naturally selected in our ancestors was not religion per se; it had some other benefit, and it only incidentally manifests itself as religious behaviour.”

    I will have to read this text soon. But, we could just as easily say that our ancestors could not perceive a Good, or a God, or whatever we want to call it. We somehow inherited the trait because it was useful for its own sake. The advantages of perceiving it far outweighs the advantages of not, thus it is passed on. (I wonder what evolutionary circumstances made his trait of arrogance so useful)

    The moth may commit suicide in the name of light, but wold it be better off without this trait? Does this trait not serve a purpose for survival and the moth has become confused int he environment it finds itself in?

    “Religion is a “mind-virus” while altruism is a “blessed, precious Darwinian mistake.” All evolutionary by-products/misfirings are not created equal, I guess…”

    Well said.

    ” precious Darwinian mistake” How does he fail to see that there can be no mistakes in evolution. He seems so contradictory in the little of his works I have been exposed to so far.

    April 15, 2010
    • Quick note, I am more or less just speaking out loud to get the idea out there. I have not been through Dawkins work throughly. But, with that said, some very big issues seem brushed over or taken on (for lack of a better word) faith.

      April 15, 2010
    • But, we could just as easily say that our ancestors could not perceive a Good, or a God, or whatever we want to call it. We somehow inherited the trait because it was useful for its own sake. The advantages of perceiving it far outweighs the advantages of not, thus it is passed on.

      Yes, certainly. Or, we could even say that we have inherited the trait because it corresponds with something objectively real about the universe :). It’s interesting for me to observe the way these discussions often take the form of, well something has to account for the fact that we believe obvious falsehoods. But we have obviously inherited all kinds of traits that correspond to what is real. The fact that a belief evolved doesn’t necessarily give us any indication of whether it is true or not.

      At least in the discussions of the evolutionary origins of religious beliefs, the assumption seems to be that what we are trying to explain is how this or that fiction was adaptive without bothering to justify or even question the “fiction” part. The belief seems to be that if we can show how or why religious beliefs might have evolved, we have shown them to be untrue or not corresponding to reality. I think it was Holmes Rolston III who called this the “if functional, false” fallacy. Telling some plausible story about how some trait or other might have evolved, the purposes it might have played, etc does not necessarily explain said trait without remainder (I’m not suggesting you are doing this… just thinking out loud, like you).

      I share your questions about Dawkins’s consistency.

      April 15, 2010
  4. “Or, we could even say that we have inherited the trait because it corresponds with something objectively real about the universe .”

    Agreed. I have never encountered an argument, evolution included, that proves such a claim false. This is what I was attempting to stab at but you delivered much more clearly.

    “The belief seems to be that if we can show how or why religious beliefs might have evolved, we have shown them to be untrue or not corresponding to reality.”

    I have wanted to to write a blog post on a similar avenue as of late, just haven’t gotten around to it. It seems the goal in many philosophical texts only aim is at disproving or dispelling any other theories without putting forward anything new to the arguments. Religion is always attacked most likely because it has been the status quo for so long. No longer do people attempt disprove with a different argument. Taylor’s A secular Age, as an example, was to me 700 or so pages of no profound conclusion. To modify your quote to suite my view of Taylor’s book: “The belief seems to be that if we can show how or why [secularism] might have evolved, we have shown [it] to be untrue or not corresponding to reality.”

    April 15, 2010
    • Interesting take on Taylor! You certainly may be on to something there… In general, I think that we are very selective in how we apply our “explanations” of the origins of this or that feature of life. For those we don’t happen to like or appreciate, telling a story about how they arrived can be used to dismiss them. If it’s a feature of life we happen to value, the story of its origins is used to provide validation and legitimacy of its ongoing promotion. Again, providing an account of how something may have arrived on the scene doesn’t necessarily say anything about its truth or falsity. We have more work to do if we want answers to those questions.

      April 16, 2010

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