Saturday, October 20, 2007


Darwinian Theology

Neal C. Gillespie, who was Professor of History at Georgia State University, wrote an interesting book (unfortunately no longer in print) entitled Charles Darwin and the Problem of Creation, that sought to answer the question of why Darwin spent so much effort in the Origin of Species attacking the notion of the special creation of species. As Gillespie puts it:

I am concerned, then, with might be called the existential dimension of Darwin's work: his attitude toward human knowledge and its possibilities, towards religious faith and its place in human experience.
Darwin's seeming preoccupation with creationism has been grist for more than one author's mill, with varying degrees of polemic success. Gillespie seeks to explain Darwin's theological forays as part of the delivery pains of a new "naturalistic" biology. As a result, he rejects attempts to downplay Darwin's theological language as merely poetical touches or rhetorical flourishes or part of an elaborate strawman.

Gillespie borrows a term from Michael Foucault and speaks of an episteme. In a broad sense Foucault's "episteme" is a historical communal presupposition about knowledge and its nature and limits. It is not unlike Thomas Kuhn's paradigm. However, Gillespie rejects what he calls Foucault's "extravagances" (Gillespie calls his usage an "illegitimate offspring" of Foucault's) and does not adopt Kuhn's model of scientific change. For one thing, Gillespie does not accept what he takes to be Foucault's insistence on a single episteme at any one time or Kuhn's notion of sequential, nearly instantaneous, "conversions" from one paradigm to another.

In the end, Gillespie means "episteme" as a kind of a collective social set of assumptions that all scientists, including Darwin, either worked under or at least had to address. The episteme that existed before the Origin was published, that Gillespie, perhaps unfortunately, labels "creationism," necessarily had to change if it was to be accepted. However, "positivism," the resultant episteme, was not so "incommensurant" (in Kuhn's terminology) with creationism that the change from one to the other was necessarily complete or immediate in any individual.

The nature of the episteme Darwin faced, including the changes it were already undergoing, and Darwin's method of dealing with it is the subject of Gillespie's book, about which I intend a number of posts.

However, one point Gillespie makes is important not only to understanding his project but is of particular import against those polemicists who would try to label Darwin's work as a "mere" cultural or theological movement, thus "lowering" Darwin's science to the level of religion or "raising" religion to the level of science or both. Gillespie rightly decries any attempt to identify the historic nature of science -- i.e., the understanding of science as a historical and cultural product -- with "a radical subjectivity of judgment so that scientific opinion is dissolved into a relativity of time and place."

Surely this is to confuse two very different things. To say that scientific judgments are not objective -- by this I mean cannot be objective, for no one denies that scientists any more than historians may be influenced by outside factors -- but rather follow the desires and assumptions of scientists is to imply that the processes of objectivity (evidence, tests and experiments, logic, and so forth) have nothing to do with shaping those desires and assumptions. On the contrary, it would seem that these things are closely interrelated and that interrelation may best be seen on the workaday level of science ... [T]o say that the ideas of scientists are subjective or ideological because of their being influenced by a given social matrix, and to conclude, therefore, that they are not true -- presumably because they do not result from some quest of pure reason untouched by the world -- is surely a gross instance of the genetic fallacy. The source of an idea is irrelevant, in the strict logical sense, to its success in a scientific system or in any other. The procedures of proof in any knowledge system are logically independent of the circumstances of the origin of the ideas involved. We need to know such things in order to fully understand science as a historical and social entity, but such knowledge, while it may caution one about scientific theories, cannot determine their truth.


Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

. . . . .


How to Support Science Education