Saturday, May 16, 2009


Thomist Talk

Thomas Jackson, author of Darwin's Error: The Poet Who Died and who apparently thinks that Darwin was a better poet than scientist, has an interesting article in the Guardian, entitled "Thomas Aquinas would have loved genetics," about why Richard Dawkins, in The God Delusion, was wrong about Aquinas.

I don't know enough about Aquinas, despite having been raised Catholic, to know whether Jackson is right that he was not arguing for the existence of God from design but, rather, was an early "accommodationist," seeking to show that you could accept Aristotle and Aristotle's science and still believe in God. I do know, to the limits of my memory of my unwilling studies in Catholic theology, that there is in it a strong strain of thought that Jackson attributes to Aquinas. Jackson probably knows better than I.

Jackson tasks Dawkins and the other "New Atheists" with their use of purposeful language to describe the workings of "Mother Nature."

How right Dawkins and Dennett are to reject pseudo-religious explanations in favour of the real thing But they do not penetrate into reality far enough. Either you have to think that unintelligent genes behave in the way that they do because they are expressions of a profounder intelligence, or you have to think that they unintelligibly and mechanically just do what they do, but we, committed to intelligence, can only talk about them as if they were intelligent. They do not build survival machines for themselves but 'build survival machines for themselves". Personally, I find the idea that intelligent means unintelligent or that purposeful means purposeless less than intellectually compelling. How Aquinas would have adored genetic biology. ...

Natural selection explains the origin of species most satisfyingly. But it doesn't explain why they are so beautiful. And what about those uncountable millions thoughout the ages who have claimed an intensely meaningful personal relationship with the ground of existence? This experience has been corroborated so many times, you would have thought that people who swear by peer review would have paid heed. If, as seems to be the case, it is impossible to talk about mother nature except in terms of a personal creative force, then perhaps, if language is to mean anything at all, the difference between Dawkins and Aquinas is not really very great.

This is a version of the argument made by a contemporary of Darwin's, George Douglas Campbell, 8th Duke of Argyll. I think it fails because it does not consider that language is a human construct and we, as purposeful creatures, will reflect that in our language. In short, we find it easiest to speak as if the universe is purposeful because our language is a mirror of what we ourselves are. Nor is it, I think, impossible to talk about mother nature except in terms of a personal creative force, it is just cumbersome, as we have to leave behind the metaphors, familiar constructions and other shortcuts we use to streamline our communications.

Jackson's is a linguist's argument. If only the world was made of words.


Addendum: I am fully aware that this is a two edged sword. The nature of our language, itself a consequence, at least in part, of our evolutionary history and needs, may have also mislead us as to our ability to rationally untangle the world. Christopher Schoen of u n d e r v e r s e (recommended by antipodian philosophers everywhere) discusses this at length. Russell Blackford of Metamagician and the Hellfire Club, however, disagrees.

I would add that not all living beings are beautiful by any commonly accepted standard. Natural selection does a good job of explaining why we think some things are beautiful (and are repelled by others, sometimes irrationally), and that's all we can expect of it.
Beauty, like an "intensely meaningful personal relationship with the ground of existence" is in the eye - or mind - of the beholder. We have no reason to think it is anywhere else.

And atheists can have such experiences.

My nearest was lying on the grass behind our house at when I was a boy and looking up at all the stars - the light pollution from our cities had not completely obscured them then - and marvelling at what I was seeing, particularly when I used my imagination to flesh out what the little points of light really were.

The other was my first viewing of 2001: A Space Odyssey in full Cinerama.
I'm really going to come to regret that s p a c i n g thing. Bear in mind that E.E. Cummings' biographers capitalize his name, as did he (some say.)

Thanks for the link!
I l i k e i t .
Post a Comment

<< Home

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

. . . . .


How to Support Science Education