The Biologos Foundation and “Darwin’s Pious Idea”, Part 4
Today's entry was written by John Wesley Wright. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.
If chapter five of Darwin’s Pious Idea functions as a plateau after a steep ascent, chapter six slowly ascends in the wide circling pattern of a hawk caught in an upbreeze, rising higher and higher until the human observer loses sight of it in the blaze of the sun – or in the darkness of retinas reduced to nothing. Conor Cunningham has recollected and repeated the thoughts of biological scientists, particularly as these thoughts merge with the philosophy of biology. Now he ascends the heady heights of ontology (the philosophical discourse of what is), swirling through the philosophy of mind and into a phenomenology of consciousness and everyday life.
Chapter six is complex, even difficult; it is the longest of the book, well over 100 pages. Cunningham covers an immense range of contemporary, often contested, discourses (the chapter approaches 600 footnotes!!). Amid the complexity, however, is a simple argument with a paradoxical conclusion. Cunningham argues that to remain science, science must remain empirical, not metaphysical. Science will not bear the weight of explaining all existence without collapsing in on itself in irrationality. Science must remain open to other, more basic realms of rationality; it cannot offer an account of all existence. If science attempts to become a theory of everything, it ironically loses the very matter that it seeks to investigate – and the reason for doing science and even the scientist herself! Here is where the paradox enters: such a reductive naturalism ultimately shows that in itself, matter is literally nothing. Therefore reductive naturalism points past itself to the Christian understanding of creation ex nihilo. Ironically, the new atheists point to God, the Creator of all that is from nothing.
Cunningham’s argument unfolds in several steps. First, he refutes the false, worn out mantra that “religion” stands in opposition to science (pp. 269-300). Cunningham shows that Intelligent Design rightfully argues that neo-Darwinianism is “not sufficient to explain the natural world” (p. 277). Yet it is not a science. It must appeal to a non-empirical cause for creation – and thus, like the Neo-Darwinianist, seeks to extract a metaphysical position from science. The resultant god of Intelligent Design more pagan than Christian, or as Cunningham writes, “more Homeric than Abrahamic” (p. 279). Both ultra-Darwinians and Intelligent Design misunderstand what Christians confess when they confess that God creates from nothing. Cunningham allows Ernan McMullin to remind us what Christians historically have confessed when they confess creatio ex nihilo: ‘The appeal is not to a ‘gap’ in scientific explanation but to a different order of explanation that leaves scientific explanation intact, that explores the conditions of possibility of there being any kind of scientific explanation’ (p. 280). Rather than the “science versus religion” motif, Cunningham shows that such Abrahamic faiths have provided the very conditions for the emergence of science (pp. 291-300). Cunningham concludes that “science versus religion” motif is “a conveniently contrived invention, not at all based in historical fact” (p. 300).
Cunningham then turns to science. If Intelligent Design loses the orthodox Christianity they hope to defend in their move from science to metaphysics, Cunningham argues that scientism loses the science that it hopes to defend by making a similar move (pp. 300-319). Cunningham here introduces an argument that he will pursue through various means throughout the chapter in his argument to keep science a method, not a theory of everything: “Science must forever return to the source of its possibility and not deny its origins, or its future. For all science has arrived from an enabling past and will develop and evolve into an unknown future; only the tension between these two poles allows science to be true to itself. . . . The primal validity of the life world (Lebenswelt), of the subjective givenness of experience, both grounds and makes possible the objective world of science, without which science is quite simply impossible. When such impossibility is ignored, destructive ideology is all that is forthcoming” (p. 311).
Cunningham proceeds patiently to disembowel ontological naturalism: the argument that matter is all that there is. Verificationist arguments to support naturalism dissolve in the light of contemporary philosophy of science; Hempel’s Dilemma shows that one requires that one cannot confine reality to what is “natural” without first a definition of “nature.” Belief itself evaporates – survival, not truth, becomes determinative for all thought: “There is no universal reason by which our thoughts should be judged. Instead reason becomes a wholly local affair, at best, and is itself subordinate to the utilitarian principle of mere survival. This creates a disconnect between survival and truth, for they only ever coincide contingently” (p. 336). Cunningham argues that ontological naturalism is self-refuting.
Cunningham’s argument is not merely negative, however. He turns to the results of science to show that science provides positive, even pious signs of that which transcends matter. Quantum physics has dissolved the “matter” required by reductionism: “Gone are the inert particles or, more crudely, dead bits. Instead the world arises out of, or is ‘built’ from, what we might usefully term tendencies or potentialities. . . . As a result, the divorce between mind and matter (coming after Descartes and Newton) was itself annulled. . . Mind once again takes center stage and is no longer exiled to the land of impotence (where it existed but was epiphenomenal) or to that of illusion (where it existed but was epiphenomenal) or to that of illusion (that is, eliminated)” (p. 327). Such quantum theorizing takes Cunningham directly into the complex contemporary discussions of the philosophy of mind – a discourse anchored in contemporary Anglo-American analytic philosophy. And as usual, he brilliantly flips the terms of the presupposed relationship between “mind” and “matter”: “If the mental reduces to the physical, then maybe ‘reduce’ is the wrong word, for maybe, in being able to accommodate the mental, the physical is itself related to the mental” (p. 331).
Such theorizing allows Cunningham to move from analytic philosophy’s discourse in the philosophy of mind to phenomenology. Cunningham delves into the implications of the mystery of consciousness and its relationship to scientific explanations. Science itself requires the irreducibility of the person for Cunningham: ”All sciences are created and carried out by humans; it is humans that give rise to experience and then abstract away from this experience to gain a better understanding of it. . . . their sciences are theory-laden – not in a bad way but in a human way, for that is part of their glory. In this way the lab is an immature theater, just as the science textbook is very awkward literature” (p. 352). Science as a method provides discourses only of causality; human beings, however, require a sense of normativity and teleology, even human beings who provide the third-person discourses that we call “scientific results.” This first-person discourse is logically required lest science itself falls inward upon itself, a first-person discourse anchored in consciousness that is irreducible to brain activity (which itself requires a first-person perspective to describe its third person activity). As Cunningham memorably states, “the notion of a strictly third-person science is simply a fantasy. Like some corpse that just won’t lie down, the first-person keeps interrupting every process of reduction” (p. 353). Building on the natural selections evolution from earlier chapters with his philosophical analysis in chapter six, Cunningham concludes: “Evolutionary explanations are causal, while commonsense psychology, for instance, is irreducibly teleological. Indeed, how can consciousness ever be understood in terms of survival when all its functions can easily be accounted for in physiological terms, with no actual reference to consciousness? Instead of viewing consciousness through functions, and in terms of survival . . . we should and must understand that consciousness is not some secondary tack-on but is existentially, transcendentally, and methodologically primary. It is primary because it is a condition of the very possibility of any experience at all” (p. 370) – including the experience of evolutionary biologists in conducting their scientific research. Scientific reason needs a wider non-scientific reason in order to sustain its own activity as a method; when science attempts to eliminate all other discourses, it, as Cunningham states several times, “Cuts off its face to save its nose.”
Science moved to a metaphysical system, a theory of everything, cannibalizes itself, Cunningham argues. The argument of atheistic naturalism, therefore, provides a paradoxical, pious function for theology, the very discourse it seeks to eliminate: “It is here that our preceding analyses of both materialism and naturalism reveal their worth, for if we search the ‘purely’ natural world for an actual birth of a person, we will not find one. Alas, we cannot even find a person, no matter his or her birth. Thus these ostensibly atheistic philosophical positions are in the end servants of the truth, that is, of theology. They are servants of theology insofar as what they take to be negative findings can be read, instead, as iconic revelations of creation ex nihilo, which is to say, the nothingness they strive to find. This is the case only because what is presented in nature declares the dependence of all on their very source. Like Darwinism – which came in the guise of a foe but did the work of a friend – the bid to capture nature has returned us to the font of subjectivity, to the sacramentality of each and every day. Therefore, such philosophies, despite their apparent hatred of religion, are indeed handmaidens to theology: Scientia est ancilla vitae” (p. 376). It shows that nature itself rationally requires that we accept creation as a sign of the glory of God, the Triune God who created everything through the eternal Word, the very Word of God who literally became flesh in Jesus Christ. All six chapters thus find their end in chapter seven, the theological discourse which is required if the truth of evolution, indeed of science itself, is to be retained.
John Wesley Wright, Ph.D. is Professor of Theology and Christian Scriptures at Point Loma Nazarene University. Dr. Wright has published numerous articles and edited a number of books, including Priests, Prophets, and Scribes: Essays on the Formation and Heritage of Second Temple Judaism in Honor of Joseph Blenkinsopp, which he co-edited with Eugene Ulrich, Robert Carroll, and Philip R. Davies. (JSOT Press, 1992) and Conflicting Allegiances: The Church-based University In A Liberal Democratic Society, co-edited with Michael Budde (Brazos Press, 2004).