James Le Fanu

‘For every problem there is a solution: neat, plausible and wrong’. H.L.Mencken

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Metaphysics Resurgent

edited by Thomas Dixon, Geoffrey Cantor and Stephen Pumfrey, 2010.
(Cambridge University Press ISBN: 978-0-521-76027-0, Price: £55.00)
by Marilynne Robinson, 2010.
(Yale University Press ISBN: 978-0-300-14518-2, Price: £16.99/$US24.00)

‘The most beautiful system of the stars and planets could only proceed from an Intelligent and Powerful Being’ wrote Isaac Newton. And most, if not quite all, of the great scientists of the past concurred, interpreting the three phenomena of the rational structure of the universe, the wonders of the living world and the exceptionality of the human mind as evidence for a Divine Intelligence: Nicolaus Copernicus, Francis Bacon, Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei, Robert Boyle (who saw himself as ‘a priest in the temple of nature’), Michael Faraday, Gregor Mendel, James Clerk-Maxwell, Max Plank, Albert Einstein (who famously observed how ‘science without religion is lame, religion without science blind’) and many others.

The significance this diverse assembly attached to religious belief defies any easy generalization, but the mathematician AN (Alfred North) Whitehead in his book Science and the Modern World captures the tenor of its appeal.

Religion is the vision of something which stands beyond, behind and within the passing flux of immediate things; something which is real, and yet waiting to be realised; something which is a remote possibility and yet the greatest of present facts; something that gives meaning to all that passes and yet eludes apprehension; something whose possession is the final good and yet is beyond all reach; something which is the ultimate ideal, and the hopeless quest.

This religious sensibility of scientists has long since evaporated, confirmed by a poll of the members of the National Academy of Science, with most now describing themselves as atheist or agnostic and only a small minority professing a formal adherence to the tenets of traditional religion. In its place, science’s own cosmology of philosophical naturalism recognizes only material causes and specifically precludes the possibility of the non-material or spiritual—as forcefully summarized by the philosopher William Provine.

Modern science directly implies that the world is organised strictly in accordance with mechanistic principles. There are no purposive principles whatsoever in nature. There are no gods and no designing forces that are rationally detectable …modern science directly implies that there are no inherent moral or ethical laws, no absolute guiding principles for human society. There is no hope of life everlasting …free will, as it is traditionally conceived, freedom to make uncoerced unprincipled choices simply does not exist …there is no ultimate meaning for humans. So now, while most scientists would acknowledge that scientific methodology does not actively preclude the possibility of religious belief, they nonetheless tend to share the view of the late Isaiah Berlin: ‘As for the meaning of life, I do not believe it has any—and it is a source of great comfort. We make of it what we can and that is all there is to it’.

There would seem little point in pursuing the matter further were it not that science, having apparently secured its boundaries against the incursions of religion, should turn round to discover those metaphysical questions that seemed so compelling to the great scientists of the past have erupted once again in its own backyard.

There is no more impressive scientific achievement than permitting us, for the first time, to hold ‘in our mind’s eye’ the whole history of the universe from the moment of the Big Bang onwards and to encompass within our understanding the two extremes of scale from the infinite vastness of the cosmos to the internal structure of the atom. But this only serves to draw attention in the most forceful manner to the seemingly unanswerable questions of the origin of matter—what preceded the Big Bang and why the laws of gravity should be ‘so finely tuned’ as to allow for the subsequent emergence of life on earth some 12 billion years later. To be sure, contra Newton, his successor as the Lucasian Professor of mathematics in the University of Cambridge, Stephen Hawking, claims that it is no longer necessary to invoke God to explain ‘why the universe exists, why we exist’. Rather, these questions can now be accounted for by the process of ‘spontaneous creation’. ‘The universe can and will create itself from nothing because there is such a law as gravity’, he writes in his recent book, The Grand Design. Some might find this assertion—which leaves unexplained how that gravitational force came about—less than persuasive.

It is a similar story, with the comparably impressive achievements of molecular biology of the past 60 years in delineating the extraordinary intricacy and complexity of the cell posing the similarly unanswerable question of how so extraordinary a biological phenomenon—with the capacity to construct every living thing from a giant redwood tree to the human brain—should have come into existence. And so too with the major challenge for neuroscience—how to cross the seemingly unbridgeable ‘explanatory gap’ between the monotonous electrochemistry of the brain and the richness and diverse properties of the non-material human mind. And if such findings were not a sufficient threat to science’s pretensions to explain ‘how things work’ in exclusively materialistic terms, the recent revelations of genomic science of the near equivalence of gene numbers across the vast range of organismic complexity from a millimetre long worm to ourselves poses a substantial challenge to the proposed mechanisms of biology’s foundational doctrine of evolutionary transformation.

It has, in short, become far more difficult to share Isaiah Berlin’s confident assertion ‘that is all there is to it’. How can we be so sure? This would seem to require, at the very least, a re-evaluation of how science should have so successfully marginalized the metaphysical ‘ways of knowing’—a process initiated 20 years ago by the historian John Hedley Brooke who, in his seminal book Religion and Science: Some Historical Perspectives, proposed a radical revisionist interpretation of the very influential ‘conflict thesis’ of the ascendancy of rational science triumphing over the metaphysical tenets of religion.

Serious scholarship …has revealed such extraordinary rich and complex a relationship [between science and religion] …that general theses are difficult to sustain’, he argued. ‘The real lesson turns out to be the complexity. It is well to set aside one’s preconceptions [to recognise] the diversity, subtlety and ingenuity of apologists both for science and religion as they have wrestled with fundamental questions concerning their relationship with nature and with God.

The collection of essays, reviewed here, Science and Religion: New Historical Perspectives, is (as its title suggests) inspired by Hedley Brooke’s decisive challenge to the conflict thesis whose explanatory ramifications, according to one contributor, ‘shifted the study of the subject on its axis, leaving those of us who undertook it irrevocably altered.’ The fourteen contributors, drawn from a wide range of Institutions and Universities in Britain and North America, revisit Hedley Brooke’s original arguments while extending their range to engage with recent developments such as the rise of creationism and its influence in the Islamic world.

It might, for example, seem self evident that the Scientific Revolution of Galileo and Newton was the defining moment that initiated the progressive disentanglement of the two domains of science and religion, or as Margaret Osler of the University of Calgary puts it: ‘The terminus ad quem for the ancient and medieval that preceded it and the terminus a quo for all that followed’. But Osler argues that this interpretation is a retrospective historical construct powerfully influenced by the partiality of two schools of thought who had their own reasons for portraying science as being ‘in conflict’ with religion. They were, first, the 19th century philosophical ‘positivists’ Auguste Comte and Ernst Mach for whom science as ‘the only begetter of truth’ precluded the metaphysical that had to be ‘expunged from the realm of [certain] knowledge’—as its presuppositions could not (by definition) be proven empirically. So while Ernst Mach conceded the ‘prevailing inclination’ had always been ‘to find in physical laws some particular disposition of the Creator’, the transformation of perspectives in the wake of the scientific revolution was ‘[towards] utterly disregarding metaphysical speculations as being precarious and foreign to science.’

The tenets of the positivists were, in turn, taken up by the two main proponents of secular education in the USA, John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White in their well known and immensely influential books History of the Conflict between Religion and Science and A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. The Catholic Church, Draper argued:

claims blind faith to be superior to reason; mysteries to be of more importance than fact …it claims to be the sole interpreter of Nature, the supreme arbiter of knowledge …Roman Christianity and science cannot exist together—one must yield to the other. Mankind must make its choice, it cannot have both”

Together, the materialist philosophy of the positivists and ‘the warfare’ metaphors of Draper and Dickson White permeate the writings of 20th century historians of science offering, it seems, a grand unifying theme for their subject, where previously ‘Christianity has fostered, moulded and hence dominated every cultural and intellectual activity …now science asserted its autonomy’.

Peter Harrison from Oxford University elaborates a related theme prompted by Hedley Brooke’s revisionist interpretation—that the conflict thesis was primarily a propagandist or rhetorical device promoting the professionalization (and professional interest) of the new disciplines of biology and geology—freeing them from the sticky fingers of theology. ‘This was the explicit mission of Thomas Huxley and his colleagues,’ writes Harrison. ‘They sought with an evangelical fervour to establish the scientific status of natural history, to rid the discipline of women, amateurs and parsons, and to place secular science at the centre of cultural life in Victorian England.’

For Noah Efron of Harvard University the dramatic shift in perspective initiated by Hedley Brooke in ‘deconstructing’ the master narrative of the conflict thesis prompted a flood of fresh ideas and new research guided by the principle that ‘the engagement of science and religion can only be understood by understanding the context in which they unfolded.’ There has, in particular, been a renewed emphasis on how religious belief informed the thoughts and achievements of individual scientists. Thus:

Sir Isaac Newton’s integration of natural philosophy and theology says something about mathematics and mechanics in his day, [but also] about the English Church in his day and about heterodoxy in his day and about the Royal Society in his day—and along with everything else it tells us something about the uniqueness, idiosyncrasy, courage and oddity of Newton himself.

Or again the conventional judgement that the founder of Methodism John Wesley’s interest in science exhibited a religious bias that caused him to neglect those elements that led to its advance is (literally) turned on its head. ‘This forbidding and closed-minded autocrat becomes a complicated man of searching probity,’ writes Efron, who ‘with an admirable alchemy of scepticism and humility’ championed the study of nature and ‘promoted a sense of awe at the organization and adaptation of the living world’.

There is, of course, much more but the drift is clear enough. Time and again the contributors draw attention to Hedley Brooke’s influence in freeing the historical interpretation of the relationship of science and religion from its strait-jacket to glory in the manifold complexities of the ‘minute particulars’ of how they did in fact engage. And then comes the sting in the tail that makes this collection of essays so intriguing. Several contributors concede that for all the intrinsic interest and insights that have flowed from this ‘complexification’ of their subject, it appears to have sidelined them into an intellectual cul de sac where, writes Ronald Numbers of the University of Wisconsin, ‘Outside a small circle of experts it has left most people yawning or, worse yet, unconvinced.’

The determination to debunk the simplifications of the conflict thesis may be commendable, but at a cost of failing to confront the indubitable fact that throughout the 20th century the ‘concerns and propositions’ of religion and science have indeed conflicted—and progressively so. They could now be described as completely estranged, the ‘metaphysical’ rigorously excluded from public and scientific discourse while the ascendancy of science with its exclusively materialist explanations has been a major contributory factor to the secularization of western society.

The recent past, as all know, has witnessed a renewed and at times vitriolic assault, in the name of science, on the bona fides of religion portrayed by the prominent philosopher Anthony Grayling, as ‘one of the worse toxins poisoning human affairs’, while for Richard Dawkins ‘it is one of the world’s great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus, but harder to eradicate’. These views have, in turn, been taken up and promoted by a clutch of popular commentators where theologians are portrayed as the rats in Albert Camus’ novel The Plague spreading the pestilence of religious belief amongst the young.

Thus the study of science and religion must, if it is to aspire to be of more than just academic interest, find, as Thomas Dixon of London University puts it, ‘an historically respectable way to get conflict back into the story’. The flashpoint of current controversy (and the grist to Grayling and Dawkins’ influential jihad against organized religion) is, of course, the highly charged confrontation between the protagonists of creationism or Intelligent Design as a necessary explanation for the complexities of the phenomena of life versus the universal endorsement by science of Darwin’s proposed evolutionary mechanism of natural selection acting on random genetic mutation.

There is more to this, suggests Bronislaw Szerszynski from the University of Lancaster, than the proposition that scientific orthodoxy is ‘under threat from an organized movement opposed to scientific reason’. Rather the bastion of creationism, the United States has in reality witnessed a steady decline in those embracing a biblically grounded literalist creationist philosophy paralleled by a significant increase in those who claim to be just ‘not sure’ about Darwin and evolution. This might suggest, argues Szerszynski that the more significant trend is towards an ‘open and undogmatic curiosity about how best to understand the origin and nature of life’. While some might be persuaded that science has apparently demonstrated that the universe has no purpose, to others ‘this meaninglessness is manifestly untrue’.

It is similarly difficult, as Salman Hameed of Hampshire College points out in a companion essay ‘Evolution and Creationism in the Islamic World’, to attribute the overwhelming Muslim rejection of Darwinian evolution to anti-scientific prejudice. It is, after all, scarcely surprising that a society where people continue to have a substantial allegiance to religious belief should be less than impressed by an exclusively materialist account of humanity and one that moreover, has provided the major rationale for the progressive secularization of the Western world.

Clearly, there is more to the current state of the relationship between religion and science than is readily apparent and the current animosity, so noisily proclaimed, might even be interpreted as a sleight of hand to conceal the metaphysical challenge, outlined above, to science’s exclusively materialist explanations. It would be more than interesting to read a comparable collection of essays in a few years time by when this subject may have emerged from its current intellectual difficulties to bring the full force of modern scholarship on what looks set to be further significant developments in the relationship between these two major ways of knowing.

Meanwhile, those intrigued as to what direction those developments might take should read Marilynne Robinson’s Absence of Mind, a robust defence of the seriousness of religion against the prevailing materialist view. Robinson is a much admired contemporary novelist whose two most recent books Gilead and Home were awarded the Pulitzer and the Orange prize, respectively. She is, as might be supposed, formidably intelligent and has the measure of the modern day evangelists of naturalist philosophy—Edward Wilson, Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennet et al. whom she alleges ‘claim the authority of science, yet do not practice the self discipline and self criticism for which science is distinguished’.

Their central assumption (The ‘Absence of Mind’ of her title) is that the experiential testimony of the individual is to be explained away, excluded from any rational account of human nature. And it has to be explained away for to presuppose otherwise—that the everyday non-material thoughts and ideas that fill our minds have a reality of their own—is to let a metaphysical foot in the door of any materialist (i.e. knowable to science) account of ourselves. But this requires that those feelings or impressions that people (rightly) hold in such high regard, particularly their sense of self personal identity, be dismissed as nothing but an illusion generated by the brain to convey the impression that someone is in charge. And ‘Free Will’, the sense of ourselves as conscious beings free to choose, that too, as William Provine (cited above) observes, ‘simply does not exist’. How could it be otherwise when, as Wilson insists, ‘The brain and its satellite glands have now been probed to the point where no particular site remains that can be reasonably supposed to harbour a non-physical mind’. To which Robinson tartly ‘feels obliged to point out’ that ‘if such a site could be found in the brain then the mind would be physical in the same sense that everything else that has a locus in the brain is physical’. And so she proceeds wisely, if sometimes despairingly, to dissect the false logic and at times sheer absurdity of what she labels the ‘parascientific literature’ with its overconfident assertion that science has given us the knowledge to answer ‘the essential questions’. She is particularly satirical about the pretensions of evolutionary psychology to explain altruism and compassion as ‘a device of our selfish genes to maximize their chances of survival: “Do elderly mothers go unrescued, being past their childbearing years?” ’ she asks. ‘Do firefighters run into burning houses looking only for kith and kin?’—while noting pertinently that there is no more chance of testing the validity for the claims of genetic determinism than of ‘splitting the photon’. She disputes the common inference that the adverse effects of severe brain damage are evidence for a physical basis of personality by reinterpreting the (frequently cited) anecdote of the exemplary Phineas Gage. She wonders imaginatively what it must have been like to have been the victim of so terrifying and disfiguring an accident and points out ‘there is no sense at all in the recounting of his afflictions that he was a human being who thought and felt, a man with a singular and terrible fate’. She goes on: ‘the stereotyped nature of this anecdote, the particulars it includes and those whose absence it passes over, and the conclusion that is drawn from it are a perfect demonstration of the difference between parascientific thinking and actual science’.

These are no trivial matters, for self-evidently, whoever controls the definition of mind controls the definition of mankind itself. The great breach that separates the traditions of religion from the modern scientific world view that has displaced them is precisely the supposition that the human mind is more than an extravagance of nature—but that ‘it opens on ultimate truth’. This necessarily includes the possibility that life might, after all, have a purpose that we cannot fully comprehend—or at least can only glimpse fitfully. This is a truly life (or rather mind) affirming book whose commonsense and humanity—one would like to think—must eventually prevail over the shallow restlessness of contemporary ‘parascience’.