Saturday, June 1, 2013

Science always wins

Review of Michael Ruse: Can a Darwinist be a Christian?

A correspondent suggested this book as a sophisticated statement of how Christianity and science are not really at loggerheads, and so the new atheists should just shut up. Michael Ruse is well known in the creationism debate, and this book dates from its heated heyday, a decade ago. To his title (and more importantly its inverse), his answer, needless to say, is a definite "yes"- Christianity, despite a few problems here and there, and naturally depending how fundamentalist one is, can, with a bit of jiggering and sawing, be brought into reasonable alignment with Darwinism in its current state. Take that, Mister Dawkins!
As the blurb at Amazon says: "Adopting a balanced perspective on the subject, Michael Ruse argues that, although it is at times difficult for a Darwinian to embrace Christian belief, it is not inconceivable."

Ruse tries to give equal time to both sides, but the book really seems more oriented to wading through Christian dogmas and trying to find some way to shoehorn them into agreement with Darwinism, than the reverse. Indeed, despite the rhetorical and formal symmetry, the key to my reading of the book is his rather blunt statement here and elsewhere that Darwinism is true:
"We are not asking the question, Is Darwinism true? Rather, having assumed the truth of (some version of) Darwinism, we are asking, Can a Darwinian be a Christian?"

Elsewhere he is even more definitive about the truth of Darwinism, since, as he has testified in court, it really is true. But never does he apply the same judgement to Christianity. He is thorough (if brief) in laying out the major beliefs Christians have, and the degrees to which various Christians have them, but never once says that one or another of them is actually true. Which is of course because he can say no such thing.

Not one of the key dogmas has the character of fact, in the modern sense of being well-attested in rigorous fashion through empirical and/or logical means. The holy ghost is not a fact. The resurrection of Jesus is not a fact. The transubstantiation of bread and wine is not a fact. The efficacy of prayer is not  fact. Life after death is not a fact. The second coming is not a fact (though grievously overdue). And on and on. The factuality of Jesus himself hangs by a thread, with no direct evidence, but such a volume of hearsay and secondary effects that historians class it as a historical fact, not without a good deal of controversy and hand-wringing.
"I doubt that evolutionism has much to say about the Trinity, for example."

So, tucked within this even-handed argument is the worm of decisive asymmetry, in that one doctrine is a well-attested field of empirical research with inescapable logic and evidence, while the other, to put it in technical terms, is a bunch of fairy tales. Often very nice and uplifting, but stories & myths none the less.

Ruse therefore couches his ultimate arguments in a rather telling way, which is to tell the religious reader that she or he had better get with the program:
"In fact, most Darwinians- and here I speak of all shades, from ultras like Dawkins through qualifiers like Gould- would argue that the evidence for evolution and for some significant role for selection is sufficiently strong that Christians ought to be Darwinians. Our powers of sense and of reason are given to us by God- they are crucially involved in what it means to say that humans are made in God's image- and to turn on back on such firmly established science is theologically unacceptable.
...
Indeed, it is worrisome to think that- because of a literal reading of the Bible- we could have the live option of rejecting such established science as Darwinism."

Ruse then goes on to lambaste Alvin Plantinga for doing just this in philosophically vacuous ways, and repeats several times through the book (in more polite terms) that insofar as Christian god grants human reason, please do not be idiots.

Thus the reconciliation that Ruse dredges out of his comparison of these systems is rather one-sided. Darwinism is true, so in any point of fact, science wins and religion really has to suck it up and retreat from its fairy tales by whatever means necessary. The typical method is to re-read the scriptures "metaphorically" to the necessary extent.

This leads naturally to the question of whether everything about religion is metaphorical- salvation, life after death, god- the whole ball of wax. The obvious answer is yes, after which we can all come to a true reconciliation, where we exist on the same planet, in the same universe, reading a diversity of narratives and myths as such, and can attend to more important problems than whether god is omnipotent, omniscient, and all-good, three-in-one, present in the wafer, and has his cell phone turned on.

The two systems are doing complementary things, in a way. The Darwinists / naturalists have a truthful account of reality, and struggle to make of it a humanistic meaningful narrative. Many have had a crack at that project, from the existentialists to E. O. Wilson (even Shakespeare, I dare say). It is a difficult project and stretches modern thought to its utmost.

Conversely, religionists (of the more traditional sort, at least) start with a powerfully meaningful, or at least psychologically effective, narrative of the world's origins, workings, and humanity's place in it, and struggle to rationalize that story into concordance with reality, via exercises in theology, deflection, bare assertion, leaps of faith, authority, fancy costumes, and the like. While the former task is difficult, the latter is, as far as I can see, impossible. For all of Ruse's valiant efforts, if science always wins, then there is no solidity to the religious world view, in any traditional sense. Even the barest deism exists in fear that advances in cosmology and physics may someday find that everything comes from nothing, or some other such properly mystical, (yet true!), solution to the ultimate problem of origin.

The meanings that religion provides always depend on a contra-scientific view of reality, since that reality must be imbued with some mechanism of caring about us in order to provide hope and comfort. And it must have some consciousness in order to properly care about us such that our efforts in return provide some meaning within the pleasing-the-parent psychological template. And that just isn't the case.


  • Religion as bare emotion.
  • True reality, false reality, and denial.
  • Some out atheists.
  • The psychology of time.
  • Frontline on the 401K: a disaster from all angles, except if you are a corporation providing a minimal match, or a rich person who doesn't need it.
  • US society grows less fair, less just, more poor.
  • Joblessness kills.
  • Yes, we can afford it.. the median wage should be >90K.
  • Cut that cable ...

1 comment:

  1. Hey, Burk - a lot of the recent books about science vs religion seem to be lacking in something substantial, and it sounds like this one is yet another in that category. Of course, I don't personally think that explaining something is the same as explaining it away... knowing that chemicals rushing around my bloodstream cause emotions doesn't mean I don't still feel those emotions.
    These things do happen, though. I knew a student who was working on a masters in nuclear physics, and who, at the same time, believed the Earth to be only 6000 years old. It's a simple enough thing to compartmentalize.

    ReplyDelete