Against the faith
In a world where Neo-Darwinism is the new dogma, Intelligent Design is right to challenge orthodoxy – sociologist Steve Fuller responds to AC Grayling
I wish I could repay AC Grayling’s compliment by naming an exotic mental pathology after him, but regrettably his review of Dissent over Descent displays disorders of a much more mundane kind: he has merely failed to read the book properly and does not know what he is talking about. Other than a sense of the chapter titles, the reader of his review will learn nothing about the contents of the book. My only difficulty in responding to Grayling is that he connects so little with what I actually say – for example, his longest quote from me is eight words. However, based on what Grayling himself says in the review, my guess is that he cooked it up using this five-part recipe:
1. Flip book’s pages to find names of philosophers. (Hint: index may prove helpful.)
2. Note that author positions these philosophers in unfamiliar ways that seem to make Intelligent Design (ID) look good.
3. Condemn immediately by applying A-level intellectual history boilerplate.
4. Appease readers whose own knowledge is also at this level and whose prejudices are like those of the reviewer.
5. Repeat as necessary.
In light of this modus operandi, I conclude that either Grayling simply did not “read” the book as ordinarily understood, or he was afraid to admit he was not up to the job of reviewing it, and so he figured he could bluff his way by saying philosophy-looking things that effectively preached to the converted (i.e. “new humanists”).
For example, Dissent over Descent does indeed talk about Thales, Augustine, Galileo and Popper – all of whom are name-checked in Grayling’s review. However, Grayling simply lip syncs the received view on these figures without ever dealing with what I specifically say about them. This is especially glaring in the case of Popper. From what Grayling says, the reader would never guess that in the book I do indeed recognize that Popper held that “a theory that explains everything explains nothing” – but then I proceed to target that point at evolution, as Popper himself did. It is a little strange that instead of contesting this application of Popper’s principle (which I am sure he would – and perhaps will, in response!), he writes as if I failed to recognise it.
But on to Grayling’s most glaring deficiency vis-à-vis the topic of Dissent over Descent: his sheer ignorance of ID’s argument structure, which is not that of a Young Earth Creationist (YEC) who looks for whatever evidence supports his pet theory. Generally speaking, ID is defended on the basis of what philosophers of science call “inference to the best explanation” for the plausibility of design over chance in nature. To be sure, the design inference has been strongly contested, but the dispute ranges over who bears the greater burden of proof: defenders of design or chance. Which general form of explanation is simpler? Intuitions have varied across history, but what comes through clearly in these debates is that some combination of chance and necessity of the sort associated with Neo-Darwinism are today presumed to be more plausible than Intelligent Design until shown otherwise.
This distribution of the burden of proof reflects little more than a bias in favour of the scientific orthodoxy, whose relationship to the beliefs of rank-and-file trained scientists we simply do not know. Anyone attracted to Popper’s idea of science as the “open society”, as I am, will find this situation both politically and epistemologically abhorrent. At the very least, it reveals that science is not governed as a representative democracy. That by itself would not be a problem, if dissenters had easy access to the material resources increasingly needed to produce credible research – namely, students and equipment. But this is not the case, as I argued both in chapter one and in the Dover ID trial. By failing to grasp this point, Grayling reveals a conceptual tone deafness to the difference between the meanings of “consensus” and “orthodoxy”. Indeed, Grayling’s review reads as if it were written by the philosophical equivalent of a Heavy Metal enthusiast.
Moreover, had Grayling some basic knowledge of the history of Christianity – of the sort a Jesuit education might have provided him – he would recognise that the Protestant Reformation was all about the orthodoxy-consensus distinction. For Protestants, belief is not outsourced to presumptive epistemic superiors, like priests, but something individuals decide for themselves, which in turn may lead to the voluntary formation of communities with other like-minded souls. This is because ultimately the acceptance of God into one’s life is a decision for which one takes personal responsibility. An orthodoxy lacks legitimacy – in religion and (I argue) in science – unless it has secured the free consent of those who would be governed by it. In this respect, ID’s challenge to the reigning scientific orthodoxy – so-called methodological naturalism – is very much like Protestantism’s challenge to the primacy of papal authority.
In addition, if Grayling’s grasp of the history of science went beyond head-banging standards, he would realise that our current level of scientific achievement would never have been reached, and more importantly that we would not be striving to achieve more, had chance-based explanations dominated over the design-based ones in our thinking about reality. We would have been quickly discouraged from trying, as was the case with the ancient Epicureans, whose ideas were indeed close to Darwin’s but who were not themselves (pace Grayling) moved to do science. Seen from the standpoint of Darwinian existential horizons, much – if not most – scientific work appears inconsequential, if not downright detrimental, to our material survival. And yet we persevere, and it pays off. However, appreciating this point requires a nuanced understanding of the significance of the concept of “science” as a distinct form of knowledge, something that Grayling conspicuously lacks but is subject to periodic discussions in my book.
Grayling’s observation that the pre-Socratics, Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics and the Epicureans thought “in recognisably scientific and proto-scientific ways about the nature and functioning of the universe” is true in the same sense as, yes, you can see the heads of animals in the shape of clouds. Of course, words and concepts and sometimes even whole arguments have been used from these thinkers in the pursuit of science – but I doubt that any of them, were they resurrected, would wish to associate themselves with our sense of science. And this is not because they would disagree with its guiding theoretical ideas or empirical findings. No, they would find the enterprise itself abhorrent – with its endless questing for an elusive yet uniquely comprehensive understanding of reality. They would see the way we treat science today as we might regard some future society, or parallel universe, that treated chess as the most cherished activity upon which all its resources were lavished. And that is probably the most positive light in which our Greek forebears would see us. The Epicureans in particular would simply think of our scientific obsession with “The Truth” as an anxiety-inducer, one of those Wittgensteinian flies that should be liberated from its bottle.
The Greeks regarded the pursuit of science largely as the intellectual correlate of physical exercise – part of a normative account of leisure. While the Greek sense of science purported to get at the nature of things, that nature was not necessarily unified, the activity itself was never conceptualised in historically progressive terms, and there was no pretence to its universal accessibility, let alone universal entitlement. Science was for them an elite game – full stop. The introduction of these additional conditions, which characterise science in the modern sense of “universal objective knowledge” begins with the Muslim and later Christian synthesis of pagan knowledge for the general ennoblement of humanity, as beings created in the image of God. Like it or not, Grayling’s own view of the Greeks as “proto-scientists” in our sense is indebted to these religiously inspired efforts, which turned Aristotle’s patchwork ontology into a concerted proposal to unify our understanding of reality. Averroes and Aquinas would more quickly recognise the high intellectual ambitions that Grayling imputes to Aristotle than Aristotle himself would.
Let me underscore this last point, as it bears on Grayling’s confusion about atheism’s contribution to Western intellectual history – as well as why one might wish to promote a philosophy or ideology called “humanism”. I happen to share Grayling’s generally progressive outlook on science. But that outlook is the result of sublimating – not eliminating – God. The sociological term of art for this sublimation is “secularisation”: what changes are the institutional vehicles but not the underlying cognitive sentiment. Thus, even if the God of Abraham is not formally discussed, philosophers and scientists continue to believe in a transcendent reality that not only they learn more about over time but also does not discourage them despite the regular occurrence of error, because they presume that the effort will be rewarded in the long term. In short: we are fallible yet corrigible. This faith in the power of scientific inquiry would be arbitrary without the Salvationist back story from theology. Similarly, without the historically prior concern with detecting and mastering divine agency, such ontological staples of scientific realism as “hidden variables” and “ramified structures” would appear as imaginative flights rather than devices for probing a nature containing deep secrets beyond the level of careful ordinary observation.
In response, it might be said that once science chalks up enough empirical successes of its own, then the residual theological scaffolding can simply come off. If so, what exactly points to this success? We can easily demonstrate increases in the effort, expenditure and impact of science – but on what basis do they constitute some non-question-begging sense of improvement or progress? I shall accept for the sake of argument the most obvious answer – humanity has come to bend nature to its collective will – since it highlights the connection between humanism and scientific progress. But what is that connection exactly? Consider two options:
1. a sectarian sense, such that science enables us as a species to survive better than the other species
2. a teleological sense, such that science licenses us to recreate all of nature in our image.
It has been “humanism” in sense 2 that has been ideologically appealing. And evolutionary theory could be counted as a fellow-traveller in this humanist project when it was still scientifically respectable to speak of “higher” and “lower” forms of life and Lamarckianism was still a viable alternative or complement to Darwinism. However, the history of 20th century evolutionary theory consists of losing this humanist residue, so that it is now officially species-blind. Indeed, Neo-Darwinism simply naturalises moral relativism by extending its coverage beyond the border of our species – a point I discuss in chapter two of Dissent over Descent. If today’s humanists think their world-view stands to benefit from Neo-Darwinism, then they need to have a word with Peter Singer.
However, Grayling’s remarks about the historic relationship between science and religion make it clear that he is not really concerned with defending humanism at all. Rather, he wants to oppose clericalism and dogmatism. This is perfectly fine, as any Protestant could tell him. However, Grayling then manages to reify his protest as a positive doctrine called “atheism”. From this confusion flows a reading of Western intellectual history whose mix of malice and stupidity descends to the level of The Elders of Zion: religion is the root of all evil and atheism its all-purpose nemesis. I would love to learn the names of the “atheists” responsible for curtailing the abuses of religious authority in European history. In fact, they were non-conformist, heretical Christians who believed that the church did not live up to the spirit of its mission. These dissenters stuck their necks out because they shared the same fundamental beliefs and values of the corrupt authorities they opposed. Atheists would not be natural participants in this struggle because they have no vested interest in its outcome. More likely they would take the path of least resistance and minimally conform to the social pieties. As Grayling should have learned from Epicurus and Hume, a true atheist has no reason to be defiant and should never live fearful of being found out because there is nothing to find out.
Of course, Grayling may be empirically correct that there have been many more atheists than we normally assume. But if so, they belong to the unarchived world of history’s spectators, not to some repressed rationalist vanguard composed of people whom we already know under a different guise. For my own part, I have yet to be convinced of the existence of atheism, let alone its contribution to science.
Read AC Grayling's response to this article