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Science and SpiritualityReview - Science and Spirituality
Making Room for Faith in the Age of Science
by Michael Ruse
Cambridge University Press, 2010
Review by Michael L Anderson
Sep 7th 2010 (Volume 14, Issue 36)

Blessed are the peacemakers.  The battle over the deeper significance of Darwinian evolution continues.  It goes beyond the academic press, into classrooms and courtrooms and throughout popular culture.  Some voices grow strident in this gigantomachia.  There is a tendency to demonize the other side, rather than to engage them fairly and rationally.  Michael Ruse's Science and Spirituality is an exception.  Perhaps sensing stalemate in the bookwars, Ruse moves forward.  He seeks an intellectually honest détente, one that honors the best of both sides, for neither is complete in itself. Moving forward is more satisfying than mustering for another siege, and arguably more genuinely religious, too. 

His method is historical. The book is wide-ranging, saltatory and compressed at 236 pages.  While explicitly calling for support from Augustine and Aquinas, it makes little reference to the advocates of Intelligent Design or other well-known figures of the modern Christian right.  It would be wrong to view Science and Spirituality as a response to The God Delusion. Ruse has done this elsewhere.  The book references Dennett, Dawkins and the like often, but in a positive, not polemic way. 

Ruse is a major figure in the public struggle over Darwinian evolution, but he occupies a curious place, somewhere near the center.  And of course the center holds poorly in antagonistic arenas.  He appeared as an expert witness for the plaintiff in 1981 in McLean v. Arkansas.  In that case it was found that the state Board of Education, in trying to give equal emphasis to 'Creation Science' as a scientific alternative to Darwinian evolution, was actually promoting a religious agenda.  As a form of government, the public school was violating the establishment clause of the US Constitution, which proscribes any state established religion.

Ruse was reared in the Quaker faith in postwar England.  He maintains that Quakers then were more christologically oriented than they are today.  But like all Friends, who eschew conventional orthodoxy or credo, his allegiance to Christianity is on his own terms.  This may be why the book is somewhat vaguely titled Science and Spirituality, rather than something more pointed.  Ruse professes non-belief.  His chief mentor is Hume.  Irrational or absurdist faith has no attraction for him.  His position is perhaps akin to that of a Robert Wright, Philip Kitcher, or even Mr Darwin himself, who see great importance in preserving the traditional Christian forms and morality, while coolly banging on Christian theology with a hammer to demonstrate its essential emptiness.  Some traditional-minded Christians will see Ruse as a poor ally.  It is remarkable, however, the depth of study that he has clearly undergone in traditional Christian theology; the depth is equal to that of his reading of western scientific history. 

Nonetheless, the way is illuminated by the flashlight of science.  One key recurring question in Science and Spirituality is What overarching metaphor represents our scientific worldview?  This was perhaps more historically evident before the conundrums of quantum mechanics emerged.  Is nature mechanically deterministic?  Spinoza and Einstein thought so.  If so, do we mean this as strictly and exhaustively as we describe the workings of a windup clock?  This is the Laplacian view, and it has influenced a great amount of philosophical speculation.  It is also the default position of natural science.  For example, Richard Dawkins maintains that strictly blind, mechanical, algorithmic processes must be responsible for the rich variations of adaptation, as for the origin of life itself.  This is as yet an extremely bold claim, but it stands primarily because there is no viable alternative.

Contrarily, is mechanistic explanation merely a heuristic? In other words, while we see many obvious cases of mechanism in the world, we are not therefore compelled to view all processes and the universe itself as mechanistic.  Consciousness is a well known example of a 'process' that many feel cannot be simply reduced to neural topology and signaling schemes.

Ruse ranges from classical world-as-machine metaphors to the philosophical mummery that has always attended natural science.  We review the Cartesians' struggle to impose strict contact mechanism upon the Newtonians.  The Cartesians, and Bishop Berkeley for that matter, were philosophically much more 'correct' in their criticisms, but they were also, apparently, utterly irrelevant.  Nature need not conform to a pretty picture.  In this way scientific and meta-scientific knowledge advances, so much the worse for old models and understandings and arguments. 

Another world-metaphor that has suggested itself since at least the time of Aristotle is that of organicism.  We witness the regular growth and death of living creatures.  We see how interconnected are all creatures, in terms of ecosystems, conflict and cooperation.  Perhaps the entire cosmos participates in this life play.  Whereas lifeless mechanisms, tools, are purposed to perform some function for their owner, organic creatures serve their own ends.  They have a telos to which they aspire, and a telos has historically been a desideratum for many philosophers. 

Curiously, as Dawkins points out, the purpose of a lifeform may be primarily to host and perpetuate a genome, and not necessarily to serve its own needs.  This point does not argue against the metaphor so much as to illustrate the myriad complications of life organisms.  Lifeforms may also be embedded in social groups to which the individual may be sacrificed.  In the case of Homo sapiens, the individual may sacrifice himself for an abstract principle, and he may do so for those to whom he is not closely related genetically.

Scientists today tend to not champion grand metaphors.  It is debatable the degree to which scientists are enthralled to a Kuhnian paradigm, but even so, a paradigm is far less than the overarching universal metaphor of old.  If you ask a working scientist, off the record, to step aside and speculate about the bigger picture, what do you get?  I suspect you would get vague answers similar to those of any other well educated persons.  Steven Weinberg expresses this disaffection well:  "The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless."  On the other hand, it is probably fair to point out that the most brilliant scientists tend to be rather wrongheaded philosophers.

Perhaps due to the growth, institutionalization and specialization of science, we see little self-examination and unifying big picture metaphors today.  Ruse explores, and takes seriously, some of the familiar questions for which science utterly lacks traction:  Why is there something rather than nothing?  Why do the universe's initial conditions need to be just so in order to support the many processes we see?  What does science have to say about human behavior and morality?  Does cognitive science give us a satisfying model of the subjective sense of consciousness?  How do we account for patterns and structures that seem to 'emerge', deus ex machina, from simpler processes?  Some of these questions do eventually fall to the scientific method, but not all.

  We live in an era of increasing religious sectarian conflict.  Science is valued for its technological benefits, but its wider conclusions are as misunderstood and despised now as ever before.  Francis Fukuyama could not have been more wrong twenty years ago when he pronounced the end of the mysterious undercurrents of Hegelian history and the dawn of a new rationalist day.  If there is to be any hope for meaningful dialog between world cultures it must start with scholars who brave the middle way, without recourse to wan platitudes and gooey abstractions, without theory-blindness.  We may look back nostalgically to Aquinas reading pagan Aristotle by way of Averroes, ibn Rushd.  Such heresy dabbling could easily have negative career consequences then, and by no means was Aquinas a goodwill ambassador to the east.  But we must admire the willingness of these medieval scholars to engage the other side, compelled by a view of some kind of higher truth, come what may.  Michael Ruse continues this venerable tradition.  Our crafty species may not be made in the exact physical image of a benevolent creator, but we need not act like disappointed chimpanzees in response.

 

© 2010.  Michael L Anderson

 

Michael L Anderson, omniapraeclara AT gmail.com, holds an MSEE, MA-Philosophy and PhD in Engineering Science.  He served in the USMC and works in industry.  He consults (www.blackoakeng.com) and writes widely.


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