Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Evolution, providence, and the political

Again, I'm going to go against copyright for a little while and reproduce a large chunk of a really fascinating review article by James Krueger in The Notre Dame Philosophical Review. Krueger is reviewing the book, Living with Darwin: Evolution, Design, and the Future of Faith (Oxford University Press, 2007) by Philip Kitcher.

"Kitcher argues that the reason so many find evolutionary theory so disturbing is that it truly is incompatible with a certain kind of religion, what he calls providentialist religion, which involves "belief that the universe has been created by a Being who has a great design, a Being who cares for his creatures, who observes the fall of every sparrow and who is especially concerned with humanity" (122-123). Evolution presents two problems for such religious views. First, it makes suffering an essential part of the world. It forces us to suppose that "a providential Creator . . . has constructed a shaggy-dog story, a history of life that consists of a three-billion-year curtain raiser to the main event, in which millions of sentient beings suffer, often acutely, and that the suffering is not a by-product but constitutive of the script the Creator has chosen to write" (124). Second, all providentialist religions accept certain truths about the supernatural (for example, asserting the existence of some god). Such claims, the argument goes, are simply not subject to rational evaluation and as such there can be no reason to prefer one supernaturalist story to another. Thus the basis for accepting any particular religion disappears. Kitcher contends that these kinds of arguments are at the heart of the enlightenment critique of religion, a broader set of arguments that the debate over evolution must be situated within, and that this critique is devastating for providentialist religions.

. . . .

"It does seem apparent that no amount of scientific response will silence creationist challenges, suggesting that the mistake that drives such arguments must be found elsewhere than in the scientific detail. Here, however, is where Kitcher's approach ultimately becomes counterproductive, for like other contemporary critics of religion, he is unable to take seriously that (providentialist) religious faith could be compatible with rational discourse, that religious believers could have reasons for what they believe. All it could possibly be is a way of satisfying some deep psychological need. If the enlightenment critique of religion is correct, then there can be no rational dialogue about the supernatural, all there can be is unthinking commitment to certain truths. If that is all that is available, then religious claims must be excluded from public debate, they cannot serve as the basis for defending commitments within the context of modern democratic societies (if such debates are supposed to proceed according to reason). In this sense, modern creationists can be understood not as failing to learn the lesson of the enlightenment critique, but of learning it all too well. Accepting the absolute division of rationality and faith, the route to assuring space for religious belief becomes making all beliefs essentially based on simple commitment, not rational defense. Hence, modern intelligent design comes to take on an essentially negative form, highlighting the limits of scientific rationality. There is no longer the need to defend a positive case, for no case can be made on rational grounds. All we have is commitment. All we have is political manipulation and indoctrination. There is no rational basis for any belief, no reasoned dialogue, so anything goes (this is the source of the winks in the direction of Genesis creationism). Thus, the public focuses on evolution being "just a theory," and attention turns to public schools, political action, calls for "equal time" and the like. Kitcher is right: the arguments don't really matter, because arguments can't matter; all that remains is political activity. Religious believers come, perhaps unwittingly, to accept a kind of postmodern critique of pretensions to enlightenment rationality once they are denied the possibility of rational participation in the public sphere by defenders of such pictures of rationality. Once this happens, the prospect for a reasoned resolution to the debate disappears. All there can be is political activity.

"If this story is right, the way forward is to take very seriously the kinds of theological and philosophical arguments Kitcher takes up in his last chapter, and respond to them with careful, rational arguments defending religious faith, not to abandon rational dialogue about substantive (providentialist) religious claims. This means religious persons must move beyond unthinking acceptance and build on rich traditions of theological and philosophical reflection, and critics of religion must recognize the role of reason in such reflections and engage them on that basis. By rebuilding the long tradition of rational engagement with religion, we can give religious believers a voice that eliminates the driving force behind such ultimately skeptical arguments (exclusion from rational public discourse)."

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