In other news, philosopher Mary Midgley offers some thoughts on the proper way to respond to ID. The title: A Plague on Both Their Houses.
You can probably guess what’s coming, especially if you’re aware of Midgley’s history with Richard Dawkins (more on that later). If you’re expecting Midgley to decry equally people like Dawkins who liken evolution to atheism and religious fundamentalists who promote creationism and ID, then you would be right.
Which is already a bad sign. Even if you sincerely believe that evolution and religion are compatible and that people like Dawkins are guilty of bad philosophy in claiming otherwise, the fact remains that there is simply no comparison between Dawkins-ites and fundamentalists. Oversimplifying philosophical arguments in books and public presentations is hardly equivalent to subverting science education and enlisting politicians to promote your religious agenda. Equating the two is just more academic cluelessness on the subject of ID.
Midgley gets off to a reasonable start. She gives a decent, four-paragraph summary of what is wrong with ID.
But it quickly becomes clear that her main claim is the old “non-overlapping magisteria” argument brought to fame by Stephen Jay Gould. Real religion, you see, deals with claims of meaning and purpose, not with anything as mundane as how the world actually is:
Any apparent clashes between the two must therefore arise either from faulty religion or faulty science, or both. They don’t call for war, but for a better understanding. For instance, believers celebrating God as Creator need not be trying to smuggle an illicit set of dubious variables into the realm of scientific facts.
The notion of “faulty science” I understand. I can’t imagine what “faulty religion” could be.
But the real action comes later:
It should surely be obvious that there is nothing scientific about atheism. God’s existence is not a question for the tests of physical science; it belongs to metaphysics. What is wrong with fundamentalism is not its theism — theists do not need to take this line — but its sheer irrelevance. Fundamentalism is a perverse attempt to use a particular, bronze-age Hebrew vision of God to resolve factual questions in science and history. Opponents who answer fundamentalism on its own terms by arguing against this mixed project as a package-deal merely perpetuate its characteristic confusion between the realms of fact and meaning. (Emphasis in Original)
Good heavens! What the heck does that mean?
Fundamentalism is irrelevant? Irrelevant to what? When I look at the influence of creationism in its various forms across the American political landscape, which is what I thought Midgley was going to try to help me understand, I see fundamentalism at every turn. And speaking as someone who holds Dawkins and his confreres in rather high regard, let me observe that we don’t attack fundamentalism for its theism. We attack fundamentalism for precisely the reasons Midgley lays out here, for its rigid adherence to a completely falsified way of looking at the world.
It’s just that independently of that, we also attack theism on its own terms. Theism, especially monotheism, is an inherently bad thing in our view, and in its traditional Christian form it is genuinely menaced by evolution. Not proved false to a logical certainty, but made to seem very unlikely indeed. Midgley can blather all she wants about the wonders of more flexible conceptions of God, but any version that describes a loving, all-powerful God creating the Earth with humans in mind is made to seem dubious in the light of evolution.
And it is simply wrong to say there is nothing scientific about atheism. Atheism is a view of the world heavily informed by science in a way that most prominent forms of Christianity are not. The march of scientific progress has made atheism a more reasonable proposition today than it was a few hundred years ago. That can not simply be swept aside or dismissed as metaphysics.
What I really resent about Midgley’s argument is the implication that it is people like her who really understand religion. They’re the ones who see the sensible kind of religion, unlike us low-brow scribblers here on the ground who think fundamentalism and its offshoots are where the action lies. It is only dumb old Dawkins who deals with that fundamentalist caricature of Christianity. Real scholars deal with the ethereal, say nothing that might be contradicted by actual facts, version.
Folks, it just isn’t so. It is Midgley who is presenting a caricatured, and I would think somewhat offensive, version of Christianity. It is she who effectively concedes all of Dawkins’ points by suggesting that Christianity can be saved from science only by distancing itself from any claim of providing information about how the natural world actually is. It is she who is considering a version of Christianity practiced only by a small minority, and not by the majority of people describing themselves as Christian. It is she, in short, who does not know what she is talking about.
Okay. Enough of that. Let me close with one last quote:
Richard Dawkins and E.O. Wilson added a Thatcherite nuance by their rather strange choice of the term ‘selfish’ for the productivity of genes. Both writers, of course, claim that this was never more than an insignificant metaphor – yet both of them often use it quite naïvely in a literal sense (eg “we are born selfish”), and there is no doubt that this is how it is has reached the public.
Oh bruh-ther. Richard Dawkins a Thatcherite? The mind reels.
More to the point, the description of genes as selfish is not an insignificant metaphor. Rather, selfish has a precise technical meaning in Dawkins’ writing, and indeed in much evolutionary writing. Midgley really ought to be aware of this, since she had it explained to her in no uncertain terms almost thirty years ago.
In 1979 Midgley published a staggeringly ignorant review of Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene in the academic journal Philosophy. It was the sort of review where a knowledgeable reader could see inside of a few paragraphs that she hadn’t a clue what Dawkins was arguing.
Dawkins was subsequently allowed to reply. He writes:
I shall return to this misunderstanding of me, but for the moment let me concentrate on her more serious misunderstanding of the definitional conventions of the whole science of `sociobiology,’ a science of which she aspires to be a serious scholar. When biologists talk about `selfishness’ or `altruism’ we are emphatically not talking about emotional nature, whether of human beings, other animals, or genes. We do not even mean the words in a metaphorical sense. We define altruism and selfishness in purely behavioristic ways… (Emphasis in Original)
That really ought to have put to rest the idea that the description of genes as selfish was intended as a metaphor. Later, Dawkins provided this apt summary of Midgley’s point:
In effect I am saying: `Provided I define selfishness a particular way an oak tree, or a gene, may legitimately be described as `selfish.’ Now a philosopher could reasonably say, `I don’t like your definition, but given that you adopt it, I can see what you mean when you call a gene selfish.’ But no reasonable philosopher would say: `I don’t like your definition, therefore I shall interpret your statement as though you were using my definition of selfishness; by my definition your concept of the selfish gene is nonsense, therefore it is nonsense.’ This is, in effect, what Midgley has done: “Genes cannot be selfish or unselfish, any more than atoms can be jealous, elephants abstract, or biscuits teleological.” (p. 439) Why didn’t she add to this witty little list, for the benefit of quantum physicists, that fundamental particles cannot have charm?
Check and mate.