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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Living with Darwin

I've just finished reading Philip Kitcher's new book, Living with Darwin: Evolution, Design, and the Future of Faith. I unreservedly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the issues mentioned in its sub-title. Kitcher is an outstanding philosopher of science, whose gifts include a knack for explaining why scientific inferences about unobservable things such as events in space, or in the remote past, can be favoured - overwhelmingly - by the evidence. His explanation of why the Darwinian picture was accepted in the 19th century, and should still be accepted, are as good as anything of the kind that I have read. It compares with Richard Dawkins' careful explanation of how complexity can evolve over evolutionary timescales, to be found in Climbing Mount Improbable, or with Kitcher's own account, in The Advancement of Science, of how Galileo was able to convince his contemporaries of such phenomena as the moons of Jupiter, even without a theory of the telescope or an instrument so user-friendly as any modern designs.

Kitcher's analysis of genesis-based accounts of life's variety and the fossil record is a joy to read. In vivid prose, he examines the details of the creationists' arguments, showing just where these must go wrong, and how they became untenable back in the 19th century, even before such advances as radioactive dating techniques.

He also depicts the intellectual difficulties for providential forms of religion, and for all varieties of supernaturalism (though his case against providentialism is the more impressive aspect).

Over the years, Kitcher's views have hardened, and he now takes the stance that providential religion is almost impossible to reconcile with a Darwinian picture of life's history on Earth. He is so firm about this, and so persuasive, that we could just about include him among the so-called "New Atheists", but he makes an effort to distance himself from them, specifically mentioning Dawkins ... whom he obviously admires, but not for his passionately-expressed attacks on religious faith. In one interview that I've listened to on the net, Kitcher was at even greater pains to distance himself from Dawkins, who responded sharply on his website.

Kitcher is conciliatory towards what he calls "spiritual religion" and sympathethic to the emotional needs of religious believers in general; he clearly believes that Dawkins is insufficiently sensitive to the latter, particularly to people for whom belief in a providential deity is a source of comfort as they lead lives that are pretty tough, circumscribed, and insecure. I'm not convinced that Dawkins does fail to appreciate this, but as far as it goes the point is well worth emphasising.

I've made a similar point in the past when writing about the vision offered by Camus in his great essay, "The Myth of Sisyphus": as I stated then, the vision of an authentic, zestful life that Camus offers may well be attractive to a successful intellectual like Camus himself, involved in uniquely creative work that gives his life a sense of meaning. It may not be enough for people whose lives offer far less genuine freedom and unique creativity. This does not entail that Camus was wrong (or that Dawkins is, or Kitcher for that matter), but it should mute any scorn that any of us might feel for people who appear to be living inauthentic lives by the rigorous standards of French existentialism ... if, indeed, Camus is to be counted as an existentialist. Many goodhearted people might discern the bleakness of Camus' worldview, when it is explained to them, without finding anything liberating, or otherwise beneficial, in it. The same applies to the rigorous philosophical naturalism that Kitcher and Dawkins share.

Kitcher is very sensitive to this issue, and he explores how society, particularly US society, would need to evolve before such a naturalistic view - and reinterpretations of mainstream religion along lines that are compatible with it - could become psychologically acceptable to more people.

He expresses disagreement with less conciliatory Enlightenment apologists (though the only one he mentions by name is Dawkins) about two specific things: (1) we cannot categorically deny that we will ever find something that matches the claims of the transcendent, and, more importantly, (2) there is a possibility of "spiritual religion" (which sounds a bit like the "Einsteinian" kind that Dawkins discusses sympathetically in The God Delusion and elsewhere) that treats the Christian (say) teachings symbolically and rejects supernatural elements. I'm not sure that these really are disagreements with Dawkins, since the latter seems to acknowledge them both (as do I, if it comes to that). There is certainly a difference of emphasis, but Kitcher seems to think it is something more. Perhaps the real difference is that, despite the area of agreement between Dawkins and Kitcher, one of them (the British scientist) would actually like to see religion disappear entirely, while the other (the American philosopher) would be content to see it transformed.

Overall, Living with Darwin gets high marks from me, and I recommend it to the same people who would buy The God Delusion or Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell. Even those readers who are more sympathetic to the providential and supernatural elements of religion that Kitcher opposes will be interested by his observations about religion's possible future. At the same time, his careful analysis of the creation-evolution debate will be invaluable to anyone who wants to be able to explain just why the case for biological evolution is so overwhelming, and how the Intelligent Design movement fails to provide any sort of viable alternative.

17 comments:

The Barefoot Bum said...

I'm not nearly so tolerant of religion as you imply Kitcher is, because I don't see the primary role of religion as maintaining hope; I see the primary role, rather, as enforcing fear.

As Norm Doering writes: Hope is the bait, but Fear is the trap.

Hope is pretty easy; it doesn't require the illusion of truth, it inspires the illusion of truth. Fear does, however, require the illusion of truth, and it is to maintain fear that the religious insist on the truth of their claims. Hope to truth to fear: Only rational, naturalistic thought can break this chain.

I think it's misleading to say that "belief in a providential deity is a source of comfort [to those who] lead lives that are pretty tough, circumscribed, and insecure." I think this sentiment ignores the fact that these people's lives are tough, circumscribed and insecure in no small part because of their belief in a providential deity. Specifically, they are oppressed by their fear of such a deity and their conviction that a privileged, priestly class can advise them as to how to placate this fearsome being and even intervene to obtain undeserved mercy.

I think you're creating a false dichotomy by comparing religious belief Camus' existentialism; I think (with apologies to A. C. Grayling) you're mistaking meliorism for perfectabilism. Religion isn't bad because it's keeping people from living up to an ideal, or even the standards of some French intellectual. Religion is bad because it keeps ordinary people in a state of fear and enables rank oppression and exploitation and the imposition of gratuitous suffering.

Russell Blackford said...

I was hoping this post might have received some more comments over night. I think the issue of the future of religion (and how secularists like Dawkins, Kitchens ... and I, much further down the literary food chain ... should respond to its manifestations) is currently very important.

I'll address barefoot bum's points later. Before I go any further with the discussion, I should just make clear that the article I wrote about Camus was extremely sympathetic to his views. Someone reading my post without having read the article itself might assume it was critical of him. That's far from the case. It just struck me, yesterday, how much one of Kitcher's comments about Dawkins reminded me of a particular comment I had made a few years ago about Camus, in the pages of Quadrant magazine, well before the current "New Atheism" controversy started. It even crossed my mind that Kitcher may have seen my Camus piece, or the summary of it in the Wilson Quarterly, and been influenced by it at some level, doubtless subconscious, but I don't think so (I can't even remember whether the Wilson Quarterly mentioned the particular comment). More likely, we just had the same thought independently.

Similarly, I'm a great fan of Dawkins, and I've obviously "sided" with him in my post, while acknowledging that Kitcher has a point. One reason why I side with Dawkins here is that I think his critics often misread him ... and I believe that Kitcher does, too, to some extent.

I don't see Dawkins as scornful of ordinary religious people, though he certainly is scornful of those who are dogmatic in their beliefs and impervious to rational argument, and to those use their dogmas as instruments of oppression. However, there's a straw man version of Dawkins being widely promulgated that makes him out to be angry, aggressive, and just plain nasty to religious folk. I think that any element of truth in this has been greatly exaggerated. He clearly doesn't suffer Ted Haggard gladly, but he is generally very considered and polite, even gentle, in debate.

I don't think that Camus or Dawkins have shown the scorn for ordinary "battlers" (as we say in Australia) that I warned against. I raised it in the Camus article, because I think it's a temptation we can fall into if we go along with the general approach that Camus takes, especially if we are worried about authenticity (in the sense that comes up in existentialist and related thought). In the current context, I often see blog posts and comments that are far more scornful of ordinary religious people than Dawkins himself has ever been, so the temptation is definitely there. It's one that I sometimes feel; and it's good to see Kitcher writing about, for example, his experience with his own family, as a way of warning people against it. But I just don't see Dawkins as that kind of scornful person.

None of which has addressed barefoot bum's points. Later.

Blake Stacey said...

I have some thoughts on "Einsteinian religion", or what might better be called "appreciation of an Einsteinian God". However, I haven't yet hashed these thoughts out fully, so I can say little now beyond reporting a vague worry. More will follow, but I must lower my entropy first!

I don't see Dawkins as scornful of ordinary religious people, though he certainly is scornful of those who are dogmatic in their beliefs and impervious to rational argument, and to those use their dogmas as instruments of oppression. However, there's a straw man version of Dawkins being widely promulgated that makes him out to be angry, aggressive, and just plain nasty to religious folk. I think that any element of truth in this has been greatly exaggerated. He clearly doesn't suffer Ted Haggard gladly, but he is generally very considered and polite, even gentle, in debate.

Agreed on all counts. I've been re-reading The God Delusion lately, and I've been continually struck by the interesting points which have been overlooked or sidestepped in order to rail against a straw Dawkins.

Russell Blackford said...

Re barefoot bum's points. I raised the issue about Camus originally in an article about Camus, and I brought it up here because one of the points Kitcher makes about Dawkins is very similar to a point I make about Camus. The general point is that it might be easier to find meaning in your life - without religion or anything supernatural - if you are engaged in work that you find creative and consider important. If you are a peasant, ground down by repetitive work, things may seem very different. They may also seem different to an ordinary Western worker, preoccupied with feeding the mortgage and the kids.

The point is more a reminder to myself to be sympathetic to the situations of such people, since, whatever problems and frustrations I have in my own life, I'm in a very privileged situation in many ways. It would be unfair of me to be dismissive of others as living inauthentic lives. Even if I think that they are to some extent - and I find this unfortunate - I should view them with compassion rather than scorn, especially if they are victims more than victimisers.

Of course, you make a good point, though it's slightly tangential to what I was thinking of. Yes, some people are oppressed by religion. Far from disagreeing with that, I think that many people are oppressed by religion in many ways. On the other hand, I'm not going to say that every moderate religious believer is either oppressed by her religion (which may not have any of the nasty elements you mentioned) or that she is oppressing others. There's a lot of quite benign religion around, at least where I live, and I do think that it's worthwhile reminding ourselves that not all religious believers are either victims or enemies of reason. Even Dawkins emphasises that he engages socially with nice Anglican bishops who are not our enemies.

But I don't take the silly line of: "I don't recognise the kind of religion that Dawkins attacks." I definitely do recognise it. All too well.

The fact that my religious friends tend to have rather benign ideas does not blind me at all to existence of the hellfire-and-damnation kinds of fundamentalism that are so common (perhaps especially in the US), to the widespread rejection of science in the US and other parts of the world, or to the morality of guilt and misery preached by the Vatican leadership and the Catholic Church's worldwide network of conservative cardinals and bishops. I haven't gone soft on any of this.

Brian English said...

Hi Russell, another interesting post.
I'll have to check out the book. From your review it seems worth the time. I agree that the Dawkins we read about often on the web, isn't the Dawkins that wrote the God Delusion or I've seen via the web and books.

Brian English.

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