Prior commitments – 1: atheistic

In some e-mail correspondence over the weekend I mentioned the unwillingness of biologists to engage seriously with mathematical challenges to random mutation in protein synthesis. My correspondent replied that he didn’t share a theist’s need to prove the biologists wrong. I answered that the issue might equally involve materialist biologists’ need to prove the mathematics wrong.

The exchange got me to thinking about prior commitments in relation to evolution, especially as I happened to turn up the original source  for Richard Lewontin’s much-quoted statement on the matter. Indeed, only today it is cited in an excellent article by David Berlinski .

In case you don’t want to follow the link, here is what he quotes:

Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door. The eminent Kant scholar Lewis Beck used to say that anyone who could believe in God could believe in anything. To appeal to an omnipotent deity is to allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured, that miracles may happen.

Berlinski uses this more or less as a proof-text, as a number of others have, but I thought I should read the whole original source to see why Lewontin actually says what he does. In the context of a review of Carl Sagan’s book, he seems to be suggesting that Sagan is sincere but a little naive in his zeal to educate the public in the ways of science. Lewontin himself seems both sociologically and philosophically more savvy, and not a little more cynical. I think he genuinely perceives the subjective nature of his own world-view. In a separate quotation he even hints at its socially-conditioned origin:

Theodosius Dobzhansky, the leading empirical evolutionary geneticist of the twentieth century, who spent most of his life staring down a microscope at chromosomes, vacillated between deism, gnosticism, and membership in the Russian Orthodox Church. He could not understand how anyone on his or her deathbed could remain an unrepentant materialist. I, his student and scientific epigone, ingested my unwavering atheism and a priori materialism along with the spinach at the parental dinner table. The Wars Over Evolution  New York Review of Books  October 20, 2005

In other words, I suggest he is not being sardonic, or tongue-in-cheek: David Berlinksi has captured the intent of the quotation perfectly. Lewontin genuinely considers that a prior commitment to materialism underlies Neodarwinism, and outweighs any evidence that might be brought against it. He is only unusual in recognising, and admitting, the fact. I consider that to an open-minded observer of the current scene, the evidence is that this prior commitment is true of all those with a commitment to naturalism. Or to rephrase it, to the atheist belief in Neodarwinian evolution is an absolute necessity, as there are no plausible alternatives.

I should qualify that by saying that limited alternatives do exist, but are either laughably implausible (like Koonin’s invocation of the Multiverse) or steer perilously close to a teleology that opens the door to the Divine Foot (like Shapiro’s natural genetic engineering). It is that threat, rather than poor evidence, that raises the mainstream hackles against reformulations of evolutionary theory. And the lack of that threat that resulted in the easy acceptance of developments like Kimura’s neutral theory, though it makes the arrival of the fittest even more problematic than the Modern Synthesis. As Lewontin again says (really the only source one needs!):

Dawkins’s vulgarizations of Darwinism speak of nothing in evolution but an inexorable ascendancy of genes that are selectively superior, while the entire body of technical advance in experimental and theoretical evolutionary genetics of the last fifty years has moved in the direction of emphasizing non-selective forces in evolution.

Not only does evolution make atheism intellectually respectable – anything that undermines it completely removes any justification for that respect. Atheists therefore have everything staked on evolution, and as the figures show amongst biologists, and especially leaders in the field, atheism is the norm. It has to be worrying, when trying to make a rational appraisal of the evidence, to know that those most engaged with it have a profound, and overruling, metaphysical bias.

In my next post, I’m going to suggest that theism, per se, does not carry the same kind of baggage – though most individual varieties of it certainly do.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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