Fundamentalism, materialism and their family reunion

The ongoing series on BioLogos in which former Creationists testify to their coming to peace with evolution says more, in my view, than the simple message that evolution and faith are compatible. It says something about conversion psychology.

People do modify their opinions all the time, of course, or they cease to be human. But saltational changes in ideas have particular characteristics. For example, the person brought up under an oppressive communist ideology and enthusiastically committed to it, on suddenly discovering that what he was told about the west was lies, is apt to become insufficiently critical of capitalist culture. That’s not always the case of course – alternatives are to deny the evidence and remain a leftist zealot, to become cynical about truth altogether, or occasionally, like Alexandr Solzhenitsyn perhaps, to be able to critique both east and west by an independent standard – in his case Christian faith.

But the last course is a lot harder than it would be for someone not facing radical disillusion. That’s why I think it’s a lot easier for those of us brought up outside the United States to examine the potential agreements and potential sticking points between science and Evangelical faith, though we no doubt have many blind spots of our own.

In my own case, for example, which is pretty typical of Brits of my generation, I was comfortably aware of the basic facts of evolution – old earth, common descent, transformism – from the age of five, when my experience of religion was of the “God bless Mummy and Daddy” variety. Along the way Adam, Eve and the Ark got into the Sunday School curriculum, but no more polemically than they would teach Jesus’s miracles as a denial of modern naturalism.

Becoming a Evangelical Christian at the age of 13, when biology also became my favourite school subject, certainly raised the issue of different accounts of origins. It also showed me that Christians had different views, sometimes strongly held. But for every brother one met who said that both Genesis and evolution couldn’t be true, there were others who said it wasn’t a big problem. The same diversity and openness to discussion were even more obvious doing Medical Science, and Christianity, at Cambridge. There one became somewhat more aware of the details, and the issues, and that they were not unimportant. But since they were never seen as clashing ideologies – the Bible OR science – both varying interpretations of Scripture and critical attitudes to the science were always on the table.

My point is not that there were those who had managed a satisfactory resolution between Moses and Darwin; one of the main reasons I took time to look into things after my retirement was because of the number of loose ends. But the advantage was that the unresolved tensions were treated as provisional and epistemological: maybe there is more to uncover about the science, and maybe there’s more to understand in God’s word. And maybe there are suckers who think it worthwhile spending time and effort on it…

One of those “uncoverings” was the way that that Darwin himself had set up something of a straw man in Origin of Species. Examined closely, much of his argument took the form of showing how common descent made more sense of the evidence that the special creation of fixed species, rather letting his theory of natural selection cling to common descent’s coat-tails, on much weaker evidence. One effect of this was to pit Genesis Literalism against Natural Selection, though few theologians of the time were (to use an anachronistic term) Young Earth Creationists, and neither were most Christian biologists.

But the Origin’s main audience was moderately educated but unsophisticated readers, some of whom were literalists, but many (like Darwin, perhaps) disillusioned literalists keeping religion at arms length. For both groups, then, the choice offered by Darwin seemed the valid one. Similarly, in our own day it would seem that for the Fundamentalist (or the Evangelical from a monoclonally literalist background), the sudden realisation that there is genuine evidence for evolution inevitably predisposes one to say, “My church leaders are wrong, and the professors must be right,” if one doesn’t say instead, “The biologists are in a conspiracy against God – let’s change to chemistry.” Incidentally that dichotomy isn’t helped by biology textbooks that reinforce it, nor by professors giving their “Now is the Hour to choose Truth or Stupidity” talks.

With such a violent change in outlook, such students are probably less well placed than most others to examine the things that aren’t presented in the choice. Theologically, of course, Fundamentalist pastors are hardly likely to be well-versed in, or well-disposed to, alternative biblical hermeneutics, church history, philosophy or metaphysics, so it’s no use going back to them. Neither are modern biologists noted for the self examination of their own discipline’s history, philosophy or metaphysics, as I’ve been trying to illustrate in some recent posts.

The common result seems to be, then, not so much the synthesis of religious truth and natural truth into an inclusive worldview, but the Darwinisation of theology. This, I would argue, is at least in part the replacement of one overly materialistic theory – Creationism – with another overly materialistic theory – Neodarwinism. As Darwin’s own opposition of the two showed, they both manage to steer round the deeper issues implicit both in Christianity and science.

One clue to this selective blindness is the way that much of the philosophical milieu that existed in Darwin’s time, and which provides the seldom-stated, and perhaps unconscious, underpinning of his approach, has changed – but neither Fundamentalism nor Darwinism has really noticed. For example, to Darwin’s intellectual generation, it was more or less proven that miracles had no place in the universe, with or without God. And of course one strand of Darwin’s argumentation was the suitability of natural processes and the incredibility of miracles in biology. The “convert” from Creationism to evolution tends to see the logic of this in a vague way, without realising that to Darwin it was not, as it were, a matter of God’s good taste, but of a basic argument – “If my theory weren’t true, you’d have to believe in miracles.” But of course, today’s theistic evolutionist often does believe in miracles, so long as they’re “religious” rather than “scientific”.

Another example of such change is the shared cultural perception Darwin and Special Creationists had in the inevitability of progress towards mankind as its culmination. That still clings sufficiently to evolution to provide a vaguely plausible background to any theistic evolutionist idea that “God intended man”, or even that the world was created (through evolution) for man. But it’s not in any sense, as it was for Darwin, a self-evident truth of the science, which just as realistically sees humanity as a small aberration in the Kingdom of Bacteria. “Evolution inevitably brings the best and highest” was thought to be part of science – it is no longer.

Of course, there actually are many other alternatives to Darwinian theory than miracle, in any case. Even Darwin came increasingly to accept some of them alongside his own theory, such as orthogenesis and acquired heritable characteristics. He excluded catastrophism and saltation, both of which are either confirmed or under serious consideration now. his colleague Wallace rejected Mendelianism, which has become the ruling orthodoxy, after proving to be compatible with selection after all.

More importantly, for the proper education of the “New Evangelical Evolutionist” is the sea change in metaphysical understandings since 1859. Both Creationism and Darwinism took reductive materialism in science for granted (if one discounts Darwin’s theistic suggestions on the origin of life itself). But between an emerging Neo-Aristotelianism, information and mind based metaphysics and other contenders, that can no longer be assumed. Materialism is in increasing trouble, and that matters if we are to hold together the truth of biblical revelation (which, if it is God’s word as Evangelicals believe, transcends all theories, whether scientific, philosophical or metaphysical) with the truth of the natural world (which is increasingly being seen to have only a nodding regard for the theories we impose on it).

Fitzroy-Darwin

Two Victorian scientists – two views on literalism. Fitzroy and Darwin. They remained friends, but Fitzroy opposed evolution at the famous Oxford debate (and, showing the tenor of the times, was shouted down).

Both Young Earth Creationism and Materialistic Darwinism really belong back in the nineteenth century, where they may be seen to be close, if somewhat estranged, siblings.

Jon Garvey

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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4 Responses to Fundamentalism, materialism and their family reunion

  1. GD GD says:

    Jon,

    An interesting paper by M LUDLOW, “SCIENCE AND THEOLOGY IN GREGORY OF NYSSA’S DE ANIMA ET RESURRECTIONE: ASTRONOMY AND AUTOMATA, in J Theological Studies, NS, Vol. 60, Pt 2, October 2009. I obtained this from jts.oxfordjournals.org.

    The prevailing views during those days were from Stoic or Epicurean philosophy, but we can generalise these as materialism. I have provided a couple of quotes to give a flavour of the outlook in this document, which shows us that the notion of a harmony between science and faith has been around for many centuries. I am inclined to view the present regurgitation of materialism as a conflict between science and faith, as perhaps a “last stand” by anti-theists, as they desperately cling to the notion that science provides a belief system. The paper also refers to matters that are nowadays discussed as design, as well as perception of nature via the senses.

    “.. a Divine power, working with skill and method, is manifesting itself in this actual world, and, penetrat[es] each portion’, and, furthermore, that humanity is a microcosm of the world, reflecting the composition of the whole universe not just in the combination of different elements making up the body, but also in its combination of a material body with an immaterial soul. That this echoes, but is not exactly parallel to, the divine power working in the universe will become evident in the rest of the treatise. Macrina then proceeds to argue that one needs to reason through one’s sense perceptions of the world and of human nature in order fully to understand them.”

    The discussion on design “….in this case not seeking to prove the existence of God from the presence of order in the universe, but rather seeking to show the existence of the immaterial human rational soul from the design of an automaton.”

    The debate between theists and anti-theists (or new atheists) is also discussed by McGrath in http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2014/10/21/4111675.htm; I also note objections to McGrath by atheists, and in particular those who show (I think correctly) that they can obtain meaning and value in life without agreeing with McGrath. I think we as theists need to obtain a deeper appreciation of human nature, the human spirit, which is capable at not only choosing belief and disbelief, but has the capacity to live and exist as an authentic being who sincerely acts on his non-beliefs. However their insistence of materialism undercuts the ground from under them. We as theists however, may forget that faith is a gift, as an act of Grace, and thus we need to understand that God considers both those of faith and those without it. I guess the so-called culture wars discussed in Biologos and elsewhere may be a product of the US – evangelical view that has become subordinate to the faith vs materialism confrontation – but I can only guess. Clearly there is a tradition in Britain and the USA which has sought to integrate science with theology, but my impression is that Darwin and similar thinking on bio-sciences has been a major driver in such activities. – this seemed to have sidelined the notions of natural/physical sciences.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      GD

      Sounds an interesting paper – I may not have access to it but I’ll look.

      The idea of the cosmos as organism was, if memory serves, one of the things that was displaced in the “mechanical philosophy” of early-modern science. And very useful that change could be, too – abstract the human arm into a system of levers and you gain a new understanding with practical import. Treat planets as separable parts of a clockwork mechanism (or as billiard balls) rather than as aspects of an organic whole, and you can get a man to the moon.

      The problem comes, I suppose, in believing that to be the fundamental reality, rather than a working model. People are not automata, and the arm (or the bacterial flagellum) is not, in the end, a mechanical artifact.

      In my view, when one comes to the end of the mechanical analogies in physics and have to talk about “quarks”, “charm”, “strange” and so on, it may be a similar phenomenon to the irreducibility of organisms or, quintessentially, man and “soul.” Eddington’s good at illustrating how our basic human (as opposed to scientific and theoretical) mechanical perception of things is in itself a representation of some kind of “unity in itself”.

      I was fascinated by the quote from Robert Rosen in the Jonathan Wells piece I linked above:

      Organisms, far from being a special case, an embodiment of more general principles or laws we believe we already know, are indications that these laws themselves are profoundly incomplete. The universe described by these laws is an extremely impoverished, nongeneric one… In short, far from being a special case of these laws, and reducible to them, biology provides the most spectacular examples of their inadequacy. The alternative is… a more generic view of the scientific world itself, in which it is the mechanistic laws that are the special cases.

      • GD GD says:

        Jon,

        The mechanistic outlook has proven useful, especially as it has enabled a practical use of science through engineering. The reference to an immaterial human soul which has, in a limited way, displayed the creative power to modify this world, is an ancient insight that indicates a great deal of wisdom from such intellects.

        I have also contemplated the inadequacy of physics and chemistry when we consider the bio-world and ourselves. The impact of advances in science and technology however, propels many towards a place where humanity may be artificially evolved into some type of part man, part machine, with cybernetics and artificial intelligence “improving” the current version of humanity. Once a theme for science fiction, nowadays serious discussions and a ‘hope’ for materialists. Ironically, such movement would also conform to the view on design and the creative power of humanity – the immaterial rational human soul. The barrier to the materialists dream world is also the capacity by us to understand good and evil, morality, ethics and so on. An excellent subject for discussion and one that may take us away from the tedium of Darwin this and Darwin that.

        • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

          I wonder how many actually share the transhumanists’ dream? Some might be willing to have chips implanted to get them through shopping tills, etc. but would they in any sense regard the chip as “them” – especially since their kids would not be born with them?

          The utility of mechanistic science fits nicely with that idea of mechanistic laws as special cases of the real laws (if laws there be) governing all things including mind. After all, it’s been pointed out that though quantum calculations would give us more accurate calculations, we deliberately use false Newtonian maths to make real mechanical problems tractable. But nobody thereby denies Newtonian laws are a limited, and approximate, special case.

          One thing that dramatically illustrates the inadequacy of materialism is the sheer number of things that it requires us to believe are illusions, evolutionary epiphenomena or symbols. To name a few: morals, emotions, values, intuitions, inspired ideas, spiritual beliefs, information, colours and other sensations, consciousness, reason (the power that justifies materialism in the first place), and the particles and waves that materialism says are fundamental. Materialism reduces even itself to mathematical symbols – and the information in the equations, and the minds that write them and comprehend them are all that remains.

          Any theory that explains away everything including itself is pretty much overdue due to be buried, it seems to me.

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