Back to the future

I’ve just come across a couple of interesting pointers to a forthcoming paradigm shift not so much in biology alone, but in the whole spirit of the age, and not in the diirection of postmodernism either.

The first was a programme I happened to catch on TV, which is still available on i-Player for a few days here. It was called Aristotle’s Lagoon, and was an exploration by Armand Leroi, Professor of Evolutionary Developmental Biology at Imperial College, of the wildlife of Lesvos, where Aristotle did much of his work on natural history over a couple of years in the 4th century BC.

Leroi is an interesting bloke, it seems. Apart from his biology work he’s been involved in using evolutionary algorithms to trace the history of song styles, working with Brian Eno and the Alan Lomax Foundation. Amongst his publications are Creationism and its critics in antiquity and Leonardo’s mountain of clams and the diet of worms. An erudite punster as well as a polymath.

The programme was interesting not only because it showed Aristotle’s foundational work on biological science, involving an endearing habit (to biologists) of reproducing Aristotle’s dissections on coffee tables. Leroi also discussed with a philosopher friend the way in which Aristotle’s metaphysics and his science were all of a piece. He said – with perhaps a tinge of regret – that if he had a God, it would be Aristotle’s. For those of us who know the living God, that of the philosphers is too ethereal and distant – yet one wonders why biologists, in particular, feel compelled to do without any kind of deity, especially when, like Leroi, their appreciation of nature’s beauty and wisdom is evident.

He pointed out some of Aristotle’s weaknesses, such as the failure of Greek science to engage in experiment, and modern science’s consequently becoming a victim of his success by taking his word on things where he was wrong. But the main theme was admiration for his relevance to tomorrow’s world – and most significantly to me, the programme ended with the suggestion that, as reductionism is showing its crippling limitations, Aristotle’s teleological and holistic approach may have much to teach natural science in the coming century.

The second pointer was an extract from a magazine sent me by an academic relative. This comprised a couple of articles from Standpoint, “a monthly British cultural and political magazine… The magazine describes its core mission as being ‘to celebrate western civilisation’, its arts and its values – in particular democracy, debate and freedom of speech – at a time when they are under threat.” The umbrella title was Can science replace religion in our lives, and it was about the limits of atheism.

The first piece was by Nigel Biggar, Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at Christchurch Oxford. The general theme was along the lines “The New Atheists have discredited religion, haven’t they? But wait, not so fast…” As is apparently becoming ubiquitous, the pretensions of evolutionary morality are exposed as totally inadequate. Along the way the self-interested evolutionary altruism of J B S Haldane is demonstrated as manifestly empirically untrue. But the theme shared with Leroi the biologist is the appeal to the past to remedy the deficiencies of the modern paradigm.

And so Comte’s “icily disinterested altruism” is condemned as incoherent, and is contrasted with Thomas Aquinas, who “makes better ethical sense.” And Hobbes’s “anthropological realism” (natural life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”) is countered by the analysis of Calvinist (unfortunately leaning to Socinian) Hugo Grotius even before Hobbes had written Leviathan and by Anglican philospher Joseph Butler afterwards.

The second article is by John Cottingham, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Reading. He starts by quoting Descartes’s dictum that “The search for final causes is utterly useless in physics,” on which claim, of course, the whole of modern natural science depends. Cottingham quickly focuses on the biological realm, and reaches “a niggling doubt that something in the modern Darwinian materialist worldview doesn’t quite add up,” despite “true believers” like Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins.

Once again,then, the New Atheists are recognised, but as having merely shown the weaknesses of their own case. Cottingham then comes to a review of Thomas Nagel’s book, Mind and Cosmos – Why the Materialist Neo-darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, on which I commented myself here. The reviews of Nagel, including this one, show how much of a game-changer the book is, not least in the recognition of “the predictable fury of the orthodox cultural establishment”, an establishment whose existence we are constantly told is only a figment of the Creationist imagination.

Cottingham too cites Thomas Aquinas, and specifically his five proofs of God, in connection with Nagel’s strong affirmation of teleology, whilst recognising that Nagel, as an atheist, wants to posit a naturalistic teleology. The author, like several other reviewers, makes it clear that he thinks Nagel hasn’t made a strong case there. Whilst dismissing Intelligent Design as science on the thoroughly Thomistic grounds that secondary causes cannot prove God (though unaccountably omitting to mention Nagel’s acknowledged debt to ID’s challenges to Darwinism), he spends the last page showing how the future looks increasingly likely to reveal “a cosmos in which the religious believer can still feel at home.” In fact, the implicit counterpoint to that in the article is that the unbeliever, failing to admit the teleological “beauty and goodness” in nature, might feel correspondingly less at home in the new order.

I was already aware, from conversations with working philosophers over here, that though a majority of philosophers remain materialists, the problems with that position have become increasingly obvious to them. Cottingham points to the shift in the philosophical academy in the last forty years to a majority belief in objective morality – a shift which, unfortunately has not yet hit the biologists, the educationalists or the legislators. Or even the Church which, always behindhand, is just reaching the nadir of its capitulation to relativism.

The article points out that the Judaeo-Christian tradition (from which he cites St Paul’s Romans) is quite comfortable with suffering and imperfection, in nature as in morals, without compromising the divine teleology of “the astonishingly beautiful and unified whole,” of “an objective domain of truth and beauty and goodness.”

And so these three pieces, from three different disciplines and three different viewpoints, seem agreed on one thing: what is needed to move forward is not the discovery of radical new insights to replace the status quo, but the application of things known long before, in the light of its failure. I just wonder if too much of that heritage has been forgotten to prevent our lurching into some other new dystopia instead.

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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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2 Responses to Back to the future

  1. You mentioned Roger Scruton in an earlier post. I recently read his book ‘Beauty’ (the ‘long’ verson (though it is not very long), rather than the ‘very short introduction’).
    A beautiful, encouraging book affirming the beauty to be found in nature, art, music , literature, architecture, human love, etc and, I think, adequately justifying his belief that there is such a thing as inherent, objective beauty. Though he mentions God only briefly (it is not written overtly with faith in mind), somewhat like the Song of Solomon it draws out the reader’s heart to the Creator.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Peter

      Scruton’s book was given to me by a medical partner back in ’97 because he thought I might be more interested, but it took me till last year to feel the need. A good guy, it seems – did the Bampton Lectures one year… and certainly wrote a useful introduction to modern philosophy (though it made me realise I prefer old philosophy!).

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