(Un)intelligible

Lots going on these days in the science wars over naturalism and Intelligent Design.  In addition to the NPR debate I blogged between Stephen C. Meyer and Michael Ruse here and here, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker made a big splash in the pages of The New Republic  arguing that "Science Is Not Your Enemy."

Pinker's essay is, alternatively, a denial that there exists something called "scientism ," and, on the other hand, that there is but it is no danger to you, your friendly college English professor, or anybody else. A more passive-aggressive approach you'll not likely encounter. 

"Scientism" is what happens when the empirical sciences (which as a litmus test for membership requires the denial of transcendence)  proclaim themselves the only competent arbiters of truth. As Pinker notes, this tends to ruffle the feathers of philosophers and those working in the fields once known as the humanities. (It is not an accident that they now go by the term "social sciences ." Case closed for the existence of scientism.)

On the one hand, Pinker declares that worries about scientism are overblown. Science is here and it means you no harm. 

In the next breath, he says that science must provide the theoretical groundwork for the work of the humanities. Indeed, philosophy, history, art, language, and theology must  listen to science for their respective disciplines to thrive. Suffice it to say, the theologian is not comforted by Pinker telling him that his discipline is okay, but first he needs to deny the existence of a transcendent God.

Did I mention passive-aggressive?  

More specifically, Pinker argues that science provides two intellectual foundations that all disciplines of rational inquiry need: First, that the world is intelligible . The universe is "ordered." Second, that knowledge acquisition is hard work . No shortcuts.

Forgive me for looking askance at these benefits science  has allegedly gifted the world. Nobody knew the universe was ordered with constant physical laws until the Enlightenment? Really? Is Pinker really unaware that science in the West flourished precisely because  it believed the first article of the Christian creed: "I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth "? The doctrine of divine providence is nothing if not a theological affirmation (and grounding) of the uniformity of nature. Unlike pagan animism in which mysterious spiritual forces operate in matter by whim, and unlike Greek monism, which was suspicious of nature (being, after all, the creation of an evil demiurge), Christians found the world worthy of disciplined study and, well, intelligible . It was created by a rational mind, and therefore rationally explicable.

I don't need to say much about science inventing the discipline of "hard work" in acquiring knowledge. Apparently Pinker has never stumbled across a copy of, say, the Summa Theologica  or Cur Deus Homo ? The work of lazy men, clearly.

The "intelligibility' of the cosmos was not invented by transcendence-denying Enlightenment scientists. It was borrowed by transcendence-denying Enlightenment scientists who sought, above all else, to conceal its origins in Christian theology. Like criminals sometimes file the serial numbers off their stolen pistols to obscure their origins. The guns still work, but you can't trace them back to anybody. Well, intelligibility still works, but second-hand people like Steven Pinker can blithely claim to be the original owners.

Or does  intelligibility work, without transcendent foundations in divine providence?

I ask because I'm very familiar with one of the finest defenses of naturalistic Neo-Darwinism written in the last century: Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design .

That book is, if nothing else, a bold statement of the total intelligibility of the universe. In fact, it is so intelligible, Dawkins makes as his founding presupposition: "There is nothing that cannot be explained." We now have all the ingredients we need to explain literally everything , supplied by the laws of physics and chemistry.

Well, that's the first  half of the book.

In the second half, we have chapters mulling over how to account for "information rich" systems like self-replicating DNA molecules. And Dawkins is pretty mystified. So we get dozens of pages talking about how much "luck" we are allowed in scientific hypotheses. No, I am not kidding. Dawkins says that what we need to get self-replicating DNA molecules off the ground is a fantastic "stroke of luck." 

In fact, Richard Dawkins is so mystified as to the origins of DNA that he writes this sentence: "An apparently (to ordinary human consciousness) miraculous theory is exactly  the kind of theory we should be looking for in this particular matter of the origin of life." Emphasis in the original.

And so he unabashedly makes recourse to his "god of the gaps," Lady Chance. We are allowed a certain "ration of luck," and he chooses to use his at the origins of life. And then he goes on to explain how this isn't really  a "miracle." It is just that the universe is so old, and so random, and so weird, that certain really inexplicable things are just bound  to happen over such long aeons of time. You thought it impossible that a marble statue of the Virgin Mary could wave at a passerby? Think again. Not impossible, just very improbable (p.159). And remember, very improbable, the "apparently miraculous" is just what he is looking for . 

So naturalism starts out boldly proclaiming the intelligibility of the cosmos, and then boxes in the poor Neo-Darwinian into bowing down to pure, random chance by the end (or, I should say, the beginning ).

That is not the kind of intelligibility the humanities, nor science for that matter, needs. When one of the premier naturalistic scientists of our day is telling us a marble statue can wave at somebody, something's gone off the rails. 

Denial of God, who upholds and sustains the regularity and intelligibility of the cosmos, leads to folly, as the Bible reminds us time and again. In this matter, it is not the Stephen Meyers of the world looking foolish.