Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Highly Evolved

OK, let's not kid ourselves, I'm just trying to get a couple posts in, in the waning hours of August.

Early in the month, a friend called my attention to this Salon interview with philosopher of science Michael Ruse, talking about evolution-vs-creationism. Ruse is pointing out some of the argumentative excesses of science (for example, the rantings of Richard Dawkins, which I've blogged about before) and he's trying to stake out space to allow someone to endorse both science and religious faith. I liked what he had to say. As I've seen argued elsewhere, atheism didn't exist before the Enlightenment. The notion of religion as a distinct and separate pursuit, the optional frosting on the cake of life, was born with the Enlightenment. So the image of creationism and evolutionism as siblings, both born of the same crisis in Western culture, I find compelling. According to Ruse, scientism, positivism, secularism, whatever you call it, is a worldview, quite comparable to a religious worldview in that it dictates modes of thinking, patterns of rhetoric, and certain cultural norms at the expense of other valid norms.

This Ruse interview caught the notice of Butterflies and Wheels, who quickly proceed to belittle Ruse. This is an example of why I lose heart for this type of argument. Ophelia of B&W pretty bluntly admits her ignorance of theology on her way to dismissing it as a serious discipline. This is Richard Dawkins's M.O. as well. In the way of many scientists and analytic philosophers, they are overly literal, clumsy in their use or interpretation of metaphor. Also, they argue by way of snark and bullying, of unacknowledged biases and a distinct arrogance in the face of something they don't know much about.

By the way, I finally finished Louis Menand's book The Metaphysical Club, which deals partly with the response of American intellectuals to Darwin's theories. The response to Darwin got all tangled up with the issues of abolition and emancipation, which were being played out in bloody fashion at about the same time Darwin's theories appeared. Menand makes a convincing case that thinkers like Louis Agassiz were operating out of their sense of racial squeamishness.

This is only a half-formed thought, but Menand makes me identify with philosophical pragmatism, a la William James (pragmatism is a lame-ass tradition, apparently, in academic philosophy circles, but hell, that's probably about my speed). I sometimes feel I make only secondary arguments on these questions. For instance, I have no gut-level investment in Darwin's theories, but I think Darwin is a cornerstone in the edifice of modern science, which gives me health care and automobiles and the Internet and lots of things I DO have an investment in. I feel over my head trying to argue Darwin on the merits. But pointing out hypocrisies or absurdities has the value of engaging one's psychological and emotional biases, not just airless logic. Ideas either work or they don't, in the real social world.

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