Thursday, October 27, 2005

The Perils of intelligent design

Advocates of intelligent design, quite apart from their apparent misunderstanding of the very idea of the physical sciences, are guilty of a pragmatically dangerous theological move. I wouldn’t expect them to realize this, because for the most part, it seems that they are painfully unaware of any currents of intellectual history between the beginning of the second century AD and the rise of fundamentalism in this country in the twentieth.

However, at least as long ago as the waning days of the Renaissance (or the modern period for philosophers) believers and non-believers were extremely exercised about the problem of evil, namely how it could be that an all-good and all-powerful and all-knowing (and all-present) God could have made a world in which there was so much suffering. This, of course, was not a new problem or concern, and thinkers did have recourse to older theodicies relying on the fall of man and the entrance of sin into the world because of human (and angelic) sin.

What is interesting about what happened in this period are the moves that some thinkers were forced to make. For instance, in a move to be much ridiculed by Voltaire, Leibniz (he of the invention of the calculus and after whom those delightful cookies were named) was forced to say that this universe, with all of its suffering was the best of all possible universes. In other words, because of the need to include such things as human freedom, this world was the best that God could do. Of course, he meant by this that this was the best imaginable universe. Now this opens the floor to some interesting questions. For instance, is this universe a better one than a universe identical in all respects but in which one less person is infected with HIV? If so, why is this better? Why couldn’t have God, while maintaining human freedom, have made that universe that was just a little less bad?

This isn’t really where the problem with the intelligent design camp lives though. The real problem is the one pointed out by David Hume in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, a book largely concerned with various arguments apart from revelation, for the existence of God. Through one of his characters, Hume notes that when we see a house, for instance, we know that it has had a builder. (In this he reflects the argument from design for God’s existence.) But if the doorways are out of square, if the roof leaks, if some of the doors don’t shut, if the foundations are weak, we don’t praise the builder or the architect. But this is exactly the situation with the world in which we find ourselves.

Humans have back problems because we have spines better fitted to quadrupedal than bipedal movement; viruses and bacteria continually find newer and better ways to infect and damage their intended victims including killing them; hurricanes destroy large swaths of land, killing humans and innocent animals; earthquakes and other natural disasters do the same; and on it goes. (Notice that evolutionary biology explains the first two of these and meteorology and geology/plate tectonics explain the latter, but intelligent design doesn’t explain any of it.)

In other words, if we are led by observation of nature to believe that their must be a creator and we hope to read off of nature facts about this creator, we are forced to see that the creator is either not very skilled or is less than ideally good. Either the God pointed to by nature couldn’t prevent natural evils or didn’t care to. Either He couldn’t keep the flu virus from mutating and becoming more dangerous, He didn’t care if it did, or He intended it to. The God design points to, then, is either unskilled or if skilled and intelligent, morally suspect.

Am I saying that there is no God? No. Am I saying that there might not be some responses to these roughly Humean worries? No, although most offered responses are unsatisfactory at the end of the day. What I am saying is that if advocates of intelligent design believe that they are doing religious faith a service by demanding that students be presented with questions about evolution, they are creating for themselves a group of theists who will not only believe in God for the wrong reasons, but who will have a faith easily defeated by the very same concerns, i.e., facts about nature, that gave them that faith.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Responsibility, freedom and community

Last week I had the opportunity to help a man I had never met before as he vomited a mixture of bar popcorn and vodka and soda. The interesting thing about the situation is that he wasn't in the bar alone; he had come in with a friend. But as he became intoxicated--or as he became more intoxicated since he only had two drinks and that was enough to put him over the edge--he became an inconvenience to his friend, who was busy getting his groove on. At this point the friend informed me that the drunken man wasn't his responsibility. Now, of course part of the implication of this was that he was somehow my responsibility, since I was helping him.

There is a certain amount of truth in what the friend said: the man was responsible for having gotten himself drunk and sick. In that sense, he was only his own responsibility. But, of course, there's another sense in which the friend's response is unacceptable. When a person cannot take care of himself--and that was this man's situation--who is more responsible for him than his friends? In the absence of a friend or when left alone, of course I was responsible for him. This is part of what it is to be human and to form part of a human community.

What the friend's response makes clear is a deep problem with contemporary society. It might be peculiar to American society; it might be peculiar to modern society; it might even be peculiar to gay society (although this I doubt). The problem is the psychological assumption of a kind of libertarianism. It is an unspoken and unconsidered assumption that we are all responsible for ourselves in a way that means that when we get into trouble we are wholly on our own. Or, that if one is partly or wholly (or even not at all) responsible for a situation in which he finds himself, it is a morally and socially acceptable move to allow him to suffer all of the consequences of the situation. Presumably, the friend thought it would be okay to allow his friend to vomit, to drive home intoxicated or to be mugged on the street; after all, he had gotten himself into it.

This view also underlies the general appeal for a cutting back of government assistance programs, often with an allusion to the early days of the Republic and Tocqueville's account of the early American civic experience. But, of course, in the early days of the American experiment people were deeply involved in numerous networks of social connection: their churches, fraternal organizations, extended families, grange societies, unions, sports teams, etc. This is no longer the case (see, for an analysis of the death of such organizations, Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone). Instead we are more and more isolated (I write as I sit in front of a great isolator, the web-connected computer) and still we feel that each individual is wholly responsible for himself.

In other words, we live in a country that fails to be a nation and in communities that are really no more than collections of individuals. We have fulfilled the claim of Margaret Thatcher that there is no such thing as society. Inasmuch as we are social animals, by nature and of essence, it may just mean that we are ceasing to be human.

As, Aristotle said, the man who lives outside society must become either a god or an animal. I doubt many of us are heading to divinity.