Friday, September 12, 2008

Ancient philosophy and intelligent design

In the New Humanist 123 (5), Sep-Oct 08 (online here) A. C. Grayling offers a curt review of

Dissent Over Descent: Intelligent Design's Challenge to Darwinism by Steve Fuller (Icon Books, UK £ 12.99), ISBN 978-184046804-5

I’m not so interested about the virtues or otherwise of Fuller’s book. But I am interested in particular in this bit of Grayling’s review:

“Fuller claims that ID is “behind the scientific revolution that has been under way in the West since the 17th century” because the motivating belief behind scientific enquiry is that “nature is so constructed” that it can be understood because – as St Augustine taught us – man is made in the image of God and is therefore capable of understanding the universe. Call this Point 2”

and the follow-up:

“On Point 2: from a thousand years before St Augustine, Thales and the Pre-Socratics and Plato and Aristotle and the Stoics and Epicureans were thinking in recognisably scientific and proto-scientific ways about the nature and functioning of the universe, on the assumption that human intelligence is competent to understand the workings of nature, which observation abundantly suggests are regular and ordered – it needs no gods to point out how spring returns after every winter, and the crops grow again as they did before, and so manifestly on. Not only did people emphatically not have to wait for St Augustine to discover that they could enquire thus, without invoking supernaturalistic beliefs of any sort, but it is indeed a mark of the thought of Thales and his successors that they did not start from such beliefs, but began their thinking from observation and reason. It was the revival of their independence of thought in the Renaissance and afterwards – the rediscovery of a non-theistic tradition of thought about the world – that represented a resumption of the scientific enterprise that had been crushed by religious dogma for a millennium, and which in the 16th and 17th centuries had a struggle to free itself from religion’s iron opposition – witness the church’s denial of Copernican heliocentrism and the trial of Galileo for two related instances.”

It is not clear to me that Grayling has a sure advantage over Fuller on his reading of the ancient sources. It depends what you mean by ‘supernaturalistic’ beliefs. To be sure, amongst these old guys there was plenty of observation and attempts at explanation by invoking what is ‘natural’. The crucial point is that most of them thought that invoking divine causes was a perfectly respectable part of natural philosophy. Furthermore, the extent to which human reason is able to observe, interpret, and explain the world about us is for many ancient philosophers due to the fact that our reasoning capacity itself is divine or god-like in some way. Understanding the world is a form of assimilation to god. We might leave Thales aside for now, just because the evidence is tricky, but even he famously thought that everything is ‘full of gods’. The Epicureans, theists too, did at least reckon that these gods had no interest in the world and so shouldn’t be invoked in our explanations of how the world is as it is. Still, it’s a bit of a surprise to see Grayling invoke Plato and the Stoics as allies. Now, they perhaps would agree that we didn’t need to think about god in order to realise that we could inquire into why, say, crops grow each year. But it doesn’t take much reading of Plato’s dedicated work of natural philosophy, Timaeus, to see divine causation and, let’s face it, intelligent design at work all over the place. The Stoics thought divinity was immanent and omnipresent, causing all things to work for the best. Not really, I think, the best ally for an anti-supernaturalist view. Aristotle, as often, is tricky. His god has a role to play in getting the world to go round though the world has just always been as it is, full of well-fitted natures aiming at their various natural ends. Not really a case of intelligent design and not really ‘supernatural’ either but still nowhere near scoring many points with Dawkins. This book might be a worthwhile read for anyone wanting to pursue this point further... The general point, I think, is that Plato and the boys are far from uncomplicated allies for an 'anti-supernaturalist' or anti-ID cause; I should hasten to add that they are also far from uncomplicated allies for a a pro-ID cause, though on balance I reckon that's where most of them (the atomists excepted, of course) would put themselves if made to choose.

Fuller replies (online here). He doesn’t do much better either, it seems to me. It start off quite promisingly.

Grayling’s observation that the pre-Socratics, Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics and the Epicureans thought “in recognisably scientific and proto-scientific ways about the nature and functioning of the universe” is true in the same sense as, yes, you can see the heads of animals in the shape of clouds. Of course, words and concepts and sometimes even whole arguments have been used from these thinkers in the pursuit of science – but I doubt that any of them, were they resurrected, would wish to associate themselves with our sense of science. And this is not because they would disagree with its guiding theoretical ideas or empirical findings. No, they would find the enterprise itself abhorrent – with its endless questing for an elusive yet uniquely comprehensive understanding of reality. They would see the way we treat science today as we might regard some future society, or parallel universe, that treated chess as the most cherished activity upon which all its resources were lavished. And that is probably the most positive light in which our Greek forebears would see us. The Epicureans in particular would simply think of our scientific obsession with “The Truth” as an anxiety-inducer, one of those Wittgensteinian flies that should be liberated from its bottle.

The Greeks regarded the pursuit of science largely as the intellectual correlate of physical exercise – part of a normative account of leisure. While the Greek sense of science purported to get at the nature of things, that nature was not necessarily unified, the activity itself was never conceptualised in historically progressive terms, and there was no pretence to its universal accessibility, let alone universal entitlement. Science was for them an elite game – full stop. The introduction of these additional conditions, which characterise science in the modern sense of “universal objective knowledge” begins with the Muslim and later Christian synthesis of pagan knowledge for the general ennoblement of humanity, as beings created in the image of God. Like it or not, Grayling’s own view of the Greeks as “proto-scientists” in our sense is indebted to these religiously inspired efforts, which turned Aristotle’s patchwork ontology into a concerted proposal to unify our understanding of reality. Averroes and Aquinas would more quickly recognise the high intellectual ambitions that Grayling imputes to Aristotle than Aristotle himself would”

It would take a while to untangle this. Here’s a couple of first reactions. First, Epicureans did, it seems to me, care about truth to the extent that some true account of what, e.g. thunder is, is needed to dispel anxiety. It’s not enough for them just to have a soothing story. (And why the scare quotes and capitalisation for "The Truth"?) Second, it’s true I suppose that ‘science’, if practised at all in the ancient Greek and Roman world, was in the main not a job as such. There were no research institutes with salaried posts and integrated research programmes. But that doesn’t make it a ‘game’ nor suggest that it was not done seriously with the concerted aim of really finding out what things are and how things work. Sounds like a false dilemma to me. (I’ve no idea what is meant by Aristotle’s ‘patchwork ontology’, by the way.) Third, there's a slide somewhere in this paragraph from pointing out that ancient natural philosophy was an elite practice and therefore not universally accessible nor a 'universal entitlement' to the idea that it was not intended to be provide 'universal objective knowledge'. 'Universal' is doing two jobs here. Knowledge is not and never has been very democratic and the proportion of the population that know P has nothing whatsoever to do with whether P is piece of universal (in the sense of universally applicable) objective knowledge.

And another thought: we seem to be thinking only about Western philosophy and its relation to science. As I read this exchange I couldn’t help hearing in my head the characteristic voice of Geoffrey Lloyd, demanding a wider perspective...


ACGrayling said...

Thanks for your interesting comments. Two points in brief: Thales and the majority of his successors did not claim that their views were divinely inspired, nor did they rely on sacred texts as the source of their insights, nor did they claim that those insights required to be believed for
soteriological purposes of some kind. This connects to the
second point: which is that when the ancients spoke of ‘god’ or ‘gods’ (as in
Thales’ case referring to the powers of life, movement, reproduction, magnetism etc to be observed in different natural phenomena) - or, as often, ‘logos’ (the principle of order, reason, underlying structure, etc as for the Stoics) - they emphatically did not mean anything like the conception of a personal deity which makes exigent moral demands and communicates them in detail to the world, requiring submission and worship, and punishing in the hubris of questioning creation - which of course is precisely what the classical tradition is all about. As this suggests, ‘god’ is practically a homonym across these two very different contexts, and the philosophical idea of ‘logos’ and the rest is not a religious one. This is the key point. - Good wishes - Anthony Grayling

ACGrayling said...

PS 'punishing in the hubris' should read 'punishing the hubris' - a typo -. Best, Anthony Grayling

Catherine Osborne said...

Responding now to Anthony's comment, it doesn't seem to me that the personal God that you've just invoked -- the one that is involved in moral commands and salvation--has got anything whatever to do with the points in Augustine and so on about optimism about human science latching onto the truth. That tradition, which believes in the possibility of intelligent design and hence intelligent understanding of the intelligent design because we are equipped to understand, comes from the teleology (teleological accounts of the universe and of the relation of human reason to the goodness built into the world) that is endemic in ancient thinking, especially in Aristotle and Plato. That comes through to Augustine by way of his reading of the classics: I doubt any of it comes from anything in Christianity as a religion of personal salvation. So if you want to say that "god" is a term with two meanings, surely it's you who's equivocating?