Friday, January 06, 2006

An old debate....   posted by Razib @ 1/06/2006 04:41:00 PM

A few passages from The Beginnings of Western Science: The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious and Institutional Context, 600 B.C. to A.D. 1450 -

page 231: "Moreover, Albert did nothing to diminish or conceal the "naturalistic" tendencies of Aristotelian tradition. He acknowledged (with every other medieval thinker) that God is ultimately the cause of everything, but he argued that God customarily works through natural causes and that the natural philosopher's obligation was to take the latter to their limit. What is remarkable is Albert's willingness to adhere to this methodological prescription even in his discussion of a biblical miracle-Noah's flood. Noting that some people wish to confine the discussion of floods (including Noah's) to a statement of divine will, Albert pointed out that God employs natural causes to accomplish his purposes; and the philosopher's task is not to investigate the causes of God's will, but to inquire into the natural causes by which God's will produces its effect. To introduce divine causality into a philosophical discussion of Noah's flood would be a violation of the proper boundaries between philosophy and theology."

One page 235, there is a section on a radical faction of Aristotelians who went beyond St. Albert the Great and St. Thomas Aquinas, "Boethius thus yielded in the end to the articles of the faith, but in the meantime he displayed an intensely rationalistic orientation. He argued that there is no questional capable of rational investigation that the philosopher is not entitled to investigate and resolve. 'It belongs to the philosopher to determine every question which can be disputed by reason; for every question which can be disputed by rational argument falls within some part of being. But the philosopher investigates all being-natural, mathematical, and divine. Therefore it belongs to the philosopher to determine every question which can be disputed by rational arguments.' Boethius went on to argue that the natural philosopher cannont even consider the possibility of creation, because to do so would introduce supernatural principles that are out of places in the philosophical realm. Likewise the philosopher denies the resurrection of the dead, becauase according to natural causes (to which the natural philosopher limits himself) such a thing is impossible."

You can read Aristotle's Children, a popular history of the Aristotelian Renaissance of the 13th century, to see how the arguments of the nominalist (as opposed to the Thomist) William of Ockham also gave rise to scientific reductionism (without intention). My only point here is to note that history does repeat itself, and so does intellectual history obviously. Methodological naturalism is a new word for a very old idea, which likely emerges inevitably from the interface of the rational human mind given leisure to explore the ordered world around us.

Please note though that the Roman Catholic Church adheres to Thomism, and this Aristotle flavored philosophy needs to be kept in mind when reading their opinions on matters such as Intelligent Design. For instance, in First Things Christoph Cardinal Schonborn notes:

In science, the discipline and methods are such that design-more precisely, formal and final causes in natural beings-is purposefully excluded from its reductionist conception of nature.

The reality is that in this world very few people are familiar with the Four Causes of Aristotle. Schonborn admits in the essay that he assumed his op-ed to The New York Times would be misunderstood, but it seems he wanted to throw out a challenge both to reductionist science of the sort he defines above and fideism, which is central to many Protestant theologies (including ones espoused by central figures in Intelligent Design). Though I am personally not optimistic that the Roman Catholic Church's broad understanding of philosophy will gain much traction in the forseeable future, I suppose it has to start somewhere (my own impression, perhaps misguided, is that the average educated American Catholic is less aware of the details of Thomism than they were 50 years ago).

A larger problem in the religion vs. science circus that crops up whenever a neo-Scopes surfaces in the public eye is that the texture and detail of the various positions in the debate get obscured. Within the "anti-evolution" camp the current intellectual stars like William Dembski and Michael Behe seem to espouse an extremely attenuated philosophy which accepts macroevolution, which is at radical variance with the position of the half of Americans who are their natural supporters. I am in fact confused as to what difference William Dembski (sympathetic to Eastern Orthodoxy) Michael Behe (Roman Catholic) would have with Kenneth Miller (Roman Catholic) in regards to evolution in the details, as opposed to points of emphasis and meta-scientific philosophy. There are surely deep philosophical nuances I'm missing, but their eruption into the public square inevitably results in the details being swept up in the vortex of greater social forces.

Addendum: I want to note something, Schonborn uses Will Provine as an case of someone who connects evolution to atheism. He points out that he could assemble many more quotations. That is the problem with arguing with people about whether evolutionary theory is an ideology with metaphysical baggage necessarily attached, if you present the argument in an essay format and you have 10 slots to support your thesis you will easily fill them. That is why I shrugged off the declaration by a GNXP reader that they could point to many instances of an ideological bias by those who claim that evolutionary theory invalidates theism, the absolute number is far less relevant than the proportion, and I am skeptical that most people who study and examine evolutionary theory in a scientific context really have a deep interest in the intersection between their science and philosophical or socio-ethical concerns. Some might contend that "evolutionists" should police their "own," but the whole point is that there isn't a Church of Evolution. Of course humans have a confirmatory bias, so you see what is sensational and what you want to see. Life is a big sample space. Select from it as you will.