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Mary Midgley – ID she wrong? • Great Chain of Being Wrong • Ethics and Reasons • How To Do Philosophy

Mary Midgley – ID she wrong?

DEAR EDITOR: In her article in Issue 64, ‘A Plague on Both Their Houses’, Mary Midgley, that most level-headed of philosophers, unusually here seems to be committing the same error as the neoDarwinians. In their haste to discredit Intelligent Design (ID), the evolutionists claim ID is merely a dishonest mask worn by creationists. However, ID has nothing to do with fundamentalism, as can be seen from the simple fact that it accepts current scientific beliefs as to the age of the Universe and of the Earth (see Dembski, whom Midgley cites). Nor does ID deny that evolution occurs. It is based on a careful look at the probabilities. It asks the simplest of questions, namely: is there time for the development of the full complexity of life by the orthodox neoDarwinian explanation? It finds that there is not.

Serious scientists such as Paul Davies quote figures which back up this finding (see The Goldilocks Enigma, p270).Moreover, curiously enough, Dawkins actually agrees (The Blind Watchmaker, p54).Why then is Dawkins still a neoDarwinian? The answer can be found further on in The Blind Watchmaker, pp56-61, where Dawkins engages in what is frankly a piece of barefaced jiggery-pokery with the laws of chance. Read the chapter. It is hardly believable, but you will see he actually inserts an aware, intelligent designer into his explanation, naming it ‘cumulative selection’. He denies it has foresight, yet he calls it ‘non-random’, and his picture of its behaviour shows that it has to know in advance what mutations it is looking for.Was ever a blind force of nature so far-sighted?

If therefore neoDarwinism cannot provide a complete answer for the development of life, this once more opens the door for a possible Creator. At the very least it requires the evolutionists to rethink or reargue their current theories. But a Creator – or mysterious creative forces – will remain a possibility unless and until they find a suitable mindless mechanism to account for biological complexity in the time geology has allowed. For more detail you might consult my book Does It Matter?

Whether or not ID is a ‘scientific theory’ is a red herring. It is in any case a rational critique of a scientific theory. Surely such a critique is within the domain of science, because it is relevant to scientific truth, to the validity of scientific theories, etc. Children in school should indeed be told about ID, if only because they should learn that all theories, however scientific, have a degree of uncertainty. (See Popper, who says that what defines a scientific theory is that you can see how it might be disproved.)

The problem is getting opinions like this printed. This is because the devotees of the reigning doctrines, in science as in religion, generally refuse to argue: they prefer to gag their opponents lest heresy be preached. There is a kneejerk reaction here: anyone who denies Dawkinsian Darwinism is instantly defined as a dangerous madman. This is doubtless why my book, which dares to think outside the box (to be precise, outside several boxes), has been largely ignored by the orthodox of both persuasions – by both the religious establishment and the atheistic intelligentsia. (It did get a rave review in The Journal of Consciousness Studies, however.) But it is no good the neoDarwinians poking their heads into the sand. Let them get busy thinking about their problem, namely that according to all the calculations, there doesn’t seem to be time for the full totality of biological evolution to take place.


DEAR EDITOR: I was drawn to read Dr Mary Midgley’s article in Philosophy Now, Nov/Dec 2007 after recently taking part in a radio debate on the subject of Intelligent Design, Evolution and Creationism. I was sympathetic to the sentiment expressed in the title ofMary’s article. However, as I read her article, I realised that my thinking was based on completely different foundations.Mary is right to point out that the current ‘atheistic Darwinism’ promulgated by scientists such as Richard Dawkins is not orthodox science (many scientists are theists). It sadly contributes to the current confusion and assists the radicalisation of orthodox believers by those who promulgate Creationism. However, Mary adds her own confusion when she equates Intelligent Design theory with Creationism, ie the literal belief in 6x24 hour creation and other literal interpretations of the Biblical text. She states that “ID theory claims to provide a scientific rational for Creationism,” further promulgating this popular misconception while failing to give any reference for the claim. Leading Creationists in the UK, such as Paul Taylor of Answers In Genesis (a society devoted to propagating Creationism to orthodox Christian churches) publicly denounces any association with ID for the very reason that ID does not make the claim that the cosmos was made by the Jewish and Christian God in the manner described literally in the Bible.

In his book Science’s Blind Spot (2007), Professor C.G.Hunter traces the rise of modern methodological naturalism in science from what he terms ‘Theological Naturalism’. This was set out in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by the (Christian) fathers of modern science – men such as Francis Bacon, René Descartes, Thomas Burnet, Gottfried Leibniz, John Ray, Immanuel Kant and Erasmus Darwin (Charles’ grandfather) among others. All of these were far from being atheists, but saw the necessity of (and theological need for) keeping scientific method and religious meaning separate. However, as Professor Hunter points out at the end of his book (p146 ff) “For centuries it has been observed that nature appears to have been designed. But rationalism, with its metaphysical axioms, has constrained the sciences to naturalism. This has led to a blind spot, as only naturalistic explanations may be considered. If those naturalistic explanations are correct, then all is well. But today’s rationalism has proclaimed them to be correct by fiat. This is metaphysical certainty, not scientific certainty.” Then, in what could be an answer to Dr Midgley’s somewhat wistful cry at the close of her article, “Can somebody suggest a way to make… understanding easier?”, Hunter goes on to suggest that “moderate empiricism provides an alternative approach. The ID theory is a typical example of empiricist thinking. Unfortunately the criticism of intelligent design has mostly come from rationalism and theological naturalism… Rather than rejecting the obvious, ID recognises the evidence and pursues explanations. No a priori assumptions are made about what solutions are and are not allowed.” Hunter concludes that ID is about analyzing the workings of nature without religious or other ideological constraint.

As a Christian believer, I am forced by current science to believe that natural (‘Unintelligent’) evolution is the only viable scientific theory that may (one day) explain the rise and development of all life forms – simply because there is currently no other postulate permitted. However, I believe that this obligation extrapolates methodological naturalistic science beyond that which the fathers of modern science would have condoned. They were pragmatic men, but not ostriches willing to bury their heads either in the sands of rationalism or in the sand of literal readings of Genesis. If ID helps us explore alternatives to Darwinism based on empirical observation and the principles developed by modern forensic science, for example, then we may well get a synthesis between the unrealistic poles of atheistic Darwinism and Creationism.


DEAR EDITOR: In her recent article ‘A Plague on Both Their Houses’ (Issue 64), MaryMidgley lumps together atheists and fundamentalists, urging both sides to abandon their extreme positions and find common ground. Midgley’s proposal sounds so tempting, and yet in the end it is not so much an open-minded position as an empty-headed one.

Midgley suggests that when it comes to evolution, both fundamentalists and atheists “opt for simple and final certainty.” She thereby lumps atheists like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett in the same category as fundamentalists like Pat Robertson. But are they really comparable in any way? Robertson and his ilk argue that the Earth was created 6,000 years ago by an all-powerful deity, and they believe all this based solely on a book written millennia ago, a book they believe to be utterly and completely infallible. Dawkins and Dennett argue that the creation of the world and the existence of God are questions that should be decided based upon facts and evidence. They express a willingness to be convinced by proof of God or the creation, but point out that there exist mountains of evidence to the contrary. In Midgley’s book, both of these count as opting for “simple and final certainty.”

What fair-minded person could possibly equate these two positions? The one is the position of a mindless fanatic. The other is the position of an open-minded rationalist. The inability of intelligent and educated people like Midgley to tell these two positions apart helps to explain why the world is such a screwed-up place right now.


Great Chain of Being Wrong

DEAR EDITOR: Raymond Tallis (‘Saving the Self’, Philosophy Now 63) argues against certain views on personal identity aired in Philosophy Now 62 by a number of contributors, including me. Much of what he says is interesting, profound and original. However, I think he’s wrong to characterise some theories of the self as he does, namely, those theories amounting to arguments that the self is an illusion, that who I am is something unreal. I would not defend all such views, but I will respond very briefly on behalf of David Hume and Jean-Paul Sartre.

When Hume says personal identity is a fiction, I do not take him to be claiming that we are not real. Rather, he is drawing his characteristic sort of sceptical conclusion and expressing his puzzlement in the face of it: namely, the idea that things we cannot help believing nonetheless cannot be justified by appeal to experience. Hume may have reached a mistaken conclusion (as Tallis skilfully argues later on in his piece), but at least we should recognise his argument for what it is.

There is certainly much about the self (or about being someone) that gets left out of Sartre’s account: but again, Sartre does not argue that we are in any way unreal. His position is instead that we are processes rather than static things – a fact that Tallis incorporates into his own theory of the self, it seems to me. Sartre’s ‘existential intuition’ (to borrow Tallis’ term) is that we are constantly aware of the operations of our own consciousnesses, and that we are self-renewing through our engagements in the world. This also shows that we identify with our bodies, despite Sartre’s frequent subjectivist reveries. For example, Sartre contends that we get no credit for our intentions, only for actions actually performed.

To accuse philosophers (in this case, Hume and Sartre) of ‘attacking the self’ presupposes that there is some presumably correct view of the self that they do or would reject. I don’t think Tallis has demonstrated that, even though he has offered an account interestingly different from theirs. If he wants to consider a paradigm argument that the self is unreal, wouldn’t he be better to sink his teeth into the Buddhist doctrine of ‘no-self’?


DEAR EDITOR: Eva Cybulska (Philosophy Now, 64) criticises my article ‘Saving the Self’ (Philosophy Now, 63) on the grounds that I have nothing to say about empathy.

In fact, like her, I believe that empathy is the supreme human value – it is at the heart of what it is to be truly human. Lack of it makes the self and the world it inhabits a wasteland. Empathy, however, depends upon a sense of the other’s self, which, as the tragedy of autism shows, is not possible without a sense of one’s own self. Such an idea must go beyond (say) a Humean succession of experiences. It was this sense of self that I wanted to save without running into the problems that beset a non-reductionist account of the self.

In short, Dr Cybulska and I are on the same side. She has simply misunderstood the aim of a philosophy of the self, which is to find a justification for our sense of coherence (questioned by many), rather than to describe the self’s contents. With a little more empathy perhaps she would have seen what I was trying to do.

With kindest regards,

DEAR EDITOR: Colin Wilson has a penchant for confusing. Even if it were clear what point he was trying to make while quoting Nietzsche in his article on Whitehead in Issue 64, this point would have been undermined by the diagnostic error of Nietzsche’s illness. AndWilson expresses his view with truly enviable certainty! But from which source has he picked the evidence that Nietzsche had ‘congenital venereal disease’? Surely not from published research (Rogé, 1999; Cybulska, 2000; Schain, 2001). This research suggests that the great philosopher had no single convincing sign or symptom of syphilis, but probably suffered from a functional mental illness, most likely manic-depression. There have also been other hypotheses, such as brain tumour or fronto-temporal dementia. I know of no reliable source that has put forward venereal disease as a credible (even hypothetical) diagnosis, although rumours and unfalsifiable conjectures have been abundant among the ill-informed populace. Sadly,Wilson has a record of misquoting and misrepresenting Nietzsche (and presumably other things too) – most notoriously getting the order of the metamorphoses from Thus Spoke Zarathustra completely wrong. But then, only scholars bother to be pedantic about details.


Ethics and Reasons

DEAR EDITOR: I read Stephen Anderson’s article ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Ethics’ in Issue 62 with great interest.He raises very relevant issues on the tensions between ethics and morality. In particular, I appreciated his comment on how, with the talk of ethics, “the thorny issue of right and wrong [is often] diffused into the less provocative terms of reasonable and unreasonable, or perhaps advisable and inadvisable.” It brought to mind an image from a recent cover of New Internationalist that still haunts me: the face of a Darfuri framed close-up, with a penetrating gaze that is best captured by its title in bold – ‘Darfur: Don’t Look Away’. My conscience was pierced. On what basis are we ethically or morally compelled to respond to situations like Darfur? The United Nations has described the violence there as “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.” The suffering is tremendous: 3 million people are displaced and approximately 400,000 have been brutally slaughtered. As we confront questions of justice and responsibility, is there not such a thing as a moral or ethical principle that we could agree upon which would elucidate and encourage our need to respond to situations like this?


How To Do Philosophy

DEAR EDITOR: About 35 years ago, after reading an introductory book on the subject, I decided philosophy was the most important discipline. Since then I have read philosophy extensively, including every copy of Philosophy Now. Most of the time this has been a tremendous struggle with the style used by the many writers I have read.

There are two main problems. The first is that many philosophers seem to think that the subject consists entirely of analyses of what past philosophers have written. Here is a typical quote from a recently published (yet anonymous) book: “it is interesting to note that Leibniz and Locke, writing the better part of two centuries before Darwin, also found Descartes’s position quite unsatisfactory.” But no, it is not interesting. All I want to know is what the author is saying, and what is his reasoning. One major characteristic of past philosophers is that they were often restricted by a fear of offending religious doctrines, and I do not wish to waste my time trying to take that into account while at the same time trying to understand the dialect of their day.

It is possible to obtain a degree or PhD in many subjects – mathematics, physics, chemistry, electrical or mechanical engineering and so on – without a mention of a proper name or reference to history.Why not in philosophy? I am a mechanical engineer, and regularly read magazines devoted to this discipline. The magazines are full of articles describing where we are now, and which way we could/should be going. They are not backward-looking.

Even Philosophy Now suffers from this historical problem. In a recent issue I read “for if Reid has trounced Locke, David Hume too has dismissed Locke, together with Bishop George Berkeley…”Why doesn’t the author just make their point?

Secondly, it seems that every attempt is made to make the language difficult to understand. I am tired of endlessly looking up words in my dictionary. Often ideas are defined there far more descriptively than in the equivalent philosophical phrase, using less words, so why not use the simple words in the first place? It is also considered essential to use many Latin words and phrases, some of which are not even to be found in my dictionary. I use the Concise Oxford. Do I really need a bigger dictionary than that?Why not simply use the English language?

The majority of books on philosophy, typically about 250 pages long, could be written in 40 pages without any loss of content, but with a massive increase in understanding for the reader. Perhaps this is why many philosophers use jargon.

These two problems must repel many potential students who might otherwise have become interested philosophers.

Philosophy Now often has a theme. My request is that you consider having a theme of following the three rules for articles as below:

A) No proper names to be used anywhere in the article, or even its title.

B) Only plain English is to be used. In particular, non-English words, especially Latin words and phrases, are forbidden.

C) No history, either as the whole or partial subject of the article.

In other words, articles should be constructed in the following way:

1 The author thinks (feels intuitively, states, hopes, whatever) that……………….

2 The evidence/rational thinking for this is………………………………………………..

3 The evidence/rational thinking against this is…………………………………….

4 One conclusion is……………………….

5 The next step(s) should/could be…. An article against this approach to philosophy may be presented, of course: but it must obey the above rules.


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