Friday, 12 September 2008

More from the great Grayling-Fuller debate

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Yesterday we posted a piece by Steve Fuller, in which he responded to AC Grayling's scathing review of his defence of Intelligent Design, Dissent over Descent.

Well, this argument isn't finished yet – we now have a further response from Grayling. Enjoy.


Steve Fuller said...

Grayling embarrasses himself again. He clearly hasn’t read my 'Dissent over Descent' and refuses to engage with the issues I raise. In particular, I don’t argue for some generic ‘religion leads to science’ thesis, which of course is false. As my response should have made clear, even to people who haven’t read the book, certain distinctive features of the three great monotheistic religions have been salient in the development of science. They are features that became especially prominent with the rise of Protestantism but ultimately descend from the Augustinian stress on our having been created ‘in the image and likeness of God’.

I have no idea why Grayling keeps dragging in the Catholic Church’s bad handling of Galileo and other early modern intellectuals. I condemn the Church on this score as well, calling the very belated 1992 papal vindication of Galileo one of the greatest public relations disasters for science-religion relations in history (p. 92). I even criticize contemporary Catholicism for fostering as convenient ‘double-truth’ doctrine (i.e. one for religion, one for science) that made life easy for Judge Jones in the Kitzmiller verdict and enables religious scientists to pass unscathed in the ID controversy by calling themselves ‘theistic evolutionists’. Grayling would have seen these areas of agreement and aimed his attack more incisively, had he bothered to read the book.

Most of what Grayling writes in the rest of his response is simply catering to certain secularist prejudices, with little connection to what I say, let alone reality more generally. His omnibus pronouncements about the thoughts and actions of religious people, especially Christians, are on a par with academically respectable anti-Semitism in the early 20th century. Only three points here: (1) Generally speaking, ID-style arguments (though less so Paley’s) in the 17th-19th centuries took very seriously the imperfections of nature and set itself the task of rationalizing them, on the basis of which God came to be portrayed as the ultimate optimizer. (2) Engineers, contrary to Grayling’s suggestion, have been among the biggest boosters of ID precisely because their own job is one of optimizing an outcome in the face of multiple constraints – God faces the same task on the largest possible scale. (3) It is a mistake to think that religion’s more exotic metaphysical claims have been negatively related to scientific inquiry, and even religious worship and biblical literalism provided the backdrop for scientific attitudes and practice. All of these matters are discussed in 'Dissent over Descent' – and would appear to be news to Grayling.

Putative champions of humanism like Grayling would serve their cause better by shifting from outdated and offensive wars against religion to positive defenses of ‘the human’ that can bear serious scrutiny in the scientific culture of the 21st century. Grayling’s humanist finale does no more than preach to the choir. He remains in a pre-DNA state of denial. In our Neo-Darwinian world, ‘human’ is a folk biological category – a more-or-less arbitrary genetic cut-off point in the basic continuity of animal species. In response, conservative theorists in the natural law tradition have tried to re-specify their concerns for sanctity and dignity of human life in the new terms provided by science. However, as the history of revolutionary politics makes clear, the conservatives do not own the natural law tradition. It is now up to the liberal-left to re-specify its definition of the human in scientifically credible terms.

Steve Fuller said...

Sorry I meant p. 89, not 92 in my previous message. For for the divine optimization stuff, read chapter 5 of 'Dissent over Descent'.