GOD OR NATURE?
THE EVOLUTIONIST-CREATIONIST CONTROVERSY
D. R. Khashaba
[Appeared first in Philosophy Pathways, http://www.shef.ac.uk/~ptpdlp/newsletter/ ]
The battle raging between creationists and evolutionists is probably the one that raises the greatest hubbub on the intellectual front at present. Though, as will presently appear, I do not regard this as a properly philosophical issue, still I think there is call for philosophers to clear some of the confusions and misuderstandings that envelop the battleground.
I maintain that philosophy, exercising pure reason, cannot give us knowledge about the objective world. Socrates, the first thinker to realize this clearly, decisively renounced all investigation into physis. He was concerned solely with the ideas and ideals that constitute our specifically human life. Subsequent philosophers, beginning with Plato, in various degrees obscured or lost sight of this great Socratic insight, and in consequence embroiled philosophy in many needless difficulties and controversies. (Among moderns it was Kant, in his critical philosophy, who revived the Socratic insight, with some complications, but his successors again lost it with a vengeance.) That's why I say that the evolutionist-creationist controversy is not properly a philosophical problem.
Again I say that the advocates of religion are ill-advised to be drawn into the controversy. Creationism is a theory relating to the objective world and as such it is a scientific theory — good or bad, reconcilable or irreconcilable with other theories: these are questions to be resolved by the methods of science, and what might be regarded as established truth today may be reversed tomorrow, and in no case will that have any bearing on questions of value. For let us grant the creationists that we could prove by impeccable scientific methods that the world was created by a personal god. Here is a theory, as mad and as good as any other: Before the Big Bang there was another universe (why not?) that had culminated in the evolution (let's have the best of both worlds) of an all-powerful god. That god programmed a terramicro chip to produce the Big Bang and all that followed it up to the scribbling of these words of mine. (I know this is not only nonsense but bad nonsense to boot; someone more clever than I can surely produce a more plausible version.)
Suppose this theory were established by rigorous scientific methods as true. Must I then adore, honour or admire that god? No; I would cry in his face, Damn you for all the evil and all the suffering you have put into your scheme of things. I would accept the facts as facts but that would have no bearing on my ideals and values.
Yet there is no comfort here for the scientific camp. For just as the empirical vindication of the personal god would not give him any claim on my respect, so the discovery of the minutest details of the process by which the world has come to be would give us no understanding of that world, whether brought about by a personal fiat or an impersonal evolution.
But here we have to stop for a lexical digression. The words 'knowledge' and 'understanding' are very troublesome. They both refer to two radically different things, two totally different realms of our mental life; let us call them the objective and the subjective. The ideal solution would be to appropriate one of the terms to each of the two distinct realms. Sounds simple. The trouble is: (1) there is no consensus and there has never been; (2) more seriously, enthusiasts for the objective kind simply deny the existence of the other kind and lay claim to both terms. So that when we ask, Does the genome project give us knowledge of a human being?, they answer, Yes; and when we ask, Does it give us understanding of a human being?, again they answer, Yes. I would say that the genome project gives us the knowledge that (hopefully) may enable us to cure or prevent diseases, to resolve forensic mysteries, perhaps to reproduce Hitlers, Pol Pots, and Ariel Sharons at will, but it does not give us the insight necessary to put an end to the evil of such monsters. Now take whichever word you like for the one kind and leave me the other word for the other kind. (See my "Knowledge and Understanding".)
When Richard Dawkins is challenged by creationists to "give an example of a genetic mutation or an evolutionary process which can be seen to increase the information in the genome" he writes a full-length article about 'information' as technically defined by the American engineer Claude Shannon in 1948. ("The Information Challenge" by Richard Dawkins, http://www.skeptics.com.au/journal/dawkins1.htm ) That technical definition is no doubt a very good and very fruitful definition when it is used for what it was devised for. But is it the only possible definition of the term? Does it give the only valid meaning of the term? In fact, in line with all scientific thinking, it is averse to all meaning and meaningfulness. It seizes on an extraneous feature of the object of inquiry, symbolizes it, quantifies it, drains it of all life and all meaning, and lives happily with its parched shell.
I am not here to defend the imbecilities of 'creationism', but if the creationists' challenge meant to affirm that no description of any genetic mutation or evolutionary process can give us an understanding of, say, vision or consciousness, I would say that Dawkins has failed to meet the challenge. If there were no intelligence and creativity (as distinct from personal creation) at the heart of nature, then I cannot see how the mere putting together of bits and bytes – even DNA bits and bytes – could produce our feelings and thoughts.
In other words, it is right that evolutionists should have our attentive and respectful ear when they describe, step by step, how consciousness came about, but when they tell us that is all there is to consciousness, we must object to a reductionism that bars our intelligence from looking into an entire realm of being.
But while I would thus agree with, say, Stephen Jay Gould that science should limit itself to studying the natural world, I would not agree with him in relegating the study of meanings and values to religion. If asked, Why not?, I would pose two questions in response: (1) Shall we accept the dogmatic dictates of religion on trust, putting our reason to sleep? (2) What about the conflicting claims of different religions? I hold that our worth as human beings resides in our reason and spirituality. So while, in opposition to religion, I maintain that it would undermine our dignity to accept anything as lying outside the jurisdiction of reason, in opposition to scienticism, I maintain that our proper worth as human beings resides in the ideas, ideals and dreams that are creations of the mind and that cannot be reduced to the givennesses of the phenomenal world. It is only in a philosophy that jealously guards its independence of science that we can find the combination of reason and spirituality that is necessary for a whole human life.
All attempts at reconciling science and religion or science and philosophy are equally misguided, though for different reasons. Philosophy is not equipped to deal with facts and science is not equipped to deal with meanings and values. (I resist a temptation to digress on a discussion of social sciences and psychology.) But religion cannot avoid making factual claims. To attempt any reconciliation with science means submitting itself to the jurisdiction of scientific methods and scientific criteria, and that will always be damaging to the dogmatic claims of religion. The best policy for adherents of religion would be to maintain that their revealed truths are not amenable to scrutiny, which amounts to a deliberate choice of stupidity. All apologetics are doubly stupid because while committed in principle to mindlessness they venture on a contest that can only be fought with the weapons of intelligence.
Finally, the creationist-evolutionist dispute amounts to the question: Do we have to thank God or Nature for what we are?, and in arbitrating between the two parties philosophy should declare that as long as the question is posed in that form, we can never arrive at a satisfactory answer. It is only Spinoza's unified God-or-Nature that can account for the whole that we are. And of that whole, science is concerned with the natural dimension, philosophy with the divine dimension – or, to resort once again to Spinoza's language, science has to do with natura naturata and philosophy with natura naturans.