Knowing Knowledge III, Adam Riggio and Steve Fuller

Author Information: Adam Riggio, McMaster University,; Steve Fuller, University of Warwick,


Editor’s Note:

Nature Itself Is God’s Book

Adam Riggio

I would call the major theme of this chapter the redemption of theodicy. Why I say redemption will become clear as I go on. 

dna This chapter was entirely an education for me, demonstrating conclusively the inescapable roots of modern science’s methods in the priorities and ideas of Christian theodicy. This bedrock is the concept that the mathematical structures and functional molecular codes (like DNA) constitute the word and thoughts of God expressed in reality itself. Humanity, being made in the image of God and therefore sharing in the same divinity, can investigate the world—whether through experiment, theoretical mathematics, empirical observation, or computer simulation—to read and write the word of God.

This is a beautiful model for understanding what science is. And I think it makes for a perfect route to replace the idiotic reductive conception of science that comes out of people like Richard Dawkins today.

It’s also a perfect route to defend science from the attacks that scientific education and institutions face from the people you so tactfully call the Creationist Right Wing. I, however, will excuse myself from all tact regarding the Creationist Right and call them as I see them: bigoted imbeciles who exert powerful influences over major political and media organizations who aim to replace science education of all kinds with Biblical literalist dogma. I like Dan Savage’s term for them, “the American Taliban”.

The Creationist Left, with which you identify, faces an uphill battle so difficult, I don’t know that you can fight it directly and even come close to winning. You call creationism the sensible notion that reality can be called creation, that an order exists that unifies the multifaceted complexity of being, and humanity can understand that order.

As we understand the order of the universe more adequately, we bring ourselves closer to God. I’m glad you’ve finally been able to explain to me what precisely you mean by creationism, because I’ve always been confused when the subject has come up at the Reply Collective.

creation_museum However, the American Taliban, with their enormous media power and influence, already owns the word ‘creationism.’ They have set its meaning in all of popular discourse to refer to their own form of disgusting Biblical literalism that breeds dogmatism and ignorance. They would not consider your nuanced and historically informed philosophy to be a creationism.

If anything, Ken Ham and his ilk would probably see you as a worse apostate than Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould, or any actual biologist. An atheist biologist would only deny their God. You envision a God that speaks not in the literal text of the Bible, but in figurative language, in mathematics, and in the planetary history of evolution itself. You profane their God.

To reclaim the language of creationism for the scientific theodicy you describe is, as far as I can tell, practically impossible. Making the battle explicit would bring in the most extreme militants on both sides of the popular conflict of science and religion who would simply trample you under their onslaught.

The only way you could save yourself from this madness is leaving behind the label of creationism and the associated debates, and regenerating the core concepts of theodicy in new ways. I’m particularly excited about how you discuss what you call the Petrine-Pauline conflict in how to express our relationships with God.

My sympathies lie with the Pauline tradition: engagement with the divine in nature without the mediation of institutions, that we can achieve scientific knowledge without depending on a particular path or authority. You understand this rebellion against authority in knowledge as the foundation of modern secularism.

But last week, you also wondered why “God is unfairly subject to a much higher standard of proof than we normally require of big theoretical ideas” like complex scientific concepts that are much more tenuous and strange than God. I have an answer to that which lies in how people who become secular or atheist engage with the Petrine tradition where the content of belief in God depends on authority. (I refer to the now-demolished Mount Cashel Boys Home in St. John’s, Newfoundland, my hometown. This orphanage is where the most respected Catholic clergymen in the province regularly raped the children in their care, with the knowledge and protection of higher Church authorities. The reason for my rather extreme anti-clericalism.)

Resting the concept of the divine in an authority uses the concept of God for social conformity and to enrich a human institution that, to pick an example close to my biography and homeland of Newfoundland, protects child molesters and gives them control of orphanages full of defenceless young boys to rape. It’s an intense example, but it’s at the root of why I, at least, am such an anti-clerical guy.

Human suffering in all its forms is the heart of the most powerful weakness of theodicy, particularly the ethical dimensions of the order of the universe. The optimism of theodicy is also its cruelty. Suffering and pain has its place in the overall fabric of the universe such that it is justified in the ultimate outcome.

You build a solid account of how deontology and utilitarianism are products of theodicy, philosophical edifices which justify scenarios and circumstances that are unpalatable to our intuitive distaste and disgust for pain.

I will not go to Voltaire’s Candide for my refutation, as Dr. Pangloss is too cartoonish an enemy, and simplifies the problem. It’s not a matter of disproving the truth of theodicy’s mission and conception of being. I instead think of Ivan Karamazov, who does not deny the truth of God’s existence, and does not deny the validity of theodicy. He accepts that there is a plan in creation that justifies its suffering, including the institutionalized abuse of millions over the centuries in the name of God and faith.

He simply refuses to sign on to the ethical aspects of theodicy. The notion that there is an order to the universe for which humans are uniquely suited to understanding, and that we investigate this order through our own designed knowledge tools; this is fine, and enlightening to me.

But I cannot accept the ethics. Don’t ask me to sign on. Don’t ask me to contribute anything to the ethical and political aspects of theodicy but my rage.

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Steve Fuller

Adam, I’m glad you’ve gotten so engaged with the theology despite whatever disagreements we might have! Chapter two explains the mind-set in which I agreed to be an expert witness for the intelligent design defenders at the Dover trial. To be honest, it was only by agreeing to serve in the trial that I was forced to come clean on a lot of my own views, which up to that point had existed in a semi-self-censored state.

A lot of other things started to fall into place after that point, including a stronger affinity for existentialism as an ethic of risk-taking designed to reveal one’s true being. I will stop on this point here to deal more directly with your challenges.

I clearly have a more relaxed attitude to the Creationist Right than you do. Part of this reflects the fact that the more scientifically minded people in this camp (so-called ‘Young Earth Creationists’) are trying to mount a methodological critique of the means by which we assign dates to fossils and even light beams from distant parts of the universe.

Of course, there is no guarantee of success but I don’t see why they shouldn’t try. It’s certainly conceivable that all the physical facts remain as they are but the time-frame locating them is significantly compressed. In other words, the time it took to produce them could be condensed from 6 billion to 6000 years.

Again, I don’t expect that this particular hypothesis will turn out to be true, but any significant compression in the time-frame for natural history (say, from billions to millions of years) hits the strict Darwinists hard, since natural selection’s plausibility requires a very long time for its blind trial-and-error processes to work their magic to produce something that looks like—but isn’t—a designed universe.

galileo This raises the issue of ‘Biblical literalism,’ with which I am also comfortable. The literal/figurative distinction is not helpful because it is really a euphemism for stupid/smart readings of the Bible, as drawn by the people who think they’re ‘smart.’ I have no doubt that the Scientific Revolutionaries understood that they were created ‘in the image and likeness of God’ literally—and acted accordingly.

When Galileo and Bacon said that God issued two books, the Bible and Nature, they were both meant to be read literally. If the mathematically formulated regularities observed in nature are literally true, so too are the words in the Bible. The question then is finding the right semantics for making sense of both of them.

To be sure, there is plenty of room for disagreement and we may get things wrong, but to speak of ‘figurative’ readings is simply to de-legitimate the entire enterprise. The basic point about literalism is that the text—be it a sentence or a formula—provides the anchor for whatever interpretations follow. It is not simply a touchstone for an interpretation that could have been arrived independently of the text.

In an earlier book, Science: The Art of Living, I mentioned the lawyer John Calvin as instrumental in raising this awareness—as this is a very legalistic way of thinking about language, the precedent for which had been set by the Talmudic tradition of Judaism but before Calvin had only been intermittently endorsed by Christian intellectuals, notably followers of John Duns Scotus like John Wycliffe, who got the Bible translated into English.

No, none of this justifies Ken Ham’s Creationist theme parks. But my attitude towards Creationists is very much case by case, depending on what they wish to present as science in their textbooks, etc. Only someone ignorant of the history of science could think that creationism is intrinsically antagonistic to science, even as a world-view that might inform scientific practice today.

After all, if humans had not aspired to godlike powers, we would not be on the threshold of synthesizing life, intelligence, etc. And if the Creationist Right wishes to castigate such people, then they have only their own Abrahamic religious trajectory to blame, because I doubt that any other religious tradition would have ever gotten us to this point. [1] Like or not, in practice, most scientists are Creationist Leftists—and bully for them! Contrary to appearances, the Mormons have a good grasp of this point, based on their rather adventurous track record in biomedical research, including eugenics.

dostoevsky Finally, theodicy—and yes, this is a source of serious disagreement between us. ‘God’s sense of justice’ (the literal meaning of ‘theodicy’) has always fascinated me, largely because it seems to be the ideal perspective from which understand human rationality as something fallible yet aspirational. We can understand the bad things that happen to us as episodes in learning to get somewhere better.

But this logic is compelling for an individual only if in some sense you are still around after the bad thing has passed. And of course, people often die or are irreversibly damaged as a result of the bad things that happen to them, whether or not they are responsible for them (i.e. what the theologians call ‘moral evil’ and ‘natural evil’).

In that case, people need to think of their individual lives as moments in a larger project, so that, say, my death enables others who identify with me (and I with them) to improve our collectively owned position. So, when Jesus said he died for all of humanity’s sins, the task ahead was to make good on his message without necessarily suffering his fate. Those who interpret Jesus’ life in this way—as an experiment in living—are ‘Christians’.

In a sense, this is all about ‘the end justifies the means’ and ‘the greatest good for the greatest number.’ [2] And it is familiar enough from secular military contexts, in which soldiers sacrifice themselves for countries, whose citizens are expected to provide due support and even derive inspiration.

I would like to see this sentiment extended to participation in scientific research, which people may be allowed to perform in fulfilment of ‘national service’ in lieu of military training. But that’s a proposal I pursue in The Proactionary Imperative, rather than this book.

The point I would stress in all this is that identifying with the lives of those who come after oneself need not be something imposed from the outside (even by God) but can—and should—be something that is voluntarily assumed on one’s own part. In that respect, God may choose the time that you go, but you are already mentally prepared to go willingly. Clearly, then, Ivan Karamazov uses his free will to opposite effect—namely, to opt out of the divine justice system altogether. But where does that leave you? Is nihilism a viable position?

Darwin himself—faced with the harsh sense of divine justice espoused by Reverend Malthus’s population theory—simply concluded that no deity worthy of belief could be behind it, and so ‘natural selection’ in Darwin’s original rendering is radically blind to all purpose, let alone human interest. Of course, not all evolutionists drew such atheistic conclusions.

Moreover, those inclined to embrace a utilitarian world-view came up with more finessed positions that aimed to incorporate the apparent trump card of ‘needless suffering’ into some global optimum of goodness. This is the context in which to understand John Stuart Mill’s oft-quoted maxim, ‘Better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied’. What he meant was that Socratic suffering and death teaches us more than the life of an untroubled pig. Socrates’ life was not good in itself but good for us.

Notwithstanding his politically incorrect speciesism, Mill is basically thinking about matters the right way. Unlike classical Epicureanism, Utilitarianism does not aim to minimize pain per se but to arrive at the optimal pleasure-to-pain ratio—and that may mean sustaining considerable pain, at least locally and in the short term. ​In short, no pain, no gain!

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Humanity as Pinnacle

Adam Riggio

Two other ideas in Chapter Two chapter struck a chord with me, but I wanted to explore them separately from the larger discussion about theodicy that we’ve gotten into. Nonetheless, I think they’re genuinely important. One is a quibble in the history of philosophy, and another has some lessons for the modern revival of theodicy concepts in science and politics.

polanskiThe smaller question is about the hate you get on for David Hume. You describe him, if I could use your economic epistemic terms from a previous chapter, as a supply-side theorist of knowledge. Your account of Hume also fits with the traditional interpretation of him as an epistemic skeptic that was canonical for so long in Analytic philosophy, particularly thanks to the influence of Bertrand Russell.

Hume also embodies what appears in your text as a fundamental contradiction. He’s part of a tradition of secular liberal political philosophy thanks to his skeptical writings on religion and the existence of God. But his conception of how individual humans are actually built precludes the strong notion of the discrete individual person that political liberalism needs to function.

A person is not a discrete, unified individual in Hume’s thought, but a fluctuating jambalaya of different and mutually inconsistent forces and processes (which Hume called passions), whose unity is retroactively constructed through an exercise of memory. And that memory can get quite faulty.

What’s more, Hume’s own explicit everyday political beliefs were retrograde by our standards, and even some of the standards of his day. Essentially, he was a monarchist and a racist.

But Hume’s theory of subjectivity was, in its substance, a major crack at an assemblage conception of personality. From this philosophy, its contemporary form arising from the work of Gilles Deleuze, the subject is a singular contingent formation of particular kinds of forces. A complex machine constituted from the continuing collision of other complex machines.

The political articulation of this theory of subjectivity is an experimentalist anarchism that encourages trying out new ways of making subjects. I make this connection of political philosophy with the ontology of subjectivity in my own upcoming book, Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity, available this August from Palgrave McMillan.

marston_moor It’s really quite unfortunate for Hume that he had come to the political conclusions he did, but he was unlucky to have lived in a time whose social climate just didn’t offer the political articulations of his theory of subjectivity.

If he had lived in continental Europe during the medieval period, he would have seen how well his anarchic conception of the subject fit with the communitarian, locally-networked politics of free cities like Mainz and Worms. As it is, his political culture was shaped by the authoritarian statism of the aftermath of the English Civil War and the unification of the United Kingdom.

The other point I wanted to discuss is about evolutionary theory, particularly your philosophical interpretation of convergent evolution. You’re right that straight Darwinian natural selection doesn’t have the conceptual capacity to cope with the fact of convergent evolution.

But convergent evolution isn’t quite enough to preserve an account of biological evolution that accords directly with theodicy. An essential idea of the specifically Christian theodicy is that humanity is made in the image of God. As such, humanity is something of a pinnacle of life. Creation does take on something of a purpose, a telos, whose embodiment is humankind.

Convergent evolution just doesn’t get you there. It’s more of a pragmatic scientific principle, as I understand it. Living creatures will face similar problems throughout a planet’s evolutionary history, and similar problems will have similar optimal solutions.

For example, the problem of how to get around an environment soaked in light is an issue wherever the sun can shine. Developing photoreceptive abilities is an optimal solution. The camera model of the eye in particular is the optimal model of a photoreceptive organ in an animal that needs detailed focus on objects at various long-ish distances. That’s why camera eyes have developed independently in vertebrates, cephalopods, and annelids. We all have to solve similar problems of quickly adjusting our vision while we move.

worms There’s a further political problem with the concept of humanity as the image of God in theodicy, which is that it blinds us to our own species-level maladaptive behaviour. If humanity, as the closest creatures in nature to God Herself, is the pinnacle of creation, and our powers and existence are essentially entwined with the telos of being itself, then it becomes difficult to conceive how anything in our nature could harm nature as a whole.

Human behaviour, no matter what it is, could never harm the natural order of God’s universe because we are its material culmination. And if we do harm it, then we do so as culminations of God’s order, bringing the order of Earth’s creation to its purposive end.

This denies the central motive of environmentalist thought, which I describe in more detail in Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity, still forthcoming from Palgrave McMillan this August. The environmentalist idea is that humanity is currently the most maladaptive imbecile of a species on Earth, stumbling into accidental species suicide by covering the planet in so much pollution that we cause a new mass extinction.

Environmentalism asks us to take responsibility for our own industrial actions, not for the sake of God, but for the sake of ourselves and everything else that we share the planet with. To do that, we must accept that human existence is contingent, and that we, like many other species in our world’s history, have prioritized our immediate prosperity but jeopardized our long-term survival in doing so.

A theodicy where we are the image of God holds us off from our collective forehead smack of humility because it privileges humanity’s being. That privilege keeps us from understanding how God could allow our extinction, how God could permit the pinnacle of His creation to, as my favourite Clinton once said, drown in our own shit. [3]

Theodicy’s concept that existence is the ordered expression of God or the Divine generally speaking makes perfect sense to me. I think I’ve held such a belief about existence and divinity for some time now, though I never thought to call it a theodicy. But a theodicy where humanity occupies a privileged place in nature strikes me as even worse than simply untrue. It’s maladaptive.

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Steve Fuller

maggot_brain Thanks originally to T.H. Huxley (who recast Hume as a proto-Darwinist) but more influentially to Bertrand Russell, David Hume has become contemporary philosophy’s go-to guy to show that you’ve got the angels on your side.

I first noticed this as a teaching assistant to Annette Baier, who taught one of Pitt’s introductory philosophy courses in the early 1980s. She was then touting Hume as a virtue theorist comfortable with multiculturalism, not Russell’s radical sceptic who might prove a nuisance in mixed company.

In recent times, as you point out, the continentals have gotten in on the act, with Deleuze—and more to the point, Anglophone Deleuzians—honing in on Hume’s ‘bundle of perceptions’ theory of the self as a precursor to the protean idea of ‘assemblage’. Moreover, considered in light of the relatively little use that empirically minded philosophers like Mill made of Hume prior to Huxley’s makeover, I conclude that Hume has been overused and quite possibly overrated.

Thus, I see you as going against the grain of Hume’s own thinking—and not simply because he didn’t live in the right times. The bundle theory is basically designed to demonstrate the illusory nature of any sense of a substantial self, which includes a self that is capable of experimentation in the sense you suggest.

You are already attributing too much autonomy (or will) to the bundled self, which Hume denies. Any sense of self that we think we have is a product of faulty memory and wishful thinking, and once we recognize these in-built liabilities we’ll be able to live saner lives. Here Hume is really like Epicurus and Buddha—and Wittgenstein. The Humean self may be open to a wide variety of experiences that result in various personal reconfigurations but it is not one that would take responsibility for having initiated those experiences.

locke My own view is closer to Locke’s, who also had doubts about the idea of a substantial self. Indeed, he identified the self with the legal concept of the ‘person,’ an entity constructed for ‘forensic’ purposes, which is to say, to attribute responsibility. Locke didn’t deny the sort of psychological complexity that Hume highlighted but concluded that our ‘consciousness’ (a neologism in Locke’s day for second-order divine-like awareness) intervenes and we just draw a line and take—and are recognized as having taken—ownership for a range of thoughts and actions.

The physical body provides the default locus for defining the jurisdiction of such interventions—i.e. the self that is mine versus the selves that belong to others. As the American founding fathers demonstrated, you can then get some serious politics out of what would otherwise be empiricist vagaries.

Now, the point you raise about convergent evolution is correct, I’m afraid to admit—namely, that it need not eventuate in our species as the crown of creation. However, there is a strong chance that it will eventuate in a species that might be reasonably called Humanity 2.0, leaving open just how much of Homo Sapiens it will actually incorporate.

Figures in the Lamarckian tradition promoting convergent evolution seem to have thought this way, not least one of my schoolboy influences, that renegade Jesuit palaeontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who saw in the anticipated convergence the Second Coming of Jesus, or the Omega Point.

But we don’t need to go this far. The man who most effectively contested Stephen Jay Gould on his own palaeontological turf, Simon Conway Morris, has observed that over the course of evolution, the basic morphologies of organisms have become fewer and more similar.

There is no need to postulate a divine hand or even natural selection to suppose that symbiosis and cross-species mimicry are playing a significant role here. In fact, one might even go so far as to suppose that the ultimate state of convergence will realize something like James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis, whereby humans (when ecologically well-behaved) function as the brain of the superorganism called ‘Earth.’ My guess is that this line of thinking would be quite congenial to you.

However, being more humanist than you, I don’t see things panning out quite this way. Much of the history of technology has been based on biomimicry at varying levels of abstraction from the organisms imitated (e.g. airplanes do what birds do but rather differently).

The Bible certainly exhorts people to learn from nature, but what happens to nature afterwards is an open question. After all, scientists are also developing an ability to freeze-dry DNA for future use, which would allow us to keep various species ‘on tap’ should we need or want them around. So the exact normative role of ‘Nature’ in our thinking needs to be made clear, especially as we are clearly developing godlike powers. [4]

For me it means that ‘Nature’ should not function as a static—euphemistically called sustainable—vision of the ecology. Such a move is little more than environmental fetishism, since various combinations of known organisms might well live well together under radically different environmental conditions.

And even when this turns out to be false, we will have learned something and our capacities for generating organisms will permit us to try again. The corollary of ‘No pain, no gain’ is ‘Life is a hypothesis.’

[1] Maybe the problem here is that the Creationist Right do not take their Biblical literalism sufficiently literally!

[2] Utilitarianism is basically secularized theodicy, whereby the sovereign legislator replaces the deity.

[3] That would be George Clinton, and the track would be the spoken-word introduction to Funkadelic’s masterpiece “Maggot Brain.”

[4] A brief rebuttal to Steve on my environmentalism. I’m uncomfortable thinking of humanity in the stewardship role as I see here. I don’t see how we can make the progress required to do it right at least until Humanity 8.0. The ideas I have for science-fiction literature featuring my character of Alice help illustrate my position.

Categories: Comments, Interviews

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7 replies

  1. Adam: “But I cannot accept the ethics. Don’t ask me to sign on. Don’t ask me to contribute anything to the ethical and political aspects of theodicy but my rage.”
    Dick: I no longer feel rage, but that is because I no longer think of God as omniscient and omnipotent. If I thought of Him/Her/It as all-knowing and all-powerful, I would have to judge Him/Her/It as evil. Perhaps my position is a step in the direction of atheism, but, as yet, I am not tempted to take more steps in that direction.

  2. Steve: “My own view is closer to Locke’s, who also had doubts about the idea of a substantial self. Indeed, he identified the self with the legal concept of the ‘person,’ an entity constructed for ‘forensic’ purposes, which is to say, to attribute responsibility. Locke didn’t deny the sort of psychological complexity that Hume highlighted but concluded that our ‘consciousness’ (a neologism in Locke’s day for second-order divine-like awareness) intervenes and we just draw a line and take—and are recognized as having taken—ownership for a range of thoughts and actions.”
    Dick: “My view is that the notion of a substantial self, a person who can act responsibly, as well as to whom responsibility can be attributed in legal proceedings, is implied by the notion of a responsible agent. I find the big person metaphor, implied whenever such things as memory or understanding is attributed to a collectivity, to be much more problematic.

  3. In “Primitive Man as a Philosopher,” Paul Radin says (p. 5): “Throughout this book I am making one assumption, namely, that among primitive peoples there exists the same distribution of temperament and ability as among us…. In justice to myself I should add that the predication of an identical distribution of ability and temperament for civilized and primitive peoples is not the result of any general theory that I happen to hold; it represents a conviction that has been slowly forced upon me from my observations and contact with a number of aboriginal triibes.”
    The way each of us answers questions in Theodicy will depend upon his or her peculiar “ability and temperament,” as socially constructed by his or her unique life experiences. The distinctive ways Steve and Adam answer these questions provide alternative models for the rest of us to think about, but our distinctive life histories, temperaments, and abilities will determine the degree to which any of us will take the assertions of one or the other as authoritative, or the arguments of one or the other as persuasive.

    • Hi Dick, “one or the other as authoritative, or the arguments of one or the other as persuasive.”
      Well said. Another distinction is moving a conversation forward. Would you say, Hegelian, Mandarin, or meandering?

  4. Hi Steven, I am neither a Hegelian nor am I competent in Mandarin, so I am left with “meandering.” Adam and Steve raise so many points in each of their exchanges that it becomes necessary to select a few that folks might be interesting in discussing. The sheer volume of interconnected assertions can be somewhat overwhelming.

    • Hi Dick, Thank you for responding. My question was specifically directed to Steve. I would not expect you to jump in to respond unless you felt strongly about my question, unless is this a moderated discussion in which you field questions.

      • Hi Steven,
        No, this is not a moderated discussion. I responded because I did not realize that your question was directed to Steve, rather than to me. Sorry about that.

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