January 30, 2005


God, physics and Darwin: Why scientists aren’t sceptical (Richard Webster, from a draft of Chapter 24 of Why Freud Was Wrong)

ONE OF THE OBSTACLES which stands in the way of the Darwinian or neo-Darwinian programme to construct an adequate theory of human nature is science itself. For modern science was, as Bacon conceived it, and as it has subsequently developed, ‘a legitimate, chaste and severe form of inquiry.’ In these words we can see the influence of Purit­anism on scientific thought at its most direct. An attitude of chastity is certainly fitting for the scientist probing into the secrets of mother nature. It is, however, in no way appropriate to the study of carnal humanity. When we confuse the pursuit of knowledge with the pursuit of virtue it is usually at the expense of truth.

Truly scientific empiricism cannot be chaste. Although Freud challenged the chastity of science in a more interesting manner than any other thinker who has claimed, and sometimes been accorded, the title of ‘scientist’, his challenge was broken in its very conception both by his mentalism and by his parallel compulsion to subject emotional and erotic behaviour to a process of purificatory rationalisation.

When he insisted on basing his theory of human motives on an essentially transcendental conception of ‘mind’ Freud was not only succumbing to the orthodoxies of nineteenth century psychology, he was also allowing himself to fall victim to the profound religiosity of Western science. This religiosity is by no means entirely confined to history. We have already encountered Stephen Hawking’s meditation on physics and cosmology as methods of exploring ‘the mind of God’. We might set this idea alongside the words of the physicist Paul Davies:

It may seem bizarre, but in my opinion science offers a surer path to God than religion … science has actually advanced to the point where what were formerly religious questions can be seriously tackled.

The statements of Hawking and Davies remain exceptional, however. For the most part the otherworldliness of modern science is not expressed in explicitly theistic terms and remains implicit rather than explicit. Our powerful assumption that physics is a form of materialism and that as such it is by definition free from all traces of mysticism sometimes prevents us from registering this. But the abstruseness of the modern scientific mysteries which are embraced as orthodoxies by every contemporary physicist is captured well by Bas von Frassen:

. . . once atoms had no colour, now they also have no shape, place or volume...There is a reason why metaphysics sounds so passé, so vieux-jeu today; for intellectually challenging perplexities and paradoxes it has been far surpassed by theoretical science. Do the concepts of the Trinity and the soul, haecceity, universals, prime matter, and potentiality baffle you? They pale beside the unimaginable otherness of closed space-time, event horizons. EPR correlations and bootstrap models.

What is so subversive, or potentially subversive, about this particular way of teasing scientists is Bas von Frassen’s suggestion that modern physics is even more metaphysical than religious metaphysics and even more committed to a form of transcendentalism. His words should serve to remind us that although the particular form of reason which has been legitimated by modern science is generally regarded as having no association with religion, modern physics remains inexorably linked to its origins in seventeenth century Christianity.

Because we associate rationalism with science, and because science tends now always to be opposed to religion, we tend to lose sight of what kind of attitude rationalism implied when it was still the ally of religion. The rationalism of Judaism is not cognate with the rationalism of Christianity, though the prophetic traditions of both oppose magic, ritualism, idolatry and sensuality while idealising systematic self-control, which is what leads some commentators at least to stress their rational character. The rationalism of Plato differs significantly from that of Aristotle, though both thinkers agreed that the universe was essentially rational. The rationalism of the great medieval monastic orders differs from the secularised rational asceticism of Puritanism which it helped to engender.

It should be noted immediately, however, that the assumption which is common to all these forms of rationalism is monotheism – that there is one god and that he presides over both the material universe and the living beings that populate it. The further assumption is that order and rationality are either in themselves divine or in some other way to be construed as an essential aspect of godhood so that knowledge of the order and rationality of the universe, or of the human soul are themselves to be understood as ways of approaching, or knowing, or glorifying, or contemplating the goodness of God. Even Aristotle, who may have ended by abandoning belief in a transcendent god, still understood knowledge as a way of making contact with the divinely rational order of the universe, which existed in some way above and beyond human beings.

It will be noted that, under the characterisation I have offered, rationalism, which is now widely understood to exist in opposition to religion, is itself not only a profoundly religious doctrine, but an interestingly irrational one.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 30, 2005 6:59 AM

It may seem bizarre, but in my opinion science offers a surer path to God than religion science has actually advanced to the point where what were formerly religious questions can be seriously tackled.

Davies is using the term "God" loosely here. He's not using it to represent a personal being, but to represent that understanding of physical causes that can explain the origin and the behavior of our universe.

Religion attempts to do that also, but only as a secondary goal. Religion's primary goal, which is based on the a-priori assumption that God exists and is a personal being, is to understand God's will and to build a society upon rules of behavior derived from God's will.

The religious rationalism that the author speaks of, and which the modern physical sciences derived from, are really a departure from traditional religious theology, and you could argue that it ultimately undermined the primary goal of religion.

Here's why. Obedience to God does not require the believer to understand why God wills as he does. Job had to accept that God's reasons are not man's reasons. Rational inquiry made the radical assertion that human reason was not in conflict with God's will, that rational inquiry would not produce answers that were in conflict with revealed religion. This established a redundancy between revealed religion and science. Science became the new source of revelation.

The assasination of revealed religion in the West was an inside job.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at January 30, 2005 11:22 AM

Well said.

And when you get down to it, there's a world (so to speak) of difference between telling the Universe how it behaves and asking it.

Religionists are desperate. Whatever we may think about their moral teachings, their physical teachings just cannot withstand modern experience. (I am not talking only about Christianity.)

In the 21st century, they are back in the 17th, denying what anyone can see for himself. Thus the tortured attempts to define science as just another brand of religion.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at January 30, 2005 3:58 PM


You miss your own points.

The 17th Century religious view turns out to have been entirely accurate. Reason not only demonstrates the truth of revealed religion but the falsehood of Reason. That's why religion is thriving and secular sciencism dyijng off.

Posted by: oj at January 30, 2005 5:31 PM

I am accustomed, already, Orrin to tortured arguments to prove that black is white. I went to Catholic school, remember?

Your insoucient redefinitions would do credit to a Jesuit, but they do not persuade. Even the Jesuits don't believe their own arguments any more.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at January 31, 2005 1:05 AM


Who's left to be persuaded. The Enlightenment failed.

Posted by: oj at January 31, 2005 7:26 AM

We live in the post-Enlightenment. We did not go back to the obscurantism and superstition of the Dark Ages.

Well, some of you claim to, but you live your daily lives in Enlightened trappings.

I bet when you kids are sick, you don't wrap amulets around their throats. You're more Enlightened than you care to admit.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at February 1, 2005 12:21 AM

Yeah, the Enlightenment failed. Except for that lingering relic, secular constitutional democracy.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at February 1, 2005 9:13 AM


They're dying in Europe. Our religious constitutional republic is the only one thriving.

Posted by: oj at February 1, 2005 11:16 AM

Rationalism is only irrational when people pretend it's antireligious.

Posted by: Joseph Hertzlinger at February 1, 2005 3:48 PM

Rationalism is inherently irrational, but that doesn't mean it's not a useful tool of faith.

Posted by: oj at February 1, 2005 3:51 PM