May Dawkins Appropriate Aristotle?

"Either the Scripture was true and evolution was wrong or evolution was true and I must toss out the Bible. It was there that night that I accepted the Word of God and rejected all that would ever counter it, including evolution. With that, in great sorrow, I tossed into the fire all my dreams and hopes in science" - Kurt Wise, Professor of science and theology and director of the Center for Theology and Science at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

First Things has published a dialog between Francis J. Beckwith and Robert T. Miller on the criticism by Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, of Kurt Wise shown on the left who gave up a brilliant scientific career for a literal interpretation of the bible. Beckwith is an associate professor of philosophy & church-state studies, Baylor University while Miller is an assistant professor at the Villanova University School of Law.

Miller summarized the debate as follows:

In his book The God Delusion, Dawkins’ criticizes a promising young scientist who gave up a career in geology because of his literal understanding of Genesis, and Beckwith argues that implicit in Dawkins’ criticism is the view that “the human being who wastes his talents is one who does not respect his natural gifts or the basic capacities whose maturation and proper employment make possible the flourishing of many goods.

In other words, the notion of a ‘proper function,’ as Alvin Plantinga puts it, coupled with the observation that certain perfections grounded in basic capacities have been impermissibly obstructed from maturing, is assumed in the very judgment Dawkins makes.”

But, Beckwith argues, Dawkins may not consistently appeal to this notion of a proper function because Dawkins “does not actually believe that living beings, including human beings, have intrinsic purposes or are designed so that one may conclude that violating one’s proper function amounts to a violation of one’s moral duty to oneself. Dawkins has maintained for decades that the natural world only appears to be designed” but is not really so. Hence, Dawkins may not consistently criticize anyone on the basis that the person has violated a natural function.

The discussion was initiated with a comment entitled The Irrationality of Richard Dawkins by Beckwith which I have reproduced as the first comment in this thread. Robert Miller’s reply entitled Response to Robert Beckwith is reproduced as the second comment in the thread and Beckwith’s Rejoinder to Miller’s Response is reproduced as the third comment.

Can Dawkins appropriate Aristotle regarding Wise's decision?

Posted June 27, 2007

7 comments:

Looking in the Distance said...

The Irrationality of Richard Dawkins by Francis J. Beckwith

In his 2006 book, The God Delusion , Richard Dawkins laments the career path of Kurt Wise, who has, since 2006, held the positions of professor of science and theology and director of the Center for Theology and Science at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

Prior to that, Wise had taught for many years at Bryan College, a small evangelical college in Dayton, Tennessee, named after William Jennings Bryan, three-time Democratic presidential candidate and associate counsel in the 1925 Scopes “Monkey Trial.”

According to Dawkins, Wise was at one time a promising young scholar who had earned a degree in geology (from the University of Chicago) and advanced degrees in geology and paleontology from Harvard University, where he studied under the highly acclaimed Stephen Jay Gould. Wise is also a young-earth creationist, which means that he accepts a literal interpretation of the first chapters of Genesis and maintains that the earth is less than ten thousand years old.

It is not a position I hold, and for that reason I am sympathetic to Dawkins’ bewilderment at why Wise has embraced what appears to many Christians to be a false choice between one controversial interpretation of Scripture (young-earth creationism) and abandoning Christianity altogether.

At one point in his career, Wise began to understand that his reading of Scripture was inconsistent with the dominant scientific understanding of the age of the earth and the cosmos.

Instead of abandoning what I believe is a false choice, he continued to embrace it, but this lead to a crisis of faith. Wise writes: “Either the Scripture was true and evolution was wrong or evolution was true and I must toss out the Bible. . . . It was there that night that I accepted the Word of God and rejected all that would ever counter it, including evolution. With that, in great sorrow, I tossed into the fire all my dreams and hopes in science.”

So Wise abandoned the possibility of securing a professorship at a prestigious research university or institute.

Dawkins is disturbed by Wise’s judgment and its repercussions on his obvious promise as a scholar, researcher, and teacher. Writes Dawkins: “I find that terribly sad . . . the Kurt Wise story is just plain pathetic—pathetic and contemptible. The wound, to his career and his life’s happiness, was self-inflicted, so unnecessary, so easy to escape. . . . I am hostile to religion because of what it did to Kurt Wise. And if it did that to a Harvard educated geologist, just think what it can do to others less gifted and less well armed.”

Of course, some Christians may be just as troubled as Dawkins. So one need not be an atheist to raise legitimate questions about Professor’s Wise’s intellectual and spiritual journey. But, given Dawkins’ atheism, there is something odd about his lament, for it seems to require that Dawkins accept something about the nature of human beings and the natural moral law that his atheism seems to reject.

Let me explain what I mean.

Dawkins harshly criticizes Wise for embracing a religious belief that results in Wise’s not treating himself and his talents, intelligence, and abilities in a way appropriate for their full flourishing. That is, given the opportunity to hone and nurture certain gifts—for example, intellectual skill—no one, including Wise, should waste them as a result of accepting a false belief. The person who violates, or helps violate, this norm, according to Dawkins, should be condemned, and we should all bemoan this tragic moral neglect on the part of our fellow(s). But the issuing of that judgment on Wise by Dawkins makes sense only in light of Wise’s particular talents and the sort of being Wise is by nature, a being who Dawkins seems to believe possesses certain intrinsic capacities and purposes, the premature disruption of which would be an injustice.

So the human being who wastes his talents is one who does not respect his natural gifts or the basic capacities whose maturation and proper employment make possible the flourishing of many goods. In other words, the notion of “proper function,” as Alvin Plantinga puts it, coupled with the observation that certain perfections grounded in basic capacities have been impermissibly obstructed from maturing, is assumed in the very judgment Dawkins makes about Wise and the way by which Wise should treat himself.

But Dawkins, in fact, does not actually believe that living beings, including human beings, have intrinsic purposes or are designed so that one may conclude that violating one’s proper function amounts to a violation of one’s moral duty to oneself.

Dawkins has maintained for decades that the natural world only appears to be designed. He writes in The God Delusion: “Darwin and his successors have shown how living creatures, with their spectacular statistical improbability and appearance of design, have evolved by slow, gradual degrees from simple beginnings. We can now safely say that the illusion of design in living creatures is just that—an illusion.”

But this means that his lament for Wise is misguided, for Dawkins is lamenting what only appears to be Wise’s dereliction of his duty to nurture and employ his gifts in ways that result in his happiness and an acquisition of knowledge that contributes to the common good. Yet because there are no designed natures and no intrinsic purposes, and thus no natural duties that we are obligated to obey, the intuitions that inform Dawkins’ judgment of Wise are as illusory as the design he explicitly rejects. But that is precisely one of the grounds by which Dawkins suggests that theists are irrational and ought to abandon their belief in God.

So if the theist is irrational for believing in God based on what turns out to be pseudo-design, Dawkins is irrational in his judgment of Wise and other creationists whom he targets for reprimand and correction. For Dawkins’ judgment rests on a premise that—although uncompromisingly maintained throughout his career—only appears to be true.

Looking in the Distance said...

Response to Francis Beckwith by Robert T. Miller

It’s a strange day when I have to agree with Richard Dawkins against Frank Beckwith, but Beckwith’s argument against Dawkins is, I think, mistaken.

Beckwith recounts Dawkins’ criticism of a promising young scientist who gave up a career in geology because of his literal understanding of Genesis, and Beckwith argues that implicit in Dawkins’ criticism is the view that “the human being who wastes his talents is one who does not respect his natural gifts or the basic capacities whose maturation and proper employment make possible the flourishing of many goods. In other words, the notion of a ‘proper function,’ as Alvin Plantinga puts it, coupled with the observation that certain perfections grounded in basic capacities have been impermissibly obstructed from maturing, is assumed in the very judgment Dawkins makes.” But, Beckwith argues, Dawkins may not consistently appeal to this notion of a proper function because Dawkins “does not actually believe that living beings, including human beings, have intrinsic purposes or are designed so that one may conclude that violating one’s proper function amounts to a violation of one’s moral duty to oneself. Dawkins has maintained for decades that the natural world only appears to be designed” but is not really so. Hence, Dawkins may not consistently criticize anyone on the basis that the person has violated a natural function.

This answer to Dawkins doesn’t work, in my view, because it confuses a function, which is had by a thing in virtue of its objective properties, with a purpose, which exists in the mind of an intelligent agent, perhaps one that made the thing. An example will make the difference clear.

Say that some engineers at Boeing want to design a new passenger aircraft, and after much work they build the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner. The purpose exists in the mind of the engineers, but the plane itself has a function: Because it has certain physical properties and not others, the plane is well-suited for travel through the atmosphere but not, for example, under water. In this case, the purpose in the mind of the agent coincides with the function of the object and is even the cause of the object’s having the function it does, for the engineers intentionally caused the object to have certain properties rather than others in order that the object be suited for certain activities rather than others.

The purpose and the function, however, are still different things: The Dreamliner has a certain purpose because it was made by intelligent agents acting with that purpose in mind, but it has its function because of its own objective physical properties. Although unusual, it is quite possible for these two to be separated. If, for example, through astronomically unlikely random collisions of molecules in space there resulted an object physically identical to a Boeing Dreamliner, that object would have all the same physical properties as a Dreamliner and so would have the same function as a Dreamliner. It would not, however, have been designed by an intelligent agent, and so it would have no purpose at all. The function arises from an object’s objective properties without regard to how the object came to have such properties.

Now Dawkins’ argument requires that human beings have a natural function but not a purpose. That is, it’s quite enough for Dawkins to say that human beings, because they are one way rather than another, are well-suited for certain kinds of activities rather than others, and so have a natural function. If they violate this natural function, they are bad qua human beings. How human beings have come to exist and have certain properties rather than others, Dawkins can say, is entirely irrelevant to his normative argument.

Nor would Dawkins be the first person to adopt such an understanding of morality. Indeed, quite the contrary, for he could appeal to an authority no less than Aristotle, who believed that human beings have natural functions and based his moral system on such functions (see Nicomachean Ethics I.7) but did not believe that God or any other intelligent agent designed human beings to have natural functions or to fulfill any particular purpose. Hence, it is quite possible to understand morality in this way and to base moral judgments on such natural functions without thinking that human beings or the universe generally are the product of an intelligent agent.

True, some people think moral systems like Aristotle’s are insufficient because the notion of moral obligation they yield isn’t quite the Christian one (in Aristotle, for example, moral wrongdoing isn’t an affront to God) and also because it even falls short of the categorical ought of Kant (in Aristotle the moral ought is hypothetical: If you would achieve your natural function, then do thus-and-so). But such arguments are all to the effect that the notion of morality possible in an Aristotelian system is somehow incomplete, not that it’s incoherent and not that it’s other than true as far as it goes.

More generally, there is no doubt that Aristotle had a moral system, and there is no reason Dawkins can’t be an Aristotelian in ethics consistent with his understanding of human origins and evolution. There is much wrong with what Dawkins says, but he doesn’t disable himself from making moral judgments, at least not ones couched in an Aristotelian form of natural morality.

Looking in the Distance said...

Rejoinder to Miller’s Response by Francis J. Beckwith

Robert T. Miller is one of my favorite First Things contributors. So it is indeed an honor that he would think my post on Richard Dawkins worthy of critique.

I am not going to quibble with Miller’s claim that there is a distinction between purpose and function, for I do not think it is relevant to my case against Dawkins. After all, in order for Dawkins to assess the morality of another’s actions he must not only know how the parts of a human being function and for what end (for example, the brain helps facilitate the acquisition of knowledge), he must also account for cases in which proper function is employed for the wrong end.

So, in the case of Kurt Wise, what troubles Dawkins is not that Wise did not use his brain to acquire knowledge, for no one including Dawkins is calling into question Wise’s intelligence and depth of learning. Rather, Dawkins does not think that Wise acted virtuously in light of his intelligence, depth of learning, and knowledge. But such a judgment is not conditioned exclusively upon the parts of a human being and their proper function. It is conditioned upon both what it means to be a human being as a whole and how as a human being one ought to employ one’s constituent parts for a virtuous end. This is why I wrote in my original entry that “the notion of a ‘proper function’ . . . coupled with [emphasis added] the observation that certain perfections grounded in basic capacities have been impermissibly obstructed from maturing, is assumed in the very judgment Dawkins makes.”

Miller is indeed correct that Aristotle’s view does not entail God’s existence, since living organisms and their intrinsic purposes informed by their natures may just be brute facts of the universe for which no explanation is required. But Dawkins can’t embrace that position, for he does indeed offer an explanation, one that denies that living organisms have intrinsic purposes and real natures. According to Dawkins, the “natures” that we ascribe to living beings arise out of the vast eons of time in which natural selection cooperates with random genetic mutations and perhaps other evolutionary forces. Consequently, living beings do not possess the stable realist natures that Aristotle believed exist. Rather, for Dawkins, the natures we ascribe to living beings are merely names (or “nominal essences”) that are shorthand ways to label beings that have roughly similar characteristics. So we may say that resulting from “human nature” are those practices, habits, and institutions of the tool-using, language-employing, featherless bipeds that have DNA similar to our own. But this “human nature” tells us nothing normative. It merely describes what is statistically ordinary and generally species preserving.

Consequently, I disagree with Miller that Dawkins may appropriate Aristotle in order to ward off the sort of criticism I have offered. In Aristotle’s universe, living organisms are substances consisting of form and matter, with form imparting to the organism an essential nature that provides to it intrinsic purposes that have normative content. For Dawkins and other like-minded scholars, immaterial things like essences, natures, not to mention minds and souls, are absent from the furniture of the universe. Thus, the normative insights that a person may acquire by acquaintance with these things is not a resource into which Dawkins may tap without abandoning his metaphysics altogether. So, if Dawkins were to embrace Aristotle’s understanding, he would no longer be an atheistic materialist. In fact, he would be only a sliver away from the Kingdom of God, which is miles away from where he is now.

Avid Reader said...

I do not agree with Miller's argument. If Wise is just a 'machine' and has no free will then what he does is what deterministic forces decreed that he would do.

The argument involving purpose and function seems to me to me a very legalistic way of trying to argue out of the box in which Beckwith's position has placed Dawkins' comments.

Ever,
DM

Joan Ferguson said...

I am quite surprised that a person of such intelligence would have placed himself in this dead-end philosophical box. On this blog we have discussed many times how one should not confuse a model with a metaphor and that when one does this kind of confusion that Wise is in then seems to arise.

Having said this Dawkins is wrong to pass comment. As a free person Wise can believe what he wants (even if that belief seems a bit crazy to some of us) and spend his life how he wishes so long as he is not harming any other person or thing from holding his belief.

Joan

Arthur McCorry said...

Joan:

I agree with you on this one. Dawkins says that Wise had a ‘wound to his career’. What wound? Wise is doing very well, in a field that he is happy with, and appears to be progressing career wise very wel!

AMC

Pianoman said...

I found the discussion about ‘purpose’ and ‘function’ to be a bit confusing. I think that the various sides on this are not all agreeing on a common definition of these two terms.

As far as I can understand this while material or inanimate things can have a ‘function’ as described by Miller only an intelligent or animate being can talk about something having a purpose. Wise, I presume, would say that he has a ‘purpose’ to his life and thus given that he believes that he has free will he would say that he should use his ‘function’ to be in harmony with his ‘purpose’.

As I see it Dawkins’ position would be that Wise, qua Wise, has no purpose but has a ‘function’ and it is therefore contradictory to argue that Wise can do anything but live out this function which clearly he is doing ‘mechanistically’ or ‘deterministically’.