Thursday, March 25, 2010

Divine Foot, meet materialist mouth

At my workplace there's some well meaning propagandist who never fails to drop off Jehovah's Witness “literature”. February's issue of Awake! is particularly compelling, with the cover tagline of “Earth- designed for life” (not even the grace of a question mark to be found...). Of course, it lines up the usual suspects: the fine-tuning argument, the teleological argument, etc. There's also a ridiculous sidebar entitled “The Bible is Scientifically Accurate” with four very pained attempts to show our omniscient creator's scientific foreknowledge (i.e. “The universe is governed by laws: 'I [Jehovah] had appointed...the statutes [or, laws] of heaven and earth' -Jeremiah 33:25, written before 580 B.C.E.”)

What's of more concern, however, is the fact that once again biologist Richard Lewontin's words in the New York Review of Books come back to bite the collective behinds of materialists. Awake! doesn't use the whole quote, but even in its entirety anyone can see how ripe it is for creationist quote-mining:

“Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door. The eminent Kant scholar Lewis Beck used to say that anyone who could believe in God could believe in anything. To appeal to an omnipotent deity is to allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured, that miracles may happen.”

Awake!, like countless other apologists, pulls the especially juicy bits about a prior commitment to materialism to conclude

“Despite the evidence that the natural world seems too well designed to be a mindless accident, amny scientists refuse to believe in a Creator. It is not that science somehow compels atheists to 'accept a material explanation' of the world, say evolutionist Richard C. Lewontin...Is such dogmatism wise, especially is the evidence overwhelmingly points to a Creator? What do you think? -Romans 1:20”

Nice bit of argument from divine authority at the end. I sympathize with the points Lewontin was trying to make in the piece (I recommend reading it all!)- that the fundamentalist religious backlash in the US must be seen as a result of the calculated destruction of progressive left alternatives within the culture of the rural and southern working class, that a science in the service of institutions of political and economic exploitation can produce monsters, that the tools of critical rational thought must be extended to all instead of simply being told the results of the use of those tools. At heart, he says, “What is at stake here is a deep problem in democratic self-governance...It is not the truth that makes you free. It is your possession of the power to discover the truth. Our dilemma is that we do not know how to provide that power.”

Despite all this, his talk about “a prior commitment to materialism” is simply throwing red meat to the intellectual cannibals. The intelligent design proponents at the Discovery Institute have frankly admitted that their war against evolution is simply the opening battle to their greater showdown with the materialisms of not only Darwin, but more importantly of Freud and Marx. Besides, what Lewontin says here may not be true- see Sean Carrol on why the oft-quoted distinction between “methodological naturalism” and “ontological naturalism”, that science somehow is barred from investigating supernatural phenomena, is not as tenable as it might seem. There's a good case to be made that science can, and has, investigated possible divine phenomena- and that to date almost every religious postulate about the natural world has been found to be utterly wrong. Heliocentrism, immutability of kinds of animals, the age of the earth and the universe, whether we should beat non-virgin brides to death with large stones..the list goes on and on. So, materialism need not be a priori but rather a supposition demanded by the history of knowledge.

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