Evolution: Science, Philosophy, or Religion?

As Socrates was considered wise because he, above all others, knew he wasn’t, so philosophy as a way of life is never content with its own definition.  In our last post we considered Ronald Dworkin’s claim that psychotherapy evolved from a being science to a faith and has now come down to earth again as a professionalized friendship.  We now look at another great “ism” to emerge from the early 20th century – Darwinism.  It too began as science, propped itself up into a “philosophy,” and lost touch with both its radical philosophical questioning and scientific objectivity.

Ours is not a question of something as simple as evolution versus creationism, its a question of the nature of philosophical, scientific, and religious thinking.  When does an intellectual pattern of thought evolve from one into the other, and how do the checks-and-balances of these three branches of the intellectual life honor the fundamental desire for wisdom.

To illustrate this problem, we turn to John Horgan’s review in Scientific American of Thomas Nagel’s book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, and the plea in his conclusion that philosopher’s speak up on these matters.

“When it comes to science, ours is a paradoxical era. On the one hand, prominent physicists proclaim that they are solving the riddle of reality and hence finally displacing religious myths of creation. That is the chest-thumping message of books such as The Grand Design by physicists Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow and A Universe from Nothing by Lawrence Krauss. A corollary of this triumphal view is that science will inevitably solve all other mysteries as well.

On the other hand, science’s limits have never been more glaringly apparent. In their desperation for a “theory of everything”—which unifies quantum mechanics and relativity and explains the origin and structure of our cosmos—physicists have embraced pseudo-scientific speculation such as multi-universe theories and the anthropic principle (which says that the universe must be as we observe it to be because otherwise we wouldn’t be here to observe it). Fields such as neuroscience, evolutionary psychology and behavioral genetics and complexity have fallen far short of their hype.

Some scholars, notably philosopher Thomas Nagel, are so unimpressed with science that they are challenging its fundamental assumptions. In his new book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, Nagel contends that current scientific theories and methods can’t account for the emergence of life in general and one bipedal, big-brained species in particular. To solve these problems, Nagel asserts, science needs “a major conceptual revolution,” as radical as those precipitated by heliocentrism, evolution and relativity. . . . .

[In conclusion] These qualms asides, I recommend Nagel’s book, which serves as a much-needed counterweight to the smug, know-it-all stance of many modern scientists. Hawking and Krauss both claim that science has rendered philosophy obsolete. Actually, now more than ever we need philosophers, especially skeptics like Socrates, Descartes, Thomas Kuhn, and Nagel, who seek to prevent us from becoming trapped in the cave of our beliefs.”

(A special thanks to my friend Bob Blomgren out on Vashon Island for tipping me onto this review.)

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