Trying to Believe

Conor Cunningham was a key facilitator, conference host, and presenter at the theological conference I attended in Rome last year. In one of the previous conferences, Dr. Cunningham presented this paper, which is very good. From the introduction, we read:

What I shall try to do in this essay is outline, however briefly, Darwin’s theory of evolution,and then present some rather broad consequences – scientific, philosophical and theological -that arise from its logic. Most of all, and throughout, I will try my very best to believe Darwin, that is, to believe what he says about the natural world, something which, as we shall see, becomes increasingly difficult, not because I seek to dispute his theory. No, not at all; rather, because under the influence of some of his disciples, a fairly simple, and in one sense, largely inoffensive, biological theory becomes hijacked, being co-opted as a vehicle for something else.1 And for what does it become a vehicle? Well, quite simply, for one more version of reductive materialism or, better, nihilism.2

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2 Responses to Trying to Believe

  1. Burk Braun says:

    Hi, Darrell-

    This is quite a screed you have dug up. Connor seems to be cheerleading/glossing his fellow theological anti-evolutionists more than actually responding to Dawkins or any extensive evolutionary argument. So of course his own arguments don't work very well.

    “Take Sir Arthur Eddington’s two tables: on the one hand, we have the “solid’ table in front of us, and on the other, we have the table according to Physics, one which is composed of, say, atoms and empty space.”

    Connor seems not to realize the gulf between such perspectival differences, which are self-consistent and fully explicable by appeal to reason, and the unbridgeable differences involved in theological exercises, which no amount of explanation can connect to everyday experience, thus the appeal to a “supernatural” realm where normal rules needn't apply.

    By page 8, he has fully left the realm of coherence and gone off the theological handle…

    “Or more simply, in light of Darwinism, Chesterton tells us, “there is no such thing as a thing” (CHESTERTON: s. d.: 59). And this includes persons, for as David Chalmers says, “you can’t have your materialist cake and eat your consciousness too””

    This is a parody. Materialists can not recognize persons. Right. It is like saying that since the theist stakes all existence on god and heaven, there are likewise no persons- they are epiphenomena of a deeper reality. All fun and games aside, the materialist has a far better purchase on the levels of reality than does the theist, confined as the materialist is to those levels, and not taking flights of fancy to “super” or other miscellaneous realms that have some inexplicable / rhetorically convoluted and empirically “hidden” relationship with them.

    Connor then goes on in his rhetorical gymnastics by making reality disappear, courtesy of his own misunderstandings of philosophy and materialism. Not a serious argument, but an expression of bewilderment, apparently. If one fails to take the philosophy of evolution seriously, (though describing it with some accuracy in his opening), but shoehorns it into one's own categories of absolutism and ideal-ism, thence drawing absurd conclusions and extrapolations, I really can't be of very much help.

    I'll stipulate that Dawkins' gene-centered view of evolution is excessive, even anthropomorphic, and has been discarded by the field. Genes are the units of inheritance and coding variation, but not the units of phenotypic variation or selection, since whole organisms, sub-parts, groups, and all sorts of other gene-derived entities are out there in the world being selected. Genes are selected through their expression in these other entities- on their own they obviously wouldn't have a prayer of doing anything.

    But throwing out Dawkins' skewed view hardly amounts to destabilizing all of evolution or letting Connor go on a wild ontological turkey shoot, spewing “materialism contradicts itself”, “promissory materialism”, “Darwinism is a strategy for the survival of atheism”, and his many other loosely strung-together utterances.



  2. Burk Braun says:

    “Consequently, as E. J. Lowe tells us, “Thought can no more be (or be constituted by) a brain-process than a chair can be (or be constituted by) a set of prime numbers” (LOWE, 1996: 44).”

    What prompts this but ignorance? Do you think without your brain? Connor seems to (sorry, that's a bit cheap).

    “.. perception does not equal sensation .. “

    This, at least is true, and it is true precisely because we think with our brains, not with our eyes or other sensory nerves. The more we learn about perception, the more we (i.e. science, not theology) realize how the brain constructs perception, and where it constructs perception, and how it does so. Connor seems content to indulge in negatives here, but a little honest curiosity might go a long way!

    ” .. Nagel makes the point well, when he says, “If we came to believe that our capacities for objective theory were the product of Natural Selection that would warrant serious scepticism about its results””

    Yes- that is interesting indeed. Thankfully we have logic to sift through the products of natural selection, (eg. religion), and the (more difficult) products of penetrating thought and analysis. All that we are learning through cognitive science and psychological economics (and Freud, et al.) indicates that yes, we certainly do need skepticism- our instincts, moral and otherwise, are heavily formed by evolution, often puzzling classical economists, for instance.

    That is why I am a skeptic, as are we all, in truth.

    “Indeed there is nothing whatever unintelligible about supposing the existence of a capacity for perception and agency in a being lacking a brain.”

    Uh huh.. more ignorance. A demonstration would be appreciated. This kind of obfuscatory, double-negative-laced question-begging assertion reminds me of Goetz and friends.

    ” … consequently a nose, for example, does not have a genetic base, in reductionist terms”,

    More ignorance. Indeed his nose discussion is laughably parodic, since the genetic basis of such things is strongly determinative, and similarities and differences could prospectively be put on a quantitative basis, once all the loci are figured out. Heterogeneous, yes, but unable to be reduced, no.

    “In this way, the ultra-Darwinist resembles the fundamentalist who goes to Bible College, only to discover that Moses may not indeed have been the author of Exodus (which should not come as that much of a shock, since it contains an account of his death!), and subsequently loses faith.”

    This depends on what all the premises are. Theism is premised first on the perfection of its god(s), so imperfections count toward a mechanistic and happenstance materialism more than they do to a theistic order. Second, if one's theism is naively on the perfection of god and its word in the scriptures, then such inconsistencies learned in bible college are indeed reasons to give up belief. Live by an absolutist and idealist criterion, die by that same absolutist and idealist criterion. Science is fallible and never claims otherwise, yet it gets far more right than those who claim to get everything right.

    “And it is those who endeavour to grasp man’s importance, in terms of an essence, pure and simple who display their Luciferian link with Gnosticism.”

    Gosh, isn't this a bit over-wrought? What is so bad about gnosticism? I'm no fan of essence either, indeed it is far more a concept of theists than of materialists, so this line of thought is rather curious.

    Anyhow, thank you for your blog and our continuing stimulating discussion.


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