Conor on Materialism

Nice essay here on materialism/ultra-Darwinism by Conor Cunningham.

“I read recently in the newspaper that Richard Dawkins has funded a children’s summer camp, one that will encourage atheism, or what Dawkins would probably spin as “open-mindednesses.” The problem being, as we shall see, is that most atheist philosophy denies the existence of mind; open mindedness is, therefore, an oxymoron, for it is so open, it has fallen out altogether.”

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7 Responses to Conor on Materialism

  1. Burk Braun says:

    Nice? This guy is intellectually third rate.


  2. Darrell says:

    Wow, that is quite an assessment coming from a trained philosopher/theologian such as yourself (…oh, wait). Rowan Williams (no slouch intellectually) had a different estimation:

    “This is certainly the most interesting and invigorating book on the science-religion frontier that I have encountered. Cunningham is emerging as a leading spokesman of the younger generation of theologians involved with the Radical Orthodox movement; but his work deserves to be read and digested well beyond any particular caucus…there is no denying either the intellectual depth or the abundant, infectious energy that Conor Cunningham brings to this work.”

    Enlighten us—point out some “third-rate” intellectual statements or gaffs you believe committed.


  3. Burk Braun says:


    I'll take one example…

    “In short, truth is not about fitness enhancement. Any fiction that is useful is fair game for natural selection. As the Rolling Stones once sang, “you can't always get what you want, but you might just get what you need.” As the saying goes, “In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” In our case this would be: “In the land of the dead, that which mistakenly thinks it is alive, breeds.”

    There we are, at Dawkins summer campfire, singing Lennon's song, but we, with our stiff upper lip, have embraced our situation, and have altered the lyrics: “Imagine there's no people, it's easy if you try, no free will within us, nor life, or death, ethics, or reason, arts or sciences.” Wasn't it one of Darwin's most enthusiastic cheerleaders, E.O. Wilson, who told us that evolution was the best myth we have? It seems true to say, then, that the truth of evolution – which I don't doubt for a moment – when uttered from within the camp of ultra-Darwinism seems risible, for any such bid for veracity is analogous to the proverbial drunk man on a moving train who appears to walk straighter than his fellow passengers. To repeat, all truth, or that which happens to be successful, is purely accidental.”

    First, his form of argument amounts to a pile of virtually unconnected bon mots, winched-in quotes and other self-serving patter.

    His whole point about truth is vacuous. The fact is that we can use reason to reach truth, whatever the underpinnings of the reasoning machine within us- if we are intellectually rigorous. The other fact is that evolution, though it values truth in many ways, (our visual system is, on the whole, very devoted to truthful representation), there are times when natural selection and truth part ways. This can happen in our sheer optimistic attitude, where depressed people have been shown to be more accurate in their perceptions of reality. The connection that Connor seeks to make between the two issues is completely without merit. If evolution is correct in the latter finding, it does not just affect Darwinists, but all humans, who have to do some work to escape a variety of easy and incorrect intuitions, theism prime among them.

    So his concluding flourish of truth being accidental is gibberish, as are most of his other points.

    Wilson spoke of evolution as a myth in the sense of being a narrative of origin, not of its being false.

    On and on the article goes, showing exactly the caliber of thought among our current stars of theology. Not a surprise, exactly.


  4. Darrell says:

    Wow, you were right, that is really third-rate stuff. What? Huh? And by the way, he knew in which sense Wilson was speaking. Well, anyway, when you write something like this:

    “The fact is that we can use reason to reach truth, whatever the underpinnings of the reasoning machine within us- if we are intellectually rigorous.”

    It only goes to show you really don’t understand his critique to begin with, so you may not be the best one to tell us who is third-rate or not. You will forgive me if I take the word of these other first rate scholars:

    “Writing with engaging humor that betrays an extraordinary energetic intelligence, Conor Cunningham shows us why, given the Christian God, an evolutionary account of life is necessary. In the process he negotiates the philosophical controversies intrinsic to evolutionary science in a manner that illumines how some of the implications of that science mimic Christian heresies. This theological account of creation, I believe, will become a classic.”
    — Stanley Hauerwas (Time Magazine called Hauerwas “American’s best theologian”)

    “This work of stunning scientific erudition and critical insight differs from the common polemics against Dawkins’s and Dennett’s theories. While accepting their extreme neo-Darwinist thesis, Cunningham’s Evolution isolates it from their atheist conclusions. Cunningham shows from a wealth of scientific evidence how vulnerable is the thesis that lies at the root of those conclusions and how its genetic one-sidedness undermines the ground of Darwin’s evolutionary biology.”
    — Louis Dupre
    Yale University

    “This book attempts to connect the debate about the nature of Darwinian evolution to the Christian theology of creation. The latter is often implicitly invoked — as, for instance, when the claim is made that Darwin has shown that God cannot exist — but rarely clearly discussed. Cunningham shows that the picture of God as the great Designer of artifacts, espoused by Paley and common to both ultra-Darwinians and Creationists, is profoundly at odds with Christianity. The battle between these last two is another of those incidents foreseen by Arnold in his ‘Dover Beach,’ where ‘ignorant armies clash by night.’ ”
    — Charles Taylor
    McGill University
    author of A Secular Age

    “Even those sympathetic to the recent wave of evolutionary attacks on religion cannot help feeling that something is missing there: Dawkins and company lack a minimum of understanding of what religion is about, of how it works. Cunningham’s book is thus obligatory reading for all interested in this topic: while fully endorsing the scientific validity of Darwinism, it clearly brings to light its limitations in understanding not only religion but also our human predicament. A book like Cunningham’s is needed like simple bread in our confused times.”
    — Slavoj Žižek (who is an atheist by they way)

    “A brilliant and enlightening book! Through profound philosophical insight, coupled with an interdisciplinary approach, this book is singularly important for the dialogue between science, religion, and culture.”
    — Archbishop Joseph ?yci?ski
    Catholic University of Lublin, Poland

    “Cunningham brings a formidable and illuminating intelligence to a topic all too often hidden amid clouds of prejudice, polemic, and ideology. This is a splendid book!”
    — David Bentley Hart
    author of Atheist Delusions

    “This is an excellent book! Very well informed and written in an accessible style, it will be easily understood by lay readers, especially thanks to the beautiful, simple examples, stories, and quotations that Cunningham employs. In addition, his interpretation of genetic science is faultless. I learned a great deal from this book!”
    — Michel Morange
    Center for the Study of the History of Science, Ecole Normale Superieure, Paris


  5. Burk Braun says:


    Stanley Hauerwas -theologian
    Louis Dupre -faculty of religious studies
    Charles Taylor -We've discussed him before.
    Slavoj Žižek – critical theorist.. not much point in being an atheist, if you turn to Hegel and Lacan, et al.
    Archbishop Joseph ?yci?ski- self-explanatory
    David Bentley Hart – Eastern Orthodox theologian
    Michel Morange – Here we get to something interesting, at last.

    Theologians are nice people, I am sure, but they are dealing in fantasies. Their subject is fundamentally invalid and absent- there is nothing there. So they will naturally cheer on a fellow-theologian who rants against the scholars who study actual subjects, including the psychological oddities of religion and religiosity. So their blurbs are somewhat biased, including the one by Williams. They in essence tooting their own horns.

    Morange is anther matter, and I dug as much as I could into his background and interests. All impeccable as far as I can tell. He seems down on reductionism, but all quite within respectable intellectual bounds, as far as I can tell from a few relatively superficial interviews and other media. His book on the misunderstood gene looks very good, actually. So I can't really explain his blurb as bias in any obvious way. If I had infinite time, I might read Cunningham's book too based on this recommendation, but what I read of him here is, as I argued directly, nonsense, if very vivacious and charismatic nonsense. Perhaps it makes more sense in French!

    I would like also to differ with something that seems very common in this mode of argument and scholarship, which is that, for lack of actual reasons, logic, and arguments, the opinions of others are taken as some kind of anchor for one's own views. Many theologians are described in this way, as being influenced by X, Y, and Z, for lack of anything more concrete to say about their actual explicit contributions to the world. Their work is seen as perhaps part of a school and tradition, which flows ever onward from one generation of “scholars” to the next, without (in my humble opinion) touching down on reality ever in between.

    This is social patterning and propaganda, not scholarship. It is signifies a field dependent entirely on personality, charisma, and other social resources, (including the deep traditions of prior charisma going back to Jesus, if he ever actually existed), for lack of any more serious and explicit topic or criterion. People like Charles Taylor build up a nimbus of seriousness and impenetrability, a personal fiefdom of acolytes, students, or whatever their situation allows, throw out a few bon mots .. and presto- a respected intellectual. In Charles Taylor's case, I read quite a bit of his recent book, and it was a sorry mess. Of course the social criterion makes sense if the business of religion is putting butts in seats, in the end. Whatever scholarship is done, yearning to be as impressive as possible, has to serve that ultimate goal, which is the only concrete one available.

    Imagine in comparison if the only way to describe Darwin or Einstein was that they were followers of Lyell, Humbolt and Boltzman and Poincare respectively, and antogonists of Lamarck, Cuvier and Bohr? It would be absurd, almost as though they weren't really studying anything at all.

    Even in the best case, such as Martin Luther, the accomplishments remain in the realm of social change. Whatever he was seeing in his magic orb, and whatever changes he instituted in many people's views of religion, that was the extent of his ultimate accomplishment- changes in society based just as much on fantasy and credulity afterwards as before, though pointed in new directions. Social change is important, but we should be honest about the real object of such so-called scholarship. It is a mythos that will move people, period.


  6. Burk Braun says:


    I have treated myself to Connor's introduction, online…

    “Unsurprisingly, then, the concluding chapter, “Another Life: ‘We Have Never Been Medieval,’” presents a more explicitly theological account of many of the issues encountered in the previous chapters, arguing that orthodox Christianity can offer an account of life and of nature that avoids such contemporary nihilism, and in so doing restore our commonsense world, and thus with it the possibility of beauty, truth, goodness, and lastly, our belief in evolution. We do so by examining the first two chapters of Genesis, the identity of Adam and Eve, original sin, the Fall, and death itself.”

    Well, that is a heaping quote. Leaving the silliness of genesis and its intellectual fruits aside, (what better demonstration of my prior comment on theology could one imagine?), I'll just comment that beauty truth and goodness are all entirely possible, indeed best founded on, the naturalistic philosophy. Firstly, such a philosophy is true rather than false.. always an advantage!

    Secondly, beauty is one of our core perceptive properties- we respond to beauty as surely as we are born- the beauties of the opposite sex, the beauties of nature, and the beauties of more abstract concepts that sythesize and ease our mental lives, like math, simplicity in various theories, etc. And of course goodness is fundamental to our makeup as well, along with badness, competition, and other tendencies. They are all there, ready to be cultivated and appreciated. We surely benefit from narrative and myths to bring meaning to the story, but we live in a time when such myths can be true rather than, as they have been from time immemorial, false.


  7. Darrell says:

    Burk Braun: Biologist, Atheist, Secular Fundamentalist—self explanatory

    I’m sure secular fundamentalists, like you, are nice people. But their scientism is fundamentally invalid and absent—there is nothing there.

    Talk about the pot calling the kettle black!

    What you miss is the rather broad spectrum of people supporting Cunningham even if in many areas they might disagree. This would hardly dispose one of them to charge him with “third rate” scholarship or intellectualism. Why? Because they are at least being fair. You seem to be incapable of such just as the creationist dismisses science for the same reasons. What we really have here is two extremes who don’t even understand what they are criticizing and wear their badges of ignorance proudly.

    I only read you a few of the endorsements for Conor’s book. Here are some others who gave glowing reviews:

    Ian Tattersall (American Museum of Natural History, New York)

    David N. Livingstone (Professor of Geography and Intellectual History, Queen’s University-Belfast)

    Justin L. Barrett (Senior Researcher at Oxford's Centre for Anthropology and Mind in the School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography)

    Dan Robison (Ph.D. Neuropsychology) Teaches at Oxford

    Holmes Rolston, III. (Holmes Rolston, III, is University Distinguished Professor at Colorado State University. Unanimously regarded as a founder of the field of environmental ethics, his work and efforts on behalf of the environment have been honored in many ways.)

    Were most of the reviews from philosophers and theologians? Of course. That should be for rather obvious reasons if you know anything about the book or his purpose in writing the book. It was not the science of evolution or current biology that was at issue, but rather the misguided metaphysics/philosophy of people like you who use evolution for their (just like the creationists) own scientism propaganda.


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