Saturday, June 12, 2010

Midgley's Slapdash

Because the world so needs another person to rescue the quiet, unassuming dignity of Christian belief from upwards of several recent books, Mary Midgley has stepped forward:

Today's anti-god warriors ... declare that Darwin's evolutionary theory gives a scientific disproof of [god's] existence and use this reasoning, quite as confidently as Newton used his, to convert the public ... the huge prestige of science is being used ...
She's too kind to list any substantiating instances of scientists using evolutionary theory in this way -- too kind to her own slapdash accusations, that is.

She moves to a provocative question resting on the shoulders of straw-men:
[Newton] reasoned that gravity cannot be physically caused because it acts at a distance and material causes were believed always to work by contact, leaving God – a "god of the gaps" – as the only possible cause. But is today's evolutionary argument – which is often treated as fatal not just to Christianity but to religion generally – actually any stronger?
This would be the place to provide a summary of the argument, not only to expose its shortcomings but also to attribute it to someone more specific than "today's anti-god warriors." She's again too kind to do so -- too kind to her own slapdash.

Midgley's slapdash dashes over to Biblical literalism, which
is also a spiritual phenomenon, a message felt in the heart. Despite its confusions, it involves a genuine response to the real wisdom which can also be found in the Bible. Serious attempts to answer it need, therefore, to acknowledge that wisdom. They must try to show ways of combining it with more modern thinking.
Suppose the embrace of Biblical literalism is, as Midgely claims, "genuine." So what? The 9/11 hijackers were also manifestly "genuine;" BP's senior management was "genuine" in its ambitions to conduct profitable oil extraction with its Deepwater Horizon project; every teenager in the thrall of first love is nothing if not not "genuine;" genuineness is not a virtue. Genuineness is often the problem.

As for "ways of combining ... the wisdom which can be found in the Bible ... with more modern thinking," these are almost too obvious and abundant: literature, history, philosophy, the arts. These are names for well-established disciplines through which people approach questions relevant to the human condition, and they've drawn on Biblical sources for as long as Biblical sources have existed. This approach has thrived at least from The Consolation of Philosophy to A Serious Man.

It takes a lot of work to miss this way of combining modernity with the wisdom of the past, but Mary Midgley has done the work.

(via Ophelia Benson)

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