Kitcher, Living With Darwin

I just finished reading Philip Kitcher’s Living With Darwin, and let me say that if you are going to read just one book on the God vs. science controversies, skip over Dawkins and Hitchens and read this one. The first four chapters explain, patiently and persuasively, what is wrong with intelligent design “theories” and why they don’t really provide a substantive alternative to Darwinism. The true gem, though, is chapter 5, where Kitcher very sympathetically explores what motivates some of us to try to hold onto religion despite the apparent success of Darwinism, and despite all the historical evidence which suggests (I would say “proves”)that the Bible really doesn’t convey more than a fascinating and powerful ancient mythology. The deep question: is there anything religion can provide, once providence and purpose are banished from the universe? His answer is a thoughtful and nuanced “yes,” though perhaps not one that will satisfy most religious folks.

(That’s all from me for a few days. I’ll be back to blogging after 8/18.)


15 thoughts on “Kitcher, Living With Darwin

  1. Kleiner

    I have not read this book, so cannot comment on it. But I think this debate is perennially distorted, on all sides. “Intellgent design” and “darwinism” both too often serve as umbrella terms which are not clearly defined.

    On the one hand, “intelligent design” can mean a great number of things. In the U.S. debate, it is often a catchword for literalist biblical readings (something like “young earth creationism”). To my mind, young earth creationism is simply not a serious view. But not all who think that the cosmos is a “divine project” infused with teleological significance have to hold that view.

    On the other hand, “darwinism” or evolutionary theory is also not a monolithic view. Pope JPII remarked that evolution is “more than a hypothesis”, but that we need to be mindful of what it demonstrates (or what science in general is capable of demonstrating). It cannot answer the first question of philosophy – ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’
    I’ll need to read the book but, in short, I think any claim that Darwinism has somehow “banished” providence and purpose has a spurious understanding of either Darwinism, teleology, or both.

    In fact, I think one can hold a creationist/teleological view and not be in conflict with evolutionary theory. Properly understood, these need not be either-ors. More fundamentally, I would argue (with Aquinas and with JPII, see Fides et Raio) that there is no conflict between faith and reason – no conflict between true theology and true science.


  2. Kleiner

    Given that particular definition of mythology, I don’t disagree with your claims that Christianity is anti-mythological.
    And I also resist the “demythologizing” movement (see Bultmann). I reject his claim that the miracle stories are “just myths” (by which he means someting like ‘non-realities’ or ‘non-events’). Judaism and Christianity are distinctive in that their religions are historical.

    But, on a broader definition of “myth”, I don’t so much mind the “charge” that Christianity is a myth. If by “myth” we just mean a story about beginnings, middles, and ends — well then Christianity is a myth. A still atheist C.S. Lewis argued to his Catholic friend Tolkien that “Christianity is just a myth”. Tolkien’s response? – “Yes, it is a myth. It just happens to be a true one.”

    That does not mean that we should read the Bible as literal history, or as a collection of facts. Just as there are “many senses of being” (Aristotle) there are also “many senses of truth” (Heidegger). Most disputes about the Bible are go nowhere debates, because people on almost all sides insist on reading the Bible according to only one model of disclosure/thinking.


  3. Kleiner

    Yes, some of these “lightning events” are necessary. If (as in that extremely poorly done documentary by the Titanic guy), Christ’s body was found, then Christianity is cooked. The birth and resurrection of Christ have to be real events in order for Christianity’s salvific economy to work. If one could prove that these were not real events, there would be no reason to be a Christian.

    But proving this proves to be much more difficult than some naturalists might prefer. The Jesus Seminar/historical Jesus camp has been pretty well destroyed, I think, by William Lane Craig. He also presents very compelling historical arguments for the physical resurrection. I saw him debate while I was at Boston College and I felt sorry for his opponent.


  4. Kleiner

    The Philosophy Club will be holding a debate on the problem of evil (the problem of suffering) at the start of the semester. Date/time/place are to be determined, but we’ll announce it here. Dr. Huenemann, Dr. Sherlock, and I will each make a short presentation which will be followed by discussion.
    Anyway, the problem of suffering/evil is far and away the most serious problem for theism and is the best argument atheists have.


  5. Huenemann Post author

    Where are some good discussions of the historical veracity of the Bible? I have to confess that my default opinion of it is very much the same as my opinion of Homer’s Iliad. Here we find an old book that describes many wonderful and fantastic things, but no one should believe it has much in the way of historical veracity. There was a Trojan war, perhaps, but that’s about it. Similarly, so far as I know, we don’t even have any independent historical evidence of the Jews being in Egypt, let alone the existence of Moses or the parting of the Red Sea. Instead, I would read the Iliad and the Bible in the same way — as marvelous and captivating books which needn’t be factually true in order to be affecting.

    Hume: “Here then we are first to consider a book, presented to us by a barbarous and ignorant people, written in an age when they were still more barbarous [ouch!], and in all probability long after the facts which it relates, corroborated by no concurring testimony, and resembling those fabulous accounts, which every nation gives of its origin. Upon reading this book, we find it full of prodigies and miracles …. I desire any one to lay his hand upon his heart, and after serious consideration declare, whether he thinks that the falsehood of such a book, supported by such a testimony, would be more extraordinary and miraculous that all the miracles it relates….”

    As you’d guess, I’m far more sympathetic to Bultmann than you two are. And I’m surprised more Christians aren’t more sympathetic. If one truly hangs one’s faith on the condition that the corpse of Jesus never be found — well, I don’t know what follows, but it seems to me both funny and wide-open for disappointment. Would you then read the chapter on love in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians and say, “Well, sounds nice, but it’s all baloney since we found Jesus’s body”? There is a lot of power in Christianity, but none of it is linked necessarily to events 2000 years ago.


  6. Mike

    I find the historical question pretty pointless since it shares all the ambiguities of anything thousands of years removed. At least if you’re dealing with a religion like Mormonism, you can be more hopeful that contrary evidence hasn’t been completely squelched (yet). To borrow a phrase, it also seems a “little too convenient that all of the major miracles happened a long time ago”. (Lessing’s ugly broad ditch?)

    Most disturbing to me though is a lack of any personal contemporary evidence to suggest that Christianity has a positive impact on behavior. The devout are way too trusting of people they should be skeptical of and the people who are willing to abuse the belief system (from within) are having a heyday. The “rational” people inside the religion tend to (inadvertently?) buttress the beliefs of the uncritically devout. I can only support a non-biblical story of who should be trusted and why. Also, there are way too many ethical issues with ‘christian’ communicative methods (esp. evangelism) that are more or less coercive.

    ahh church, one of many places where repetition is king and crazy ideas are re-enforced week after week. Combine that with how groups ordinarily re-enforce thinking and radical individualism and even the psychological craziness associated with isolation start to look quite appealing. Of course those aren’t the only options…

    oh, there is also that minor problem with contraception.


  7. Kleiner

    Not quite sure how to respond to Mike. On the moral failings of Christians I would simply say that Christians don’t claim to be saints, they acknowledge that they are sinners. Beyond that, his mini-rant does not correspond to the kind of Christianity that I know. I wonder if Mike’s mind is simply – and prematurely – made up on these matters.
    By the way, aren’t there any atheists around here who think that theism is at least rational? William Rowe (a well respected atheist philosopher who did philosophy of religion at Purdue) is a good person to read — he is not a theist, but does not think it is irrational to be so.

    To Huenemann’s post:
    – I don’t think that Christians need insist that the whole Bible be read as history (in the modern sense of that term). I’m no Biblical literalist.
    – What Paul says about love is compelling enough that even atheists turn to Cor for wedding readings. But Christianity is not merely a moral theory. It is a salvific story. And the Christian economy of salvation depends upon God entering history in a particular way (through a human birth, a life, a witness, and a passion that culminates on the cross). If Christ was not crucified, then the salvific story is bunk. I guess we could read the NT like we read Aesop’s fables, but it would totally lose its religious (salvific) meaning.

    – What to read? Read some William Lane Craig. Some of his debate transcripts are on the web.
    Two books of his come to mind:
    – “Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics”. A nice book that covers lots of topics.
    – “Jesus’ Resurrection: Fact or Figment?: A Debate Between William Lane Craig and Gerd Ludemann”. This is a spin off of the lecture I heard at Boston College. It is generally about the possibility (and historical evidence for) miracles, though it specifically takes up the resurrection.

    Perhaps the Philosophy Club might be interested in reading one of these books?


  8. Mike

    I don’t actually see any problems with more benign forms of theism or even in some less benign forms of theism that simply depend on God to ensure justice. I’d hate to be confused with criticizing those forms. If my view is premature I’m thinking it would take a whole other life to make it ‘mature’ and I don’t really have that sort of interest.

    I was trying to point out a more systemic problem than just criticize typical problems with human behavior. People need a very particular environment to flourish. “Christians … acknowledge they are sinners” is no way to defend a system of thought. You might point out Christian teaching that is directly in contrast to some of the things I’ve said and the positives that it’s produced, or something like that?

    I’ve read some William Lane Craig too, unfortunately.


  9. Kleiner

    I didn’t intend the “Christians acknowledge they are sinners” as some kind of total defense of Christianity as such. I mentioned it just to point out that it should not be surprising that Christians fall into the same traps (greed, vice, pride, deception) as everyone else. As such, self-righteousness is not becoming for anyone, Christian or not.

    I was not sure how else to respond to your post. I don’t think some kind of utilitarian “positives produced” evaluation is the sort of thing that would prove anything either way. Christianity does not claim that it will save the world through the works of men – in fact, it predicts that things are going to get much worse rather than better. That said, one could produce any number of personal accounts about how their lives were changed in positive ways by conversion and a lived Christian life.

    Who do “Christians” (a pretty broad stroke there) trust who they should not? Who are the “rational people” who waste their energy buttressing the allegedly silly beliefs of the “uncritally devout”? I won’t come to the defense of all evangelical methods, but are all Christians guilty here?

    And – here is a whole other topic – is contraception obviously morally permissible? It might be permissible, but I hardly think it is obviously so. For all the Nietzschians on this blog who might subscribe to his “yes saying” – one could argue that contraception is at bottom a kind of “no-saying” since it says no to the proper nature of man, woman, and sexuality. In that sense, one might argue that it is profoundly anti-woman. (Read JPII’s Theology of the Body, which contains, I think, one of the best respsonses to Nietzsche around – one that grants the profundity of some of his critique, but recognizes that authentic Christianity (which Nz does not present) does not fall prey to it).


  10. Mike

    Let’s just take William Lane Craig as an example of the ‘rational people’ (christians) I’m referring to.

    Craig associates himself with Campus Crusade for Christ. I worked for a summer at their world headquarters. I had to fight to evangelize with them in a way that I would consider moral. Maybe they are getting better but at least at the time they left a lot to be desired. CS Lewis is the most often referenced ‘rational person’ to buttress a not very critical faith. I’ve read a lot of his writings although I’ve never read anything in his real area of expertise (funny how that is). Anyhow, his drinking/pipe-smoking form of Anglicanism is a far cry from evangelical mores but that doesn’t keep them and a lot of other groups from using him as the defender of their (quite different in-practice) faith.

    My grandma’s form of catholicism is cooler than my parents’ form of evangelicalism but they’ve basically ignored her example through ‘good intentions’ with their mostly biblicist faith. I don’t doubt their sincerity which is why the result is more of a problem to me in regard to the system.

    I know I barely touched on some of the other points you raised. Maybe later. It would take me forever to get through example after example of what I’m trying to say. But probably none of this makes progress.


  11. Kleiner

    So some Christians use what you see as immoral means of evangelization. You won’t get much of an argument from me there. I don’t know if Craig’s association with some of those groups constitutes an endorsement of everything they do. All I know of Craig is his scholarly work, and I think he is sharp as a tack.

    I happen to like CS Lewis a lot, I hardly think he is an uncritical Christian. Is he used, and perhaps simplified, by some? Sure. I don’t think that proves anything other than something like ‘there are some non-critical Christians who act like they are critical but really are not’.

    Is that shocking to anyone? And would I have any more difficult time finding a band of “uncritially devout” atheists, agnostics, marxists, skeptics, whatever? I don’t think so.

    I don’t know your parents, so I won’t comment on them. But I agree that most Evangelicals have very good intentions, their “heart is in the right place”. But I don’t think it is just a “results” issue. There is some theological confusion in the Evangelical movement about the nature of the church, the nature of conversion, and how we are related to Christ that leads them to kinds of proselytizing activities that I don’t agree with. I think the Catholics have a much better account of these things, which seems to be your experience with your Grandma.


  12. Mike

    There are tons of athiests/agnostics/skeptics/theists etc that don’t define their communities in anything near the ways a lot of christians do and most aren’t actively promoting their ‘faith’. The ones I know are just busy with other things. I’m the main one who wastes my time ranting on philosophy blogs.

    If you don’t fight it, the evangelical meme is a lot stronger than a lot of the others and it recognizes no borders in denominations.


  13. Kleiner

    I’m glad you are wasting your time. But I think there are more atheists promoting their “faith” than you think. I should know – I used to be one! :)


  14. Huenemann Post author

    I’ve been tossing around Kleiner’s query — “By the way, aren’t there any atheists around here who think that theism is at least rational?” — in my mind, and I think my view is that theism is not rational. But I don’t think this is an objection to theism. Theists have to take some of their fundamental beliefs as more than hypotheses, and yet not in any way demonstrable. These beliefs are at least arational — meaning, there is nothing to be said on their behalf by reasoned inference. Maybe they’re even irrational, depending on one’s views about the trinity, the incarnation, virgin birth, etc. Fundamentally, it is the difference between Athens and Jerusalem: Christians must ground their faith on something other than reason and natural experience. Maybe we’re all in that boat to some degree, but the ‘Athenians’ ought to regard their tenets of faith as hypotheses, always open to revision. Can a theist do the same?


  15. Kleiner

    I, for one, think one can be a citizen of both Athens and Jerusalem. Of course the starting point for the citizen of Athens and the citizen of Jerusalem are different, but I am not at all convinced that the end point must be different. For the person with “dual citizenship”, there will be tension and paradox, but not contradiction.

    That said, I do not want to minimize the tensions. This is all already in Plato. Socrates rejects the traditional piety of his contemporaries and attempts to replace it with a philosophical piety. This is what he is doing in both the ‘Apology’ and the ‘Republic’. The battle between philosophy and poetry in the ‘Republic’ is well known. What is really going on there is a battle between “sacred tradition” (which is inherited) and philosophy (which calls into question the poets and sages of the sacred tradition).

    Socrates, I think, ends up demanding that philosophy be absolutely autonomous. In the ‘Republic’ he wipes away all divine starting points (the foundation of the old city) and starts with reason alone. The ideal state will have no divine inheritance (in fact, its inheritance will be a “noble lie” made by men, necessary says Socrates to replace the old divine inheritance).

    So, can the Christian regard the tenets of faith as “hypotheses” – can he call them into question? In a sense, the answer has to be no. The Christian has a divine inheritance (a sacred tradition delivered over by the universal or *catholic* Church). As such, philosophy cannot be given absolute autonomy. Augustine and Kierkegaard both identify why – the Greeks can, at times, be too optimistic about our reason, and it leads to what Kierkegaard calls “naivety”. Plato’s error (say, in the Republic where he gives philosophy radical autonomy) is to conflate ignorance and sin. Kierkegaard recognizes that Plato is wrong – we can know something is wrong and still do it (Plato rejects that possibility). This active suppression of the truth is what Kierkegaard calls “sickness unto death”. Plato’s error is to forget the problem of the will (weakness of will or sin).

    Does this make the Christian anti-philosophical? It depends on what you mean by philosophy. If philosophy demands a kind of radical autonomy, then the Christian cannot be a philosopher. Philosophy must be a handmaiden. So Christian piety will be different than the piety of the autonomous philosopher. The Christian thinker will have to cleave to sacred tradition – to the City of God (the Church) for his principle formation.

    But I don’t think this means that philosophy (or more generally natural reason) are to be rejected. Quite the contrary, in fact. I think Hellenism completes the deposit of biblical faith. Pope Benedict made just this point a few months ago (in the talk that made such a fuss with some Muslims). It is worth quoting at some length (I add some remarks of my own).

    “I believe that here we can see the profound harmony between what is Greek in the best sense of the word and the biblical understanding of faith in God.” Far from excluding or minimizing philosophy (the Greek), rather he thinks that when Biblical faith encounters “the best of Greek thought” there is a “mutual enrichment”. He completely rejects the movement to “sunder the synthesis between the Greek spirit and the Christian spirit”. Doing so would “gives rise to positions which clearly approach those of Ibn Hazn and might even lead to the image of a capricious God, who is not even bound to truth and goodness.” (Kierkegaard flirts dangerously with this). The point that raised such a fuss was that God is not absolutely transcendent (to the point that he is beyond reason) and that radical muslim theology is wrongheaded insofar as it thinks that God’s will is not “bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality.”

    “As opposed to this, the faith of the Church has always insisted that between God and us, between his eternal Creator Spirit and our created reason there exists a real analogy, in which unlikeness remains infinitely greater than likeness, yet not to the point of abolishing analogy and its language (cf. Lateran IV). God does not become more divine when we push him away from us in a sheer, impenetrable voluntarism; rather, the truly divine God is the God who has revealed himself as logos and, as logos, has acted and continues to act lovingly on our behalf. Certainly, love transcends knowledge and is thereby capable of perceiving more than thought alone (cf. Eph 3:19); nonetheless it continues to be love of the God who is logos. Consequently, Christian worship is worship in harmony with the eternal Word and with our reason (cf. Rom 12:1).”

    [By the way, thanks to my old friends from BC for much of this, especially Graham. We had just this discussion some months ago that has percolated in my mind ever since. I must admit that now I am not sure which thoughts were mine and which his).



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