Gary Gutting is a philosophy professor at the University of Notre Dame, and has been interviewing various academics about religion at his website The Stone at The New York Times. Interviewees have included Alvin “I Haz True Beliefs” Plantinga and my friend the philosopher Philip Kitcher. This week Gutting’s subject is the philosopher of science Michael Ruse, now at Florida State University. The introductory notes say that Ruse is about to publish a book, Atheism: What Everyone Needs to Know, which, according to Amazon, will appear in January of next year. I can’t say I’m looking forward it, for Ruse is a very faith-friendly atheist, and I’ve crossed swords with him a number of times. I’m not sure he’s the best person to define atheism for the general reader.
Ruse is an odd duck, for it’s hard to pin him down on what he thinks about things. In other words, he tends to waffle a lot. That shows up in his new interview with Gutting, “Does evolution explain religious beliefs?“. Ruse admits, at the end, that he often takes positions either derived from his religious upbringing, or simply out of perverseness—to squabble with his nemesis Richard Dawkins. These motivations partly explain Ruse’s lack of consistency. (When did Dawkins become Satan, by the way?) But they aren’t good motivations for philosophical discourse.
It’s a long interview, so I’ll just note a few things that intrigued me:
1. The fundamental question of metaphysics. Ruse says this:
So with the world. I think the machine metaphor rules out an answer to what Martin Heidegger called the “fundamental question of metaphysics”: Why is there something rather than nothing? Unlike Wittgenstein, I think it is a genuine question, but not one answerable by modern science.
Coming now to my own field of evolutionary biology, I see some questions that it simply doesn’t ask but that can be asked and answered by other areas of science. I think here about the natural origins of the universe and the Big Bang theory. I see some questions that it doesn’t ask and that neither it nor any other science can answer. One such question is why there is something rather than nothing, or if you like why ultimately there are material substances from which organisms are formed.
Of course one could say either “We don’t know,” (the honest answer) or “God did it” (the dishonest answer) or “‘Nothing’ is unstable” (a tentative scientific answer, depending on your definition of “nothing.”) If by “nothing” you mean “the quantum vacuum of empty space,” then the question is not beyond science. But to say that God is a rational answer to that question is simply wrong. For then then another question naturally arises, “Well, if God did it, where did God come from? What was he doing before he created the universe?” Ruse regards this as a nonsensical question (GG is Gutting, MR is Ruse):
G.G.: What do you think of Richard Dawkins’s argument that, in any case, God won’t do as an ultimate explanation of the universe? His point is that complexity requires explanation — the whole idea of evolution by natural selection is to explain the origin of complex life-forms from less complex life-forms. But a creator God — with enormous knowledge and power — would have to be at least as complex as the universe he creates. Such a creator would require explanation by something else and so couldn’t explain, for example, why there’s something rather than nothing.
M.R.: Like every first-year undergraduate in philosophy, Dawkins thinks he can put to rest the causal argument for God’s existence. If God caused the world, then what caused God? Of course the great philosophers, Anselm and Aquinas particularly, are way ahead of him here. They know that the only way to stop the regression is by making God something that needs no cause. He must be a necessary being. This means that God is not part of the regular causal chain but in some sense orthogonal to it. He is what keeps the whole business going, past, present and future, and is the explanation of why there is something rather than nothing. Also God is totally simple, and I don’t see why complexity should not arise out of this, just as it does in mathematics and science from very simple premises.
Traditionally, God’s necessity is not logical necessity but some kind of metaphysical necessity, or aseity. Unlike Hume, I don’t think this is a silly or incoherent idea, any more than I think mathematical Platonism is silly or incoherent. As it happens, I am not a mathematical Platonist, and I do have conceptual difficulties with the idea of metaphysical necessity. So in the end, I am not sure that the Christian God idea flies, but I want to extend to Christians the courtesy of arguing against what they actually believe, rather than begin and end with the polemical parody of what Dawkins calls “the God delusion.”
I don’t usually impute psychological motivations to people, as I can’t know what’s in their heads, but Ruse has made it pretty clear over the years that his animus towards Dawkins is motivated largely by jealousy. That’s because he repeatedly refers to Dawkins’s huge book sales in comparison to Ruse’s fairly tepid sales. But there are other reasons, as we’ll see below.
But let’s leave motivations aside, for what’s important here are the claims. And I think Ruse’s snark towards Dawkins is unwarranted. It seems to me a perfectly valid question to ask where God came from, nor do I think that question is answered definitively by saying, “Well, God, by definition, doesn’t need a cause.” One could just as well say that “The cosmos, which produces multiple universes, was always there, and it by definition didn’t need a cause.”
And I’d need to be convinced that God’s existence is a metaphysical “necessity.” Where does that come from?? It seems to me perfectly reasonable to ask: “If there were a Big Bodiless Mind hanging around eternally before he actually did anything, where that Bodiless Mind came from?”
Finally, where on earth did Ruse get the idea that “God is totally simple”? Yes, some theologians have said that, but I don’t buy it. Making an analogy between god and mathematics doesn’t settle the issue. How is a bodiless mind able to create a universe “simple”? And how can God twiddle every electron, know everyone’s thoughts, see the future, and uphold everything, by being “simple”? The answer must surely involve theological wordplay.
What is odd about Ruse is that he doesn’t seem to believe any of this stuff, but is compelled to tell Christians why and how they should believe it. He is, in other words, constantly making what reader Sastra calls “The Little People Argument”, the one that goes: “I’m smart enough to see through this stuff, but you aren’t, so if you’re determined to believe it, allow me to give you some philosophical rationales.” That is what bothers me most about Ruse’s writings. He rarely argues against what Christians believe when he’s talking to them; rather, he’s telling them how they can find philosophical grounding to believe what they find comforting. It’s especially disturbing since he sees much of religion as dysfunctional.
But is it really a courtesy to tell Christians how to justify beliefs that Ruse considers fallacious, like “the Christian God idea flying”? Isn’t it the job of a philosopher to point out people’s fallacious thinking rather than give them reasons—reasons that the philosopher himself rejects—to believe in superstition? Ruse, it seems, wants people on both sides of the fence to like him.
2. Theodicy. The same goes for suffering. First Ruse rejects theodicy (the theological explanation for why an omnipotent, omniscient and loving god permits suffering), but then says he has “good theological reasons” for the unwarranted suffering that, to me, makes the entire idea of the Christian god untenable:
M.R.: Although in some philosophy of religion circles it is now thought that we can counter the argument from evil, I don’t think this is so. More than that, I don’t want it to be so. I don’t want an argument that convinces me that the death under the guillotine of Sophie Scholl (one of the leaders of the White Rose group opposed to the Nazis) or of Anne Frank in Bergen-Belsen ultimately contributes to the greater good. If my eternal salvation depends on the deaths of these two young women, then forget it.
So Ruse thinks the argument against the Christian God from evil is unassailable, right? But no, for he continues:
This said, I have never really thought that the pains brought on by the evolutionary process, in particular the struggle for survival and reproduction, much affect the Christian conception of God. For all of Voltaire’s devastating wit in “Candide,” I am a bit of a Leibnizian on these matters. If God is to do everything through unbroken law, and I can think of good theological reasons why this should be so, then pain and suffering are part of it all. Paradoxically and humorously I am with Dawkins here. He argues that the only way naturally you can get the design-like features of organisms — the hand and the eye — is through evolution by natural selection, brought on by the struggle. Other mechanisms just don’t work. So God is off the hook.
What? It’s humorous to agree with Dawkins? One could make a statement like that only if you think that everything Dawkins says is a priori wrong, so it seems funny to agree with him.
But that aside, Ruse’s argument doesn’t hold water. First of all, the Christian God didn’t do everything through unbroken law. I call to your attention Jesus and his miracles, as well as many other violations of “unbroken law”—including God’s intervention in evolution, which is what most evolution-accepting Americans believe. So, for most believers, God clearly didn’t do everything through unbroken law. But even if he did, one can rightly ask, “Why?” What’s the advantage of God not preventing unnecessary suffering if he’s able to do so? Is God’s refusal to interfere because maintaining “unbroken natural law” is a huge but mysterious good that outweighs all the suffering of sentient creatures? If that’s the claim, then philosophers need to explain it. What’s so great about unbroken natural law?
For a good refutation of the “God off the hook” claim of Ruse, read the philosopher Herman Philipse’s God in the Age of Science? A Critique of Religious Reason. It’s the best attack on theism I know, and though it’s occasionally a hard slog, it’s well worth it. I can’t recommend it highly enough, and if a theist says he/she hasn’t read it, you can rightly say, “Well, then, you can’t bash atheism, because you haven’t dealt with Its Best Arguments.”
So Ruse doesn’t accept theodicy, but then says that Christians can go ahead and accept it.
3. Where does religion come from? Ruse does this again with the “evolutionary byproduct” theory of religion: that religion may just be a spandrel piggybacking on evolved tendencies. It’s likely that that’s true, but doesn’t that argue, then, against the reality of God? Ruse again plays both ends against the middle:
G.G.: Of course, evolutionary explanations are empirically well established on the biological level. But is the same true on the level of social and cultural life, especially among humans?
M.R.: I include society and culture here although I would qualify what I say. I don’t see being a Nazi as very adaptive, but I would say that the things that led to being a Nazi — for instance being open to indoctrination as a child — have adaptive significance. I would say the same of religion. The biologist Edward O. Wilson thinks that religion is adaptive because it promotes bonding and he might be right. But it can go biologically haywire, as in the case of the Shakers, whose religious prohibition on procreation had an adaptive value of precisely zero.
So it is true that in a sense I see all knowledge, including claims about religious knowledge, as being relative to evolutionary ends. The upshot is that I don’t dismiss religious beliefs even though they ultimately can be explained by evolution. I think everything can! I wouldn’t dismiss religious beliefs even if you could show me that they are just a byproduct of adaptation, as I think Darwin himself thought. It is as plausible that my love of Mozart’s operas is a byproduct of adaptation, but it doesn’t make them any the less beautiful and meaningful. I think you have to judge religion on its merits.
Mozart’s operas are not the same thing as religious beliefs. Yes, they are beautiful; and religious ceremonies, or even some of religion’s moral strictures, can be beautiful as well. Certainly much of the world’s best art is imbued with religion. But that doesn’t mean that God is real or that religion’s existence claims are true! If religion, to be meaningful, must be true—that is, for Christianity there must be a personal God, that he must have sent Jesus to Earth, who then did miracles, and that Jesus died and was resurrected to save us from sin—then its “merits” involve knowing whether those claims are true. As an atheist, Ruse, I presume, would deem them untrue. His equating religion with Mozart is bizarre, and unworthy of a rigorous philosopher. If he finds Mozart beautiful, than that is his opinion: a subjective truth. But many of religion’s claims involve objective truths.
4. Why coddle religion if you reject it? There’s some similar waffling about morality, but you can read that for yourself. What I want to end with is Ruse’s answer when Gutting asks him the really important question: why does Ruse defend religion if he’s an atheist? Pay attention to his answer:
G.G.: There seems to be a tension in your thinking about religion. You aren’t yourself a believer, but you spend a great deal of time defending belief against its critics.
M.R.: People often accuse me of being contradictory, if not of outright hypocrisy. I won’t say I accept the ontological argument for the existence of God — the argument that derives God’s existence from his essence — but I do like it (it is so clever) and I am prepared to stand up for it when Dawkins dismisses it with scorn rather than good reasons. In part this is a turf war. I am a professional philosopher. I admire immensely thinkers like Anselm and Descartes and am proud to be one of them, however minor and inadequate in comparison. I am standing up for my own. In part, this is political. Religion is a big thing in America, and often not a very good big thing. I don’t think you are going to counter the bad just by going over the top, like in the Battle of the Somme. I think you have to reach out over no-man’s land to the trenches on the other side and see where we can agree and hope to move forward.
I should say that my Quaker childhood — as in everything I do and think — is tremendously important here. I grew up surrounded by gentle, loving (and very intelligent) Christians. I never forget that. Finally, I just don’t like bad arguments. In my case, I think I can offer good arguments against the existence of the Christian God. I don’t need the inadequate and faulty. In “Murder in the Cathedral,” T.S. Eliot has Thomas à Becket say, “The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason.” Amen.
Note that Ruse stands up FOR the ontological argument, which is a dumb argument for God if I’ve ever seen one, simply because Dawkins dimisses it! Ruse dislikes the man so much that he will argue for what he doesn’t believe simply to oppose what Dawkins thinks.
And really, a “turf war”? What is that about? Granted, philosophers do tend to guard their turf and dismiss those who do philosophy because they don’t have Ph.Ds in that area (e.g., Massimo Pigliucci), but I find that whole attitude ridiculous. I can learn evolution from Dennett and from Philip Kitcher, and they are philosophers. Do I say they have no right to pronounce on consciousness, on evolutionary psychology, or on intelligent design, simply because they don’t have Ph.Ds in biology? Hell, no! And philosophy, which began in ancient Greece as an avocation of citizens, not academic philosophers, should be especially wary of saying that laypeople have no right to make philosophical pronouncements.
Ruse also asserts that accommodationism is the way to reach the faithful. Well, that hasn’t worked, has it? And sure, you can be nice to believers and not mock them (to each his own); but I find it unconscionable to actually tell believers how they can reconcile religion with science if you find those arguments personally unacceptable. It’s a form of intellectual dishonesty, and it’s condescending. But that has always been Ruse’s way. Let me say that again: if you try to bring believers to science by giving them arguments that you yourself reject, you are being intellectually dishonest. You are lying for Darwin.
As for one’s upbringing helping form one’s views—in Ruse’s case, making him confect arguments for Christianity he doesn’t accept himself—that itself is a bad tactic. One should overcome one’s childhood if it conditioned you to respect what’s false. If as Ruse claims, he “can offer good arguments against the existence of the Christian God,” and if he “doesn’t need the inadequate and faulty,” then why does he write book after book telling Christians why it’s okay to believe?
Riddle me that, readers.