Lest you think that the Templeton Foundation is moving steadily away from woo and towards real science, have a look at this week’s Big Questions Online, where religious apologetics and obfuscation rub elbows with theistic evolution. First up is Mark Vernon, he of the Holy Rabbit Parody, who mangles physics in an attempt to show the real nature of God:
But where does that leave God? Subject to time too. God’s perfect knowledge of the universe is not absolute omniscience but current omniscience: God knows about what exists, not about what doesn’t yet exist.
It is a mark of Templeton’s desperation—or bad judgment—that they pay this man good money to publish such dumb apologetics about science and religion.
Right next door, Roger Scruton goes all anti-scientistic and apophatic, moving seamlessly from our love of music and literature to Jebus.
[Vladimir Jankélévitc] is right that something can be meaningful, even though its meaning eludes all attempts to put it into words. Fauré’s F sharp Ballade is an example: so is the smile on the face of the Mona Lisa; so is the evening sunlight on the hill behind my house. Wordsworth would describe such experiences as “intimations,” which is fair enough, provided you don’t add (as he did) further and better particulars. Anybody who goes through life with open mind and open heart will encounter these moments of revelation, moments that are saturated with meaning, but whose meaning cannot be put into words. These moments are precious to us. When they occur it is as though, on the winding ill-lit stairway of our life, we suddenly come across a window, through which we catch sight of another and brighter world — a world to which we belong but which we cannot enter. . .
Like my philosophical predecessors, I want to describe that world beyond the window, even though I know that it cannot be described but only revealed. I am not alone in thinking that world to be real and important. But there are many who dismiss it as an unscientific fiction. And people of this scientistic cast of mind are disagreeable to me. Their nerdish conviction that facts alone can signify, and that the “transcendental” and the eternal are nothing but words, mark them out as incomplete. There is an aspect of the human condition that is denied to them. . .
But a question troubles me as I am sure it troubles you. What do our moments of revelation have to do with the ultimate questions? When science comes to a halt, at those principles and conditions from which explanation begins, does the view from that window supply what science lacks? Do our moments of revelation point to the cause of the world?
When I don’t think about it, the answer seems clear. Yes, there is more to the world than the system of causes, for the world has a meaning and that meaning is revealed. But no, there is no path, not even this one, to the cause of the world: for that whereof we cannot speak, we must consign to silence — as Aquinas did.
Jebus is floating around in there somewhere, but about that we may not speak.
But to me the worst piece—because it involves co-opting evolutionary biology for religious causes—is the essay by Simon Conway Morris, “The persistent paradox of human uniqueness.”
Conway Morris is of course a highly respected paleontologist whose analysis of the Burgess Shale fauna gave unique insights into early metazoan life. But his love of Jebus—he’s a Roman Catholic—has driven him off the rails, and he’s spending the latter part of his career trying to show two things: a. humans are a unique product of evolution, qualitatively different from any other animal, including other apes, and b. this uniqueness was instilled in us by God, who tweaked evolution to make the appearance of Homo jebensis an inevitability.
Curiously, he argues for the inevitability of humans by showing examples of evolutionary convergence: those cases in which similar features arise in unrelated taxa. Some examples are the vertebrate and cephalopod eye, the convergent appearance of some marsupials and their placental equivalent (“moles” for example), and the similar appearance of New World cacti and Old World euphorbs. (I give examples of these in WEIT).
For Conway Morris, this convergence shows that evolution follows inevitable paths. But that’s a curious argument to use for the “inevitability” of humans which, after all, arose only once. If humanoid intelligence (and, by extension, our ability to apprehend and worship a god) was so inevitable, why did it evolve only a single time? I won’t belabor my critique of the “convergence” argument for human inevitability, for it’s laid out in greater detail my New Republic essay, “Seeing and believing.”
Well, it’s one thing to say, as the Catholic Church does, that humans evolved like other creatures, but differ critically in the possession of a soul. That’s bad enough, since there’s no evidence of a soul that is separate from the human brain and that lives on after corporeal death. But it’s another thing to claim, as Conway Morris seems to do in his piece, that our mentality and brain morphology are separated by an unbridgeable gap from those of our closest “relatives” (I’m not sure, actually, that Conway Morris sees living apes as our “relatives” if the gap between us is unbridgeable by evolution.)
After a long, boring, and poorly-written historical introduction—Conway Morris seems to have aspirations to write like his erstwhile nemesis Steve Gould, but lacks the equipment—the author gets down to business:
As the ever-growing flood of scientific data first undercuts the theological bank before the citadel itself falls to ruin, so the proposal that humans are unique was first quaint, is now absurd. Surely the twin strands of archaeology and animal behavior have finally erased the differences? Australopithecus morphs into Homo. New Caledonian crows craft tools far more complex than anything from chimp culture. So where’s the problem?
All cut and dried. Except that the paradox of human uniqueness shows no signs of dissipating. Think of the Australian philosopher David Stove’s intelligent, acerbic and hugely entertaining Darwinian Fairytales. Here, in a loosely connected set of essays, he argues that all that makes us human falls far beyond any Darwinian explanation. Yet Stove was no closet creationist. As an atheist, his attacks on religion, and much else besides, are bracing stuff. In his essay What is wrong with our thoughts, Stove announces that as soon as humans attempt “any depth or generality of thought, they go mad almost infallibly. The vast majority, of course, adopt the local religious madness … But the more powerful minds will, equally infallibly, fall into the worship of some intelligent and dangerous lunatic, such as Plato … or Marx.”
And then Conway Morris argues that there seems to be an evolutionary firewall between ourselves and other species, and not one that merely involves our possession of a soul (in which he presumably believes). It is an evolutionary gap in the evolution of mind and mentality. I quote in extenso:
Nevertheless where Stove sees embodied lunacy, I see something far stranger and more creative. From whatever perspective you prefer to view the problem, it still underlines our sheer uniqueness. The paper-thin differences that separate us from such animals as apes, dolphins, crows, parrots and quite possibly octopi look tenuous to a degree — but there remains an impenetrable wall. Both briefly (Johan Bolhuis and Clive Wynne in Nature 458, 832-833; 2009) and at length (Derek Penn, Keith Holyoak and Daniel Povinelli in Behavioral and Brain Sciences 31, 109-178; 2008) have queried whether the continuum that should link the human mind to the rest of creation, be it phyletically to the ape or convergently to the crow, entails a serious delusion. Like Mivart, none of these researchers doubt either the facts of evolution or the undoubted mental capacities of animals. But do we see eye to eye? Tantalizingly close to be sure, but at each and every turn somehow the animal key never quite fits the human lock.
And this is not so surprising. Even compared to the primates our brains show significant differences, and not just in terms of size. But — and this is the crucial point — how these neurological differences translate into the emergence of new cognitive worlds is not obscure, it is entirely opaque. And this is a point that Mivart would have saluted. Mivart’s insistence that evolution must not be denied its metaphysical context earns as much scoffing now as it did in the time of Huxley and Darwin. Yet it is no accident that when Darwin came to explain how matter became rational he lost his nerve. Writing in 1860 to Asa Gray, he remarked on how “A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton” as we might try to discern the true nature of the universe.
Note well Conway Morris’s words: ” how these neurological differences translate into the emergence of new cognitive worlds is not obscure, it is entirely opaque.” Translation: we don’t yet understand the evolutionary path connecting the brains of our apey ancestors with those of modern humans, so the difference couldn’t have evolved. Ergo Jesus. This is, pure and simple, a God of the gaps argument.
And of course since Darwin’s timorous conclusion science has made great strides in understanding not just the evolution of our brain, but also in connecting our mentality and behavior with those of our closest relatives. So far as we know, there is no “unbridgeable gap.” Even human morality, once the sine qua non of our uniqueness, yields when we see its rudiments in other primates.
No, we don’t yet understand how our neurons have assembled the construct of human consciousness (but surely other great apes are conscious in similar ways!), intentionality, and morality, but why on earth does that imply that we’re special constructs of God? Conway Morris goes on:
Mivart would have found this an astonishing capitulation. He was no more a creationist than Darwin, but for Mivart human intelligence was far from being some sort of accidental by-product of the universe. Rather, it was the key to the universe itself.
Conway Morris is what BioLogos calls an “evolutionary creationist.” It saddens me to do this, but I’ll make the same caveat about Conway Morris that I did about Michael Behe when reviewing Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box for Nature: “If the history of science shows us anything, it is that we get nowhere by labelling our ignorance ‘God’.”
Conway Morris has apparently been impelled by his Catholicism to make scientifically untenable assertions, and to evoke a “science-stopper” argument that we’ll never understand how evolution produced the human mind. It’s really sad to see a first-class scientist engage in these shenanigans. I’ll paraphrase Steve Weinberg’s bon mot here: With or without religion, there are good scientists and bad scientists, but to make a good scientist into a bad one—that takes religion.