Friday, July 28, 2006

Strauss, Darwin, and the Bible

Heinrich Meier's new book--Leo Strauss and the Theological-Political Problem (Cambridge University Press, 2006)--includes two unpublished lectures by Strauss. One of them is a lecture--"Reason and Revelation"--that was delivered in 1948 at the Hartford Theological Seminary. One point of interest for me in this lecture is that is contains some remarks by Strauss on the Bible and Darwinian evolution.

The general theme of this lecture is summarized as follows:
"Why revelation cannot refute philosophy, and vice versa. Generally: a) human knowledge is always so limited that the possibility of revelation cannot be refuted, and need for revelation cannot be denied. b) revelation is always so uncertain that it can be rejected, and man is so constructed that he can find his satisfaction, his happiness, in investigation, in the progress of clarity" (p. 174).

Finding satisfaction in investigation is for Strauss the philosophic life, understood as the highest life for human beings. As he understands philosophy, it includes science, because he criticizes the modern distinction between philosophy and science (p. 144). If philosophy is the quest to understand the whole by reason alone, then science is part of philosophy.

This irreconciliable conflict between philosophy or science and revelation is manifest, Strauss suggests, in the conflict between the Biblical story of Creation and Darwinian evolutionary science (see pp. 155, 160, 171, 173).

One way to overcome this conflict is to say that the Bible is not a scientific book, but a book concerned with matters of faith, and therefore it need not contradict the Darwinian account of evolution. Strauss rejects this solution. If we cannot take the Bible seriously in its claims about the physical world--such as the stories of God's miraculous creation of the world in the book of Genesis--then we would have to dismiss the Bible as merely a mythic text.

And yet, Strauss says, neither side in this conflict--the Bible and Darwinian science--can refute the other, because both sides beg the question at issue. Darwinian science assumes that miracles are not possible. The Bible assumes that miracles are possible. The Darwinian scientist might present evidence from the geological record that life evolved over millions of years. But this would not refute the possibility that God created life in a few days through miraculous causes that are not detectable by science.

Strauss also suggests that the Darwinian account of human evolution must contradict the Biblical teaching about Adam and Eve and the Fall. If human beings evolved from lower animals, then there was no original state of perfection from which they fell.

It is hard for me to understand the implications of what Strauss is saying. He seems to claim that there can be no reconciliation between science and the Bible. But what he says about the mutual irrefutability of philosophy and revelation suggests that thoughtful human beings must be open to both.

Moreover, a fundamental assumption of Strauss's position here is that to take the Bible seriously as revelation, we must read it absolutely literally--so that, for example, the Genesis story of Creation in six days must be read as literal history. This seems dubious to me. Inevitably, even the most serious Biblical believer must distinguish between the literal and the poetic or metaphorical writing in the Bible. For example, Pope John Paul II endorsed Darwinian evolution as compatible with the Bible, while still insisting the the divine creation of the human soul required an "ontological leap" beyond natural causes.

What Strauss describes as the fundamenal alternative between philosophy and revelation--with neither side being able to refute the other--seems similar to what I describe in Darwinian Conservatism as the problem of ultimate explanation. The ultimate ground of explanation cannot itself be explained. The philosopher or scientist will appeal ultimately to the order of nature as the final ground of explanation. The Biblical believer will appeal ultimately to God as the final ground of explanation. The uncaused cause of everything is either nature or nature's God. Appealing to nature as ultimate satisfies our natural desire for intellectual understanding. Appealing to God as ultimate satisfies our natural desire for religious understanding. As far as I can see, there is no way to resolve this dispute by rational proof.

But it is not clear to me that this is what Strauss has in mind. I would be happy to receive help from others who know Strauss better than I do.

1 comment:

Alberto said...

I don't know. It seems that Strauss is following a Socratic thinking without regard for where the stream of thinking would go.

For me it´s clear that the conclusion is that there is a element of faith in both life programs: For the philosopher, his progress in knowledge is based on the faith that there is a practically infinite network of explanations, Otherwise, if he believes that he is a few steps away of a final explanation, he would short cut as mucha as possible. This is clearly the strategy of the other strategy, the one of the religious man.

However, whie the religious strategy is concened with a moral for living and living itself, the pursue of knowledge for itself is artificial from the biological point of view, and as such, unsatisfactory for most of the human beings. Otherwise we would dissapear. That is because the adaptive purpose of knowledge is to help to live, not to know for its own shake, despite the pleasure that pure knowledge brings.

Thus, for biológical reasons, the ultimate practical nature of knowdedge may not be truth, but adaptation. An external observer of the amoral process of evolution, without concern for anything but the outcome of the process would say that Truth is helpful only if it is adaptive.

The Bible may be an example of adaptive knowledge. He may not be truthful but without the bible surely not only Israel, but a most of what we appreciate would not exist.