Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Lucretian Modernity of Darwinian Liberalism

Modern science, modern liberalism, and even the whole of modern culture began in January of 1417.  That's when Poggio Bracciolini was looking for old books in a monastic library in southern Germany, and he discovered a copy of Lucretius' ancient poem On the Nature of Things.

Written near the middle of the first century B.C., Lucretius' book was a poetic exposition of the philosophical atomism of Epicurus.  Although Epicurus and Lucretius professed to believe in the existence of gods, they argued that the gods were immortal but natural beings who had no care for human beings, and who never interfered with the natural order of the cosmos.  That natural cosmic order was explained as the product of atomic particles combining and dissolving by chance and material necessity.  As part of that natural motion of atoms, human beings were purely material beings--in their bodies and their minds--and as such they were mortal.  Religious beliefs in the immortality of the soul and an afterlife in which those immortal souls were to be eternally rewarded or punished should be recognized as delusions.  Indeed, those delusions based on religious fears were the primary source of human anxiety.  To be happy, to be able to enjoy the pleasures of mortal life, human beings needed to overcome their fear of death and of divine judgement.  They could do that, Epicurus and Lucretius believed, by understanding the way things really are as a product of the evolutionary history of the world as atoms in motion.

This materialist cosmology of Epicureanism was a radical alternative to the other views of cosmic order in the ancient Greek and Roman world--including Platonism, Aristotelianism, and Stoicism.  And while many of the early Christian theologians could accommodate modified forms of Platonism, Aristotelianism, and Stoicism as compatible with Christianity, they had to reject Epicurean materialism as utterly contrary to Christianity.  The Christian fear of the Satanic temptation of Epicureanism was so deep that the writings of Epicurus and Lucretius were hidden away and largely disappeared from medieval Christendom.

But then with the passionate revival of ancient learning in the European Renaissance, there was a curiosity, even among some devout Christians, about the long forgotten writings of Epicureanism.  As one of the greatest hunters of ancient books in the Renaissance, Poggio was elated to finally discover a copy of Lucretius' text in 1417.  But he had no idea that his discovery would lead to a renewal of Epicurean thought that would transform the culture of the Western world.  In fact, we can make a good argument that what makes the world modern is the materialist cosmology presented in Lucretius' On the Nature of Things.  We are all Epicureans now.

This story has recently been told in a most engaging way by Stephen Greenblatt in his book The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (Norton, 2011), which has received the National Book Award for nonfiction for 2011.  The book is wonderfully well-written, perhaps reflecting the fact that Greenblatt is a professor of English literature at Harvard. 

It's surprising that Greenblatt never mentions another book published 10 years ago that covers much of the same ground as his book--Benjamin Wiker's Moral Darwinism: How We Became Hedonists (InterVarsity Press, 2002).

Greenblatt and Wiker agree in their historical narrative of the modern world as a product of the turn away from the Christian cosmology of intelligent design to the Lucretian cosmology of evolutionary atomism.  They disagree, however, in their assessment of this historical turn:  Greenblatt celebrates it as moral progress, while Wiker laments it as moral degeneration.  Comparing the two books illuminates this fundamental cosmological debate, a debate that runs through much of my writing for this blog.

Wiker is a Fellow of the Discovery Institute, and he wrote his book with the financial support of the Discovery Institute as part of their "wedge strategy" for overturning the modern culture of Darwinian materialism and replacing it with a Christian culture of intelligent design.  The back cover of Wiker's book bears endorsements from many of the luminaries of the intelligent design movement, and the Foreword is written by William Dembski.

Dembski indicates the fundamental issue in declaring that Wiker's book poses the primary question between intelligent design and Darwinism:  "Is reality fundamentally mindful and purposive or mind-less and material?" (13).

Christians must see the world as intelligently designed by the divine Creator, who exercises providential care over human beings and who judges them in the afterlife as deserving heavenly rewards or hellish punishments for eternity.  Christians can interpret many of the ancient philosophers--Platonists, Aristotelians, and Stoics--as teaching that the world is "fundamentally mindful and purposive" and thus supporting a Christian cosmology.  But they can't do this with the atomistic cosmology of Epicurus and Lucretius, which must be seen as the fundamental rival to Christianity.

Moreover, Wiker argues, one must defend Christian cosmology if one wants to defend Christian morality.  As a comprehensive account of the universe, every cosmology implies a morality, because every account of nature as a whole implies an account of human nature--the moral and intellectual life of human beings--as part of cosmic nature.

With this in mind, Wiker argues that "the culture wars are cosmological wars" (314).  The current debates over the morality of abortion, gay marriage, sexual conduct generally, biotechnology, and the teaching of evolution in public schools are all ultimately rooted in an irreconcilable choice between intelligent-design cosmology and materialist cosmology.  The cosmology of intelligent-design provides cosmic support for Christian morality.  The cosmology of materialist atomism promotes an individualistic hedonism free from any absolute standards of right and wrong.

Wiker would seem to agree with Greenblatt's summary of the 20 fundamental propositions of Lucretius' account of "the way things are" (182-202):

1.  Everything is made of invisible particles.
2.  The elementary particles of matter--"the seeds of the things"--are eternal.
3.  The elementary particles are infinite in number but limited in shape and size.
4.  All particles are in motion in an infinite void.
5.  The universe has no creator or designer.
6.  Everything comes into being as a result of a swerve.
7.  The swerve is the source of free will.
8.  Nature ceaselessly experiments.
9.  The universe was not created for or about humans.
10. Humans are not unique.
11. Human society began not in a Golden Age of tranquillity and plenty, but in a primitive battle for survival.
12. The soul dies.
13. There is no afterlife.
14. Death is nothing to us.
15. All organized religions are superstitious delusions.
16. Religions are invariably cruel.
17. There are no angels, demons, or ghosts.
18. The highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain.
19. The greatest obstacle to pleasure is not pain; it is delusion.
20. Understanding the nature of things generates deep wonder.

Greenblatt and Wiker show how these Lucretian ideas shaped the leading modern thinkers in philosophy and science--including Machiavelli, Montaigne, Hobbes, Locke, Newton, Hume, Spinoza, and Darwin.  

The one person overlooked here, I think, is Nietzsche.  Particularly, in his middle writings--Human, All Too Human, Dawn, and the first four books of The Gay Science--Nietzsche develops one of the most elaborate modern statements of Epicurean and Darwinian Enlightenment.  In his earlier and later writings, however, Nietzsche essentially agrees with Wiker that human beings cannot live well as Darwinian Epicureans without a redemptive cosmology, and we see Nietzsche striving for a cosmology of atheistic religiosity.  The agreement between Wiker and Nietzsche is most evident in their scorn for David Friedrich Strauss in his failing to see the nihilistic consequences of Darwinian science.  Some of my posts on this point can be found here, here, and here.

Although there is no evidence that Darwin read Epicurus or Lucretius, one can clearly see the fundamental ideas of Darwinian evolution in Book 5 (see lines 837-877) of De rerum natura, although one does not see a clear account of the gradual transmutation of one species into another.  Moreover, one sees the fundamental agreement between Lucretius and Darwin in their general cosmology of a world in which complex order arises through a natural evolutionary process that does not require miraculous interventions by an intelligent designer.

Although I find Wiker's intellectual history illuminating, we fundamentally disagree in that I don't share his apocalyptic fear of what he sees as the moral nihilism of the Lucretian/Darwinian cosmology.  The disagreement was evident some years ago when Wiker and I had an exchange in the pages of First Things.  In the November 2000 issue of First Things, I wrote an article defending "Darwinian Conservatism," which was followed by critical responses from Michael Behe and Bill Dembski, and then my response to them.  A year later, Wiker wrote an article in First Things attacking me, and much of his argument was incorporated into his book (see pp. 245-46).  There was then a brief exchange between us in a later issue of First Things.

Our disagreement comes at two levels.  At the first level, Wiker refuses to see--as I do--that a purposeful human nature can arise within a purposeless cosmic nature.  I believe that we can judge the moral and intellectual virtues as contributing to the flourishing of evolved human nature, even when we think those virtues have no correspondence to any cosmic order of intelligent design.  Thus we can recognize that there is a natural law for human beings rooted in their evolved natural inclinations without any need to see this natural human order as the fulfilment of some intentionally designed cosmic order.

At the second level of our disagreement, I find Wiker sophistical in his writing.  By that, I mean that he intentionally suppresses evidence and arguments that counter his case for Epicurean Darwinism as morally degrading.  For example, in trying to cite evidence in Darwin's Descent of Man that he promoted the eugenics that would lead to Hitler's eugenics, Wiker carefully omits any passages that would contradict his interpretation.  One illustration of this is how he selectively quotes from a paragraph near the end of Descent (1871, 2:402-403).  In his book (252-53), Wiker quotes the following:  "Man scans with scrupulous care the character and pedigree of his horses, cattle, and dogs before he matches them; but when he comes to his own marriage he rarely, or never, takes such care. . . . Both sexes ought to refrain from marriage if in any marked degree inferior in body or mind; but such hopes are Utopian and will never be even partially realised until the laws of inheritance are thoroughly known.  All do good service who aid towards this end."  Wiker says this last sentence is a "most damning remark" showing his endorsement of eugenics. 

But Wiker is quoting here from one paragraph that concludes with this one sentence that he fails to quote: "When the principles of breeding and of inheritance are better understood, we shall not hear ignorant members of our legislature rejecting with scorn a plan of ascertaining by an easy method whether or not consanguineous marriages are injurious to man."  This makes it clear that Darwin's concern here was to study the possibly injurious effects of incest.  In particular, he had proposed that the British Parliament should sponsor a study of the effects of first-cousin marriages to see if they had a high rate of physical and mental birth defects in their children.  Darwin had a personal interest in this, since his wife Emma was his first cousin, and he worried about whether the ill health of some of his children might be a consequence of inbreeding.  Eventually, Darwin's son George carried out the research Darwin sought, and George concluded that the danger of inherited defects from first-cousin marriages was very low. 

Here then is an example of what I have called "good eugenics," the kind of eugenics that almost all of us would support.  For instance, many Ashkenazi Jews have voluntarily organized genetic testing of their children, so that when they want to marry, they can investigate the probability of birth defects in their children (such as Tay Sachs disease), and then decide whether they want to marry and have children.  This is eugenics.  Indeed, all the laws that prohibit incestuous marriages are based on eugenics--trying to promote "good births."  But this is good eugenics.  Wiker hides this from his reader because it would weaken his moral denunciation of Darwin.

Similarly, Wiker strengthens his case for the moral superiority of Christian cosmology by carefully refusing to mention any Christian teachings or practices that his readers might find troublesome.  For instance, he presenting the moral teachings of the Bible, Wiker never mentions the fact that the Bible endorses slavery and genocide.  He speaks of infanticide as a moral abomination.  But he never mentions the troublesome story of Abraham being commanded by God to kill Isaac.  Nor does he mention Jeptha's murdering of his daughter as a sacrifice to God.  As I have noted in some recent posts, even Pope John II and Pope Benedict XVI have asked foregiveness for Christian traditions of violence.  Wiker is silent about all of this.

Moreover, Wiker is also silent about the Epicurean books of the Bible--Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs--both of which teach the goodness of pleasure. The Song of Songs celebrating erotic love without reference to marriage or reproduction contradicts Wiker's claim that sexual pleasure must always to directed to producing children.  The Epicureanism of Ecclesiastes was noted by Thomas Aquinas (Summa Contra Gentiles, III.27.11).

Wiker accuses Darwin of racism, but never mentions that much of the argument for the unity of the human species in the Descent of Man was part of Darwin's argument against slavery.

Another troubling part of Wiker's writing is how he warns against the "secularization" of the modern world as the source of our moral degradation, and thus implies that what we need is a "sacralization" of the world, but he never explains what this would mean.  Would he have us revert to the world of medieval Christendom based on its intelligent-design cosmology?  He mentions those Epicurean Christians--like Giordano Bruno--who were burned at the stake for their Epicureanism.  He doesn't condemn this.  So would he want to bring back such executions? 

Similarly, Wiker condemns homosexuality as evil because it goes against Christian cosmology and Biblical teaching.  He doesn't mention that the Bible commands the killing of homosexuals.  For centuries, homosexuality was a capital crime.  Would he endorse this?  If not, would that mean that he doesn't really want to enforce Christian cosmology and abolish Epicurean cosmology?

Furthermore, Wiker assumes that intelligent design reasoning is not only morally but also scientifically superior to evolutionary reasoning, because the evolutionists cannot explain exactly the step-by-step pathway by which all complex forms have evolved.  But then he never offers any account of how the intelligent design proponents would explain exactly when, where, and how the Intelligent Designer did this.

And while Wiker criticizes Darwinism as based on faith rather than demonstration, he never demonstrates the truth of the anthropomorphic analogy behind all intelligent design reasoning--the idea that we can infer divine intelligent agency from what we know about human intelligent agency.  As I have argued in some previous posts, this is dubious assumption that needs to be proven.


Rob S said...

Professor Arnhart,

I think I would agree that theistic vs. materialistic cosmologies do affect the moral realm. However, don't you think that we're in danger of oversimplifying if we lump all theistic-based morality into one group and all materialist-based morality into another. Isn't the difference between, say, Kant's deontological ethics and Mill's utilitarian ethics pretty big? Isn't the difference between your vision of Darwinian Natural Right and Peter Singer's also pretty big?

I haven't read Greenblatt or Wiker. I look forward to reading both. But I'm concerned there's an overemphasis here on the degree to which the cosmological differences matter in ethics. I would think you would want to downplay that dichotomy as well, as Darwinian Natural Right appears to be consistent under both kinds of cosmologies. No?

On a side note, I predict next year's winner of the National Book Award to be Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature.

Anonymous said...

If evolution is true, one of its most enduring outcomes in humanity is religion, which seems to be a default mode of approaching the mysteries of life and death. So, given that outcome, why do IDers have a problem with evolution?