Friday, July 06, 2007

Leon Kass on Science and Religion

Leon Kass has written an article for Commentary (April 2007)on "Science, Religion, and the Human Future." Steven Pinker and others have written responses to the article. Since Kass's article is a good summary of his ideas about modern science and its limitations, reading the article has stirred me to ponder my points of agreement and disagreement with his thinking. I will begin with the points of agreement. (The next five paragraphs are taken from my article on "Darwinian Liberal Education" in the fall 2006 issue of Academic Questions.)

As a young man, I decided that what Leo Strauss called the "fundamental dilemma" of modernity explained the loss of liberal education as a comprehensive study of the whole. The natural sciences assume a materialist reductionism that cannot account for the human mind or spirit. The humanities assume a radical dualism that treats human conscious experience as autonomous in its separation from the causal order of the natural sciences. And the social sciences are torn between these two contradictory positions.

We might overcome this dilemma, I thought, if we could see Darwinian biology as a comprehensive science that would unify all the intellectual disciplines by studying human experience as part of the natural whole. This would continue the Aristotelian tradition of biology because, as Strauss observed, Aristotle believed that biology could provide "a mediation between knowledge of the inanimate and knowledge of man." But I found that many of those influenced by Strauss assumed that Darwinian biology must deny the fundamental premises of Aristotelian natural right in denying the uniqueness of human beings as set apart from the rest of animal nature and in denying the cosmic teleology that sustains human purposefulness.

Reading Leon Kass's Towards a More Natural Science helped me to see how I might answer these Straussian objections. Kass suggested that Darwinian biology could recognize human uniqueness as a product of emergent evolution, and it could recognize the internal teleology of living beings as goal-directed. Darwin failed to see how his own biology allowed "that certain differences of degree--produced naturally, accumulated gradually (even incrementally), and inherited in an unbroken line of descent--might lead to a difference in kind (or at least its equivalent), say, in mental capacity or inner life." So it seemed that Darwinian biology could support an emergent naturalism in which novel traits arise in evolutionary development at each higher level of organization in an "unbroken line of descent" leading to differences in kind. Differences in degree passing over a critical threshold of evolution could produce differences in kind (Towards a More Natural Science, 271; The Hungry Soul, 12, 14, 39, 59-63, 76-79).

On the question of teleology, I was impressed by Kass's distinction between "external teleology" and "immanent teleology." External teleology is the conception of all of nature as an organic whole in which all beings serve a cosmic purpose set by an intelligent designer or creator. By contrast to such cosmic teleology, Kass suggested that "the primary home of teleological thought is the internal and immanent purposiveness of individual organisms, in their generation, their structure, their activities." This immanent teleology of living things was what Aristotle had in mind, Kass observed, when he spoke of natural teleology. And while Kass recognized that Darwinism was generally regarded as rejecting cosmic teleology, he noted that Darwinian biology implicitly assumed the immanent teleological nature of organisms. Even if evolution by natural selection is not purposeful, it produces organic beings that are purposeful. Plants and animals grow to maturity, and once grown, they act for ends set by the functional nature of the species (ibid., 253-64).

I was inspired by Kass's striving for "a more natural science" that would require the kind of biological understanding of nature that could account for the ethical and intellectual purposefulness of human life as an expression of nature. Like Kass, I sought a biological science that recognizes "the tacit ethical dimension of animal life," and thus the "natural, animal bases for the content of an ethical life." Like Kass, I believed that a science of living nature would reject both reductionist monism, which reduces life to homogeneous matter, and transcendentalist dualism, which sees human mental and moral experience as simply separated from the rest of nature. Like Kass, I decided that such a science could bring together Aristotle and Darwin (ibid., 277, 284, 295, 347; Kass, The Hungry Soul, 62.)

In recent years, however, Kass has moved away from his Aristotelian/Darwinian naturalism, because he doubts the sufficiency of human reason unaided by Biblical revelation of nature as created (see Kass's Life, Liberty, and Defense of Dignity, 277-97; and his Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis, xiv-xv, 1-4, 15, 68). In his new article in Commentary, he continues in this direction by arguing that modern science assumes a materialism that reduces all knowledge to quantifiable objectification that denies the qualitative subjectivity of "lived experience" and the "inwardness of life." As transformed into "scientism," which assumes that such scientific objectification is the only true form of knowledge, this modern scientific project threatens human freedom and dignity. Kass then wonders whether philosophy or religion can provide an adequate philosophy of nature to challenge the false claims of modern scientism.

Although I see some partial truth in almost everything Kass says in his article, he fails to recognize here (as he did in his earlier writing) that Darwinian biology refutes the Cartesian vision of science. Kass's fundamental presupposition is that Rene Descartes' writing is normative for all of modern science. Again and again, he quotes from or refers to Descartes as the authoritative spokesman for all of modern science. Here he implicitly takes for granted a view of the history and philosophy of early modern science that came out of the German phenomenological tradition, which was transmitted to the curriculum of St. John's College by Jacob Klein, and which has influenced Kass in his years at St. John's and the University of Chicago.

But I am not convinced that Descartes' philosophical writing is canonical for all of modern science. Kass cites Hans Jonas's The Phenomenon of Life, but he ignores Jonas's argument in that book that Darwinism refuted Descartes dualistic separation of objective matter and subjective mind. "Evolutionism undid Descartes' work," Jonas explained, because "the continuity of descent now established between man and the animal world made it impossible any longer to regard his mind, and mental phenomena as such, as the abrupt ingression of an ontologically foreign principle at just this point of the total flow," and so "with the last citadel of dualism there also fell the isolation of man, and his own evidence became available again for the interpretation of that to which he belongs" (57).

In fact, many Darwinian scientists now recognize that Darwinism affirms the continuity of animal minds as products of emergent evolution. For example, Steven Pinker shows how Darwinian science refutes Descartes' dualism (The Blank Slate, 8-10). But then Kass criticizes Pinker as a materialist who does not recognize the reality of the soul as "the integrated powers of the naturally organic body" that arise as "emergent properties" from the formal organization of living matter. Pinker responds to this charge by saying that he has always argued for the reality of such psychic "emergent properties." In his defense, Pinker could have quoted from his book How the Mind Works, where he speaks of "consciousness in the sense of sentience" as a "mystery" for which there is no scientific explanation. "But saying that we have no scientific explanation of sentience is not the same as saying that sentience does not exist at all. I am as certain that I am sentient as I am certain of anything, and I bet you feel the same" (148). Kass makes exactly the same point about the certitude of our subjective experience of "inwardness," although it cannot be studied externally.

In following the St. John's/phenomenological tradition, Kass assumes that "mathematical physics is the jewel and foundation" of all science, and biology is reducible to mathematical physics. But this ignores the autonomy of biology and biological phenomena as an emergent realm of study that must be consistent with but cannot be fully reducible to physics and chemistry. Ernst Mayr and other modern biologists have argued this position very well.

Kass says that genetics cannot tell us "how the life of a cockroach differs from that of a chimpanzee." But this ignores the whole field of animal behavior and cognitive ethology. Primatologists like Jane Goodall and Frans de Waal observe the natural lives of primates either in the wild or in captivity, and in explaining their behavior, they infer the emotional and cognitive experiences that constitute their subjective lives. Much of the debate in primatology today is about how far we can infer "animal minds" from our own subjective experiences as self-conscious beings. To say, as Kass does, that all biologists assume that man is "a freakish speck of mind in a mindless universe" restates Descartes' view, but this is contradicted by those many biologists who reject Cartesian dualism and recognize the necessity to explain animal behavior as shaped by subjective consciousness.

So what does religion contribute to this discussion? Kass is evasive about this. In his interpretation of Genesis 1, he rejects both "creation science" and "intelligent design," because he assumes that the Creation story is not really a literal description of how the universe came into being. Rather, the Creation story teaches "self-evident truths" about the "existential condition" of human beings that "do not rest on biblical authority."

It is not clear whether Kass thinks he is learning something from Biblical revelation that he could not know by philosophic reason alone, or whether the Bible offers an account of the human condition that confirms what we might already know by reason. In fact, when Kass refers to "the mysterious source of being itself," he seems to be following Martin Heidegger's existential philosophy of how human Dasein faces the mystery of Being.

Kass's reading of Genesis 1--like all of his readings of the Bible--is thoughtful, imaginative, and elegant. But it is not clear to me that this is the way Biblical believers read the Bible. Clearly, Kass is reading the Bible under the influence of philosophical commentators like Immanuel Kant and Leo Strauss. There is surely much to ponder in such a reading. But this seems to be more philosophic than it is religious.

If Kass were to return to his original project for a "more natural science" that would be both Aristotelian and Darwinian, he could argue for a Darwinian naturalism that would recognize the importance of religion insofar as it reinforces our natural moral sense.

My next post will continue this discussion of Kass.


Lee J Rickard said...

In the matter of Kass's reduction of science to Cartesianism, I should like to draw your attention to the treatment of the difference between the academic analyst and the naturalistic scientist in Penelope Maddy's Second Philosophy, just published by Oxford University Press.

Kent Guida said...

Great post. I too have been trying to follow the course of Kass's thinking over time, and I think your analysis works.
I'm particularly interested in your comments about Klein and his influence on Kass. Did you cover this in your "Darwinian Liberal Education?" I confess I haven't read that yet. Can you refer me to particular works of Klein? I would like to go into this in a little more detail.
Best regards,
Kent Guida

Larry Arnhart said...

Some years ago, the St. John's College Press published a collection of Klein's papers. The main work would be Klein's book on geometry translated by Eva Brann.

I am wondering if there is any writing on Klein's intellectual influence. I believe that one could show a line of influence from Husserl and Heidegger to Klein and then to Strauss and Kass that shapes a distinctive view of the Cartesian character of modern science as "objectification" that denies the "lived experience" of the prescientific world. This view of Cartesian science as a radical break from premodern science and philosophy shapes much of the prevailing view of science among the Straussians and those in the St. John's tradition.

Tony Bartl said...

This is interesting. I very much would like to have seen a letter to Commentary to which Kass might have responded. Instead of having someone with whom he could actually engage, there was only the letter from Pinker, who "progresses quickly from science (about which he knows a lot) to philosophy (about which he knows a dangerous little) to the Bible and religion (about which he knows less than the village atheist).

Anonymous said...

Klein is definitely phenomenological in his approach. For instance, his account of the history of mathematics is that of increasing formalization and the disappearance of the "foundation" of mathematics in ordinary life. Greek mathematics is superior in that it is always directed at the life world, ie number is always a number of discrete things and is fulfilled in ordinary intuition. That's the original form of mathematics, and the history of formalization comes I think from Klein's neoKantian background, including Natorp. Strauss too for instance begins his Hobbes book with a reference to Cassirer on the Platonization of philosophy in early modern philosophy, ie the mathematicization of philosophy. Strauss I think always assumes this philosophical background, but he never makes it explicit, except in a few places.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to respond to such an old post, but I'm eager to hear your thoughts. I'm sympathetic to your points about Kass' failure to appreciate the prevalence of non-reductive conceptions of biology and nature in general. Nonetheless, your own description seems to understate the extent to which reductive conceptions do in fact dominate discussion. Perhaps we could put it in terms of a distinction between (i) whether biology and nature more generally, when properly understood, support a non-reductive view; (ii) whether non-reductive views of nature and interpretations of the natural sciences are, in fact, the most prevalent. My own sense is that while reductive naturalism is untenable, it is frequently endorsed by scientists, philosophers, journalists writing about science, and so on. No doubt Kass fails to make this distinction as clearly as he should, but I wonder whether you would agree that reductive *rhetoric*, at least, is as common as it seems to me to be.

For what it's worth, accepting the mere existence of sentience wouldn't count, to my mind, as rejecting reductionism. One would need to argue, further, that sentient animals have genuine mental capacities that have a causal role in their lives and behavior; in other words, that the cognitive, affective, and desiderative dimensions of the lives of rational and non-rational animals is not adequately explained in terms of neurochemistry.

Larry Arnhart said...

Please excuse me for responding 10 years later!

I agree with you "that while reductive naturalism is untenable, it is frequently endorsed by scientists, philosophers, journalists writing about science, and so on."

As an illustration of this, I have written about Edward O. Wilson, who endorses a strong reductionism (reducing all sciences to physics) but then contradicts this by speaking of emergent complexity. He thus implicitly recognizes that strong reductionism is "untenable." See my blog posts for 5-8-2008, 10-4-2008, 5-13-2012.