Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A Discussion with Peter Lawler at RIT

Tomorrow, I will be at Rochester Institute of Technology, in Rochester, New York, for a public discussion/debate with Peter Lawler, sponsored by the Department of Political Science. The advertised topic for the discussion is "Darwin and the Evolution of America."

Lawler is a political scientist at Berry College in Georgia. Over the years, we have had a continuing friendly debate. Some of this has appeared in many posts on this blog over the past four years. Lawler is one of the contributors to Darwinian Conservatism: A Disputed Question.

There are many points of dispute between us. But in my opening statement at RIT, I will suggest that one primary question in our debate is this: Does the health of the American moral and political order depend on a religious cosmology that is subverted by Darwinian natural science?

The religious cosmology of the American regime is manifest in the Declaration of Independence. Here Jefferson declares his self-evident truths about the equality of rights as rooted in a religious cosmology governed by a divine Creator, Lawgiver, and Judge who exercises providential care over human beings. As created in God's image, human beings have a moral dignity and an eternal destiny that sets them apart from all other creatures.

Charles Darwin seems to deny this. Darwin once wrote in a notebook that "man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work, worthy of the interposition of a deity, more humble, and I believe true, to consider him created from animals." Many Americans--and especially, American conservatives--worry that considering human beings as "created from animals" rather than created by God in His Image denies the freedom and dignity of human beings as spiritual creatures with an immortal soul that makes them more than mere animals.

And yet, my argument is that Darwin's understanding of human beings as "created from animals" poses no threat to the American moral and political order. In fact, Darwinian science actually supports the moral and political thought of American conservatism by showing how that conservative thought can be rooted in a biological understanding of evolved human nature.

Lawler disagrees. Although he concedes that the Darwinian account of human nature is at least partially true, he complains that it's not the whole truth, because it fails to see that human beings are not just "clever chimps," because unlike all other animals, human beings feel themselves to be aliens in the universe, creatures with transcendent longings for another world where they will be eternally loved and cared for by the God who created them.

Lawler shows himself to be a conservative who is ambivalent about Darwinism. On the one hand, he welcomes Darwinian science as supporting the conservative view of the natural sociality of human beings. On the other hand, he scorns Darwinian science for promoting what he assumes to be a reductionistic, materialistic, and atheistic view of human nature that denigrates the transcendent longings of the human soul.

Lawler is bothered by the closing sentences of my book Darwinian Natural Right: "We have not been thrown into nature from some place far away. We come from nature. It is our home." I put those sentences at the end of the book to provoke the Heideggerians. And it worked. As a Heideggerian existentialist, Lawler thinks human beings really were "thrown" into nature from some place far away, and so they properly long to escape from their alienated captivity in nature. They want to return to that mysterious Being beyond nature that is the source of their being. He believes that this longing to escape from nature is what makes us uniquely human in a way that sets us apart from and above all other animals, who have no such longing.

So when he sees me apparently denigrating that transcendent longing as illusory, he rejects this as a "reductionistic" claim that human beings are just animals--"clever chimps"--who differ only in degree, not in kind, from other animals. This is what he calls the "Darwinian lullaby," because it seems to teach us to relax like other animals and give up those illusory longings for the transcendent that only create unnecessary anxiety.

Do I believe that we human beings are just "clever chimps"? Well, no, I would be a little more precise than that. I would say that we are very clever social mammals.

As social mammals, we are social animals by nature, and our life is defined by our nature as children, parents, friends, and citizens. As the very clever animals that we are, we want to understand what and who we are; we want to understand the causes for everything. And that desire to understand causes leads us to probe into the deepest mysteries of life and the universe.

The Darwinian science of our human nature as very clever social mammals is far from being "reductionistic," as Lawler says. Quite to the contrary, a Darwinian science of human nature teaches us that we are uniquely complex in having diverse natural desires that are often in tension with one another. For example, the natural desire for the "intellectual understanding" of causes can lead to the sort of scientific or philosophic understanding of nature that Lawler scorns as the "lullaby" that denies the existential anxiety of transcendent longings.

Lawler fails to notice that I have also identified the natural desire for the "religious understanding" of causes. This is the desire to understand the world through religion or spirituality. Religious doctrines about human relationships with divine powers or spiritual feelings of self-transcending union with the universe satisfy this religious longing to make sense of one's place in the universe. Here I agree with Lawler that human beings are unique in their natural desire for religious transcendence.

But, unlike Lawler, I see this desire as coming into conflict with the desire for a purely intellectual understanding of causes, the sort of intellectual desire that Lawler attributes to Socrates and Socratic philosophers and scientists, including Leo Strauss and those under his influence. Lawler attributes to Strauss the thought that "through reason, some human beings can live in unalienated serenity without God in search of the truth, endlessly unraveling the riddle of Being" (Stuck with Virtue, 214). Lawler rejects this thought, because he doubts that such Socratic philosophy or science can escape the feeling of alienation. He cannot see how the Socratic philosopher or scientist could ever explain his own restless quest for truth as a product of the same impersonal natural laws that he uses to explain everything else in the universe. Surely, Lawler suggests, the only explanation for our existence as individual human persons is that we were specially created by a personal God who knows us and loves us.

Lawler would tell us that in the debate between reason and revelation--Athens and Jerusalem--the clear winner is Jerusalem's revelation. But I believe that Strauss and Darwin are correct in suggesting that there can be no final resolution of this debate between reason and revelation, because neither side can refute the other.

Darwinian conservatism cannot resolve these transcendent questions of ultimate causation and purpose. But at least it can provide a scientific account of the moral and political nature of human beings that sustains the conservative commitments to private property, family life, and limited government as the conditions for individual liberty. And in a free society, individuals will be free to associate with one another in social groups--in families, in religious communities, and in other voluntary associations--in which people can freely explore the ultimate questions of human existence and organize their lives around religious or philosophical answers to those questions.

Lawler seems to agree with me in this American conception of the free society--in which individual liberty in the public realm includes religious liberty with no governmental imposition of religious belief, while religious cosmology and ultimate questions of meaning and purpose are left up to individual choice and social habituation in the private realm of civil society. This seems to be what Lawler means by "putting Locke in the Locke box"--combining a Lockean state that treats all citizens as autonomous individuals and a civil society in which people live as parents, children, friends, and creatures. Lawler thinks this was the intention of the American founders, so that Americans would have to live "double lives" (Stuck with Virtue, 33).

I hope that Lawler agrees with me that this American way of combining Lockean liberty and Aristotelian virtue constitutes the best regime for human beings.

Recently, Lawler has stated some of his criticisms of my position on his "Postmodern Conservative" blog--here and here.

1 comment:

Troy Camplin said...

Any position that purposefully needles Heideggerians is on the right track, it seems to me. HUmans are unique in being aware of the paradoxes thatdrive the emergence of complexity, including our own complexity. That is the tension we feel. And if I (and Nietzsche) are correct on that, then the worst thing that could happen if that Jerusalem win out over Athens (or vice versa) -- the West became what it is because of that tension.