Saturday, November 06, 2010

A Conference on the Science of Virtue at Berry College

The past few days, I have been at a conference at Berry College, in Mount Berry, Georgia, on the "Science of Virtue" at Berry College. The conference directors were Peter Augustine Lawler of Berry College and Marc Guerra of Ave Maria University. The major funding for the conference came from the "New Science of Virtues Project" at the University of Chicago. The title for this conference was "The Scientific Foundations of the Modern World: Descartes, Locke, and Darwin."

Berry College is a beautiful campus with some very bright students. President Stephen Briggs and others at the College were gracious in their hospitality.

There were four lectures on the main themes of the conference. I spoke on "The Darwinian Science of Aristototelian Virtue." Thomas Hibbs (Baylor University) spoke on Descartes. James Stoner (Lousiana State University) spoke on Locke. And Jeffrey Bishop (St. Louis University) spoke on "Science, Virtue, and the Birth of Modernity."

There were three panels: "Walker Percy on Science and the Soul," "Being More Cartesian than Descartes," and "Tom Wolfe, Technology, and Greatness."

This conference and the sponsoring "new science of virtues" project at Chicago testify to the growing awareness that modern science offers new ways to understand virtue. The pervasive theme running through this conference and almost every one of the presentations was that modern science corrupts our morality, because science subverts the traditional philosophical understanding of virtue (coming from Plato and Aristotle) and the traditional religious understanding of virtue (coming from biblical religion). Of all the participants in the conference, I and Lauren Hall (Rochester Institute of Technology) were the only ones who argued that modern science--and especially Darwinian science--supports a healthy understanding of virtue.

I am so accustomed to being in a minority of one--or, at this conference, a minority of two--that it does not bother me, because I expect it. But it does bother me to see how many of the moral critics of modern science have no interest in actually studying the science that they are criticizing.

In the case of this conference, the assumption of almost everyone was that whatever they needed to know about science they could learn from reading Rene Descartes, Walker Percy, and Tom Wolfe. They assumed that all of modern science was nothing more than a working out of the philosophical program of Descartes (and maybe Francis Bacon, as well). They also assumed that the view of science taken by literary critics of science like Percy and Wolfe is so obviously accurate that one does not need to actually study contemporary science for oneself.

Descartes' philosophical science is an incoherent combination of materialist reductionism, on the one hand, and radical dualism, on the other. Most of the participants at the this conference assumed that for the past four hundred years, modern science has simply been trying to work out the details of Descartes' project. No one showed any curiosity about whether modern science might actually depart from Descartes in many ways.

What's at work here is a school of thought about the philosophy of science dominated by German phenomenology and Martin Heidegger that came to the United States through the influence of Leo Strauss and people at St. John's College. This school of thought promotes a deep fear of modern science as based on a desire for mastery of nature through technology that corrupts the the moral and intellectual traditions of Western Culture. One can see this clearly, for example, in the work of Leon Kass.

One of the assumptions of this school of thought is that all of modern science is based on Cartesian mathematical physics. There is no interest in Darwinian biology or modern biology in general as perhaps showing the emergent complexity and immanent teleology of life. All of these folks have read Descartes, but almost none of them have read Darwin. (Kass is an exception here. At least in some of his early writing, Kass did read Darwin, and he saw that Darwinian science was not a reductionist threat to human dignity.)

Also running through this school of thought is a romantic existentialism that sees the artist--embodied in literary artists like Percy and Wolfe--as exposing the dehumanizing effects that modern science has on the human soul. And, again, there is no interest in studying science to see if this caricature of science is really accurate.

For example, those contributing to the panel on Wolfe restated Wolfe's fears about modern science without questioning Wolfe's depiction of science. Wolfe argues that modern biology and neuroscience promote a reductionistic determinism that denies the human freedom that comes from the human capacities for language, social life, and cultural learning. No one on the panel noticed the inaccuracy of Wolfe's view. Contrary to what Wolfe claims, one of the most deeply researched areas of evolutionary science today is language and cultural evolution. In neuroscience, much of the research centers on neural plasticity, cultural learning, and "social neuroscience." As far as I could tell, no one on the panel had any knowledge of this research.

I don't believe that modern science is beyond criticism. I agree that modern science should be exposed to critical scrutiny by proponents of premodern science and religion. But shouldn't this criticism be based on an accurate knowledge of what is being criticized?

Some related posts can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here., and here.


Troy Camplin said...

I need to learn about these things, and then you won't be the only one there :-)

Ben Bell said...

Dr. Arnhart there are four points which I agree with completely in this posting.
1. "Wolfe argues that modern biology and neuroscience promote a reductionistic determinism that denies the human freedom that comes from the human capacities for language, social life, and cultural learning." I couldn't agree more with your assertion and the only criticism that I have recieved for my disagreement with the reductionistic determinism is well "Wittgenstein is unerotic and uninteresting" hardly a sufficient critique of real scientific progress.
2. The fact of the matter is that even Nietzsche believed and foresaw technology which we see in aphorism 246 of the gay science as manifesting from mathematics as proper flourishing of human intellect in a hierarchical system despite the potential nihilism of the eternal return. "mathematics is merely the means for general and ultimate knowledge of man". See also aph 349 and 357 which is by far the deepest aphorism propounded by Nietzsche.

Kristian Canler said...

In paragraph nine you mention two of my favorite things: St. John's College (which I couldn't attend because it costs way too much) and Leo Strauss. The funny thing is that you cast them (or at least this philosophy they've supposedly espoused) in a negative light. If you're right, I agree, because "deep fear" is bad. Of course, in this paragraph you also seem to criticize my third most favorite thing, P.A. Lawler, because I think "modern science (as based on a desire for mastery of nature through technology) corrupts the the moral and intellectual traditions of Western Culture" pretty much perfectly describes Lawler's philosophy as I know it (I am but a lowly freshman here at Berry College). The only difference, and this is where I am interested in your opinion, is that instead of a "deep fear" of modern science, Lawler holds a "moderate concern." With this revision the philosophy you criticize seems to encapsulate the core of Lawler's thought on the modern dilemma.

Anonymous said...

While the author generally has interesting observations, and while it is understandable to an extent why one might think that "people from St John's College" express a "deep fear" of modern science, which may be true of some (for serious albeit debatable reasons), that is a distorted view of St John's, which as the author doubtless knows requires real study of modern science throughout the program. Nor is this just a question of "know thy enemy." The emphasis on mathematical physics rather than biological study is an attribute of modern science itself, and something much more worth attention than engaging in superficial critiques.