Michael Ruse is a Tiresome Embarrassment to Philosophy
Michael Ruse is tiresome, at least when it comes to talking about religion. Like Terry Eagleton, he seems to have a gene for silly religious thinking. In the end, you wonder whether they really mean it when they say they don’t really believe, or are they hedging their bets and cramming for the finals? I was put onto this by Jerry Coyne, whose response to Ruse, “Was the evolution of humans inevitable? Nonbeliever Michael Ruse still tries to help Christians reconcile evolution and faith“, is really decisive, but I still want to have my say, denn dieser Mann irritiert mich so viel.
Michael Ruse is using his soapbox over at the Chronicle of Higher Education, once again, though undoubtedly not for the last time, to try to make the world safe for Christianity — but why not safe for Islam, or safe for Judaism? (The article has the title “Does Darwinian Randomness make Christianity Impossible? “, and you know, just by the way he asks the question, that his answer is going to be no.) The trouble with Ruse is that he apparently thinks that Christianity is the only religion worth bothering about — that’s his silly gene kicking in — but there are all sorts of religions, and each one has its theologies, though, admittedly, Christianity has a lot more invested in theology than either Islam or Judaism. The reason for this is to be found in the history of Christianity, since it developed originally within the Greek-speaking regions of the Roman Empire, and simply could not escape questions and refutations that had been raised by thoughtful and rational pagans. Hence, Christianity was marked by its attempt to make rational arguments, not only for the existence of God, but for the more esoteric of its doctrines as well.
That doesn’t mean that Christians ever succeeded in providing rational justifications for such things as the Trinity, the incarnation, the atonement, or of the divine and human natures of Christ — which Monophysites, such as the Copts, still deny — and other esoterica of no more interest to us than these. However, once they had outlawed and persecuted paganism, it could pretend, at least, that arguments, which had never satisfied the most learned of the pagans, were enough to provide Christianity with its intellectual bona fides, even though most Christians were still really pagans at heart, and superstition ruled the Church for well over a thousand years, except in nooks and crannies where the appearance of rationality was preserved. What this really means is that Christianity, despite its superstitions, which continue unhindered within the church until our own day, had the illusion that theology provided a rational account of Christian beliefs. So, you could allow members of the Church to be as superstitious as you liked, just so long as you iced the cake with some form of apparently rational argumentation. The trouble is, despite all the systematic theology in the world, religion cannot be made into a rational pursuit. It just can’t. A glance at Pope Wojtyła’s encyclical Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason) should be enough to disabuse you of any such conviction. It’s right there in the second paragraph:
2. The Church is no stranger to this journey of discovery, nor could she ever be. From the moment when, through the Paschal Mystery, she received the gift of the ultimate truth about human life [my emphasis], the Church has made her pilgrim way along the paths of the world to proclaim that Jesus Christ is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (Jn 14:6). It is her duty to serve humanity in different ways, but one way in particular imposes a responsibility of a quite special kind: the diakonia of the truth. (1) This mission on the one hand makes the believing community a partner in humanity’s shared struggle to arrive at truth; (2) and on the other hand it obliges the believing community to proclaim the certitudes arrived at, albeit with a sense that every truth attained is but a step towards that fullness of truth which will appear with the final Revelation of God: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully” (1 Cor 13:12).
The Greek word ‘diakonia’ — from which the church gets the name of its diaconal ministry (viz., deacons) — means service or mission. Notice how quickly Wojtyła moves to the claim that “the believing community [is] a partner in humanity’s shared struggle to arrive at truth.” This, despite the fact that theology can provide no methodology for determining theological conclusions as true. The pope can’t have it both ways. He can’t both say that the believing community is a partner in the search for truth, and then say, immediately, that the believing community is obliged “to proclaim the certitudes [already] arrived at [by revelation].” This is the well-known Magisterium of the Church, and it pertains to revealed truth, a truth which is at once certain and incomplete, as Wojtyła says. Certainly, for appearance’s sake, it pays to claim that theological and scientific truth are somehow related and coordinate; but this is just smoke and mirrors.
So why, one wonders, is Ruse trying to make the world safe for this kind of “truth”? The kind of truth that is really not truth at all, but at most opinion, and more likely self-deception. It cannot be permitted to allow an organisation to get away with simply proclaiming, as certitudes, beliefs for which there is no more foundation than the historical claim that these things, though intrinsically beyond understanding, have been revealed and entrusted to the Church for safe-keeping. This is a bit like allowing the prisoner in the dock to claim as true his assertion of innocence, and have this claim accepted, before any of the witnesses and forensic experts have testified. At the end of his essay Ruse says:
Do I believe any of this? Not really, but that is not the point. The real point is that New Atheists like Jerry Coyne have some good arguments but before they declare the case closed they should let the philosophers and theologians have their turn to fight back. That is what a doppelgänger is good for.
This is staggeringly silly! If Ruse doesn’t believe any of this — and, presumably, if he doesn’t, he withholds belief for what seem to him to be good reasons — what reason can he give for suggesting that, by denying that theologians can give good reasons, Jerry Coyne has not given theologians the chance to fight back? There is nothing stopping them. Jerry Coyne cannot put theological texts on the index, and forbid his “followers”, on pain of excommunication, to read them. If this is all that Ruse has to say about the matter of whether Christianity is or is not made impossible by Darwinian randomness, then he hasn’t said anything at all. He certainly hasn’t provided a good reason or argument, and it is very doubtful that Jerry Coyne would reject a good argument if provided with one. But Ruse obviously thinks there are no good arguments as well, or at least he pretends to.
The trouble is that for some unaccountable reason this is the point at which Ruse thinks the problem gets really interesting, but if he has a Socratic rejoinder, he doesn’t provide one, so the pretence of being a gadfly can get no traction here. After biologists have said all they need to say about randomness, and have shown that no necessity is built into evolutionary processes that necessitate the appearance of humans, and Coyne and others have closed the book on theology, then that’s when things get interesting, according to Ruse, and challenging! That all. He doesn’t even try to say why we should find it interesting and challenging. And he also doesn’t really produce an answer, not even a theological one. Here’s the sum and substance of Ruse’s counter to the claim that we are the product of Darwinian randomness:
I think, along with Augustine and Aquinas, at times like this, because it is a theological problem and not a science one, we need a theological solution not a scientific one. So if I invoke, as I will, the notion of multiverses – other universes either parallel to ours or sequential – I am doing so not on scientific grounds (although I know there are those who would defend them on scientific grounds) but on theological grounds. The God of Christianity can create these if He has a mind to.
Since we humans have evolved by Darwinian processes, then we could have evolved by Darwinian processes. Just keep creating universes until it happens! And don’t put any direction into the process.
You might think that this is an awful waste, but as God told Job, His ways are not our ways. In any case, as philosopher William Whewell pointed out in 1853 in his Plurality of Worlds, judged this way there is already an awful lot of waste in this universe. Think of the zillions of uninhabited globes out there.
You might think that God is going to get pretty bored waiting for us to come along. Well, he could try reading The Critique of Pure Reason. He might just get through it. More seriously, this is not a problem for the Christian God, because this being is outside time and space.
But is this not to admit a limitation on God’s powers? He cannot guarantee that we will appear the first time around? But no one – except possibly Descartes – has ever said that God can do the impossible, make 2+2=5 or Darwinian evolution guarantee a result first time around. So there is no real limitation.
And this, to go on with my prisoner in the dock analogy, is like saying that, if we allow the prisoner any presuppositions whatsoever, we can get to the point where his innocence deductively follows. There’s really no way to précis all that in such a way as to bring out its inanity. All theologians need to say, according to Ruse, is to say that God might have created universes until we turned up! His whole purpose in creating gazillions of universes was to produce us, and so he kept iterating universes until we appeared. There are some obvious problems here. The supposition here is that (i) we can put no limitation on God’s powers, and that (ii) God’s ways are not our ways: so, no matter how silly it looks, this is not a basis for saying that it is false.
Two strange things. First, Ruse’s goofy wit. If it got boring waiting for humans to appear, Ruse suggests, trying his damnedest to be funny, perhaps God could read Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. “He might just get through it.” Well, coming from a philosopher that’s pretty tawdry. The Critique of Pure Reason is not a boring book, whatever else it may be. As philosophy, it’s one of the most exciting that I’ve ever read, and I read it straight through in about three days, the first time. Putting Kant and Hume and Strawson together was a fascinating exercise, and Ruse does philosophy no service by making such idiotic remarks. Second, though, is his misunderstanding of Job. “My ways are not your ways,” does not refer to what we might think of as the awesome mystery of the universe, but was really a deflection of Job’s question about human sufferng. Job wants to understand the problem of human suffering, and God comes back with irrelevant questions about creation, claiming, in a huff, that Job wasn’t there when he created the wild asses, and a few irrelevancies of this kind. The god revealed in Job is, as Herman Tønnessen says,
a ruler of grotesque primitivity, a cosmic cave dweller, a braggart a rumble-dumble, almost congenial in his complete ignorance about spiritual refinement. 
It does not show either the might or the majesty of God, but rather reveals his smallness and spiritual insensitivity and incompetence. If this is what Ruse means by fighting back, well, then, you know why Jerry Coyne has closed the book on this particular dispute.
But, here’s another thing. If no limitations can be placed on God, as Ruse assumes, then God should be able to know, by calculating the probablities, which one of the gazillion possible universes would come up with human beings, if that was his aim in the first place. Wouldn’t someone who knew everything, and could work out the probabilities from initial conditions, come within an ace of predicting which of the possible universes would include us? If so, we are necessitated after all. Why can’t Ruse see this? Because he wants to leave the world safe for religion, and any old argument, apparently, will do. This is not philosophy; it’s not even theology; it’s really opinionated posturing, and it does no good at all for Ruse’s reputation as a philosopher. He should stop this empty, posturing attempt to produce throw-away philosophy, and try to act like a reasonable human being.