This is the eighth in a series of interviews about religion that I am conducting for The Stone. The interviewee for this installment is Michael Ruse, a professor of philosophy at Florida State University and the author of the forthcoming book “Atheism: What Everyone Needs to Know.”
Gary Gutting: What do you think of the claim that scientific accounts provide all the explanations needed to understand the existence and nature of the world, so that there’s no need to posit God as the ultimate explanation?
I don’t think science can explain everything. As far as I am concerned, if you want God to have a crack at the job, go right ahead!
Michael Ruse: Let me start at a more general level by saying that I don’t think science as such can explain everything. Therefore, assuming that the existence and nature of the world can be fully understood (I’m not sure it can!), this is going to require something more than science. As far as I am concerned, if you want God to have a crack at the job, go right ahead!
G.G.: Could you say a bit more about why you think that science can’t fully explain everything?
M.R.: In my view, none of our knowledge, including science, just “tells it like it is.” Knowledge, even the best scientific knowledge, interprets experience through human cultural understanding and experience, and above all (just as it is for poets and preachers) metaphor is the key to the whole enterprise. As I developed my own career path, as a historian and philosopher of evolutionary biology, this insight grew and grew. Everything was metaphorical — struggle for existence, natural selection, division of labor, genetic code, arms races and more.
G.G.: It’s clear that metaphors are useful when scientists try to explain complex ideas in terms that nonscientists can understand, but why do you think metaphors have an essential role in the development of scientific knowledge?
M.R.: Because metaphor helps you move forward. It is heuristic, forcing you to ask new questions. If your love is like a rose, what color is the rose? But note that it does so at a cost. A metaphor puts blinkers on us. Some questions are unanswerable within the context of the metaphor. “My love is a rose” tells me about her beauty. It does not tell me about her mathematical abilities.
Now combine this fact with history. Since the scientific revolution, one metaphor above all — the root metaphor — has dictated the nature and progress of science. This is the metaphor of the world as a machine, the mechanical metaphor. What questions are ruled out by this metaphor? One is about ultimate origins. Of course you can ask about the origins of the metal and plastics in your automobile, but ultimately the questions must end and you must take the materials as given. So with the world. I think the machine metaphor rules out an answer to what Martin Heidegger called the “fundamental question of metaphysics”: Why is there something rather than nothing? Unlike Wittgenstein, I think it is a genuine question, but not one answerable by modern science.
Coming now to my own field of evolutionary biology, I see some questions that it simply doesn’t ask but that can be asked and answered by other areas of science. I think here about the natural origins of the universe and the Big Bang theory. I see some questions that it doesn’t ask and that neither it nor any other science can answer. One such question is why there is something rather than nothing, or if you like why ultimately there are material substances from which organisms are formed.
G.G.: So do you think that we need religion to answer the ultimate question of the world’s origin?
M.R.: If the person of faith wants to say that God created the world, I don’t think you can deny this on scientific grounds. But you can go after the theist on other grounds. I would raise philosophical objections: for example, about the notion of a necessary being. I would also fault Christian theology: I don’t think you can mesh the ancient Greek philosophers’ notion of a god outside time and space with the Jewish notion of a god as a person. But these are not scientific objections.
G.G.: What do you think of Richard Dawkins’s argument that, in any case, God won’t do as an ultimate explanation of the universe? His point is that complexity requires explanation — the whole idea of evolution by natural selection is to explain the origin of complex life-forms from less complex life-forms. But a creator God — with enormous knowledge and power — would have to be at least as complex as the universe he creates. Such a creator would require explanation by something else and so couldn’t explain, for example, why there’s something rather than nothing.
M.R.: Like every first-year undergraduate in philosophy, Dawkins thinks he can put to rest the causal argument for God’s existence. If God caused the world, then what caused God? Of course the great philosophers, Anselm and Aquinas particularly, are way ahead of him here. They know that the only way to stop the regression is by making God something that needs no cause. He must be a necessary being. This means that God is not part of the regular causal chain but in some sense orthogonal to it. He is what keeps the whole business going, past, present and future, and is the explanation of why there is something rather than nothing. Also God is totally simple, and I don’t see why complexity should not arise out of this, just as it does in mathematics and science from very simple premises.
Traditionally, God’s necessity is not logical necessity but some kind of metaphysical necessity, or aseity. Unlike Hume, I don’t think this is a silly or incoherent idea, any more than I think mathematical Platonism is silly or incoherent. As it happens, I am not a mathematical Platonist, and I do have conceptual difficulties with the idea of metaphysical necessity. So in the end, I am not sure that the Christian God idea flies, but I want to extend to Christians the courtesy of arguing against what they actually believe, rather than begin and end with the polemical parody of what Dawkins calls “the God delusion.”
G.G.: Do you think that evolution lends support to the atheistic argument from evil: that it makes no sense to think that an all-good, all-powerful God would have used so wasteful and brutal a process as evolution to create living things?
I don’t want an argument that convinces me that the death of Anne Frank in Bergen-Belsen ultimately contributes to the greater good. If my eternal salvation depends on the death of this young woman, then forget it.
M.R.: Although in some philosophy of religion circles it is now thought that we can counter the argument from evil, I don’t think this is so. More than that, I don’t want it to be so. I don’t want an argument that convinces me that the death under the guillotine of Sophie Scholl (one of the leaders of the White Rose group opposed to the Nazis) or of Anne Frank in Bergen-Belsen ultimately contributes to the greater good. If my eternal salvation depends on the deaths of these two young women, then forget it.
This said, I have never really thought that the pains brought on by the evolutionary process, in particular the struggle for survival and reproduction, much affect the Christian conception of God. For all of Voltaire’s devastating wit in “Candide,” I am a bit of a Leibnizian on these matters. If God is to do everything through unbroken law, and I can think of good theological reasons why this should be so, then pain and suffering are part of it all. Paradoxically and humorously I am with Dawkins here. He argues that the only way naturally you can get the design-like features of organisms — the hand and the eye — is through evolution by natural selection, brought on by the struggle. Other mechanisms just don’t work. So God is off the hook.
G.G.: What do you think of the claim that evolutionary accounts show that religion emerged not because of any evidence for its truth but because of its adaptive value?
M.R.: It is interesting that you ask this question because recently I’ve found myself wrestling with this issue more than just about any other. As an ardent Darwinian evolutionist I think that all organisms, and I include us humans, are the end product of a long, slow process of development thanks to the causal mechanism of natural selection. So this means that I think features like the eye and the hand are around because of their adaptive value; they help us to survive and reproduce.
G.G.: Of course, evolutionary explanations are empirically well established on the biological level. But is the same true on the level of social and cultural life, especially among humans?
M.R.: I include society and culture here although I would qualify what I say. I don’t see being a Nazi as very adaptive, but I would say that the things that led to being a Nazi — for instance being open to indoctrination as a child — have adaptive significance. I would say the same of religion. The biologist Edward O. Wilson thinks that religion is adaptive because it promotes bonding and he might be right. But it can go biologically haywire, as in the case of the Shakers, whose religious prohibition on procreation had an adaptive value of precisely zero.
So it is true that in a sense I see all knowledge, including claims about religious knowledge, as being relative to evolutionary ends. The upshot is that I don’t dismiss religious beliefs even though they ultimately can be explained by evolution. I think everything can! I wouldn’t dismiss religious beliefs even if you could show me that they are just a byproduct of adaptation, as I think Darwin himself thought. It is as plausible that my love of Mozart’s operas is a byproduct of adaptation, but it doesn’t make them any the less beautiful and meaningful. I think you have to judge religion on its merits.
G.G.: Is one of religion’s merits that it provides a foundation (intellectual and practical) for morality through the idea of God as divine lawgiver?
Read previous contributions to this series.
M.R.: I am on record as an “evolutionary skeptic.” I don’t deny substantive morality — you ought to return your library books on time — but I do deny objective foundations. I think morality is a collective illusion, genetic in origin, that makes us good cooperators. And I would add that being good cooperators makes each one of us individually better off in the struggle for existence. If we are nice to other people, they are much more likely to be nice to us in return. However, as the philosopher J.L. Mackie used to argue, I think we “objectify” substantive ethics — we think it objectively the case that we ought return library books on time. But we do this (or rather our genes make us do this) because if we didn’t we would all start to cheat and substantive ethics would collapse to the ground.
So I don’t buy the moral argument for the existence of God. I think you can have all of the morality you need without God. I am a follower of Hume brought up to date by Darwin. Morality is purely emotions, although emotions of a special kind with an important adaptive function. I don’t, however, think that here I am necessarily denying the existence of God. Were I a Christian, I would be somewhat of a natural law theorist, thinking that morality is what is natural. Caring about small children is natural and good; killing small children for laughs is unnatural and bad. If you want to say that God created the world and what is good therefore is what fits with the way God designed it, I am O.K. with this. In fact, I think you should say it to avoid the problem (raised in Plato’s “Euthyphro”) of simply making the good a function of God’s arbitrary will.
G.G.: There seems to be a tension in your thinking about religion. You aren’t yourself a believer, but you spend a great deal of time defending belief against its critics.
M.R.: People often accuse me of being contradictory, if not of outright hypocrisy. I won’t say I accept the ontological argument for the existence of God — the argument that derives God’s existence from his essence — but I do like it (it is so clever) and I am prepared to stand up for it when Dawkins dismisses it with scorn rather than good reasons. In part this is a turf war. I am a professional philosopher. I admire immensely thinkers like Anselm and Descartes and am proud to be one of them, however minor and inadequate in comparison. I am standing up for my own. In part, this is political. Religion is a big thing in America, and often not a very good big thing. I don’t think you are going to counter the bad just by going over the top, like in the Battle of the Somme. I think you have to reach out over no-man’s land to the trenches on the other side and see where we can agree and hope to move forward.
I should say that my Quaker childhood — as in everything I do and think — is tremendously important here. I grew up surrounded by gentle, loving (and very intelligent) Christians. I never forget that. Finally, I just don’t like bad arguments. In my case, I think I can offer good arguments against the existence of the Christian God. I don’t need the inadequate and faulty. In “Murder in the Cathedral,” T.S. Eliot has Thomas à Becket say, “The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason.” Amen.
This interview was conducted by email and edited.