I had a conversation with a self-identified freethinker colleague of mine the yesterday. (I think the term is insulting, but I’m choosing not to return the insult by means of scare quotes.) He mentioned a newspaper story he had read about a creationism/ID/evolution controversy in some school system somewhere. (Those details didn’t stick with me.) As is his wont, he was rather irritated that the school system was trying to mix science with religion, and his irritation led me to a couple thoughts.
For one, modern science, the child of Christian/Aristotelian medieval philosophy on one hand and a renewed Platonic/Renaissance interest in mathematics on the other, did not have its origins in metaphysical atheism. So much even the most strident secularists, if they’re honest, will concede. What I started thinking about, and I don’t have any solid answers on this yet, is that the question really at hand in the ID/creationism/evolution debates, namely metaphysics, might be a hairier question than the current debates, shorn as they are of historical information, will admit.
Francis Bacon, the English natural philosopher, was one of the first if not the first to cut off from natural philosophy (back then any knowledge, including philosophy and especially theology, were science) questions of final causes, in other words speculation on tendencies in creatures and in creation itself towards some end, some telos. Even so, Bacon (as far as I can tell) never takes the time to deny the efficient causes in Nature (what event X causes event X+1) could reasonably extend backwards to an act of divine creation.
Bacon, of course, published his famous Novum Organum in 1620. The work is a manifesto of the technological age, a movement away from metaphysical speculation into technological manipulation, and it also represents one early and strong move to relegate religion to the realm of existential cognitive assent rather than rational speculation. Yet none of the strong denials that mark the modern debate.
A Working Definition
Debates I’ve heard and read about (from my friend and otherwise) seem to assume a strong metaphysical distinction between empirical/mathematical science on one hand and psychological/existential religion on another. Yet the questions that matter most simply will not stay nicely on one side of that fence or the other. Of course, atheists already know this: folks who want theologians to keep their hands off of the beginning of life have no trouble with Chris Dawkins’ dipping his fingers into spiritual matters, and post-Hegelian secularism itself was what Lyotard wrote about when he wrote about metanarratives.
I’m not sure if I’m calling for anything more than a strong metaphysical agnosticism, in other words not an affirmation of ID on the part of evolutionary biologists so much as a “hands off” approach to matters that by definition are not biological but metaphysical. What seems really to be happening is a process of location. For secularists, the category “religion” is a subset within a field called “humanities” or something of that sort and as a result has to do not with the things that chemistry or physics or even economics deals with but with internal/private rather than shared matters.
On the other hand, I would contend (along with Abraham Kuyper’s famous God-who-says-“mine”) that secularism itself is a subset within a field called heresy, a false diminution of God’s realm from all of creation to the private lives of a few old women. Further, I would say that science does in fact name all kinds of knowledge, not just efficient causes but also final causes, and that what the university calls the hard sciences are in fact parts of natural philosophy, a valid field of inquiry but not one that can usurp and nullify metaphysics.
In either case, one narrative (or ideology, if you prefer) does not annihilate the others but locates it. My humble plea for Christians in 2007 is that we make ourselves aware of these projects of location and that we note their contingent character, not for the sake of relativism but for that of capturing every thought for Christ.
Even thoughts one has in science class.