Stephen C. Meyers article ” DNA and Other Designs” (April) captures the heart of the scientific case against the materialist ideology that rules biology. Neither physical laws nor chance can write meaningful text (complex specified information). Chance produces only meaningless disorder, and law produces only simple repetition. That is why no one has ever observed natural selection or any other natural process creating new genetic information by a combination of law and chance; it is every bit as impossible as a perpetual motion machine. Professor Meyers article will produce angry and baffled responses not because there is any real objection to the logic, but because the aim of biology in the era of Darwin has been to support a materialist worldview rather than to investigate the data impartially. Thanks to Stephen Meyer and to First Things for helping to bring that era to a close.
Phillip E. Johnson
Boalt Hall (Law School)
University of California
Stephen C. Meyers article “DNA and Other Designs” presents, no doubt unintentionally, a compelling case for the intellectual desperation of the “Intelligent Design” movement.
Professor Meyer seems to think that if he can show that evolutionary biologists have not yet solved the many problems associated with the origin of life, then he can claim that intelligent design is a fair alternative. Curiously, however, he then ignores nearly two decades of research on this very subject, failing to tell his readers of experiments showing that very simple RNA sequences can serve as biological catalysts and even self“replicate. He follows with elaborate probability calculations showing that sequence“specific large protein molecules would be unlikely to self“assemble on the primitive earth, overlooking the fact that no scientist has ever proposed that todays highly evolved proteins were assembled in such fashion.
A reasonable person might well argue, despite strong evidence to the contrary, that the first living forms on planet Earth might have been the product of some act of intelligent design. Prof. Meyer, however, insists on going much further, and here his thesis stumbles from unlikely speculation into demonstrable error. Waving Michael Behes banner of “irreducible complexity,” he flatly states that Darwinian processes cannot produce complex biochemical systems. This claim is simply wrong, as even a cursory search of the biochemical literature will establish.
Lastly, Prof. Meyer allies himself with the curious informational arguments of William A. Dembski, who asserts that the informational complexity of DNA can be explained only by the direct, intelligent design of DNA sequences. Dembskis theories may be attractive, but only to those who are unfamiliar with the wealth of direct, experimental evidence on the mechanisms of molecular evolution. When one can watch new genes, with novel biochemical capabilities, evolve under controlled laboratory conditions, the claim that DNA sequence complexity requires intelligent design vanishes into thin air.
Why does Prof. Meyer find it necessary, despite overwhelming evidence for evolution, to take arms against Darwin? Quite clearly, as he puts it, what is at stake is nothing less than “free will, meaning, purpose, and God.” Stirring words, to be sure, but absolute logical nonsense. Free will has never been threatened by evolution, and issues of meaning, purpose, and Divinity clearly lie beyond the reach of science, even the Darwinian science he fears so much. If Stephen Meyer wishes to argue for the importance of these values he will have many allies, including John Polkinghorne, Paul Davies, Ian Barbour, and me. However, when he and his small group of friends claim scientific status for their attacks on evolution, the readers of First Things would be well advised to inquire exactly how many papers have appeared in the scientific literature to document “intelligent design.” The answer will surprise no one who has followed the development of Prof. Meyers ideas. None.
Kenneth R. Miller
Professor of Biology
Providence, Rhode Island
Stephen C. Meyers article on design in nature merely confirms an observation that we scientists have about design theory: theres no “there” there. Professor Meyer spends lots of time telling us what didnt happen via evolution. In fact he spends so much time that he can even calculate the odds against evolution happening. What he doesnt tell us is what did happen. To say that design produces order because computer programmers create information ignores the fact that we can hire programmers. If Prof. Meyer is suggesting we can hire God, thats a pretty neat trick. Design theory isnt science for one simple reason: there is no mechanism for design. Prof. Meyer spends all of his article saying what didnt happen, as if thats proof of design. What it proves is that Prof. Meyer, like William A. Dembski before him, is parading ignorance as science.
Stephen C. Meyer outlines well one of the great voids in materialist science: an explanation of how DNA arose as the genetic code. Professor Meyer does a good job of documenting that an inference of design is reasonable when we talk about the origins of the DNA“based biota we know now. Certainly chance is not acceptable if we feel we need to explain how DNA or related RNA life forms could have risen, full“blown, as a coding system. But, as a chemist, I think there are flaws in his argument, both at the level of basic chemistry and in philosophical terms.
Prof. Meyer is implying more than he should about the way we understand the operation of the coding system in the evolution of species, including our own. Few scientists feel there is a problem in understanding how chance mutations and natural selection explain changes in the genetic code. Chance, not design, is also a reasonable inference when we notice that the genetic code of many organisms, including our own, includes astounding waste and uneconomical variation. The full genome does have high information content, but it also has high nonsense content. Is nonsense (including repeats and stretches that do not code for anything used in that organism) a sign of intelligence, or of chance?
To the extent that Prof. Meyers work focuses on origin of biotic systems from prebiotic ones, design could be an explanation. But I sense that he is building on the same error that is behind arguments based on origin“by“chance: that we can consider the current coding system as a clear indication of the system that was present during the original change from prebiotic to biotic systems. Our current genetic system is based on some robust chemistry, far more robust and successful than any cruder original hereditary system may have been. In other words, we may be looking at only the most successful system, not the original system. And the genetic code leaves no fossils. This is a very frustrating part of a lot of good science: we cannot always access the basic mechanism of a particular event. The answer, in those cases, is to look for more creative probes of the question, not to overemphasize one mechanism that, while consistent with the data, possesses little of the predictive power of a good scientific theory.
I am always wary of arguments that infer anything by induction, and that is what I think Prof. Meyer does when he writes, “Because mind or intelligent design is a necessary cause of an informative system, one can detect the past action of an intelligent cause.” All we can say, as scientists, is that mind or intelligent design is the only origin of complex coding that we know of.
Indeed, an inductive counterargument could be advanced for chance in the original code. It is the argument I think most “materialists” would cling to, and I do not think Prof. Meyer addresses it. Specifically, since chance is generally accepted as adequate to explain shifts in that coding, there is a strong inductive reason to think chance may, in ways we cannot fathom right now, have played a role in origin. In my opinion this induction of chance, and his induction of design, are equally problematic.
In the end I think the greatest danger of Prof. Meyers view is that it invites scientists to conduct experiments that falsify the design theory by coming up with even one counter example. These scientists would then claim that they had “proven” that there was no need for design. Well, then what? If a chance“based example of an original code were to appear, would our faith in Gods design be rendered false? I for one think not, because I do not see that we need to have science on our side to justify our faith in design.
If faith is indeed hope in things”including Gods designs”that are unseen, then we should not worry if science cannot see what we know in faith. Faith in things invisible to modern science is important, and we must not anchor our faith on the discoveries of science, nor abandon it to the possibility of scientific refutation.
Donald J. Wink
Associate Professor of Chemistry
University of Illinois at Chicago
In “DNA and Other Designs,” Stephen C. Meyer writes that “the probability of constructing a rather short, functional protein at random becomes so small (1 chance in 10,125) as to approach the point at which appeals to chance become absurd even given the probabilistic resources of our multibillion“year“old universe.”
However, no one yet has attempted to estimate what the size of those resources might be, and this is the major flaw, as I see it, in the “argument from improbability,” which has replaced the old “argument from design.” The larger those resources might be, the less improbable the occurrence of the protein becomes. So the improbability is dependent on ones reckoning of the “probabilistic resources.”
Hence, while the chance for a protein being constructed by chance may be very, very small, the difference between those who accept such an argument from improbability and those who do not will lie not in their recognition of how small the chance is, but in their personal reckoning of the “probabilistic resources” of our universe over its apparent lifespan, which is currently some twelve to fourteen billion years.
It is the appreciation of the size and scale of the universe and of our place in it”brought about by the development of modern science in just the last four centuries of human history”that is really responsible for the decline in the popular plausibility of theistic arguments from design or improbability. We simply did not have the means of reckoning”of getting anything like an accurate personal sense”of our place within the scope of things. We on our planet could scarcely have helped considering ourselves the “crown jewel” in the divine creation, given how little we knew of our world compared to what we know now.
Huntington, New York
Stephen C. Meyer replies:
Kenneth Millers letter makes only one point relevant to my central argument. In his second paragraph he faults me “for failing to tell [my] readers of experiments showing that very simple RNA sequences can serve as biological catalysts and even self“replicate.” But Professor Miller fails to tell readers the whole story. In my essay I argued that intelligent design constitutes the best (most causally adequate) explanation for the origin of the genetic information necessary to produce a living cell in the first place. To support this claim I argued that all major classes of naturalistic explanation, whether based upon chance, physical“chemical necessity, or some combination of the two, fail to explain how information“rich biomacromolecules could have arisen from pre“biotic (nonliving) chemistry.
The RNA world scenario that Prof. Miller cites does not solve this problem. Indeed, the RNA world was never proposed as an explanation for the sequencing or information problem (thus my silence about it). Rather it was proposed as an explanation for the origin of the interdependence of nucleic acids and proteins in the cells information“processing system. In extant cells, building proteins requires genetic information from DNA, but information on DNA cannot be processed without many specific proteins and protein complexes. This poses a “chicken“or“egg” problem. The discovery that RNA (a nucleic acid) possesses some limited catalytic properties (similar to those of proteins) suggested a way to solve this problem. “RNA first” advocates proposed an early state in which RNA performed both the enzymatic functions of modern proteins and the information storage function of modern DNA, thus allegedly making the interdependence of DNA and proteins unnecessary in the earliest living system.
Nevertheless, recent scientific publications detail many fundamental difficulties with the RNA world scenario. First, naturally occurring RNA possesses very few of the specific enzymatic properties of the proteins that are necessary to extant cells. Second, RNA world advocates offer no plausible explanation for how primitive RNA replicators might have evolved into modern cells that do rely (almost exclusively) on proteins to process genetic information and regulate metabolism. Third, attempts to enhance the limited catalytic properties that RNA molecules do have inevitably have involved extensive investigator manipulation in so“called “ribozyme engineering” experiments, thus simulating, if anything, the need for intelligent design, not the adequacy of an undirected chemical evolutionary process. Fourth, synthesizing (and/or maintaining) many essential building blocks of RNA molecules under realistic conditions has proven either difficult or impossible. Further, the chemical conditions required for the synthesis of ribose sugars are decidedly incompatible with the conditions required for synthesizing nucleoside bases. Yet both are necessary constituents of RNA.
In any case, the RNA world presupposes, but does not provide, a solution to the sequence specificity or information problem addressed in my article. For strands of RNA to perform enzymatic functions (including enzymatically mediated self“replication) they must, like proteins, have very specific arrangements of constituent building blocks (in this case, their nucleoside bases). Further, they must be long enough to fold into complex three“dimensional shapes (to form so“called tertiary structure). Thus, any RNA molecule capable of enzymatic function must have the same property of sequence specificity that DNA and proteins do. Indeed, such molecules must possess considerable (specified) information content.
Nevertheless, explaining how the building blocks of RNA might have arranged themselves into functionally specified sequences has proven no easier than explaining how the constituent parts of DNA might have done so, especially given the high probability of destructive cross reactions between desirable and undesirable molecules in any realistic pre“biotic soup. Further, for a single“stranded RNA“catalyst to self“replicate it must find an identical RNA molecule in close vicinity to function as a template, since a single RNA molecule cannot function as both enzyme and template. It has been shown, however, that to have a reasonable chance of finding two identical RNA molecules of a length sufficient to perform enzymatic functions would require an RNA library of some 1.0 E+54 (1054) RNA molecules. The mass of such a library vastly exceeds the mass of the earth, suggesting the extreme implausibility of any chance origin of a primitive replicator system. Yet one cannot invoke natural selection to explain the origin of primitive replicators, since natural selection ensues only after self“replication has arisen. Likewise, RNA bases, like DNA bases, do not manifest self“organizational bonding affinities that can explain their specific sequencing. In short, the same kind of evidentiary and theoretical problems emerge whether one proposes that genetic information arose first in RNA or DNA molecules.
Prof. Miller dismisses my “elaborate probability calculations showing that sequence“specific large protein molecules would be unlikely to self“assemble on the primitive earth,” complaining that I overlook “the fact that no scientist has ever proposed that todays highly evolved proteins were assembled in such fashion.” Here he makes a concession, but states it as an objection. Prof. Miller recognizes, as almost all origin“of“life researchers do, that proteins, RNA, and DNA are far too complex and specified to have arisen by chance given the time available from the cooling of the early earth (or even from the big bang) to the first appearance of life on earth. I included the calculations that I did, not to critique a straw man, but to illustrate why this consensus against chance emerged during the 1960s. (Before that time some scientists, notably George Wald, did, contra Prof. Millers claim, advocate chance alone.)
With the one exception noted above, therefore, Prof. Miller does not dispute my empirical argument. Instead, he responds mainly by critiquing Michael Behes argument from irreducible complexity and by defending Darwins theory of biological (not chemical) evolution. He claims that I “flatly state that Darwinian processes cannot produce complex biochemical systems.” But I did not. Behe claims that, or at least something close to it. While I happen to agree with Behe, Prof. Miller cannot refute my argument by citing arguments that allegedly undermine Behes. (I will leave rebutting Prof. Millers critique of Behe to Behe, but interested readers may want to know that Behe has responded specifically to the papers Prof. Miller depends upon at several recent academic conferences. Discovery Institute has also posted Behes responses to Prof. Miller, to the papers he depends upon, and to his other critics on its website at www.crsc.org [also accessible at www.discovery.org].)
Prof. Miller similarly fails to address my argument when he claims that “one can watch new genes, with novel biochemical capabilities, evolve under controlled laboratory conditions.” Prof. Miller thinks recent work has established this possibility and thus states that “the claim that DNA sequence complexity requires intelligent design vanishes into thin air.” Yet Prof. Millers wording shows that he has confused the issue. My article challenged the claim that undirected natural processes sufficed to explain the original genetic information necessary to the first living cell (starting in a pre“biotic environment). To talk about “new genes” evolving novel capabilities implies the existence of pre“existing genes in an already living organism. Yet genes by definition contain large amounts of genetic information. Thus, citing examples that putatively document how pre“existing genes can evolve new genetic information, as Prof. Miller does, only assumes the point at issue in my article, namely, the origin of biological information in the first place.
Prof. Miller also objects to my assessment of the philosophical implications of Darwinism and other nineteenth“century materialistic theories of origin. He insists that “science can say nothing about purpose.” Yet curiously his own textbook asserts that “Evolution works without either plan or purpose” and “is random and undirected ” (emphasis in original).
Prof. Miller closes by asking “exactly how many papers have appeared in the scientific literature to document intelligent design?” “None,” he answers. But his answer assumes the dominant theoretical framework at issue. As molecular biologist Scott Minnich has noted, scientists who are sympathetic to the design hypothesis see considerable evidence of intelligent design in the scientific literature. Readers might consult, for example, the February 1998 special issue of Cell , devoted to the description of biomolecular machines. The question is not whether scientific papers document evidence of intelligent design. Many scientists now think that they do. The more important question is: Given the ideo logical climate evidenced by Kenneth Millers letter, will scientific journals allow well“credentialed scientists who do see evidence of intelligent design to say so openly in their scientific papers? On this question, the jury is”sadly”still out.
Bob Puharics letter raises an objection that I addressed directly in my essay. He casts my argument as an argument from ignorance because I critique naturalistic explanations for the origin of information without “tell[ing] us what did happen.” As he puts it, “Prof. Meyer spends all of his article saying what didnt happen, as if thats proof for design.” Yet I do say what happened. Specifically, I argued that “an intelligent cause operated [acted] in the past to produce the information necessary to the origin of life.”
Moreover, I did not present my argument for intelligent design as a “proof,” but rather as an inference to the best explanation. Such arguments do not commit the fallacy of arguing from ignorance. Arguments from ignorance claim that because some proposition X has been disproved, some proposition Y has, therefore, been proved. Best explanation arguments do not commit this fallacy, since 1) they do not claim proof, and 2) they do not just provide negative argument against a range of possible hypotheses (say, A, B, and C), but also positive argument for some alternative hypothesis (say, D, where A“D represent the set of hypotheses currently under consideration). In this case, I not only critiqued the causal adequacy of three broad types of naturalistic explanations for the origin of information, but also discussed the known (positive) causal powers of intelligent agents.
Thus, I noted in my article that “design theorists infer [intelligent] design not just because natural processes cannot explain the origin of biological systems,” but also because we know that intelligent agents can produce information“rich sequences. As Henry Quastler, an early pioneer in the application of information theory to molecular biology, recognized, the “creation of new information is habitually associated with conscious activity.” Quastlers observation suggests conscious activity or intelligent design as at least a possible explanation for the origin of information. If, as I argued in my article, no other adequate causal explanation exists, then intelligent design also stands as the best explanation. Moreover, we routinely make such inferences to intelligent design because of our knowledge, not our ignorance, of what agents as well as various types of naturalistic entities can and cannot produce.
Edmund Weinmann and Donald Wink challenge my critique of the chance hypothesis. Weinmann argues correctly that “the larger those [probabilistic] resources might be, the less improbable the occurrence of the protein becomes.” He then asserts that “no one has yet attempted to estimate what the size of those resources might be.” Unfortunately, this statement is incorrect. In the sixth chapter of The Design Inference (1998), William A. Dembski, following earlier probability theorists such as Emile Borel, does calculate the probabilistic/specificational resources of the universe. His calculations imply that chance can be eliminated as a plausible explanation for specified systems of small probability, where small, on the cosmological scale, is less than 1/2 x 1/10150 (1/2 x 1.0 E“150). Dembskis work on chance elimination merely refines and develops already well“accepted statistical methods and procedures. It also simply makes explicit the implicit logic that origin“of“life biologists have employed to eliminate the chance hypothesis since the late 1960s.
In addition to concerns about my assessment of the chance hypothesis, Donald Wink objects to the inductive basis of my argument. While I would characterize the overall structure of my argument as an inference to the best explanation, Professor Wink is correct that such arguments do depend upon generalizations about causal powers derived from (often) repeated experience, that is, from induction. Nevertheless, it does not follow that identifying an inductive basis for an argument makes it inherently weak or suspect as far as practical reasoning is concerned. When assessing empirical arguments the question is not, “Is this argument based upon inductive reasoning?” Most scientific arguments are. Indeed, most laws of physics have been accepted on essentially inductive grounds. We do not distrust them”practically speaking”for that. Instead, the question should be, “Are the inductive grounds for this argument strong or weak?” Prof. Wink effectively concedes that the inductive basis for my argument is strong when he states that “all we can say, as scientists, is that mind or intelligent design is the only origin [cause] of complex coding that we know of.” Indeed, I commend intelligent design as the best explanation for the encoded information in DNA for this very reason.
Nevertheless, Prof. Wink expresses concern about the provisional nature of empirically based scientific arguments and cautions against basing religious faith on them. He worries that scientists may later prove that “there was no need for design” and asks, “Then what?” Well, clearly, a decisive refutation of the “DNA to Design” argument would leave theists with one less reason for their belief in an intelligent designer. Conversely, if the argument stands, theists will have one more such reason. Nevertheless, those who insist that faith does not require reasons should have no objection to marshaling evidence and argument that may support some aspect of theistic belief, as long as the conclusions are warranted by the evidence. Such arguments would, at best, provide welcome but unnecessary rational support for theistic belief. At worst, the refutation of such arguments would leave theists in exactly the same position that the fideists say is sufficient, that is, without rational support for their belief. In short, nothing is lost by trying. In any case, consequentialist arguments about what does or does not promote faith do not bear on the status of arguments for (or against) intelligent design. Thus, design theorists are committed to following the evidence wherever it leads, even if it happens to lead to a conclusion with theistic implications.
Finally, I thank Phillip E. Johnson for his supportive comments.
Keith Pavlischeks review essay on James Turner Johnsons Morality and Contemporary Warfare ( “The Justice in Just War,” May ) reveals a kind of puzzlement. He, and presumably Johnson, seem to think there are inconsistencies in the position of the presumption“against“war critics and in the application of that view to real“world issues. The writer and reviewer apparently believe the inconsistencies are inevitable in view of the conflict between just war doctrine and the presumption“against“war interpretation of it.
That, as I see it, is not the source of the problem. For at least thirty years, the left has used the just war doctrine to prove that anything the West in general and the U.S. in particular did was unjust. Facts and logic had to be twisted, and false emphases had to be placed on various aspects of the doctrine as applied in any given case. You will recall that the doctrine was never applied to left/socialist/ Communist wars. The presumption against war didnt apply when the subject was national liberation or land redistribution.
Mr. Johnson and Mr. Pavlischek appear to believe that the presumption“against“war position is sincere. I dont believe it is. I believe it is consciously taken up as a tool to oppose any assertive actions by the forces of Western democracy.
Richard A. Aubrey, Jr.
Keith Pavlischek replies:
No doubt about it, during the Cold War the “blame Amerika first” and the anti“anti“Communist crowd seized upon the presumption“against“war interpretation of the just war tradition for their own less than honorable purposes. Ill leave it to the historians to sort out the extent of that influence on theologians, the ethics guild, and the churches. So lets stipulate that some or even many advocates of the position were insincere, dishonorable, and disingenuous.
But lets also stipulate, and not just for the sake of charity, that the position was taken up and advanced by many who were genuinely sincere in their understanding of the just war tradition and its implications for the use of force in contemporary international politics. Johnsons book (and hence my review) primarily targets the statements issued by the American Catholic Bishops, who should be included among the most prominent of the honorable and sincere, yet sincerely mistaken. Had the focus of Johnsons disagreement been with insincere and less honorable opponents, his defense of the classic tradition would be less persuasive and subject to the charge that he was attacking a straw man. But his case cannot be so easily dismissed. Which is simply to say that if the arguments of Johnson and other defenders of the classic just war idea are successful against honorable and sincere presumption“against“war advocates, then that goes a fortiori against those who adopt the position for more dubious and pernicious reasons.
Pierre Manents chief complaint in ” The Return of Political Philosophy ” (May)”at least, one of the few that is clear in his murky essay”seems to be that twentieth“century political philosophers writings on totalitarianism 1) were sparse, and 2) contributed little to the collapse of first the Nazi and later the Soviet regimes. Though scant evidence is offered for this latter claim, it seems true. (How many political regimes have been brought down by philosophical treatises?) Professor Manent seems not to have considered that the main contribution of recent political philosophy may have been positive rather than critical. The centurys last third witnessed an explosion of philosophical writing analyzing and justifying such matters as justice, democracy, rights, freedom, and equality. It is not at all unlikely that some of this more affirmative work helped solidify an intellectual and moral consensus against the Soviet system and its empire, delegitimizing its claims to accord priority to economic rights and peoples democracy, and undermining its dismissal of what it derided as merely “bourgeois” freedoms.
Perhaps Prof. Manent doesnt consider this possibility because of the low regard in which he holds “what goes by the name of political philosophy or theory today.” Indeed, he imagines that “the twentieth century has witnessed the disappearance or withering away of political philosophy,” which “owes its bare survival to . . . Leo Strauss sole and unaided efforts.” Even without the remark about Strauss”which makes it truly laughable”this is absurd. All that appears to lie behind it is Prof. Manents refusal to count as political philosophy any writing that fails to “include a thorough analysis of political life within [the authors] account of the human world.” As with the rest of Prof. Manents essay, it is hard to know what this means. However, the complaint appears to be against work that declines to base its view of the goals and constraints of political life on a detailed prior elaboration of human nature.
To be sure, much of the best twentieth“century political theory did eschew that, and some of the reasons offered were poor. Nonetheless, its goal of a normative political theory rendered more widely acceptable by its independence of notoriously controversial theses about humanitys origin, nature, and destiny is not to be despised. More important, there is no reason to pretend that this large body of work (in liberal theory, but also in analytical Marxism, communitarianism, and even natural law) doesnt exist or lacks significance. Prof. Manent may find better argumentation in the works of “Hegel . . . Marx, even . . . Comte” than in Feinberg, Dworkin, Rawls, Waldron, et al. (I dont.) Still, it is a mere insult, and a foolish one at that, to deny that the work of the latter group constitutes political philosophy of high quality.
That many, even all, of modern sciences findings are incomplete and provisional does nothing to justify Prof. Manents contention that science is “meaningless.” The view that sciences task is to discover, order, and explain facts, rather than offer moral judgments, does not mean that there yawns an unbridgeable gulf between facts and values. (In fact, though Prof. Manent seems not to have noticed, unquestioning acceptance of the supposed fact/value gap collapsed within Anglophone philosophy during the centurys middle third.) Democratic theory need do nothing to deny the diversity of human experience, pace Prof. Manent, though it certainly questions the elitist assumption that those differences reflect deep differences within human nature and an underlying hierarchy among human groups.
Prof. Manent cannot be trusted to get even the littlest and most familiar things right. Descartes resolves, as an initial methodological procedure, to rely on nothing but the indubitable, therein treating the doubtful as if it were false. To charge, as Prof. Manent does, that the great mathematician and philosopher therein “equated what is doubtful with what is false” is a sophomoric blunder.
J. L. A. Garcia
Institute on Race and Social Division
Pierre Manents florid essay on political philosophy contains a pernicious assertion that bears comment in that it is becoming increasingly pervasive in conservative circles. This assertion is that Leo Strauss is a genuine practitioner of political philosophy.
The non“philosophical character of Strauss teachings has been demonstrated conclusively enough on numerous occasions. These demonstrations have come from thinkers of such diverse perspectives as Frederick Wilhelmsen, Shadia Drury, and Myles Burnyeat. However, the very notion that one need resort to machinations as dubious as esoteric reading and paragraph counting to recover the utility of classical philosophical thought (following modernitys rather wholesale dismissal of antiquity) should be reason enough to ensure for Strauss a very skeptical reception among those receptive to tradition. After all, the other primary conduits for classical political thought”St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas perhaps most prominent among them”had no need of such devices. But then for Strauss, this is exactly the problem: that such thinkers were so successful at recovering, preserving, and developing the insights of classical political philosophy that their success prompted attempts to instantiate the resulting syntheses in the governance of society.
It would take far too long to adequately show the degree to which Strauss is a postmodern philosopher, and thus, along with his teacher Heidegger, fails to advance the cause of philosophy at all. It is sufficient to observe that Strauss shares with Kojève, Nietzsche, Foucault, and other postmoderns the desire ultimately to end philosophical inquiry. For Strauss this effort takes the form of an attempt to wrest reflections on the political order from their normative grounding in the architectonic realms of philosophical anthropology and metaphysics. Arguably this is for the sake of neutralizing those excessively ambitious to reform society in accord with the Truth. In Fides et Ratio , however, Pope John Paul II has amply demonstrated the futility of such an attempt to recast philosophy.
Put simply, even if Strauss proposed to recover the classical political tradition in its integrity (which he doesnt), his project is entirely vitiated by the fact that his “recovery” proceeds not from a philosophy of things as they are in themselves, or a philosophy of being, but from a “philosophy” of philosophies.
It is unfortunate that Professor Manent and those presumably sympathetic with his position have given up on the ambition of penetrating to the nature of things in favor of the ambition of providing some new philosophical standard for the “conservative movement” to march under. One might insist that such despair should not prevail against the hope evident in certain philosophical circles of resuming the inquiry into the nature of things as a basis of the attempt to provide for a just political order.
Albert E. Gunn
Silver Spring, Maryland
I was surprised to read in Pierre Manents article the following sentence: “Indeed, political philosophy as originally understood owes its bare survival”fittingly unobtrusive to the point of secretiveness”to Leo Strauss sole and unaided efforts.” I wonder if Professor Manent has not made the acquaintance of Strauss great colleague and friendly antagonist, Eric Voegelin? Surely Strauss himself, who (despite disagreement) deemed Voegelins approach to classical political philosophy as “toweringly superior to nearly all that one gets to read about Plato and Aristotle,” would question the omission of Voegelin in such a summary.
Voegelins work to reorient the approach to political science in a profound reexamination of the classical and modern literature resulted in the classic New Science of Politics and in many other major studies. Voegelin is virtually unique among major twentieth“century scholars in the historical and philosophical disciplines in insisting on the fundamental importance of Christian experiences and their symbolizations for any valid understanding of the crisis of modern Western society. Himself a refugee from Nazi tyranny, Voegelin found the impetus for his lifes work in the political realities he lived through. He sought to ground political science in a philosophical anthropology enriched by a reformulated philosophy of consciousness. In Voegelin great scholarship and a profound meditative practice meet. Simple justice demands that Prof. Manents provocative omission be addressed.
C. F. Sills
Greenville, West Virginia
Pierre Manent replies:
What a drubbing! What a nice choice of words: “murky,” “laughable,” “absurd,” “foolish insult,” “sophomoric,” “pernicious,” etc.! Instead of answering in kind, I will try to build some bridges towards my angry readers.
1) Many objections rest on the mistaken assumption that I intended to unfold a complete panorama of twentieth“century political thought, with a prize list to boot. Nothing could be further removed from my intention. My main purpose was to try to give a sketch, in the most synthetic manner, of the relations between modern political thought and the experiences of this century. Thus I should be judged on what I said, not on what, or whom, I omitted.
2) Indeed, I deliberately omitted mention of many valuable and admirable scholars. I am thus able to sympathize with my readers: yes, I was unjust, and not only towards Voegelin. But it was an injustice I could not avoid.
3) Now, what did I say ? My inquiry dealt mainly with two great questions that do not elicit more than a passing interest, if any, from my correspondents. First, how did our democracy come into being? Second, how did our democracy go, so to speak, into nonbeing and evolve into totalitarianism or at least open itself to what has been aptly called “the totalitarian temptation”? I understand that Americans are different from Europeans in that they take the democratic regime for granted. They dont willingly inquire about its origins because, as Tocqueville memorably said, “they were born equal instead of becoming so.” They dont fear its demise”and accordingly dont willingly inquire about its possible corruption”because their virtues, with the help of Providence, have kept their political vessel on an even keel. But they cannot have forgotten that American might and resolve was needed to free Europe from the scourge of totalitarianism. As a European, I could not content myself with the fashionable policy of “dont ask, dont tell” about the causes, and I tried to understand how democracy could have evolved out of “familial” social arrangements on the one hand and given birth to its opposite on the other hand. To be able to shed light on these two sets of problems forms, in my opinion, the first specification for political philosophy. And of course to fill this bill you need to be able to give, yes, “a thorough analysis of political life within an account of the human world.” This view explains why many very respectable names went unmentioned. It is not enough to write intelligently and learnedly of our present circumstances to qualify as a political philosopher.
4) One consequence of these remarks is that John Rawls does not qualify as a political philosopher. He certainly is a citizen in good standing of the American body politic, and a very commented upon teacher and writer. He contributed to a revival of the debate about our social arrangements not only in the English“speaking world, but in the whole democratic world. But he presupposes the validity, truth, and excellence of our democratic principles and institutions, and so cannot do more than ingeniously tinker with parochial details. What is his “original position””which nearly drowned the Western world in a sea of commentaries”if not the traditional state of nature but without nature? Professor Garcia admits as much when he writes of “an explosion of philosophical writing analyzing and justifying such matters as justice, democracy,” etc. Who needs one more justifier for what he or she already believes? I need someone who is able to free me from the bondage of present conventions.
5) I should have known that simply mentioning the name of Leo Strauss is sufficient in the United States to cause an explosion. I am at a loss to understand why. In my country, which by the way is not a model for courteous scholarly exchanges, Leo Strauss is discussed as a very important contemporary thinker without his critics choking with rage. It is a fact that Leo Strauss set as his purpose the recovery of the original meaning of political philosophy, which among other things included the specifications I have already alluded to, of exploring the coming“into“being and the corruption of political regimes. And he stressed the enormous difficulties attending this enterprise”difficulties that explain why so many distinguished minds content themselves with learned considerations about political things. Mr. Gunn is, I am afraid, mistaken when he equates Strauss effort with, among others, Kojèves endeavor. If he gives even a passing glance at the dialogue between these authors on tyranny, he will notice that the main objection Strauss addresses to Kojève is that the victory of the latters philosophy would end philosophical inquiry. Thus, “resuming the inquiry into the nature of things as a basis of the attempt to provide for a just political order,” Mr. Gunns valedictory recommendation, is part and parcel of Leo Strauss enterprise.
In his defense of a Thwackum“like definition of religion (” The Very Idea of Religion ,” May)”which doubles as an argument against the possibility of a scientific study of religion”Paul Griffiths seems to have entirely forgotten his own advice in his Apology for Apologetics (1991). Gratuitous ad hominem attacks play a more significant role than do analysis and critique in his dismissal of arguments he apparently finds challenging to his faith in my Politics of Religious Studies (1999), and he forgoes critical scrutiny of arguments he finds helpful in Timothy Fitzgeralds Ideology of Religious Studies (1999). Professor Griffiths appears to think it germane to the defense of his Christian faith to castigate me for offending against good taste by “describing” my book as “much needed.” Not only is the point irrelevant to his argument, and the quoted passage bowdlerized, it is a strange accusation from one whose expression of gratefulness to God for support in bringing his Religious Reading to completion suggests divine approbation of his own work. His further claim”without substantiation”that my book is “saturated throughout” with expressions of my own importance is also unworthy of the person he describes in his earlier work as a “proper apologist.” However, despite a long list of ad hominem comments from Prof. Griffiths, I must, for reasons of space, dispense with any further attempt at vindication provoked by his “unholy glee in the successful prosecution of another victory” and move on to more important matters.
Constraints of space also prevent me from documenting here the wholly uncritical character of Prof. Griffiths reading of Fitzgerald. Suffice it to say that his claim that Fitzgerald has clearly shown “that those who have tried to develop a scientific understanding of religion capable of providing the necessary horizon for the discipline have failed to do so” is thoroughly ambiguous, if not incoherent. Obtaining a scientific understanding of religion is the aim of the discipline of Religious Studies, not its presupposition; it makes no sense to talk of developing a scientific understanding of religion as the necessary framework for a discipline intended to provide a scientific account of religion.
My concern in Politics was not, contra Prof. Griffiths, with the definition of religion but rather with finding a scientifically credible way of understanding the behavior of persons who claim to order their lives by reference to some supernatural agent or reality. And such an approach, I argue, can quite appropriately make use of the word “religion” as a taxonomic category, and can do so without”like the theologians Fitzgerald criticizes”reifying it. In this usage “religion” simply points to an empirically determinable form of behavior capable of explanation in the same way that other social scientists try to account for other ranges of human behavior. And it is the assumption of the methodological principles of the social sciences that accounts for my naturalism and not, as Prof. Griffiths suggests, a naive and uncritical pseudo“religious faith driven by a hidden hatred for those who are religious.
Prof. Griffiths claim notwithstanding, therefore, I do not “excoriate” all confessional commitments, nor do I begrudge the religious their commitments to Meaning and Truth. There is no salvific hope in my methodological commitments”no expectation that somehow science will provide a sense of belonging in the universe or rescue us from death and destruction. I claim only that science is undeniably the most successful of all human cognitive enterprises and that if the academic study of religion in the modern research university is to be accounted one of the sciences such a methodological naturalism is not only appropriate but necessary. And I “excoriate” only those who would claim scientific status for their revealed Meanings and Truths.
Moving beyond Prof. Griffiths ad hominem comments to a critical scrutiny of his “arguments,” as my comments here indicate, will show that Prof. Griffiths claim that students of religion have been unable to escape Parson Thwackum, and that in consequence the scientific study of religion is without a future, is wholly unpersuasive. Prof. Griffiths further claim that his conclusion is not news, therefore, is false, although he is entirely right to claim that what is new “is that more and more of those who find their academic home in departments of religion and their principle guild affiliation in the American Academy of Religion are happy to say it.” Given the Protestant domination of the American university since its birth, and the birth of the American Academy of Religion from the substance of the National Association for Biblical Studies, that claim is more sad than surprising.
Dean of Divinity, Trinity College
University of Toronto
In his article ” The Very Idea of Religion ,” Paul J. Griffiths has ably portrayed the current conflict in the academic study of religion. Although he chooses to focus on two carefully selected books, the question whether there is an object of study called “religion,” or whether that term should be abandoned as crypto“Christian, has raged for the last few years in monographs, articles, and letters to the editor in all the religious studies journals. Professor Griffiths is correct to portray this as a polarized struggle: between those who explicitly or implicitly assume some single, real, transcendental thing underlying all particular religions (“theologians”) on the one hand; and those who argue that all “religious” phenomena can be reduced to politics, economics, power hierarchies, or cognitive science (“naturalists”) on the other.
The definitional problem about religion arises, in fact, because both sides in the debate use overly sharp categories. People want to find the necessary and sufficient conditions (often they prefer to find one such condition) that make a given behavior, text, belief, work of art, etc., “religious.” This creates endless sterile disputes: Is Buddhism a religion? Is New Age? Is communism? Is magic a form of religion or a form of science?
The scholars who founded religious studies in North America, above all Mircea Eliade, insisted on the irreducible sui generis character of religion. This provided them with a convenient justification for the disciplinary autonomy these scholars craved. Of course, over“insistence on such an independent, irreducible religious element made it laughably easy for later critics to show that “religious” experiences and institutions are always inextricably mixed up with politics, social relationships, gender hierarchy, language structure, individual psychology . . . the list is endless. Such critics then think that religion has been dispersed into these other categories, and so has been made to disappear.
The solution, I think, is to eschew the sharp boundaries that got religionists of both sides”the Griffiths es and the Wiebes”into trouble in the first place. Instead of asking whether a given movement is “a religion,” we should ask whether it portrays “religiosity.” This category, in turn, should also be fuzzy, pictured as a bundle of various features none of which, on their own, are necessary or sufficient. For something to count as displaying religiosity it would have to have some small number of features, but few or none of these features need be found in everything described as religious. Thus Buddhism can be religious without gods, because it has things like monks, elaborate ritual, and a doctrine of salvation; New Age can be religious without a church because it has an interest in sacraments and in invisible powers; the religious elements of communism, such as its utopian millennialism or its totalistic vision, can be recognized without calling it “a religion”; magic can more clearly and more interestingly be seen as displaying both religiosity and proto“scientific technique”and so on.
Centre for the Study of Religion
University of Toronto
While Paul J. Griffiths may be correct that “the very idea of religion” is problematic, there must be a coherent idea of religion for the First Amendment to be meaningful. Tragically, the secularists now have it both ways: secular substitutes for religion may be promoted by the state but anything associated with religion must be excluded from state actions. So in public schools we strain out the gnat of graduation prayer and swallow the camel of quasi“secular religion in the curriculum.
If religion is broadly defined, there is little reason to give it special status and the freedom of religion merges with other freedoms. If religion is narrowly defined, the state may establish something like a religion in secular guise. How then should we draw the line between secularity and religion? Here are two principles that would help.
1) You cant have it both ways: something may be either secular or religious, but not both. If psychology is secular, then Christian psychology is also secular. If stories of human origins are religious, then scientific stories of human origins are also religious.
2) The negation of something that is religious is also religious, and the same for what is secular. If the invocation of God is religious, then the denial or exclusion of God is also religious. If the state may allow a practice on secular grounds, then the state may restrict that practice without becoming entangled with religion.
Thus the idea of religion is no more problematic than the idea of secularity.
Paul J. Griffiths replies:
Thanks to those who have chosen to respond to my essay on religion.
Three points in response to Dr. Wiebes somewhat overexcited letter.
1) Does giving thanks to God for the capacity to write a book (as I have done) imply that one is thereby claiming divine approbation for everything written in the book? Not at all: it implies only that God is finally responsible for whatever is good in the book. It does not imply that the author is capable of judging what in the book is good. This is elementary theology; not Dr. Wiebes strong point, obviously. By contrast, does claiming that ones own book is much needed, as Mr. Wiebe does, imply that one has an elevated sense of ones books importance”and, perhaps, of ones own importance? Well, Id say so; I stand by what I previously said about that matter. Readers of Dr. Wiebes Politics may judge for themselves the degree of self“important huff“puffery evident in it.
2) Is what I said in my article congruent with what I claimed in an earlier book to be the proper function of apologetical argument? I think it is; but showing that it is would be otiose for those who have read that book ( An Apology for Apologetics , 1991) and boring for those who have not. So I wont do it here. Again, interested readers can pursue that matter for themselves.
3) The central claim in my essay is that there is no coherent or persuasive defense of Dr. Wiebes claim in his book (reiterated in his letter) that methodological naturalism is the only proper position from which to engage in the study of religion in a secular university (or, sometimes, a “modern research university”). Dr. Wiebe nowhere addresses this in his letter. I can only assume that he yields the point. But perhaps he doesnt see the force of the criticism? Perhaps his childlike (and altogether touching) faith in “science” doesnt permit him to consider the possibility that methodological naturalism may be as deeply committed to controversial and controverted claims in metaphysics and epistemology as is orthodox Christianity? If so, he has my sympathy, but not my agreement: evidence of weak“mindedness requires a soothing hand and catechetical instruction, but when it reaches this pitch, argument is of no more use. I recommend to Dr. Wiebes meditations, then, Augustines treatise, De Catechizandis Rudibus .
Michael Ostling appears to think that Im interested in defending the idea that there is some single transcendent real underlying all religions. But of course Im not interested in any such thing, and never said that I was. I do think that because the triune God created all things, and is therefore related to all things as Creator to created, He must necessarily be related in this way to all “religious” things (if it turns out to be useful to think that there are any such). But I have no interest at all in translating this specifically Christian talk into vague abstraction of an Eliadean or Tillichian sort; neither have I any interest in defending the category “religion””as should have been abundantly evident from my essay. Dr. Ostlings letter also provides an apt illustration of the central thesis of my essay, which was that those who eschew theology find it difficult to say what the non“theological study of religion is or is for: his letter shows all the usual evidences of conceptual desperation in this connection.
I agree with Ralph Gillmann that the idea of religion is no more (and no less) problematic than the idea of secularity: the two are in most ways complementary concepts, so this should hardly be a surprise. As to the claim that there must be a coherent idea of religion in order for the First Amendment to be meaningful: Why? Id rather construe the religion clauses of that amendment as a rough guide for muddling through, and a glance at Supreme Court opinions on religion cases in the last thirty years entirely supports this view. I doubt that its possible to extract a coherent view of what religion is from these opinions, and since the Court is, constitutionally, the body that tells us what, in practice, the Constitution means, Im happy to have an under“theorized understanding of the First Amendments meaning.
As a professor of philosophy and ethics who has written two books and numerous articles on character development, has created an extensive online resource devoted to ethics, character, and moral education, regularly teaches seminars on moral education, and, most importantly perhaps, works regularly with the dedicated souls in the trenches of moral education, I was disheartened by James Davison Hunters very skewed perspective on contemporary moral education (” Leading Children Beyond Good and Evil ,” May). In all candor and humility, I believe it is fair to suggest that Professor Hunter knows just enough about the theory and practice of moral education to be dangerous”to the extent, that is, that his mischaracterization might discourage decision“making bodies from implementing new and well“planned character“building programs.
Prof. Hunter might have a point with regard to a handful of programs that are unduly influenced by left“wing ideology and its politically correct jargon, but he has misportrayed the vast majority of moral education efforts nationwide.
From beginning to end, his essay rests on the assumption that “inclusiveness is the sacred wood of all moral education.” He is correct, of course, insofar as he is suggesting that all moral educators believe there are universal moral values on which we all can agree and on which we can cultivate and build character. But the way in which he couches his discussion in the language of “inclusiveness” is nonetheless misleading in the way it seems to imply that the primary criterion and driving force behind contemporary moral education is that mother of all politically correct values, tolerance. On the other hand, there is this puzzling curiosity: Prof. Hunter criticizes moral education programs for championing what he