In Autumn 2012, I ran a two-part interview with moral philosopher and Kantian ethics expert Allen W. Wood. For more than forty years, Professor Wood has expanded people’s understanding of Kant’s ideals, and helped foster a lively community debating and sharing perspectives on Kantian ethics.
The two parts are as follows:
If you enjoyed this interview, please leave a comment. Thank you!
In August 2011, I ran a two-part interview with Catholic theologian John F. Haught. An active voice in attempting to reconcile theology and evolutionary theory, Haught has also worked to reform Christian attitudes towards ecology and the environment.
The two parts are as follows:
If you enjoyed this interview, please leave a comment. Thank you!
Last week I talked to Professor Allen Wood about Kant's Groundwork, the diversity of moral theories available today, and the common misunderstandings about Kantian ethics. This week, the discussion moves from discussion of realism towards issues of contemporary politics.
Chris: You were one of a number of philosophers who provided feedback to Derek Parfit on his monumental On What Matters – and your essay in the second volume of that great work was absolutely phenomenal! It is without a doubt my favourite moral philosophy paper of all time – it completely changed the way I thought about 'trolley problems' (or 'lifeboat problems'), and about the costs inherent in reducing moral issues to mathematics. But it seemed to me that Parfit didn't really wrestle with the challenges you raised there – was that a disappointment?
Allen: I am a great admirer of Parfit's book On What Matters, which deserves the praise it has been given, and does not deserve the criticisms some of its detractors have quite predictably levelled against it. But I admit I am more in agreement with his realist meta-ethical arguments in the second volume than of his attempts to construct a moral theory in the first volume. I can't speak for him, of course, and don't know why he chose not to respond to my criticism of the use of 'trolley problems' in present day moral philosophy. But I do think that his use of these kinds of examples is not really fundamental to his project, so I would be the last to reproach him for his choice to talk about other matters in his reply to me.
Chris: What I loved about your essay in Parfit's book was the way it tilts at something that is seductively appealing – accessible thought experiments – and demonstrates that to make the answers intuitive, we end up throwing away all the context that perhaps really ought to be our focus.
Allen: The currently fashionable model for doing moral theory – the model that attempts to formulate principles that capture our 'intuitions' or 'considered judgments' – was really invented by Sidgwick, and then brought into general use by Rawls. It is understandable that people have found it useful in moral argument between people who cannot agree on deep foundations and are also at odds on the urgent moral issues and decisions we face immediately in daily life and politics.
Chris: There's a sense of desperation sometimes in contemporary politics that despairs of agreement, and so will consider any route that might help attain to it.
Allen: Philosophers using these kinds of techniques look to opinions on which we think we can get general agreement, and try to use these to justify more basic principles that can then be applied to the urgent issues and decisions. The pragmatic utility of this procedure is obvious, but I think this too can be overestimated.
Chris: I confess I misread your essay as being more critical of Parfit than it now seems is the case.
Allen: My friend Philip Kitcher has written a very critical review of Parfit, arguing that a truly pragmatist approach – in the Deweyan tradition – would look quite different, and he cites my remarks about 'trolley problems' in support of his argument. My own view, different from both Parfit's and Kitcher's, is that we need to face the fact that ethics has and requires basic foundations, and cannot be honestly done in ways that avoid the (admittedly hopelessly problematic) questions these raise.
Chris: Even within one tradition, such as Kantian ethics, there are no easy answers; no shortcuts for agreement.
Allen: I admit my view does not leave us with any good prospects for immediate agreement on ethical questions. If we are honest, I think we have to admit that such prospects are bleak.
Chris: I'm perhaps more optimistic than you, in so much as I don't see agreement on foundational principles, or their implications, as either necessary or desirable – I get a little squeamish about realism being used as a big stick to beat people with. After Parfit's Reasons and Persons, there was talk about his moral theory being used to mandate a kind of paternalism – that kind of attitude terrifies me more than moral disagreements.
Allen: One of the basic objective values we Kantians believe in is the external freedom of persons – in particular their freedom from having other people decide for them what their good consists in and their right that nobody should try to dictate through coercion what they ought to believe. People should believe what evidence and argument indicates is true, according to their own free judgment. It would be patently absurd to suggest that these propositions about what is objectively right could 'mandate' paternalism or browbeating.
Chris: The Parfit of Reasons and Persons isn't yet a Kantian, however – he's much closer to utilitarianism at the time, which notoriously lacks the amicable restraint of Kant's philosophy. But either way, meta-ethical realism sometimes makes me nervous because of the possible risk of tipping over into dogmatism, conservatism, or paternalism. Can I take it you'd dismiss this as a misconception?
Allen: I guess so, at least if the realist's substantive views are exactly the opposite of all these '-isms'. I see it as a sad fact that people sometimes form their views about philosophical questions based not the merits of the arguments and evidence for them, but instead on how they think the rhetorical act of stating a view might sound. Is that your complaint about Parfit's meta-ethical realism – that (judged rhetorically) it sounds "paternalistic"? Or it sounds to you as if Parfit might want to beat somebody over the head with a stick?
Chris: It's rather that I read some papers responding to Parfit noting that possibility – even though Parfit clearly doesn't say anything that strong himself.
Allen: What sounds one way to one audience may sound exactly the opposite way to another, and no one should let their philosophical position be dictated by such considerations. Politicians often lie about their positions; they show one face to one audience and a different face to another. The press then congratulates them for their political skill. By contrast, a politician commits a political 'gaffe' when he blurts out the truth to the wrong audience. In politics, lying is rewarded and truthfulness is punished.
Chris: Spoken like a true realist!
Allen: I think most metaethical anti-realists would agree just as strongly, as long as they hold the attitudes that most philosophers do about truthfulness and deception. I think it is one of Jane Austen's characters who says of a candidate for public office that she pities him, because he has to try to make everyone like him. This is a good reason why we philosophers should also pity politicians – and should not imitate them!
Chris: Given the way Nietzsche's philosophy was abused by the Nazi party, you can understand a certain reserve about the possibility that one's philosophical views could be misused or misrepresented.
Allen: Of course this happens, but I think it is pointless to let your views themselves be dictated by such worries: because this can happen to any view – any view. I think most philosophical views that people have found credible have in fact been abused in this way at some time or other. Once you realize that no view is immune, you should recognize that it should not count against any view in particular that it can be so misused. It would be intellectual bankruptcy and moral cowardice not to state a philosophical truth because you are worried that certain people (sometime, somewhere) might twist or abuse it. If that terrifies you, then you could say nothing at all. What should be avoided are views that might lead to monstrous results without being abused or misinterpreted. I am afraid that may be true of some of Nietzsche's glorifications of cruelty and war and his advocacy of the domination of some individuals and groups over others. Even this, however, should not lead us to reject Nietzsche's ideas blindly where they are genuinely insightful and challenging.
Chris: Kant believed that 'moral law' was an objective fact – for all that individuals and societies might fail, in various ways, to attain to it. Parfit is another example of what I would call a Law Ethicist – he not only believes that there is (in principle) a correct answer to moral questions, but he is concerned that if this were not so, we would be doomed to fall into Nietzsche's nihilistic abyss. You, on the other hand, are much harder to read in this way. You appear to share many of Kant's views (while critiquing and updating many others), but I'm not entirely convinced you believe that there are, in principle, definite answers to moral questions. Is that a fair claim?
Allen: I agree with Parfit that there are objective truths about what matters, about good and evil, right and wrong. I reject the nihilistic position some find in Nietzsche, or the expressivist, emotivist and more generally anti-realist position you find other philosophers adopt nowadays, often on what they call 'naturalistic' (that is, empiricist-scientistic) grounds, but usually without Nietzsche's more honest insistence that this nihilism (a term such philosophers avoid like the plague) threatens to make human life quite unliveable.
Chris: Yes, I'm often shocked that some philosophers working today somehow take Nietzsche as having declared open season on nihilism, without noting how hard he worked to try and establish ways to avoid it. I've noticed that one of the advantages you suggest can be found in foundational principles for ethics, such as those Kant offers, is that they allow people with different viewpoints to frame their arguments cogently – is this an admission of the inevitability of moral diversity? Or simply an acceptance that we still have a long way to go?
Allen: It is certainly true – isn't it obvious and undeniable? – that the human species has a long way to go in finding a way to live with one another on this little planet. Our cultural traditions, based largely on religious superstitions of one sort or another, our political and economic traditions, based largely on the unjust domination of the vast majority by those in possession of wealth and the means of violence, are pretty clearly opposed to basic moral values, no matter how you approach these – if only you look at the matter with basic rationality and honesty.
Chris: I'm perhaps more forgiving than you when it comes to religion and cultural traditions, but I share your concern that we have an urgent need to do better.
Allen: The question is whether we will make any progress on these matters before the short-sighted and irrational behaviour of our species in relation to the natural environment has resulted either in our extinction or at least in a regression to a desperate stage of want and scarcity that it looked like we had overcome for good between the seventeenth and twentieth centuries.
Chris: But presumably you think moral philosophy can help avert the worst of the catastrophe we have become embroiled in?
Allen: I do think that basic ethical values, such as human flourishing and the dignity of human persons, have a role to play in helping people to think better about the terribly problematic situations that face us.
Chris: Why not take to the political stage yourself, like (say) Charles Taylor did in Canada? Philosophy and politics can (occasionally) mix!
Allen: If I had a talent for politics – which I don't – I would use it to struggle against the inhumanity and inequality in present day society, and against the utter barbarism that many in our political system favour based on greed, fear and religious superstition. The U.S. Republican party is not only a political engine of backwardness and oppression, but even a mortal threat to the long term survival of the human species. I think that last statement is not the least bit exaggerated.
Chris: I can definitely appreciate your concerns, although I'm afraid I don't really find the Democratic party in the US to be that much better, and I'm nervous about a politics of opposition – whereby people fight against things instead of finding things to fight for. Isn't that what moral philosophy can offer to politics? A clarification of what matters, what is worth fighting for?
Allen: It is a sadly common mistake to equate the two U.S. parties, simply on the ground that both parties are obviously far to the right of where we are. What I say about this is that the trouble with the Democrats is that you cannot trust them: on many issues, they take the right view, but on others they don't, and they are too willing to give in and compromise their principles. "They lack backbone," as it is sometimes put. But the trouble with the Republicans is that you can trust them: They hold the wrong view and the wrong policies – as wrong as it is possible to be – on every single issue, right down the line. And they are fanatical; they will not compromise.
Chris: The inability to compromise is the most shocking thing about U.S. Republican party politics to me – especially as this is often seen by their supporters as their strength!
Allen: They will settle for nothing except the complete tyranny of their party and their ideas over everyone else. (In this respect the American right is at present a kind of grotesque mirror image of early twentieth century Russian Bolshevism.) The very existence of a party with such extreme and such misguided views, and such irrational and uncompromising resoluteness, is a danger to the U.S., and – given U.S. economic and military power – to the rest of the world as well. In the face of such a world-historical danger, it seems to me rather obtuse to talk in abstract and high-minded terms about its being better to be 'for' rather than 'against' something.
Chris: I can understand the importance of resistance, but I meet too many politically active people in the US who worry me because I just cannot see what they could really believe they are fighting for. In your case, however, it's very clear what your positive values are – and why you feel the need to vehemently oppose the political right – precisely because you explicate an extremely coherent ethical system, with very distinguished roots.
Allen: Certainly, my own talents run more to helping us to understand some of the basic ethical values that we have inherited from philosophers such as Kant. We each must do what we are able, and not foolishly take on tasks – however important – for which we are unsuited.
Allen Wood's book Kantian Ethics is available from Amazon and all good booksellers.
Allen W. Wood is Ruth Norman Halls Professor at Indiana University and Ward W. and Priscilla B. Woods Professor emeritus at Stanford University. He is one of the most renowned scholars of Kant's moral philosophy alive today. For more than forty years he has expanded people's understanding of Kant's ideals, and helped foster a lively community debating and sharing perspectives on Kantian ethics. I was honoured to have a chance to ask him some questions about his incredible work.
Chris Bateman: The first book of moral philosophy I read was your magnificent 'Rethinking the Western Tradition' edition of Kant's Groundwork – and I fell in love not only with Kantian ethics, but with the vibrant discussion collected in the essays here. The exchange between you and Shelly Kagan in the final two papers seemed particularly heated! Is there a story behind this?
Allen Wood: Don't go looking for trouble! Shelly Kagan and I don't agree about some philosophical issues in ethics, or about how to read Kant. But we were always very friendly colleagues at Yale, and I don't see anything 'heated' about either of our essays in the book you mention.
Chris: I suppose I read the philosophical disagreements between the two of you and interpreted as something more dramatic! I think perhaps contemporary newspapers prepare us to expect for personality battles, which we then look for…
Allen: Well, I invited him to write the essay for that book, and I did so knowing (in general terms) what he was going to say. I wanted his perspective, and I think it is good that there are a variety of positions out there on the subject of ethical theory.
Chris: What do you make of the diversity of moral perspectives available today?
Allen: A half century or so ago, ethics (at least in the Anglophone analytic tradition) was dominated by utilitarianism, and other positions were seldom taken seriously. This has changed a lot. The work of John Rawls, and books such as Onora (Nell) O'Neill's Acting on Principle, made people pay more serious attention to Kantian ethical theory.
Chris: What about contemporary virtue ethics?
Allen: That has added another valuable perspective, which was set off by Elizabeth Anscombe's rather incendiary article "Modern Moral Philosophy" (1958).
Chris: But there is still great disagreement about both ethics and meta-ethics.
Allen: Of course philosophers disagree about the foundations of ethics (as about everything else)! A philosophical question may be defined as one on which any answer you give is open to insuperable objections. The only question is which of these hopelessly controversial positions is the least indefensible and the most profitable approach to them. There are many such questions, and they concern, moreover, the very foundations of all the sciences and other fields where people have managed to find ways of answering their questions.
Chris: I like this attitude, whereby philosophy is viewed as a source of questions more than a source of answers. The questions are often the most important part of any enquiry!
Allen: This is the sense in which philosophy 'grounds' the sciences, or social life, or religious faith. It shows all these to be deeply questionable. Naturally people disagree about this, and which positions are ascendant at a given time shifts and goes in cycles, with no position returning in quite the same form it took before. I don't mean these remarks in a sceptical spirit, however, because I think we have to take a position on basic questions in order to act or to make progress in the sciences, and we ought to base our actions and beliefs on the best evidence and argument available. The important thing is for philosophers to remain engaged with others who take different approaches. The only ultimate crime, in philosophy as in life more generally, is complacency.
Chris: You have been a passionate advocate for seeing Kantian ethics as more than a mere 'sausage machine' (your term!) for cranking out answers to ethical questions – yet this caricature of the Prussian philosopher's views still seems to pass for the 'official story' all too often. It sometimes seems people read the first part of the Groundwork and then simply ignore everything else he ever wrote! What do you make of this?
Allen: I think it is understandable, but (when you think about it) obviously erroneous to take your impression of a philosophical work from the way it begins. It stands to reason that a philosopher's message really emerges nearer the end of a book than at the beginning, because of course an argument reaches its conclusion not at the beginning but at the end.
Chris: So you think this is not just a problem that affects the interpretation of Kant's work?
Allen: Another good example is Locke. People think Locke is an empiricist because the Essay Concerning Human Understanding begins with an attack on innate ideas and knowledge. If they paid attention to his account of knowledge in Book Four, they would see that his views are very close to those of Descartes. Knowledge for Locke is the intellectual perception of agreement or disagreement between ideas, modelled on the a priori science of mathematics. The accumulation of sensory information is not knowledge for Locke.
Chris: Both Locke and Kant were writing more than two centuries ago – is this a problem that is exacerbated with the passing of time?
Allen: Not necessarily. People think Marx's Capital is a difficult book because it begins with the analysis of value, which (Marx warns you in the Preface) is difficult, but the rest of the book (like most of Marx's writings) is not obscure or difficult, but sparkles with his wonderful and quite popular writing style. (Of course the ruling classes still have an interest in dissuading people from reading Marx, so they want us to think he is difficult and obscure.) It is a sad flaw in human nature that people don't have the patience to read works to the end – or, often, even beyond the beginning.
Chris: Getting back to the Groundwork, your work has made very clear to me just how many ways there are to misread Kant's argument here.
Allen: I tell students, when I teach Kant's ethics, that the first fifty times I read the Groundwork I did not understand it at all, but accepted many of the common errors, because they were easy to commit and had become hallowed by generations of misreading by others. But the more basic point about Kantian ethics is one that John Rawls made many years ago: It should be seen not as an ethics of austere command but of mutual respect and self-esteem. My development of Kantian ethics has been dedicated to bringing out that truth about Kantian ethics, though sometimes in ways different from Rawls.
Chris: I hear a lot of philosophy professors say they didn't fully appreciate the Groundwork the first time – I think I got a lot more from my first attempt, precisely because your edition helps orient the reader in the context not only of the text, but in terms of discussions about that text that are still going on today. You helped me avoid some of the usual pitfalls by providing a skeleton key to the text, without which I would doubtless have fallen into some of the usual mistakes.
Allen: The errors are especially bad with the Groundwork because the opening discussion about acting from duty is easy to misunderstand (and in my view, is usually quite badly misunderstood). I don't think that discussion is at all about the importance of choosing moral over non-moral motives (and think Kant did not believe we can even make such choices, because our motives are largely opaque to ourselves). His point there – as I might tendentiously put it – is that morality is more truly itself when it is difficult than when it is easy. Morality is important in human life because we humans are so imperfectly rational that we need to constrain ourselves, struggling against our natural propensities, if we are to act according to reason.
Chris: But it's not just the opening sections that have given rise to distortions of Kant's concepts and ideals, is it?
Allen: No, many people misunderstand what Kant is doing with the four examples in the Second Section of the Groundwork.
Chris: You spend quite a bit of space going over these in your book Kant's Ethical Thought, but this is essentially the basis for your 'sausage machine' complaint I mentioned earlier!
Allen: People bring to their reading of this text the assumption that moral philosophy is about finding some nifty test telling us what to do, a test that can be applied just as easily and successfully by a fool or a scoundrel as by a wise and good person. And so they see Kant's examples as attempts to offer such a test. Naturally they are then disappointed, because no such test exists, or ever could exist. And of course it never dawns on them that Kant is fully aware of this.
Chris: As you present Kant's thought, the concept of ethics as the universal – the first formula – has a much smaller role than it is usually given.
Allen: Kant's 'universalizability' criteria, if you see how he actually applies them, have a very narrow aim. He is interested in the situation of an agent who is morally conscientious at a basic level, and realizes he has a certain duty – for instance, the duty not to make a promise he doesn't intend to keep – but is tempted to think that his own desires or interests, or something about his particular situation (for instance, the urgency of his need for money, which he is tempted to borrow with no intention to repay it) might justify making an exception to this duty in his own advantage. Kant's test is designed to show such agents that their own tastes or self-preference does not justify making such exceptions to their duties.
Chris: So rather than a decision procedure for replacing moral thought, the universality test serves to show individuals where they are failing to act morally.
Allen: Kant's first formula of the categorical imperative was never designed to do more than that, and it is, after all, only the first of the three formulations Kant presents in the Second Section. As he tells us, they represent a "progression," so that the later ones are richer and more adequate than the first one.
Chris: Yet it's still a prevailing view that this is the whole story of Kantian ethics – the psychologist Jonathan Haidt makes this blunder in his latest book, for instance.
Allen: Many readers behave as if Kant's only contribution to ethics had been this first, poorest formulation of the moral principle. And they misunderstand even his intention in offering that. Kant, like Plato or Aristotle or Spinoza or Hegel or almost any great philosopher, is not easy to understand, but very easy to misunderstand. This is the main reason it is worthwhile to devote lot of attention and effort to reading the most important texts in the history of philosophy –Plato's Symposium, or Book Z of Aristotle's Metaphysics, or Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit.
Chris Bateman: The latter part of the twentieth century seemed to show a kind of revival in Kantian scholarship. Yourself and Christine Korsgaard are perhaps the people most associated with it, but there now seems to be a huge numbers of academics writing about Kantian ethics! Do you sense a growing recognition that we haven't yet fully got to grips with everything Kant's ethics have to offer, that there is still a great deal to explore?
Allen: In Kant's case, as in the case of many great philosophers, their fundamental insights far outrun their own appreciation of the conclusions that follow from them. Thus it is very easy for people hostile to Kant, or impatient with the difficulty of his writings, to find (bad) excuses for dismissing his philosophy, in the form of his own time-bound or idiosyncratic views about sex, or capital punishment, or race or the position of women in society.
Chris: A lot of your work, both in Kant's Ethical Thought and the more recent Kantian Ethics, explores the differences between what Kant's moral philosophy claims, and what Kant himself believed. And most of Kant's more offensive claims appear to be of the latter kind.
Allen: Considered in the context of his own time, Kant was on many topics socially, morally and politically progressive; but many of his opinions on specific issues that matter a lot to us now appear grotesque, ridiculous or even abominable. There are many people who dismiss moral philosophy with the casual and condescending observation that people's views inevitably reflect their own time and culture, and all moral questions need to be understood in context, so that it is hopeless to propose general philosophical theories regarding them. These same people, however, are the very first to ignore the historical context of a great philosopher's thinking, and the first to dismiss him because he doesn't share our latest fashionable views on the issues that matter to us.
Chris: I sometimes wonder if there is a fear of just how vast the corpus of human knowledge has become – such that people are looking for any excuse to cut down on what they need to read. Philosophy in particular looks dispensable to a lot of people today, which has a tragic cost because we need it now as much – if not more than – ever.
Allen: It is important in thinking about moral and political questions to realize that at bottom these are deeply problematic, and we need to engage in fundamental and often abstract theorizing and reasoning even to see the basis of our own opinions about them. The past philosophers who can most help us to do this are not necessarily the ones who were most ahead of their time in thinking about the issues that concern us most today. Thus if you want to find someone in the late 18th century who best anticipated our views about the role of women in society, you can't look to Kant, Fichte or Hegel for that, but must look instead to Mary Wollstonecraft or to Kant's friend Gottlieb Hippel.
Chris: The merits of Kant's approach lie elsewhere.
Allen: If you want to understand the fundamental philosophical grounds of our belief in human dignity and equality, Kant is probably the place to look for that. Some people want to remain only on the surface in their thinking – and maybe for the purposes of immediate political activity, this is enough. But there is also a role for understanding the roots of what we think. Of course, when you do understand these roots, you also come to see how problematic is all our thinking about moral questions.
Chris: People are generally looking for answers, and dislike finding only more questions.
Allen: Maybe that is what these people are really afraid of. They want to remain complacent about their dogmas or faiths. They are afraid of the fundamental absurdity of the human condition.
Next week, the second and final part: Political Realities
Last week, Catholic theologian discussed issues concerning the alleged conflict between Christian theology and evolution. This week the discussion moves to the values of science and religion, and the relationship between theology and ecology.
Chris: You have said that science “should have nothing to say about purpose, values, or God's existence,” but aren’t there choices to be made here about the scope of science that cannot be determined in advance?
John: Methodologically speaking, science has nothing to say about purpose, meaning, value, importance or God. Ever since the beginning of the modern age science has increasingly divorced itself from such preoccupations, and this is all to its credit. Science adopts a deliberately self-limiting method of inquiry that seeks to understand the world only in terms of physical causation, and to express this understanding as much as possible in mathematical terms.
Chris: What exactly are you referring to by the term ‘science’, though?
John: We have to distinguish between science as a fruitful method of inquiry into natural causes on the one hand and the cumulative body of scientific discoveries that this method has produced on the other. I think there’s no question that scientific discoveries, such as those of Copernicus, Galileo, Darwin, Einstein and Hubble rightly arouse theological interest and deserve theological comment. The idea of God, therefore, cannot remain exactly the same after we have looked at the body of scientific discoveries, and especially evolution and cosmology, as before.
Chris: Are you suggesting that theology has every right to comment on the theological implication of scientific discoveries, but nothing to do with scientific method?
John: Science’s expansion and enrichment of our understanding of creation can only expand and enrich our sense of the infinite resourcefulness theology has always attributed to the Creator. But we should not confuse philosophical or theological interpretation of scientific discoveries with scientific method itself, for as soon as we start commenting on scientific discoveries, and especially when we start holding forth on whether the natural world as seen by physics or biology points toward or away from God or purpose, we are no longer doing science but philosophy, metaphysics or theology. And here we have to be very careful to reveal our assumptions, our basic beliefs, and admit that in our comments on theological questions we have gone far beyond the restraint and purity characteristic of scientific method.
Chris: What would you say about the recent comments by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow that contemporary cosmology rules out the existence of God?
John: It’s really not a scientific claim at all. Rather, it’s their own private philosophical speculation about the universe as they see it. No equations, no matter how elaborate, lead directly to atheism. Between Hawking’s equations on the one hand and his ideas about theology on the other lies a tortuous subterranean corridor consisting of cultural and personal experience, memory and affectivity that remains largely out of sight. The fact that Hawking is a renowned expert in a particular (and hence always limited) area of scientific inquiry does not by that fact situate him in an especially privileged or authoritative position to comment on the question of God’s existence. Indeed, by doing he merely shows that his primary ideological commitment, like that of Dawkins, is to scientism, the belief that science alone is now in a position to provide answers to timeless theological questions.
Chris: I would prefer to call Hawking a positivist, as I suggested before – and indeed, Hawking has actually expressly used this term to describe himself in the past. I would say it’s always a mistake for a positivist to wade in on questions about God, because the decision to base one’s reality on scientific evidence excludes in advance any possibility of commenting on transcendent questions, essentially by definition.
John: Yes, there is no way to set up a scientific experiment to demonstrate that science is the only reliable guide to truth and that, since science cannot find purpose or God, the latter does not exist. Scientism (or what you prefer to call positivism) says in effect that people should take nothing on faith, but it takes faith—as distinct from inductive knowledge—for anyone to embrace scientism. Isn’t there something self-subverting about this belief?
Chris: Charles Taylor introduced me to the terms for eighteenth century “dangerous religion” – superstition, for belief in magic, enthusiasm, for people who are certain they’ve heard the voice of God, and fanaticism, for those who are willing to act beyond the established moral order. I’d consider ‘scientism’ to be effectively ‘enthusiastic positivism’ – a legitimate belief system just taken to the extreme of premature certainty.
John: My point is that, logically speaking, much contemporary atheism is mostly rooted not in science but in an uncritical belief for which there is no scientifically demonstrable evidence.
Chris: I heartily agree. But for me, the problem isn’t this belief, but merely the way certain people slip into treating it dogmatically. I believe positivists are an important part of the contemporary secular world, and my only objection is when they attempt to monopolize certain topics – and oddly, topics that you would think, essentially by definition, they had no interest in.
John: Carl Jung once said that what people affirm or deny is not as relevant psychologically speaking as what they keep talking about. And today, I believe, there is as much impassioned talk about God as ever – even by atheists. What are the psychodynamics of this obsession? Each case is different, and so I will not mention any names here. But if the strident demonizing of atheists by religious zealots is a way of refusing to acknowledge their own repressed doubts, how are we to interpret the name-calling, labelling and hatred expressed against religious believers by some allegedly disinterested and high-profile ‘scientific’ writers and blogsters today?
Chris: You have said that “the pro-life ethic has been associated too narrowly with issues surrounding human sexuality.” This comment was specifically aimed at engaging pro-life people with environmental issues, but I was fascinated by the concept that the ideals motivating opposition to abortion could be understood in a wider context that was being obscured in some way.
John: I am pro-life, but I hope in a way that is more consistent than that of many conservative Christian pro-lifers. It is completely unacceptable to my own understanding of Christian life and faith, for example, to be both pro-life and pro-death penalty at the same time, as many conservative Christians including some conservative Catholics are, in spite of papal condemnations of the death penalty.
Chris: Are you calling for a refocus of the pro-life ethic within a wider context, or are you suggesting that the current ideals behind the pro-life ethic need entirely rethinking?
John: Scientific discovery has shown how intricately connected cosmological and biological processes are to the lives of each one of us. Ecological awareness, for example, has situated human life within a much wider web of life then we had noticed until after Darwin. Science has made us aware of how previously hidden evolutionary factors have brought us and all other species of life into being. Our capacity to swing our arms freely, to stand upright and to live in cooperative arrangements with our fellows, for example, has been in preparation for many millions of years by a wondrous story of evolutionary experiments that await further narration. Our new understanding of genetics also fortifies the biblical sense of our kinship with all other living beings. So a combination of biblical inspiration and contemporary science leads me to a much deeper sense of gratitude and reverence for the seamless garment of life–and hence for the need for ecological responsibility.
Chris: There seems to be a growing ecological concern in contemporary Christianity.
John: I’m certainly not alone among Christians in thinking these thoughts today. Many of us now want to connect the moral passion of pro-life ethics with a wider sense of life than we could ever have gained apart from scientific discoveries. This is only one of many ways in which scientific understanding – stripped of superfluous materialist interpretation – can enrich theology and ethics.
Chris: Charles Taylor said that “what Vatican rule-makers and secularist ideologies unite in not being able to see, is that there are more ways of being a Catholic Christian than either have yet imagined.” Can I get your commentary on this as a Catholic who is deeply engaged in public debate?
John: As a Catholic born prior to the Second Vatican Council that took place in the 1960s, my life and theology have been deeply shaped by the spirit of reform leading up to and immediately following that event. I still draw strength from the movement toward renewal that occurred then. So unlike conservative Catholics today, I have no desire to go back to a pre-conciliar, often world-weary, religiosity. Unfortunately, under the present Pope there seems to be a drifting backward into a style of Catholicism that I no longer identify with, and which countless other Catholics I know don’t embrace either.
Chris: If the Catholic faith has a public relations problem, in so much as there is a tendency for many non-religious people to presume the Vatican’s views represent the beliefs of all Catholics, how much of the burden of correcting this misunderstanding lies with the Vatican and how much with Catholic Christians at large, so to speak?
John: In this respect I should point out that, in spite of what many people think, Catholicism is a very broad tent that embraces many different styles of spirituality and theological understanding. There are many ways of being Catholic, and I’ve always felt the liberty to embrace science and love of Earth without succumbing to what I take to be the suffocating ideologies of secularism, scientism and scientific materialism.
Chris: This seems to have been Taylor’s point too.
John: My interpretation of Catholicism, which is by no means unique to me, has been one that keeps the world open to an always new and unpredictable future. I consider the point of Christianity to be that of opening up a sense of the future and hope for the whole world. I think of God as continuously offering a new future, not just to people, but to the whole universe. The ongoing creation of the world and the evolution of life are possible only because of this invitation. In this sense ‘God’ may be understood as what Catholic theologian Karl Rahner called the Absolute Future. It is this (biblical) God who opens up the future and “who makes all things new,” and not the Elegant Engineer of design-obsessed ID proponents and evolutionary materialists, that I connect to the ‘grandeur’ of life that Darwin uncovered.
Chris: Religious conservatives presumably vilify you as a liberal – it seems to me that in the United States ‘liberal’ has attained the same kind of disdain that was traditionally poured into the words ‘godless’ – or even ‘Communist’!
John: When conservatives complain about ‘liberal’ Catholic theologians such as myself I can always tell them to go back and read the documents of the Second Vatican Council! I also refer them to one of the most important twentieth century religious thinkers who, though he died in 1955, quietly influenced the atmosphere of the Council. I’m referring to the Jesuit priest, geologist and evolutionist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin who started developing an evolution-based theology as early as the first two decades of the twentieth century. As a Catholic today I still draw much inspiration from this innovative thinker who taught us how we can love God without turning our backs on the world and that we can love the world fully without turning our backs on God.
Chris: I was wholly unaware of Teilhard’s work prior to reading your books, and remain fascinated by his unconventional theological views, which you seem to be helping spread to a far wider audience.
John: Contrary to the almost pathological fear of modernity by early twentieth century Catholicism, Teilhard embraced the world and evolution fully, and without materialist overtones. He emphasized that there can be no kingdom of heaven apart from a renewed Earth, and in doing so he presaged much that the Second Vatican Council officially taught.
Chris: You clearly believe that religion can – perhaps even must – evolve.
John: Religions are as capable of evolving as any other living phenomena, and if they don’t evolve, they die. I could not be a Catholic today if I thought that somehow this faith is not itself capable of evolution and self-transformation. As a theologian I have been fortunate to taste the rich resources in the tradition for ongoing renewal. In any case, although I do not approach his thought uncritically, I think Teilhard has provided a model for many Catholics who are alarmed by the movements toward retrenchment that are now occurring in some, although by no means all, strains of Catholicism.
Chris: Personally, I find Catholic intellectuals such as yourself and Charles Taylor to be thoroughly uplifting. Growing up, I could not understand Catholicism at all – reading both you and Taylor has shown me that part of the problem was that I wasn’t really being shown the nature of the Catholic experience of faith at all. I’m grateful to you both for showing me a wider vision.
John: Thanks for this opportunity. I think your questions are right on, even if I can respond to them only inadequately here.
John F. Haught’s book Making Sense of Evolution: Darwin, God, and the Drama of Life is available now from Amazon and all good booksellers.
John F. Haught is a Catholic theologian and Senior Research Fellow at the Woodstock Theological Centre at Georgetown University, whose work has addressed theological questions arising out of science, cosmology and ecology. He has been a particularly active voice in attempts to reconcile theology and evolutionary theory, and in connection with evolution he appeared as an expert witness in the infamous Dover school board law suit, testifying that the intelligent design policy in question was inherently religious and not scientific in nature. I was delighted that he agreed to answer some of my questions recently. In the first of two pieces, we discuss theology, evolution and intelligent design.
Chris Bateman: You have shown various degrees of hostility towards Christians who deny evolution. On the one hand, you’ve mentioned a “certain impatience” with such people, but you’ve also called contemporary Biblical literalism “a scandal”. Do you not feel somewhat like a worker crossing the picket line here, in that you do have appreciation for the objections that, say, the Intelligent Design movement has towards tacit atheist theology, even if you feel their specific approach is counter-productive and damaging to the image of Christianity?
John F. Haught: Actually, I don’t have any hostility toward my fellow Christians who espouse creationism or intelligent design (ID). I view them as part of my community of faith, and I sympathize with their negative reaction to materialist interpretations of evolution. I do oppose, however, their rejection of good science and especially Darwinian theory as though it were inherently irreconcilable with Christian faith.
Chris: So your problem is with the argument that evolution and Christianity are fundamentally incompatible?
John: Evolutionary biology is still a stumbling block for many Christians, but even more problematic is the materialist ideology that enshrouds much evolutionary thinking today. Materialism, the belief that “matter is all there is,” is after all not science but metaphysics, that is, a claim about the ultimate nature of reality.
Chris: I talk a lot about metaphysics here on Only a Game, and like you I’m critical of those that present materialism or physicalism as if it were a necessary belief.
John: It’s a way of looking at reality that has been around, off and on, since antiquity, and is by definition theologically unacceptable on any terms.
Chris: Like the philosopher Mary Midgley, you’ve also been critical of the assumption that this kind of perspective is a requirement for science.
John: Yes, I am an opponent of contemporary scientific materialism, or as it is sometimes called, “scientific naturalism,” but, I fully accept the scientific evidence and arguments for evolution. I have no difficulty reconciling biological science, or indeed good science of any sort, with a Christian understanding of God. I reject not science, but scientifically unverifiable materialist metaphysics. In my book Is Nature Enough? I argue at length that materialist philosophy is logically incoherent and self-subversive—hence an unreasonable form of belief.
Chris: Midgley sees this kind of inability to distinguish ideology from science as one of the hallmarks of contemporary debate about the alleged conflict between evolution and religion.
John: The problem is that neither anti-Darwinian Christians nor their adversaries (such as Dawkins and Dennett) are willing to distinguish carefully between evolutionary science on the one hand and their tacit commitment to materialist metaphysics on the other. Both sides unnecessarily mix science with ideology, and in doing so they diminish the stature of science by suffocating it with beliefs that have nothing to do with empirical, inductive method and scientific discovery.
Chris: It often seems to me that neither side is really listening to one another’s arguments – each believes they have the high ground, and the other side must therefore necessarily be in error.
John: By contrast, I am seeking to save science from both sides. I should point out incidentally that the National Centre for Science Education recently acknowledged my efforts and concern for the integrity of science and science education by giving me their “Friend of Darwin” award, which I was happy to accept.
Chris: A great achievement for any theologian!
John: As a theologian who embraces evolution, I have tried to show in my books God After Darwin and, more recently, Making Sense of Evolution that the marriage of evolutionary biology to materialist ideology by people like Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett is no less objectionable than the biblical literalist’s interpretation of the biblical book of Genesis as though it were a source of scientific information.
Chris: The ideological distortion of science isn’t exactly a new phenomenon though, is it?
John: Several centuries ago Galileo himself pointed out that Christian faith seems to conflict with science (or with what was called “natural philosophy”) only if one adopts the erroneous assumption that the Bible is somehow a source of scientific information. Galileo objected to the idea that the Bible may be read as a source of scientific information. To do so, he thought, is to trivialize the Scriptures by having them function as mundane sources of knowledge that we can acquire simply by the use of our natural faculties of observation and reason. His firm objection to searching the Scriptures for scientific information (as expressed in his “Letter to the Grande Duchess Christina”) was echoed by Pope Leo XIII in 1893 when he exhorted Catholics not to look for scientific information in the sacred Scriptures. Science and the Bible are simply addressing entirely disparate kinds of question.
Chris: Even though many Christians don’t subscribe to this kind of literalist reading of the Bible, in the United States and elsewhere in the world there is still something of this kind of expectation lingering around.
John: Yes, today the literalist expectation that the Scriptures should deliver a scientific brand of truth persists. This expectation, in fact, ironically binds together most evolutionary materialists with Christian creationists: both creationists and evolutionary atheists approach the Bible—since it is supposed to be ‘inspired’—as though it should be scientifically accurate. The atheist evolutionists, of course, conclude after reading it that the Bible is not scientifically reliable, and that therefore we can dismiss it as fiction. Meanwhile ‘scientific creationists’ interpret the biblical stories in Genesis as though these writings are scientifically reliable and thus provide a better brand of science than Darwin and contemporary cosmology have to offer.
Chris: This has been a recurring theme in your writing – that positivist evangelists of evolution and biblical creationists have very similar approaches, even if their verdicts are diametrically opposed.
John: My main point is that both sides tacitly share an inability or refusal to read the Bible’s accounts of origins in any other way than scientifically. My own approach is to move beyond literalism to the more serious, challenging and personally transformative (and non-literalist) ways of reading ancient religious texts for a kind of truth that science is not wired to receive, and that grasps us much more than we grasp it.
Chris: This is a point I make often, that the kind of truths we can expect to find in the spiritual literature of the world is very different from the kind of truths that scientific research can hope to uncover.
John: My own belief, which I share with most of my theological colleagues today, is that there are inexhaustibly deeper levels of truth than those that science provides. Evolutionary materialism (as distinct from evolutionary science) flows from another brand of belief, one that I do not share, namely, that science itself can put us in touch with the deepest dimensions of reality, since science is the only reliable guide to truth. This belief is commonly known as scientism.
Chris: I discussed this with Mary Midgley recently, and suggested that ‘scientism’ hasn’t caught on because it can only be interpreted as an insult – no-one willing refers to themselves under this label, which anyway doesn’t conjugate into a noun very easily! She broadly endorsed my suggestion that perhaps the term ‘positivism’ could be rescued for those that are committed to science as their source of ultimate truth.
John: I suppose what I object to more than anything else is the literalist spirit of interpretation shared by both sides. As I develop in Deeper Than Darwin, this is the source of most of the mischief in the so-called Darwin wars.
Chris: Indeed, and I heartily agree with your claim that Dawkins and Dennett end up acting as “crypto-theologians”.
John: Dennett, Dawkins, Jerry Coyne and many other evolutionists function as crypto-theologians by dictating to their readers what they think should pass muster as acceptable theology. Then they show how this brand of theology doesn’t hold up after Darwin. The problem here is that the theology they have cryptically espoused – prior to rejecting it – is indistinguishable from that of their creationist and ID opponents. At best their understanding of God is that of an Elegant Engineer whose work should be perfectly flawless. And since living organisms are not flawlessly designed but are, as evolutionary science shows, full of design flaws, it follows that no Elegant Engineer exists and that the universe is godless.
Chris: Yes, it’s a kind of straw man approach to theology whereby one adopts an overly simplistic perspective on God and then concludes that all theology is vacant, despite not having engaged with the field in any substantial fashion.
John: The tattered fragment of theological understanding reflected in the evolutionary materialists’ writings is of a kind that most theologians that I know would reject as not worth talking about in the first place. Moreover, they usually start with the assumption that all theology is a primitive, now-obsolete attempt at scientific inquiry and that therefore ‘God’ is a ‘hypothesis,’ as Dawkins makes explicit. So now that we have scientific hypotheses we don’t need theological hypotheses.
Chris: Auguste Comte presented more or less this kind of progressive image of science, passing from a theological to a metaphysical and then ultimately to a purely scientific state. It’s a deeply mythological perspective. I suppose advocates of this kind of view might counter that questions of theology are legitimate areas of investigation for science, and therefore they are not actually conducting theology.
John: The foundation of this program lies in a commitment to the belief that science is the only reliable road to truth, a belief that Dawkins clearly espouses as the basis of his whole atheistic project. It is his own (unscientific) commitment to scientism that explains why Dawkins tries to trick his readers into thinking that the Designer-Deity is a ‘hypothesis’ that might have had an explanatory appeal during all the ages of scientific ignorance but which can be safely discarded now that evolutionary biology has arrived to save us from the darkness of pre-scientific consciousness.
Chris: Putting aside the strange way that adversarial, ‘enthusiastic’ positivists like Dawkins are apparently restoring theology to the sciences, contra Kant, how would you respond to the claim that since the design argument offers a hypothesis on God that can be tested it is legitimate to draw conclusions about God from a solely scientific perspective?
John: No serious theologian has ever held that ‘God’ is a ‘hypothesis,’ and no serious theologian today places theology into a competitive relationship with the natural sciences. The evolutionary atheists, however, have never really read, studied or dialogued with serious theology. In fact the low level of their understanding of theology is comparable to a creationist’s understanding of biology (I provide supportive evidence for this observation in my book God and The New Atheism and elsewhere).
Chris: There’s something dishonest about pretending to conduct theology without actually engaging with discussions in the discipline itself. No scientist would dare conduct something similar in a field of the sciences – pretending expert knowledge without having carried out any research!
John: Again, ironically, this refusal to look at the whole wide spectrum of theological approaches and to fixate obsessively on the Elegant Engineer as though it were the pinnacle of religious thought is a most un-empirical and unscientific way of investigating the world of religious thought. It is comparable to a theologian’s taking the “New Atheism” of Dennett, Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens as though it were representative of the full range of atheistic thought. As a theologian who has spent his career studying atheism, it would be deeply unfair on my part if I were to expose my students or readers only to the so-called new evolutionary atheists and ignore the theologically challenging versions of atheism such as those of Nietzsche, Sartre, Feuerbach, Camus or Derrida.
Next week: Science, Values and Ecology
John F. Haught’s book Making Sense of Evolution: Darwin, God, and the Drama of Life is available now from Amazon and all good booksellers.