Stairway to Gilligan’s Island: Jason Rosenhouse and Auguste Comte on Theology v. Science

At EvolutionBlog, Jason Rosenhouse takes after theology’s shell game:

If theology must change every time scientists achieve consensus on something, then what good is it? If it is only allowed to make assertions about things that are completely divorced from any empirical consequences in the world, then how can we ever be confident that any of it is right?

Of course, we can’t be confident that theology is right about anything at all—except when it accords itself with science.

And then it’s redundant.

Being stuck between irrelevancy and redundancy is not a very nice position to be in, is it? In the 21st century, theology, it would seem, is like an unemployed American worker.

In the 19th century, Auguste Comte made this historical observation concerning theology (as given in Henri de Lubac’s excellent book, The Drama of Atheist Humanism, 1950, p. 84):

[T]heology would necessarily die out as physics advanced.

Auguste Comte’s world had its anti-Enlightenment reactionaries (as we have our own). There were, in other words, people who regarded the Anglo-French Enlightenment as a shipwreck, and were nostalgic for the revivification of theology’s corpse. Lubac characterizes Comte’s scorn for such reactionaries, and for their ideas, and quotes him (p. 84):

Comte has a ceaseless flow of sarcasm to lavish upon ‘the reactionary doctrine which, in truly ridiculous fashion, ventures to recommend today, as the only possible solution for the present intellectual anarchy, so fantastic an expedient as the social re-establishment of those same futile principles whose inevitable decrepitude was the original cause of that anarchy.’

The “futile principles” Comte refers to are those derived from theology and bolstered by tradition and authority. But, as Comte notes ironically, bad epistemic methods based on faith are what made for the original intellectual impasses in the first place. They are the things that prompted Francis Bacon and the other early scientists and Enlightenment philosophes to find better ways to advance knowledge (and humanity’s prospects) than faith and tradition.

And so now we live in an age in which Auguste Comte’s scientific positivism has triumphed; a post-theological age. And Jason Rosenhouse is clearly happy about it. As am I. Though I don’t pretend that it isn’t akin to being at sea.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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11 Responses to Stairway to Gilligan’s Island: Jason Rosenhouse and Auguste Comte on Theology v. Science

  1. andrewclunn says:

    I think this overlooks the utilitarian value of theology (as providing heuristics for moral dilemmas) as well as how secular ideologies can assert the same types of unsubstantiated claims as religions.

  2. santitafarella says:

    Andrew:

    It’s interesting that you bring this up, for I’ve been thinking, not of religion’s heuristic or proverbial value, but of its mythic value. At some level, religion is a metaphorical system impelled by the deepest scientific truths. What, for example, is the tension in Greek theatre (which was a religious medium) between the Dionysian and the Apollonian but an intuition about the conflict between entropy (everything relentlessly turns to shit through time) and the attempt to conserve the integrity of the organism? What scientist could give a better explanation of what life is (local order fighting general entropy) than this?

    And what is the devil and God in Christianity but a similar wrestling with entropy, life, and the natural desire for an escape from danger to a place of safety?

    There is a trend in literary studies to apply Darwinism to literature (Jane Austen as a competition for mates, territory, and resources), but, of course, this is exactly what the Hebrew Bible is as well. And beneath biology is physics (information and entropy). The concerns of religion are, in a metaphorical sense, the concerns of science. Religion is, at one level, scientific expression for people who suck at math. It’s why the Hindus and Buddhists hit upon insights akin to quantum physics, and the Western religions are obsessed with entropy. At some level, religion and science really are wrestling with the same angels and demons (Dionysus, the devil, entropy, identity, existence, the nature of change).

    —Santi

    • andrewclunn says:

      I’m not sure I’d make the parallels between science. As I see it, Physics, Math, and Chemistry are laws and rules that we cannot alter. Emergence rules everything else.

      However, as beings who shape our environment and who (as a consequence) cannot be hard coded (via instinct) in all aspects of our life, we are left to wonder, “How shall I live in this world we have made?” and “What kind of a world should I strive to make?”

      It’s true that because evolution continues to alter human nature, and our world is rapidly changing with each generation, and our capacity for altering the world that any of our answers to these moral / ethical questions will be transient and need to be updated with the times. However, religions and/or ideologies do allow for a baseline set of narratives and values form which to adapt.

      I’m reminded of Dawkins’ hypothetical Mt. Improbable, where there are various peaks. It’s true that you could reach the summit of one and have it not be the tallest, or (to fit the analogy) the best solution. However it just may well be good enough, and to ascend another peak requires that you first fall a distance, abandoning the supporting base of your current height.

      It perhaps may be true that the religious theologies are founded on a false premises, but they shall not be abandoned until peaks of secular ideologies reach greater heights and provide the newly lapsed believers with the means to climb them.

    • Ooh, religion’s mythic value is *interesting*, and outside my field of expertise. (I have one short Joseph Campbell compendium on my shelf. Yeah, shoot me.)

      I have been thinking a lot of how experience (which includes our science) can and should influence our theology. For those who are religious, of course. I’m about 4000 words into an article for someone else’s blog on this subject, which will end up being pared down to 2000 words and no doubt rejected.

      So I’ll just put it up on my own ;)

      Jonathan from Spritzophrenia

  3. TomH says:

    Shameless self-promotion warning:

    Fyi, an article of mine was recently published. You can find it online at http://www.creationresearch.org/crsq/articles/46/46_3/CRSQ%20Winter%202010%20Hogan.pdf.

    I’ve been a bit busy recently with my business.

  4. TomH says:

    If cosmology must change every time a biological date changes, then what good is it? A brief glance at the history of Hubble “Constant” changes shows that cosmology is heavily dependent on biological dates. See “Evolution Dates the Solar System and Universe
    by the Evolutionary Age of the Earth” at http://www.trueorigin.org/old_earth_evo_heart.asp. Why shouldn’t theology be as flexible as cosmology?

  5. Ed George says:

    Maybe scientific positivism has largely triumphed in higher academic circles, but not down in the cultural grass roots of blue or even white collar America. The evangelical biblical literalists seem to be everywhere from my point of view. Over my six decades of life, I believe I have witnessed a remarkable resurgence of biblical fundamentalism. Even as the percent of “un-churched” people has lately gone up, so also has the percent among the “churched” claiming to be evangelical. Anyway, that is how I interpret the current population data.

    From the time I was a kid going through primary and secondary school I have no memory of evolution being disputed. Nor of prayer making or any other kind of religious ritual or ceremony being imposed on us as a matter of public education. This period in my life began in the 1950’s, some of it before the 1954 change to the pledge of allegiance, which imposed “under God” on its otherwise secular wording. It occurred during the 1957 subtending of “E Pluribus Unum” and replacement with “In God We Trust” as our national motto. It took some time for the effects to penetrate, but both changes were clearly intended to impose a belief in the supernatural and particularly the biblical supernatural on our national ideology.

    A half centenary later to my mind, the Nation as a population is intellectually poorer for it. I am a staunch advocate of government and religion separation. And that doubtlessly influences my perception and the kind of causal connections I am willing to make. Still it seems to me that the people of science and of empiricism (I am one) need to take any notion of collective triumph with a strong modicum of caution. We are not really so far removed from the sacking of the Library of Alexandria or the European Dark Ages. After all, evolution only implies change, no guarantee of progress or protection against regression to a lesser state of being.

    • santitafarella says:

      Ed,

      Your points are well taken, but I’m not sure that the average religious believer’s views of theology matter all that much. The fact that very, very few well read intellectuals take it seriously anymore means that it will never have the cultural cache that it did prior to the Enlightenment. That milk has long spilled (and spoiled).

      This is not triumphalism; this is simply looking at the trajectory of intellectual history. Theology was one of the holding patterns that humanity passed through on its way to arriving at better methods for acquiring knowledge.

      I don’t entirely buy the argument that because evolution is about contingency, therefore we can’t be too confident that humanity will progress over time. I don’t think that this argument takes into account the nature of cultural memory (which builds over time). Once humanity discovers something that works really well (like the wheel or scientific induction), barring a catastrophe the knowledge does not get lost. It accumulates.

      —Santi

      • Ed George says:

        Santi

        Your viewpoint is certainly reasonable in the macro or long run sense of things. The collective memory for “better methods” is resilient. I don’t think there is anything in the reliably known history of the species and civilization in general that would suggest otherwise. Events like Alexandria and the Dark Ages were just bumps in the road, a few centuries of setback in humanity’s cumulative gathering in of better knowledge and understanding. My problem resides with the historical short run where nations can fall to ruin before any pretense to recovery is accomplished. My specific focus is for the relatively immediate intellectual health of the US. Regarding that, the local popular religion and its theology may be a severely wounded, but still doing plenty of damage in its effort to protect its assumed place of status and authority in American collective consciousness.

        Currently prominent is the well organized and sustained effort to warp educational standards to favor the theological perspective. The butcher job that the ID creationists and other fundamentalist types are strenuously attempting to impose on the public school system is the poster child example. And this at a time when one in five still think the sun orbits the earth and all too many high school graduates can’t de-confuse the Bill of Rights from the Ten Commandments. Too bad we can’t find a way to take decisions about educational curriculum out of the hands of elected state and local school boards. I just wish the academic community would become vigorously more proactive in defending against these grass root theological/theocratic encroachments. I wish the academic community would become more calculating and forceful in their political engagement with these issues. Where are academia’s masters of propaganda and their benefactors with deep pockets when we need them? The religious fundamentalists certainly have theirs.

        Regards, Ed

  6. TomH says:

    By the way, my paper shows that comments using the words “science” and “scientist” are vague unless the writer defines precisely what she means by them. (For the myriads of women who post here.)

    • santitafarella says:

      Tom:

      Congratulations on your publication! I’ll look at it sometime over the next day or two.

      —Santi

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