Friday, July 22, 2011

The Shame of Calvin & Ruse

1. The Shame of Calvin College

In a recent article, The Shame of Calvin College in the Chronicle of Higher Education, philosopher Michael Ruse berates Calvin College for its stance on a literal Adam. Dr. John Schneider, of the Religion Department of Calvin College, had questioned the existence of a literal Adam and an historical fall into sin.
Ruse relates that the president of Calvin College deemed Schneider's views to be contrary to the Reformed basis of Calvin College; hence Schneider was forced into an early retirement, effective this summer. (For background, see my post The Evolution of Calvin College. Let me comment that Calvin College is to be congratulated on taking this step and should be encouraged to further enforce its professed commitment to the Reformed faith.)

Ruse, however, finds this shameful. He writes:

The problem—and in this day and age it is embarrassing even to have to say this—is over Adam and Eve. Now let it be understood clearly and loudly. Menstruating girls are not sick. The earth is not flat. Adam and Eve understood as literal individuals who were the first humans, created miraculously, the parents of us all, originally sinless, did not exist. Humans are part of the overall tree of life, our species may have gone through bottlenecks but we never dropped below several thousand and perhaps more, we today are descended from many co-existing ancestors, and our moral nature is part of the picture. We were not one day all nice and friendly and then the next horrid and mean.

Ruse grants private universities the right to bind their faculty to statements of faith. But at a cost:

If your religious beliefs conflict with science—deny absolutely and completely basic claims of science—and if you insist on the religion over the science, then don’t expect respect from the rest of us. Don’t expect us to think that your students are properly educated. Don’t pretend to be as good as you might like to think you are. And expect special scrutiny if ever you apply for funds from public sources, like the National Science Foundation.

He concludes with, "Once again in America, dogmatic biblical literalism trumps modern science."

Ruse's message is clear: If Christians want to be respected, to be seen as properly educated, they must embrace evolution, discarding any notion of a literal Adam or an historical fall into sin.

2. The Shame of Michael Ruse

Ruse's critique is remarkable. He uses words such as "mean", "horrid", "shame", "good", "integrity", all of which imply an objective moral standard. Further, he also makes value judgments regarding religious beliefs, scientific claims and a proper education.

Why is this remarkable? Because, according to Ruse, "ethics is an illusion put in place by our genes to make us good social cooperators" (see The Biological Sciences Can Act as a Ground for Ethics 2009). Morality is just a product of evolution, aiding survival and reproduction, a subjective illusion having no objective basis. Our moral feelings may be real, but the notion that there are objective moral standards is illusionary.

Since moral "oughts" are similar to logical "oughts", the same holds for rationality. In his Taking Darwin Seriously (1984) Ruse argues that the apparent objectivity of science, too, is an illusion caused by genes; we possess apparent knowledge of nature only because it is evolutionarily useful. Ruse urges Darwinists to be radical subjectivists, denying an ideal world of absolute truths and norms. Ruse is driven to such drastic conclusions by his materialist commitment to ontological and methodological reductionism. Everything must ultimately be reduced to matter undergoing evolution.

But if moral and rational norms are mere illusions, how can Ruse make any valid judgments regarding religious beliefs? How can his own statements be true--or even meaningful-- in any objective sense?

As to religious people, the most Ruse should be able to say is that their genes have deluded them in ways that differ from Ruse's own illusions, before he saw through them. Hardly a cause for censure. The fact that Ruse, on the contrary, strongly condemns biblical beliefs shows that Ruse, for all his insight, cannot shake his genetic illusions. He certainly writes as if his own moral and rational norms are objective, rather than illusionary. In short, Ruse is either deluded or self-contradictory. Perhaps both.

Presumably, then, for Ruse, morality and rationality are not really illusions after all. But this leaves Ruse with the perplexing evolutionary problem of how to derive an abstract, objective "ought" or "good" from a materialist "is".

Objective truth, knowledge, rational and moral norms--all essential for human society--are fully consistent with the Christian worldview but hardly with Ruses's evolutionism. Ruse can function properly, both rationally and morally, only by implicitly applying the Christian worldview that he explicitly rejects.

In sum, whereas Ruse mocks the biblical view of origins, his own views form a reductio ad absurdum of the evolutionary alternative.


Ben Wallis said...

I don't think we should just take Ruse's word for it that accepting evolution means that moral language has no objective meaning. It seems fairly plain to me that we can fix meanings to our moral terms regardless of our genetic provenance. And once this meaning has been fixed, it will hold independent of any human opinion---i.e. it will take on some sense of objectivity.

Maybe you want to say that it is objective in some deeper sense. But then I would be curious, in what sense is the meaning of our moral terms somehow more deeply objective than the meaning of other terms, say, "table" and "chair" for instance?

Steve Drake said...

It seems fairly plain to me that we can fix meanings to our moral terms regardless of our genetic provenance.

Who's the 'we'? Are you assuming that society in general can come to agreement on moral terms?

John Byl said...


The problem is not that of attaching meaning to the phrase "stealing is wrong". The question is why stealing should be considered wrong. Ruse argues that such moral rules evolved only because of their evolutionary usefulness, not because of any deeper moral standard. The same applies to rational rules. As a result, he rejects the correspondence view of truth: that a belief is true if it corresponds to what is actually the case. It is enough for Ruse that his beliefs cohere and provide useful results.

But then he can hardly assert his evolutionary views are true in the sense that they correspond to what actually happened in the distant past.