So Great an Absurdity (guest post)

Tis unconceivable that inanimate brute matter should (without the mediation of something else which is not material) operate upon and affect other matter without mutual contact; as it must if gravitation in the sense of Epicurus be essential and inherent in it. And this is one reason why I desired you would not ascribe innate gravity to me. That gravity should be innate inherent and essential to matter so that one body may act upon another at a distance through a vacuum without the mediation of any thing else by and through which their action or force may be conveyed from one to another is to me so great an absurdity that I believe no man who has in philosophical matters any competent faculty of thinking can ever fall into it.
Isaac Newton to Richard Bentley, February 25, 1693

Material bodes do not attract each other on their own. It is absurd to think that gravity is innate to matter, says Newton. No scientifically educated person could believe such a thing! And although Newton the scientist famously said that it was not his job to hypothesize about an ultimate cause, when he took off his scientist’s hat he let it be known that the only reasonable explanation for gravity was the active and continuous intervention of a divine intelligence. The inverse-square law is God’s law. (God the mathematician, the first-born child of Galileo and Descartes, and grandchild of the ancient Greeks.) "When I wrote my tract on our system," said Newton, "I had my eyes turned to principles that could act considering mankind’s belief in a Divinity, and nothing is more grateful for me than to see it useful for this goal."

Mary Midgley maintains that today’s anti-god warriors are doing much the same: using the prestige of science to defend a particular world-view. In both cases, she says, the scientific argument is weak, but its employment is not surprising.

Belief in God is not an isolated factual opinion, like belief in the Loch Ness monster – not, as Richard Dawkins suggests, just one more “scientific hypothesis like any other”. It is a world-view, an all-enclosing vision of the kind of world that we inhabit. We all have these visions. Though they are always loaded with lumber and often dangerous, we need them.

This is a case she makes at greater length in Science As Salvation: A Modern Myth and Its Meaning. According to Midgley, we humans by nature think in terms of purpose, direction, context, meaning. In recent decades scientists have vacillated between denying that science has anything to tell us about the meaning of life and claiming it can tell us a great deal about it – Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking being among the latter.

Teleology – reasoning from purpose – does not require belief in a deity; it does, however, imply that human beings are not the source of all value, but are parts of a larger, intelligible whole within which we situate and understand ourselves. By contrast, viewing the non-human universe as being without purpose is typically compensated for by "orgiastically" dramatizing the human mind and glorifying humans as the sole centre of value.

If our curiosity is in no way respectful – if we don’t see the objects we speculate about as joined with us and related to us, however distantly, within some vast enclosing common enterprise which gives them their independent importance – then (it appears) our curiosity, though it may remain intense, shrinks, corrupts and becomes just a form of predation. We then respond to these beings we enquire about with some more or less hostile, alienated attitude, something ranging between fear, aggression, callous contempt and violent suppression. We see them either as enemies to be conquered or as brute objects ranged over against us – as aliens, as monsters, as victims, as trivia or as meat to be eaten.


amos said...

Nietzsche (The Genealogy of Morals): "Man would rather have the void for a purpose than be void of purpose". That we "need" certain visions doesn't mean that such visions are true.

Ed said...

" In recent decades scientists have vacillated ..." I don't think so. Some scientists hold different opinions than other scientists, and some may even have changed their opinion. To me that indicates a healthy debate not indecisiveness.

I also have to disagree with the last opinion expressed, that viewing the universe as without purpose somehow leads to glorifying humans as the sole centre of value and seeing other beings as aliens, monsters, meat, etc.

That has not been my experience. For example I have learned that the atheist group I belong to has a significantly larger percentage of ethical vegetarians that any of my other groups, all of which are largely composed of religious believers (and presumably teleological thinkers). The atheists seem less likely to view other beings as disconnected objects.

What can give you a closer sense of oneness with all other beings than the realization based on evolutionary theory that we are all biological cousins, and all descend from the same distant grandparents?

Aeolus said...

Ed: Midgley doesn't claim that individual scientists have "vacillated" (that was my word, and probably not the best one), but that there have been periods when prominent scientists have made grandiose claims about what science can tell us about life, and other periods marked by retreat from such claims.

As I read her, by "teleological" she doesn't mean marked by a belief in an Intelligent Designer, but rather explaining things in terms of the roles they play in a system -- what is called teleological, or functional, explanation.