March 29, 2008

Darwinism and Its Discontents

Darwinism and Its Discontents by Michael Ruse (2006) is an informative and enjoyable defense of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Ruse brings his defense up to date with discussions of modern scientific findings and Creationism’s offshoot, Intelligent Design Theory. A new edition should be available soon: see Darwinism and Its Discontents (2008).

Whether one agrees or disagrees with Darwinism, is a non-professional or a scientist, he will probably learn much from reading Darwinism and Its Discontents. Ruse writes from his position as a Darwinist. Concerning the existence of God, Ruse is undecided. He appears to be like Darwin himself: agnostic. Ruse may someday evolve from his stasis in matters of religion and philosophy. (Eventually, though, any continued agnosticism or atheism gets punctuated. Such was the case on May 20, 2002, with the eminent evolutionist, Stephen J. Gould, an avowed agnostic Jew, R.I.P.)

Actually, I admire Ruse for the respect he shows toward religions he does not believe in. He appears to understand, on a basic level, the fundamental beliefs of Christianity, and the various methods of interpreting Scriptures, such as literal and allegorical. He does not take any cheap shots at belief in God like some devout atheistic evolutionists have done.

Ruse does misinterpret St. Augustine’s understanding of miracles (p. 280) when he refers to Augustine teaching the spiritual significance of miracles. Ruse seems to say that Augustine does not treat miracles as events that occur outside the course of nature. Ruse is misunderstanding St. Augustine’s treatment of miracles as “natural” events. For St. Augustine, miracles are natural “relative to God”. God works miracles through instrumentality: man, things, etc. A miraculous event is above the course of nature and beyond nature's productive powers.

I found other weaknesses in Ruse’s philosophical discussions of the nature of man and the soul. The limitations of Ruse’s own philosophical position preclude him from providing an exhaustive and accurate analysis of such matters. For instance, when discussing the question of “free will” (p. 285), Ruse maintains that humans have free will, and that it is a product of natural selection. That is, the human free will has evolved. Humans are morally responsible for their actions. The problem here is that Ruse opines that the human mind (reason, will) is a product of the material and physiological. In this epiphenomenal view, there can be no ontological basis for true freedom of choice. Oftentimes, materialists and determinists will discount man’s sense or awareness of freedom and free choice as merely an illusion. Organized matter, i.e. the brain, is still matter and obeys the laws of matter. Philosophical materialism eliminates the ontological condition for freedom. If man is strictly a physical being, then the determinists are right: free will is not possible.

Ruse asserts that the human will is a product of biological evolution. Even though Ruse’s position is an ontological impossibility, at least he has the common sense not to discount our experience of freedom or free choice as an illusion such as the radical determinists are fond of doing.

So far, I have not said much of anything that is positive about Darwinism and Its Discontents. Despite limitations and problems with some of Ruse’s philosophical and theological discussions, I do recommend the book for anyone interested in learning more about Darwinism. Ruse’s extensive knowledge of the history of science, coupled with his writing style, make Darwinism and Its Discontents delightful reading.

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