Oakeshottian Modes at the Crossroads of the Evolution Debates

Here is the intro to Corey’s essay.

Reading selectively through the spate of popular work on evolution and intelligent design by scientists and theists, as well as those such as Francis Collins who are both, one notes a strong current of bewilderment and annoyance with the “other side,” whoever that may be. (To Collins’s credit, he is annoyed with many on his own side.) Many nonscientists are bewildered by the advances of science whenever they stop to consider the ethical and political ramifications of our knowledge—how to make a human ear grow on the back of a mouse, for example. They are annoyed by the churlish attacks upon religion made by such figures as Richard Dawkins (2006) and Christopher Hitchens (2007). Many scientists are bewildered when nonspecialists offer impertinent and ill-informed criticisms of work that is intensely self-disciplined, or offer “alternative” theories as if having a theory required nothing more than a flight of fancy (a diorama of Homo sapiens playing among the dinosaurs). They are annoyed by the efforts of evangelists or think tanks (The Discovery Institute is a favorite target) to change school curricula or advance alternative theories of cosmology seemingly for political and moral ends.

Both sides are right. Their bewilderment and annoyance is justified, even if their distempered rhetoric is not. A scientist who has lost the ability to be horrified by a human ear growing on the back of a mouse seems to have lost something vital to his or her humanity. For the scientist qua scientist, there is nothing horrifying here; to the contrary, such an experimental outcome represents a significant and scientifically exciting advance. But when the scientist leaves the laboratory and returns to being a practical man or woman, we would expect at least a mild unease: What if this knowledge were used against me and my loved ones instead of for purely theoretical ends or in pursuit of some human good? Such a scientist may be a theist or even an orthodox believer at home in some religious tradition, who nonetheless would find strange some of his or her fellows’ claims about what the Bible requires. A person whose piety requires the belief that God has played an elaborate trick on archaeologists and paleontologists (along with the physicists and chemists whose work supports their dating methods) would be a prime candidate for a Flannery O’Connor pillorying, had the good Georgian only managed to enjoy a biblical lifespan.

Amid the noise and confusion of our public debates, some, including Collins (2006) and Stephen Jay Gould (1997; 1999), have made pleas for a reasonable and civil balance or harmony between the voices of science and religion. Collins thinks these voices may actually be harmonized, while Gould thinks they are “nonoverlapping” and incompatible but both important for full human flourishing.

Michael Oakeshott offers a valuable and truly philosophical perspective on the problem of Gould’s “nonoverlapping magisteria” (1997) and other formulations of the problem of incompatible and competing ways of knowing. He would say to Collins that the harmony he seeks is admirable but impossible—and demonstrated in Collins’s own arguments. He would instead offer a multivocal conversation as the model of civilized discourse. He would give the nonoverlapping magisteria of Gould a deeper philosophical foundation at the cost of deepening the rift between them.

Perhaps the best place to start an examination of Oakeshott’s views of the relation between religion, science, and politics is in some of his early notebooks. He was intensely interested in religion throughout his life, although never in a doctrinaire way. In one early notebook he even outlines an “apology” that he wishes to write for Christianity. He never formally wrote it, but his sketch lays out some key principles such as intellectual integrity and respect for different ways of seeing the world taken in their own terms.