Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The End of Metaphysics?

John Derbyshire has written an interesting article for National Review Online on the making of an artificial genome of a one celled creature. It is not quite artificial life, but it is close. Derbyshire's point is not journalistic, to report on a scientific advance, but philosophical, to declare the end of metaphysics and vitalism. This is a remarkable leap of logic. To say that because we can manipulate strands of DNA in the laboratory, and because we have "decoded" the genomes of several creatures, including man, that "life is essentially information" and thus we have removed any possiblity of mystery or of spirituality from nature and life. This is modern reductionism at its worst.

Mr. Derbyshire goes further, he invokes the Freudian view that religion is a delusion created to avoid the fear of death. Several generations of atheists have patted themselves on the back for being truly "courageous," completely rational, and fully accepting of the implications of modern science without ever questioning their own assumptions and the gigantic gaps in knowledge that their view of science prevents them from discovering.

At the top of this list is conscience and the sense of moral obligation. Immanuel Kant, in spite of his profound agnosticism, saw this as clear evidence of the existence of God. It is rather easy in your 20's and 30's to boast of your courage in rejecting religion, while never disclosing that your real motivation is to be free of moral restraint. Most people dislike the idea of God because they see Him as the enemy of their pleasures.

To return to the argument about the manipulation of the DNA of a single celled creature to make a new lifeform as a deathblow to metaphysics and vitalism. Just because we have acquired godlike knowledge that enables godlike power to manipulate lifeforms doesn't mean we have proven there is no God nor a non-physical, spiritual reality. We must keep in mind the fact that naturalism requires that DNA and all the creatures that inhabit this planet are the product of the random forces of nature. It is one thing for intelligent human beings, with all their equipment and technique to manipulate the chemistry to "create" a new single celled creature, it is another for the purely chance processes of nature to do the same thing. In fact, the chances of it happening accidentally is beyond any real possibility. It is unquestioningly accepted by evolutionists because they assume right from the start that there is no supernatural source thus it must have happened through natural processes. They allow themselves no other option than nature. We shouldn't be surprised, then, when they declare the end of metaphysics.

I am no fan of vitalism, but I understand the reason that many thoughtful writers, such as Gordon Ratty Taylor and Will Durant, have resorted to it. It provides a purposeful explanation for the amazing levels of organization and complexity we see in organic life. Even as great a critic of religion as Fredrich Nietzsche declared, "The development of matter into a thinking subject is impossible." He understood the utter inadequacy of pure materialism (matter is all that exists) to explain the world in which we live. There are far too many creatures, which all display levels of intricacy and design that defy any possibility of a chance explanation. Vitalism is the attempt to explain design and purpose by means of a "force," in other words without resorting to a personal creator God. The problem is that forces don't provide design or purpose. Forces are powers or tools that must be directed by intelligence which is ultimately personal. If we are going to invoke purpose and design, we are left with only one choice, a personal God.

Bio-engineering is a remarkable field. We certainly shouldn't deny its potential for curing disease, and improving life, but we must also be wary of its potential for abuse. We are not gods and we need to proceed very cautiously in assuming power over life, even the life of single celled creatures. In addition, our knowledge of nature is not as great as we think it is. We are basing many of our conclusions on unwarranted (and often unconscious) assumptions that we will surely come to regret. The Bible tells us, "The fool has said in his heart, 'There is no God.'" (Psalm 14:1) Even in this era of dramatic scientific advances foolishness is alive and well.


Jeff B said...

You wrote: "It is rather easy in your 20's and 30's to boast of your courage in rejecting religion, while never disclosing that your real motivation is to be free of moral restraint. Most people dislike the idea of God because they see Him as the enemy of their pleasures."

I am 43 and an atheist. I guess I don't fit the mold. If you can give me the name and email address of ONE atheist you know who became an atheist in order to be free from moral restraint then I will read your book. I would like to interview that person myself. Of course your contention is that an atheist wont admit such a thing. Why couldn't someone logically conclude that your view of God is false? But let's be honest. You don't know that from experience; it depends entirely upon the theological view which you are trying to argue.

If you fail to provide the reference then you can instead read my argument for why a biblical, Christian view of God cannot be true. You can find my deconversion story at WhirledBulletin.blogspot.com



Tom said...

Thank you for your comment Jeff,

One of the most famous quotes that support my allegation is from Aldous Huxley, "For myself, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation, sexual and political." Many more examples can be found in Paul Johnson, the famous British historian's book, "Intellectuals," and the British literary critic John Carey's "The Intellectuals and the Masses." I am of the opinion that Sigmund Freud's views of sexual inhibition were an expression of this principle, that sexual mores were a form of repression born of the influence of Christianity upon Western culture.

I am not saying that most people who reject religious belief consciously reject faith for this reason. In fact, Aldous Huxley's statement is almost shocking in its honesty. In my experience, liberation from moral restraints was an unspoken and even unconscious element for many of the atheists/agnostics I've known. In other words, they would never say they were rejecting God because he is the enemy of their pleasures. Their stated reasons have to do with science or history or philosophy. We certainly must take them at their word, but there is another deeper and more personal reason too. They do not like the restrictions they believe that religion places upon them.

In many ways this is a tragic misunderstanding. Fulfillment and happiness come through living according to the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule, and of course, through a relationship with Christ. I was a non-Christian long enough to know the pain of guilt and uncertainty, and so, I will be forever grateful to Jesus for His redeeming grace. As an unbeliever, I avoided exposure to anything Christian because it made me uncomfortable about things I was saying and doing. I believed that if I got seriously religious I would be guaranteed a dull, strict, and unhappy life. I couldn't have been more wrong. There is a real sense that I could give you my email address as an example of someonoe who "disliked the idea of God because they see Him as the enemy of their pleasures."

I will check out your website.

Tom Shetler

Jeff B said...

The Huxley quotation you refer to seems to indicate that his change in philosophy led to a subsequent change in behavior. It does not sound like he sought out a change in philosophy first in order to justify sinful behavior. And I can't say whether the quotations from Johnson and Freud that you have in mind say it either. But that's the kind of thing that I'm looking for. Obviously, a realization that God is imaginary should lead to a subsequent change in certain behaviors: one should enjoy drinking a beer, or enjoy having sex, or enjoy saying Damn without feeling too bad about it. But this does not mean that one must begin his inquiry about God intending to enjoy those sinful habits.

Unfortunately you do not qualify as a source either because you are not an atheist now. I recall hearing Lee Strobel give his testimony on TV once.. he said something to the effect that he was an atheist and he knew he was running away from God. But the belief that you are running away from God presupposes a belief in God. Therefore Strobel was not an atheist, he was a backslider. An atheist is someone who does not have a belief in God.

Your reply is filled with code words that imply you have some "secret knowledge" about the innermost thoughts of other people: "an unspoken..unconscious element," which I guess means unconscious to me, but not to you. "Their stated reasons," or "another deeper and more personal reason," implies that you have personal knowledge about my thoughts.

Let's be honest. The Christian understanding that atheists have a belief in God and are willfully rejecting him is an article of faith. It goes along with the whole Christian doctrine package, doesn't it? Once you buy-in to Jesus, you have to take all the other ideas in the Bible too. You have to believe in a Satan figure who is leading unbelievers astray. Your contention that atheists are seeking justification for a sinful lifestyle depends on the very point your trying to prove.

So if you can, please try again. I'd like to interview a real atheist who thinks like you say.