In science, as I pointed out in my last piece, progress is the name of the game. What comes later is better than what comes before. Copernicus was right in a way that Ptolemy was not. Einstein was right and Newton was wrong. Darwin was right and the evolution deniers were wrong. And so the story goes. One interesting question provoked by my “Is Philosophy a Science?” series is about whether philosophy ever makes any progress. Do our thinking, our theories, get better? Or are we simply going around in circles, endlessly?
As I noted in my first piece on this topic, in a way the question is a bit unfair. Parts of philosophy do start to lend themselves to regular empirical inquiry and progress. At which point they usually branch off, forming disciplines of their own. Psychology at the end of the 19th century was one such case. So what is left is almost by definition non-progressive, at least in a scientific sort of way.
But we do have change and in a way it is progressive. Take the argument from design – the eye is like a telescope; telescopes have telescope designers; hence the eye has a designer, the Great Optician in the Sky.
Probably the brain child of Socrates, the argument has a starring role in Plato’s Phaedo, the dialogue of Socrates’ last day on Earth. It was picked up by the Christian philosophers and theologians, and famously has a big role in the thought of Aquinas – although note that he, like the others, never thought it the only or the best way to get to God. Faith trumps all.
In the Protestant world it came to prominence in England as part of the Elizabethan Settlement – the middle way between Catholicism and Puritanism. Natural theology, of which the argument is a major jewel, was a path between the authority of Catholicism and the biblical focus of Calvinism. It also fit well with the science-technology bent of the next centuries of British history.
The argument was criticized severely by David Hume in his Dialogues – is the designer responsible for all of the evil in the world, is there just one designer, is our world just one of a series and not necessarily the final and best? But in the end, Hume had to admit that there had to be some reason for the adaptive complexity of the living world – blind law just doesn’t seem to lead to such a thing – and so somehow, there has to be something or Someone.
In Britain, the early 19th century saw the triumph of the argument. Archdeacon Paley gave the definitive exposition and then, in the 1830s, the Bridgewater Treatises dealt with the topic at length. But, even before Darwin, cracks were appearing. William Whewell worried about the vast numbers of stars with possible attendant planets. Are they empty, in which case God seems to be wasting his time? Are they full, in which case the special significance of humans seems downgraded?
Also, on the continent and in Britain too, theologians were worrying about the worth of the argument. John Henry Newman as always was very perceptive.
I believe in design because I believe in God; not in a God because I see design. Design teaches me power, skill and goodness – not sanctity, not mercy, not a future judgment, which three are of the essence of religion.
Then came Darwin and the Origin. I don’t think he killed God, but he did make Him redundant. Natural selection is a mechanism – a blind-law-driven mechanism – that explains organic adaptive complexity. It is all a question of random variation and success in the struggle for existence. And that seems to have been it. As Richard Dawkins has said, rightly, after Darwin it was possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.
For most of the last century the debate seems to have been over. The argument from design does not work. Theologians like Karl Barth added their voice to those of philosophers and scientists. But, and perhaps this is what makes people despair of philosophy and philosophers, there were always those – often in the Catholic tradition – who thought the argument had some merit. And today, we find those who perhaps take physics rather too seriously add their voices. The so-called Anthropic Principle is called into play, and it is argued that the basic constants of the universe could not be pure chance, because if they were slightly other than they are, life could not exist.
To be candid, this argument strikes me as a move of desperation. How can one possibly say that things absolutely could not be other than they are? It smacks too much of: “Think of a number. Double it. And the answer you want is a half.” I think the present enthusiasm shows more the psychological hold that the argument has than anything about its validity.
So does philosophy progress? Not in the way that science progresses, that is true. But, although I am very grateful to the Greeks for giving us such a fascinating problem, our understanding is surely far in advance of the Greeks. For me, the journey as much as the end point, is quite enough. I respect and admire science. But I am not a scientist. I am a philosopher. And I am and always have been proud to be one.