Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Divine Whimsy and Darwin; or, The Madman Theory

In the fall of 1971 I moved into a dormitory room at the Bloomington campus of Indiana University.  Before that I lived for a year in a house I shared with other students in South Bend, Indiana, during my second year attending the regional campus there.  I was very ambivalent about the move, because in South Bend I had for the first time in my life a circle of friends among whom I felt I belonged; but I also had wanted to live in Bloomington ever since my first visit there as a high school senior in 1968, and I wanted (but also feared) the resources for gay life that I knew Bloomington had.

As I settled into life in Bloomington, I noticed something odd: I was using the word "home" to refer to three different places -- my dorm room, the house I'd shared in South Bend, and my parents' home in the country outside South Bend.  I realized that they all felt like home in their ways, so it was proper to use the word, but only context could tell someone else which home I had in mind when I'd saying I was going home.

This might have something to do with why I'm uncomfortable with some of the arguments in Nelson Rivera's The Earth Is Our Home: Mary Midgley's Critique and Reconstruction of Evolution and Its Meanings (Imprint Academic, 2010).  Nelson Rivera (who shares a name with a Salvadoran footballer who died young) is a theologian who teaches at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia.  The book is as a whole a disappointment; it reads rather like Cliff's Notes on Midgley for ministers who might not otherwise venture to read a philosopher, even one sympathetic to religion as Midgley is; but also like an attempt to appropriate her for the faith, as theologians like to do.  Aside from references to a few stray articles by her that I hadn't seen before and might track down, like this one, I didn't get much from Rivera's discussion that I hadn't already got from reading Midgley herself.

I have to admit, though, that some of those articles included information I was happy to get.  In one, for instance, Midgley says that "for most important questions in human life, a number of different conceptual tool-boxes always have to be used together.  And unfortunately, there is no single law showing us how we have to combine them.  We simply have to keep on doing this carefully as the necessities of each case dictate until we reach a result that appears satisfactory" (quoted by Rivera, 179).  I agree completely, and I'm pleased to see someone else saying this.  And again:
According to Midgley, when it comes to the assertion of a personal God within the framework of a scientific view of the world, there we confront some problems.  She thinks, for example, that the notion of a personal cosmic will, which is typically found in an anthropomororphic religious creed, is basically hostile to science.  There is no place in natural science for it.  She thinks moreover that this notion is not consistent with conceptions of order, so vital to our understanding of the universe (as cosmos).  It is order, and not a personal arbitrary will, that the human mind seeks to penetrate with the tools of science [209].
Here Rivera cites an article and Midgley's Evolution as a Religion, page 70.  This interests me, because usually Midgley hedges on issues like this; she's apt to use "religion" to refer to her donnish, twentieth-century philosopher's notions of what religion should be, rather than to what it means to theologians, clergy, and lay believers.  And yet this reminds me of something I wrote a few years ago, arguing that belief in a personal God does not support a lawful ordered universe but rather an arbitrary, disordered one.  Reading some of Rivera's remarks about the role of randomness and chance in the genetic variation that is the raw material of evolutionary change, it occurred to me that randomness, far from setting natural selection at odds with religion, might actually make it more compatible: the variation among individual organisms could be interpreted as Yahweh's idle fiddling around to stir shit up, or as he put it in an old rabbinic story I quoted, "Be still, that is how it entered my mind."  Or, as Terry Pratchett put it, more wisely than he knew, we are in the hands of a madman.

But back to the question of the earth as our "home."  Rivera concludes:
As I hope will be clear through these pages, evolutionary theory is not necessarily incompatible with religious belief.  On this matter I side with Mary Midgley when she states that one of Darwin's major contributions to philosophy, and I would add to theology as well, is the conviction that we belong down here, that we belong to the earth, that we are part of creation, not under or above the whole of the biosphere.  Darwin's common sense [!] has brought our attention back down here from up there.  Most importantly, when the theory is properly assessed, it becomes quite a corrective to human arrogance, and to any religion that forgets where our proper place is: down here, with every other creature.  In this sense, the theory could be said to contribute to a spiritual if not a religious view of how things really are, us included [129].
Midgley has (correctly) criticized scientific dualism, but she sometimes forgets that the belief that human beings are not part of nature, that we are not at home in the world, was a religious doctrine first -- it is, in fact, an important part of traditional Christianity (see Philippians 1:23 and 2 Corinthians 5:1) to seek escape from this world and this body of flesh to the heavenly mansion where the believer will live with Christ.  Rivera does cite some material -- again, mostly not from her books -- which shows Christian theologians indignantly claiming that Christianity is so into ecology!  But the main evidence they seem to have for this claim is Saint Francis, the exception who proves the rule, and the concept of "stewardship."  As Rivera admits, "But even this notion of a steward [Midgley] finds somewhat patronizing.  And I may add, it has been mixed with notions of 'dominion' over the earth, as in the end of the first account of creation in the Book of Genesis" (203).

What interests me here, though, is the concept of home.  I agree that human beings are part of nature, and that we "belong" on this planet, in this biosphere that produced us.  But "home"?  A home is something I construct from a place I'm in, a feeling I have about a place -- it's not something inherent in the place itself.  Any place can become a home; any home can cease to be a home when I leave it.

Homes don't exist in nature; people (and depending on your views, other animals) construct them by altering the space they occupy.  The location of a home isn't determined by where one was born; often people travel long distances to create a home, and often they meet resistance from those who are already there, who may tell the newcomers to go back where they belong.  Those predecessors may not be "natives" themselves; if not they, then their parents or grandparents.  Human beings have always been wanderers.  If we could leave this planet with a viable destination, some of us surely would -- and then the new planet would become home.  I felt at home in Bloomington the first time I visited here, but I've felt the same way about other places.  Home can be an aspiration, not something that already exists.

The connotations of "home" as a secure place of love and care, which I think Midgley and Rivera are invoking here, are also doubtful when applied to the earth.   Rivera says that for Dawkins and for evolutionary theory generally, "Nature seems to be rather indifferent to pain and suffering" (143).  Rather indifferent!  The same is true of gods, including the Christian god -- except when they aren't indifferent but actively and gleefully inflicting pain.  Conventional religion doesn't get rid of these problems, it just shifts the blame around.  At least "nature" is indifferent, not sadistic, though some non-theists can't resist anthropomorphizing natural disasters as punishment in a very religious manner.  Like certain early Christians who fantasized that they would view the suffering of the damned from the bleachers in Heaven, such people think of other people's suffering as a spectator sport.  I think that Midgley is cheating by using sentimental appeal if she wants us to view "nature as home, as a nurturing experience, as garden and not just the context of our tears and sweat" (166).  Perhaps it can be viewed that way, but Mother Gaia also hurts and kills us, starves and burns us out, creates our tears and sweat.  Our home, yes, but we're not necessarily at home here.

Some homes become places you need to leave.  There are reasons why people feel alienated from the earth, the world, their bodies, their lives.  Some of them may not be particularly good or rational ones; some are probably internal to the person and others the result of experience; and the fantasy is unrealistic, but it seems to me that many people (including me, including Midgley) dismiss it too easily, as a perverse, even wicked refusal to face reality.  They may be just that, but what they are first is subjective -- just like the feeling that this world is our home.  Maybe we need to think more carefully and sympathetically about those reasons. 

P.S. I've done some rewriting, adding, and rearranging in this post, and I can't decide where to put this, so I'll put it here for now: It seems to me that although Midgley knows better, she seems to fall from time to time into the nurture/nature, environment/genes error.  Some molecular biologists are beginning to abandon the environment/genes distinction altogether -- see Evelyn Fox Keller's The Mirage of a Space Between Nature and Nurture (Duke, 2010) for a dense but brief discussion of this.  It also appears that the very concept of genes, selfish or not, is in trouble: what a gene is thought to be has changed drastically ever since the concept was first proposed.  It was more a placeholder than an actual thing for a long time, and it may be that the placeholder has begun to outlive its usefulness.