Philosopher Michael Ruse talks history, Star Trek and immortality

The mild-mannered philosopher Michael Ruse is not known for being speculative. A world authority on the practical aspects of the philosophy of biology, he doesn’t often venture into the realm of sci-fi. made a futile attempt to catch him off-guard, and asked him a lot of questions, some on history, some on philosophy, and some inspired by outrageous documentaries on the Discovery Channel. Here are his replies:

Michael Ruse is a philosopher of science well-known for his work on the relationship between science and religion, and the creation–evolution controversy. He teaches at Florida State University. Charles Darwin was engaged in his big struggle with the natural theology of William Paley. Looking back at the last hundred years, we can conclude that he won a pretty convincing victory. Why do you think intelligent design has remained a potent force in the United States? In Europe this is largely a non-issue.

Professor Ruse:  I would say rather that Darwin won a nuanced victory over Paley. As Richard Dawkins has said, you can now be an intellectually respectable atheist now, but after Darwin I don’t think you have to be an atheist. Darwin writing the Origin was a deist and at most later in life he became an agnostic. My own feeling is that natural theology has declined less because of science – although Darwin was very important – and more because of philosophy and religion. People like Hume and Kant showed the difficulties with the traditional arguments, and after Kierkegaard and especially Karl Barth, many Christians don’t want anything to do with natural theology. It destroys faith.

Intelligent design is simply Creationism with a friendly face. It was invented in the 1980s because it was clear that Creationism was going nowhere – it was out of the schools because it was so clearly religious. Intelligent design tried to distance itself from the Christian God and the bible, but the whole idea is to keep miracles and challenge naturalistic science. It is big in America because of historical reasons. People like the historian Mark Noll have shown the ideological role that religion played in the founding and development of the US, and we live with that legacy – especially the extreme evangelical attitude that intelligent design represents. Europe has its own troubles, but one of them is not a pervasive mist of fundamentalist Protestantism. Why is it so important to prove that intelligent design is impossible? Shouldn’t people be allowed to believe what they want?

Professor Ruse: Of course people should be allowed to believe what they want, but as soon as they start expressing and acting on these beliefs, it is our issue too. You can believe that Jews are inferior but as soon as you start spouting these beliefs and trying to stop Jews from teaching at universities, it is our issue too. Intelligent design is bad science and not very good religion, but believe it if you want. But don’t ask to have it taught in biology classes in public schools. And even if it is not illegal, I deplore things like Intelligent Design being used to bolster an extreme evangelical religion that does try to interfere in the public domain. And don’t think that people are not using Intelligent Design to push a world picture that keeps women and blacks in their places.  There have been numerous trials at which freedom of religion has clashed with evolutionary science. What was at stake in these trials?

Professor Ruse: Well, as historians like Ed Larson – Summer of the Gods – have shown, these trials are not really about religion as such, and certainly not about (on the one hand) the proper way to read the bible and (on the other hand) the validity of Darwinian evolutionary theory. They are about modernism. They are about the vision of a society ruled by reason and experience versus a vision of a society that harks to the past, and would have us return to a fictional happy, comfortable society, that has proper standards. Indeed, that is really what the whole evolution-creationism debate is about. There was the 1920s Scopes Trial, of course, but I have heard that you were involved in a creationist trial of your own once. Tell us about that.

Professor Ruse: There was a trial in 1981 in Arkansas, over the constitutionality of a new law in the state that mandated the “balanced treatment” in public school science classes between “Creation science” and Darwinian evolutionary theory. The ACLU opposed it on grounds that it violated the separation of church and state, and I appeared as an expert witness for the ACLU, in the successful suit launched against the law. My job was to explain the difference between science and religion, with an aim to showing Darwinian theory to be science and Creation science to be religion.

The judge accepted my argument and reproduced it in his ruling
Several witnesses suggested definitions of science. A descriptive definition was said to be that science is what is “accepted by the scientific community” and is “what scientists do.” The obvious implication of this description is that, in a free society, knowledge does not require the imprimatur of legislation in order to become science.
More precisely, the essential characteristics of science are:
(1) It is guided by natural law;
(2) It has to be explanatory by reference to nature law;
(3) It is testable against the empirical world;
(4) Its conclusions are tentative, i.e. are not necessarily the final word; and
(5) Its is falsifiable. (Ruse and other science witnesses). Did the discovery of DNA in the 50s and 60s affect the philosophy of science?

Professor Ruse: Not a lot, I don’t think. On the one hand, the philosophy of science of the 1950s was very physics and chemistry oriented, so DNA was exciting biology but rather blasé philosophy. Then in the 1960s, when the philosophy of biology took off, it was evolutionary biology that was of major interest. The DNA issue is of more interest to the history of science, not just finding it but how it then fitted into and changed the rest of biology.  In the 1960s, Star Trek appeared on TV. In that series, humans travel out to the outer edges of the universe, only discover civilizations with human like beings. In fact, what captain Kirk discovers in space is very much himself. Well, if we traveled to another world and discovered such humanoid beings, would that not prove intelligent design?

Professor Ruse: Why? If humans can appear naturally here on Earth, then I see no reason why it should not happen elsewhere if given enough possibilities. I do have to say that while I have no problem with intelligence, I wonder just exactly how human-like they would look and be. I doubt they would be like Mr Spock with just pointy ears. But why bring God into this? If nature can do it once, then why not again and again? Given enough opportunities of course. If there are infinite multiverses then I suppose infinite chances of getting beings just like us. There have been some difficult philosophical dilemmas facing Darwinists over the years. One has been the argument of circularity. Namely you postulate that something survives because of some qualities they have, and then at the same time you say that they have these qualities because they survive. How should we deal with this 1970s conundrum?

Professor Ruse: Genetic drift! This the claim that sometimes because of pure chance, the better or fitter organisms decline and the worse or less fit increase in numbers. This may or may not be true, but no one thinks it impossible, which it would be if natural selection were a tautology or contained a circularity. The claim is not that the fittest always and only survive but that on average organisms with certain features will prove better than others in certain conditions. No truisms here!  In the 80s Conway Morris came up with a counter argument to Darwin in his theory of convergence. What is your evaluation of Morris’ philosophy?

Professor Ruse: I am not sure I would use the term “counter argument” here. Darwin believed fully in some kind of evolutionary progress up to humans. This, I take it, is what Conway Morris is trying to prove. Where Darwin and Morris come together is in trying to do this on Darwinian – natural selection – principles. Where they come apart is in their methods. Darwin invokes the idea of arms races, arguing that these lead to intelligence and so forth.

“If we look at the differentiation and specialisation of the several organs of each being when adult (and this will include the advancement of the brain for intellectual purposes) as the best standard of highness of organisation, natural selection clearly leads towards highness; for all physiologists admit that the specialisation of organs, inasmuch as they perform in this state their functions better, is an advantage to each being; and hence the accumulation of variations tending towards specialisation is within the scope of natural selection.” (This is from the third edition of the Origin of 1861)

Conway Morris rehearses an argument first found in Stephen Jay Gould of all people. “If brains can get big independently and provide a neural machine capable of handling a highly complex environment, then perhaps there are other parallels, other convergences that drive some groups towards complexity.” Continuing: “We may be unique, but paradoxically those properties that define our uniqueness can still be inherent in the evolutionary process. In other words, if we humans had not evolved then something more-or-less identical would have emerged sooner or later.”

Personally, while I am glad to be a human rather than (let us say) a warthog, I don’t think humans are necessarily biologically superior to warthogs. So I think Darwin and Conway Morris are addressing a false problem, and (expectedly) I am not overenthused by their solutions. Trying too hard, in my opinion. We are in the midst of a biological revolution. Concepts such as «singularity» have been mentioned by (we must say) prominent biologists like Aubrey De Grey at Cambridge. In what way will the philosophy of biology be affected by the new developments?

Professor Ruse: “We are in the midst of a biological revolution.” News to me! Of course, it helps that I have never heard of either singularity or the “prominent biologist” Aubrey De Grey at Cambridge. On checking Wikipedia, I find that singularity is “a hypothetical moment in time when artificial intelligence and other technologies have become so advanced that humanity undergoes a dramatic and irreversible change.” I confess that that strikes me as either already true or total bs. My students in class are obsessed with their i-phones and by preference have ear plugs and noise coming in from elsewhere. This strikes me as dramatic and probably irreversible. One is part of a universal mind now in a way that just wasn’t true twenty years ago. What more? Computers wired into the brain? Why bother when you can do it all without wiring. All the suggestions I have ever seen strike me as either dangerous or daft, or both.

I find from Wikipedia that Aubrey David Nicholas Jasper de Grey, to give him his full name and the correct spelling, is pretty good at self-promotion. I would lay ten to one that he wrote the entry himself. So why don’t we let him go on speaking for himself?  de Grey has stated that the first human that will live till he or she is 1000 has already been born. Do you believe him, and if you do, what will be the consequences for our psyche?

Professor Ruse: Well, I hope he’s wrong, because that really is a fate worse than death. I love my job but the thought of doing it for another nine hundred or so years – or of hearing my wife moan about our daughter for all of that time – no thanks! Are we to switch jobs and where we land is a function of chance or doing well in an earlier job? In six hundred years’ time I am going to have fifty years as a brassier designer if all goes well and fifty years as a continence underwear designer if it doesn’t? I leave that as an exercise for the reader and for Aubrey David Nicholas Jasper de Grey.



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