Repeating history

I’m trying to think of anything recent that is truly new in the landscape of arguments over religion. Depending on how coarse-grained you’re willing to allow comparisons to get, there isn’t a whole lot that is new under the sun.

Philosophy about religion tends to repeat itself this way. It’s hard to come up with a new version of the design argument that either Hume or Darwin doesn’t have something significant to say about. Dawkins’s “a designer that explains complexity would have to be even more complex” argument, for example, has many echoes of older arguments in it. And I remember too many instances where I thought I ran into something new, but was later embarrassed to find out I just didn’t know enough about the history of the debate. For example, I used to think “the good due to having regular laws of nature overrides the unfortunate evil consequences of laws” was an interesting new twist on theodicy. I was an idiot, naturally. It seems the argument was just out fashion, and not appearing as often in the newer literature I was sampling.

Science-flavored arguments also can repeat themselves. There’s a lot in today’s design arguments that could be deflated by some knowledge of the track record of very similar intuitions in the history of science. And a whole lot of what science-minded skeptics say today wouldn’t have been out of place in the nineteenth century.

It’s not like we always stumble over the same territory in our arguments. Today’s philosophers are less likely to attack a transcendent God while relying on a transcendent conception of Reason. And science does its new things as well. One example, I hope, is one of my hobbyhorses—the emphasis on the random element in how the world works, and how this undermines ideas of a purpose behind nature. (Talk of chance and necessity goes back to the Greeks, but our modern ideas of chance and necessity are significantly different.) But I don’t know how much I can push such novel elements. They certainly have not penetrated into any popular awareness.

So, if there is a lot of repeating history going on in our arguments over the gods, what does this mean? I’m not sure, but one possibility is that we’re not really making a lot of progress. The moves and countermoves in the debate are known too well: skeptics and true believers know how to respond before their opposition even finishes their next “new” argument. As a result, science-minded skeptics might tend to complacency, because we already occupy a skeptical subculture. We encounter things like “intelligent design” as a political nuisance rather than an intellectual challenge.

But I’m not sure what that means either.

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About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University


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