Marks out of 10 - Faith, scope, but precious little clarity

9th July 2010 at 01:00


Steve Fuller

Acumen, #163;9.99

By Martin Spice

Steve Fuller is a controversial figure in the neo-Darwinistcreationistintelligent design debate and this latest short book for Acumen's The Art of Living series is likely to do little to reduce the level of controversy that has surrounded some of his previous work.

Fuller helpfully gives a precis of his basic position early in Science: "The thesis of this book may be summarised in one sentence: the art of living scientifically involves taking theology much more seriously than either practising scientists or religious believers are inclined to."

Potential readers who do not find this a promising premise would do well to read no further because, after this comparatively lucid statement of intent, Fuller's thought and prose become dense in equal measure.

Drawing on the thinking of a wide range of philosophers, scientists and religious thinkers, he challenges the arguments of the new atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, and makes a concluding claim that "... Darwinism offends. There is something profoundly irrational in hitching one's fate to a theory in which all that is meaningful is ultimately based on chance-based processes, the plausibility of which depend on an ever-expanding and ageing universe". Between the premise and the conclusion, Fuller asks if science can live with its past, what it means to live scientifically and what any form of atheism has ever done for science.

As its title suggests, however, this is not a book about Darwinism and its counterparts per se but a book that explores the breakthroughs, boundaries and limitations of scientific exploration and the philosophies and modes of thinking that have inspired it. There are, Fuller claims, distinct parallels between science and religion. For instance, we tend to hold the view that science has uncovered permanent truths about the universe in the sense that we hold that if Newton had not published Principia Mathematica then someone else would have done, meaning this "universal truth" was waiting to be uncovered.

Science, and particularly modern physics, explicitly looks for "knowledge of all things" and seeks to investigate our origins and those of the universe. Science has a distinct air of ascetic monasticism about its practice while we "defer to the relevant scientific experts as one would have to clerical authority in the past" and so on.

Like religion, science has its heretics, or at least Protestants. Fuller coins the ugly term Protscience for science that dissents from views sanctioned by the scientific establishment (the equivalent of the Vatican, if we continue the religious parallel) and seeks to revive the spirit of independent scientific enquiry.

Controversy over climate change and the keen interest in alternative medicines would be taken as examples of this non-conformist approach, and the internet credited with their dissemination.

Unsurprisingly, Fuller argues that atheism and the new atheism (by which he means a positively anti-God approach rather than the traditional non-belief viewpoint) have done little for science, suggesting that, historically, belief in the Darwinian metaphysic that "a morally indifferent nature selects from a variety of organic possibilities" has tended to encourage "equanimity and even resignation", attitudes directly antithetical to the entire notion of scientific investigation and progress. Intelligent design theory, he argues on the other hand, "reasserts science's rootedness in theology's quest" for a sense of ourselves and an investigation into our reality.

My main reservations about Science are not with its core arguments - after all, it does not seem particularly radical to argue that the two chief modes of inquiry of our civilisation are to some degree entwined - but with Fuller's language. Moments of lucidity and insight are interspersed with dense and convoluted passages that may be full of sound and fury but seem to signify very little. Disentangle the following if you will: "While it is easy to understand how all sorts of imaginative constructions might have arisen as by-products of evolutionarily salient activities, it is harder to understand how one such by-product might come to surpass another such by-product that nevertheless had already managed to transform radically the terms of reference in which humans conduct their material existence. I mean Einstein's revolutionary transformation of the Newtonian worldview."

Sadly this is but one of many instances and the book's style and mode of argument raise the question of its intended readership. While Dawkins is eminently readable, Fuller is not. This, then, would appear to be a book aimed at academics rather than the general reader. My guess is that they will have a field day with some of Fuller's arguments and analogies. Meanwhile, this is definitely not a book to take to bed with a cup of cocoa after teaching cell division to Year 7.


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