Sunday, February 5, 2017

Anthropomorphizing Nature

Victor Reppert has a new source of arguments that support his theistic beliefs, with which he seems to be quite enamored.  It is the book God's Undertaker, by John Lennox.  I haven't read this book, but from what I have been able to learn about it, it offers a fairly standard array of arguments in support of God-as-designer, and against naturalistic science and the scientists who pose a threat to this theistic world-view.  Here is a well-written review of the book from the perspective of a creationist, and here is a rather brief review from an atheist's perspective.  The creationist reader will find what he wants to hear that will confirm what he already believes, and the atheist reader will find nothing convincing to change his mind.

But what this book does bring to the table is the idea, popular within the ID and Creation Science community, that the big conflict is not so much a battle between science and theistic belief as a battle between philosophical naturalism and philosophical theism.  By taking this approach, Lennox is working to achieve two significant goals:  First, he wants to have science on his side - to encourage the view that science actually supports creationism.  Science is not the enemy of theism (and particularly of Intelligent Design) in his view, but dogmatic materialism in science is.  Second, those materialistic scientists are wedded to the religious dogma of their philosophy that precludes a broader perspective of reality that would encompass God.

Apparently, Lennox tries to make the case that in this battle between philosophical outlooks, materialists have employed a devious tactic of turning nature itself into an object of deification, which is then deployed as a weapon against theism.  His book includes this passage about Thomas Huxley, an early prominent defender of Darwinism:
However, it is apparent that even more was involved. A central element in Huxley’s crusade is highlighted by Michael Poole.34 He writes, ‘In this struggle, the concept of “Nature” was spelt with a capital N and reified.  Huxley vested “Dame Nature”, as he called her, with attributes hitherto ascribed to God, a tactic eagerly copied by others since. The logical oddity of crediting nature (every physical thing there is) with planning and creating every physical thing there is, passed unnoticed. “Dame Nature”, like some ancient fertility goddess, had taken up residence, her maternal arms encompassing Victorian scientific naturalism.’ Thus a mythical conflict was (and still often is) hyped up and shamelessly used as a weapon in another battle, the real one this time, that is, that between naturalism and theism.
Reppert cites this passage as evidence that scientists have simply replaced one god with another.

But is this an honest depiction of the battle?  Not in the slightest.  In the 19th century, Huxley used the term "Dame Nature" in various letters referring to events in his life, but not in any scientific context, to my knowledge.  It is just an alternate form of "Mother Nature", which has been in common parlance for a very long time.  (See the French version of the Wikipedia article on Mother Nature.)  This was never used in any battle against theism.  In fact, it is a hold-over from pre-scientific times that has remained with us, like so many other things commonly found in our every-day language.  The idea that it was deliberately employed by materialists as a weapon against theism is simply absurd.

It is generally recognized among scientists that anthropomorphic language is counter-productive.  Despite Lennox's claims, many scientists specifically avoid using that kind of terminology.  Especially with regard to evolution theory, which denies any kind of intention or intelligence in the evolutionary process, it would be rather stupid to describe it in terms of an anthropomorphic goddess having her way with the development of creatures on earth.  And that's the last thing Darwin or Huxley would have wanted to do.  When Richard Dawkins used anthropomorphic language in a popular book describing the concept of The Selfish Gene, he was criticized in the scientific community for encouraging the kind of thinking that might lead to pseudo-science, as contrasted with the more objective language used by Darwin and Huxley.

So it would seem that Lennox has deliberately taken some words spoken by Huxley out of context to make this false argument about materialist scientists creating gods of their own.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  But this is exactly the kind of dishonest argumentation we hear every day from religious apologists, and especially from IDists and "Creation Science" advocates, whose real objective is to undermine genuine science, and replace it with their own theistic pseudo-science.

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