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James Davison Hunter and the Inadequacy of Naturalism

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James Davison Hunter and the Inadequacy of Naturalism

James Davison Hunter (Virginia.edu; cover image via Amazon)

Plato was right: Moral value is real and non-natural. A review of Science and the Good, by James Davison Hunter and Paul Nedelisky.

Science and the Good: The Tragic Quest for the Foundations of Morality, by James Davison Hunter and Paul Nedelisky (Yale University Press / Templeton Press, 289 pp., $26)

The only way to avoid becoming a metaphysician is to say nothing,” wrote the distinguished American philosopher E. A. Burtt nearly a hundred years ago in his classic and frequently republished Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science. Language, conscience, rationality, will, freedom, meaning, personal identity, and purpose — the distinctively human attributes — have a non-natural, metaphysical character that has been apparent to wise and reflective persons ever since Socrates. They form the core of what the great polymathic German mathematician-scientist-philosopher G. W. Leibniz (1646–1716) called “the perennial philosophy” (philosophia perennis), which for two thousand years has been the central civilized legacy that higher education and culture in the West were meant to transmit, adding to it whatever else was true, good, beautiful, and useful across the centuries.

The “perennial philosophy” has always had enemies, the main ones being ignorance, sloth, and self-interest, but since the 18th century those enemies have been massively strengthened by the growth of reductive naturalism, by arrogant “nothing buttery” — reason, consciousness, conscience, will, and purpose conceived as something lower than themselves, as impulse, instinct, DNA, or “evolutionary” anything. Despite critiques of such reductive “scientism” by distinguished modern philosophers and scientists such as Pierre Duhem, A. N. Whitehead, C. S. Lewis, Jacques Maritain, Michael Polanyi, Stanley L. Jaki, and, most recently, Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, and Thomas Nagel, the massive, tempting over-simplifications of modern naturalism have grown rapidly and influentially. Voluble academic philosophers and social scientists promote astoundingly reductive and transgressive views of the human person that can only help augment the domination of ideologies of “power-knowledge,” technocratic rationalism, and cut off access to the central wisdom traditions of the West and the rest of the world.

“Scientists animated by the purpose of proving themselves purposeless,” the great philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947) wrote, ironically and aptly, “make an interesting subject for study” (The Function of Reason, 1929). The elementary self-contradiction of urging a naturalistic, reductive point of view that invalidates one’s own cognitive processes and conceptual arguments is thoroughly discrediting: “Tu quoque?” “What about you and what you just said?” Bernard Lonergan was notable for using this classic argument from self-contradiction against naturalists, and it has come to be called “retorsion” — the retort showing the speaker or writer to have committed a thematic-performative self-contradiction (one’s own free action or thought being undermined by one’s assertion of determinism, for instance), thus invalidating whatever he or she has to say. But despite the “Promethean over-reach” of scientists such as Sir Francis Crick and Richard Dawkins, the chief villains here have not been modern scientists — many of whom have been appropriately chastened by the tragic character of world history since 1914 and are not reductionists at all.

The main villains have been intellectually-promiscuous social scientists, psychologists, and philosophers themselves, a veritable “treason of the intellectuals” (trahison des clercs) comparable to the Marxist heresy of 1917–1990. The distinguished sociologist James Davison Hunter and his philosopher-colleague Paul Nedelisky of the University of Virginia have written a fine, patient, thorough, judicious, carefully argued exposé of the new reductionists called Science and the Good: The Tragic Quest for the Foundations of Morality. Their book is a most valuable and welcome addition to a distinguished body of recent anti-reductionist literature: the medical doctor and award-winning science writer James LeFanu’s Why Us? How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves (2009), the philosopher Alvin Plantinga’s Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (2011), the philosopher Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False (2012), and the political scientist Jason Blakely’s Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, and the Demise of Naturalism (2016), as well as the works of MacIntyre and Taylor themselves.

This is not to speak of literary works such as Sir Tom Stoppard’s recent play, currently on Broadway, The Hard Problem (2015), a dramatization of the effects of reductionist ideology on the private lives of researchers, or the distinguished American novelist Marilynne Robinson’s Terry Lectures at Yale, published as Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self (2010).

Since the deaths of Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer, and Peter Berger  (Hunter’s teacher), James Davison Hunter of the University of Virginia is perhaps America’s most distinguished sociologist. His award-winning book Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America (1991) had unusual range and effect, usefully introducing the conception of an ongoing war of ideas or culture struggle (kulturkampf) in American life, behind and beneath American political struggles, between broadly traditional people (especially religious people) and their “progressive” opponents (putting their faith in science, technology, and political change). Hunter has followed up with several other books, including The Death of Character: Moral Education in an Age without Good and Evil (2000), and founded and directs the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, in which his collaborator Paul Nedelisky is a fellow. The Institute publishes an outstanding scholarly journal, The Hedgehog Review: Critical Reflections on Contemporary Culture.

Hunter’s line of intellectual descent comes through his great teacher Peter L. Berger (1929–2017), who mediated to him the high, German, non-Marxist sociological tradition of Max Weber and developed and applied it himself in profound ways (see my “A Contemporary Erasmus: Peter L. Berger,” Modern Age, Summer 2011). Hunter has also been influenced by Tocqueville and Philip Rieff and has sociological-ethical concerns similar to those of contemporaries such as Gertrude Himmelfarb, the Englishman David Martin, Charles L. Glenn, and W. Bradford Wilcox (a former student).

Science and the Good gives a careful historical and logical analysis of what its subtitle rightly calls  “the tragic quest for the foundations of morality” over the last four hundred years. The tragedy of the quest is rooted in the continuing failure of philosophical and scientific naturalism to provide grounds or credibility for ethics (and thus for justice and just law). It was again the great philosopher Whitehead who saw and said this clearly. Speaking of naturalists such as David Hume and Thomas Henry Huxley (initially “Darwin’s bull-dog,” subsequently repentant for the moral implications and effects of Darwinism), Whitehead asked what reason could such naturalists give for any moral views they held “apart from their own psychological inheritance from the Platonic religious tradition?” (i.e., Christianity; Adventures in Ideas, 1933). Lester Crocker’s comprehensive study of such attempts in 18th-century France, Nature and Culture: Ethical Thought in the French Enlightenment (1963), showed that they ended in what he called “The Nihilist Dissolution” of the Marquis de Sade, whose audacious immoralism foreshadowed Nietzsche. In none of its numerous incarnations can “Nature” legitimate ethics; thus the “tragic quest” and the astounding intellectual and political history of the world since 1914, at best a restless intellectual hunger for the new (“neophilia” or “cupiditas rerum novarum”), at worst a political chamber of horrors.

In their painstakingly fair-minded analysis, Hunter and Nedelisky ultimately document the truth argued by a distinguished contemporary philosopher whom they do not quote, Charles Larmore: “Basically, Plato was right,” he argues; “moral value is something real and non-natural.” If we deny this, philosophy is only a pretense. “Either we must admit that the world is more than the natural world and that it comprises not only physical and psychological reality, but normative reality as well, or, like the sophists, we must abandon reason for persuasion” (The Morals of Modernity, 1996). Thus Hunter and Nedelisky conclude that the dominant schools of contemporary academic philosophy and social science (and the popularizations of natural science in “evolutionary” everything) logically terminate in “moral nihilism,” Crocker’s “nihilist dissolution.” They also show why the recent philosophical challenge to this desiccated academic-intellectual deviation by Thomas Nagel in his Mind and Cosmos was so fiercely, resentfully, and abusively attacked. For our glib tenured nihilists it is deeply insulting to be redirected to Socrates, Plato, or Aristotle, or to Leibniz, Samuel Johnson, Whitehead, Maritain, C. S. Lewis — or Alasdair MacIntyre or Thomas Nagel — and to be reminded that often “the true is not new, and the new is not true.”

Cupiditas rerum novarum — the promiscuous love of novelty, counter-intuitive paradox, transgressive reductionism — is the spirit of the age in the high academy, though some of its prominent spokesmen are now at least temporarily puzzled that our current political situation seems to require invocations of outmoded, normative, regulative concepts such as truth-telling and elementary justice. Having gleefully smashed the traditional dishes in the philosophical cupboard, they are left rather bereft of rational and ethical resources with which convincingly to oppose the full implications of Nietzschean perspectivalism (“my truth”; will-to-power).  The long love affair with radical skepticism and relativism — from Hume to A. J. Ayer and “the new moral scientists” — has turned squalid and sour, though as Hunter and Nedelisky show, it remains voluminously verbose. Apart from transgressive or counter-intuitive novelty, how else is tenure to be won in the Humanities and social sciences? How else nowadays, other than by getting rich, is esteem to be had among and from the WEIRD: “Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic”?

Hunter and Nedelisky conclude with an appealing modesty, in light of what they have devastatingly documented by way of short-sighted, self-serving philosophical fecklessness. In contrast to the fashionable, introverted, narrowly academic ideological world they have anatomized, they recommend recourse to cross-cultural awareness, beyond the WEIRD, and to the larger, traditional, humanistic ambience of history, literature, art, religion, and ethics. In Christopher Ricks’s great book T. S. Eliot and Prejudice (1988), Ricks pointed out that as early as 1916, while writing about his learnéd fellow Missourian Paul Elmer More, Eliot expressed his “distrust of the promises of the future and conviction that the future, if there is to be any, must be built on the wisdom of the past.” A hundred years later, Hunter and Nedelisky rightly and modestly agree.

Perhaps a fitting last word on the error, instability, and inadequacy of naturalism can be given by Eliot’s wise literary-humanistic predecessor Matthew Arnold (1822–1888). Arnold was annoyed beyond endurance by ludicrous, blue-skies exhortations to “follow nature” given by contemporary Victorian popular moralists, as were Henry Fielding and Samuel Johnson in the previous century, with satirical consequences in Fielding’s Joseph Andrews (1742) and Johnson’s Rasselas (1759). In the 1840s Arnold wrote a sonnet called “To an Independent Preacher, who preached that we should be ‘In Harmony with Nature.’” It deserves to be read and reread.

‘In harmony with Nature?’ Restless fool,


Who with such heat dost preach what were to thee,


When true, the last impossibility —


To be like Nature strong, like Nature cool!

Know, man hath all which nature hath, but more,


And in that more lie all his hopes of good.


Nature is cruel, man is sick of blood;


Nature is stubborn, man would fain adore;

Nature is fickle, man hath need of rest;


Nature forgives no debt, and fears no grave;


Man would be mild, and with safe conscience blest.

Man must begin, know this, where Nature ends;


Nature and man can never be fast friends.


Fool, if thou canst not pass her, rest her slave!

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