Greetings of Peace. This blog contains selections from my correspondence and other sources on a variety of subjects related to religion, philosophy, and spirituality. I hope that they may be of benefit to the interested reader. Concerning the title of the blog, read this entry.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Evolution: Framing the Debate

Unfortunately, I did not share your sentiments as I read the article (Man vs. God). Instead of experiencing a serious and balanced discussion, I instead bore witness to an otherwise seemingly serious scholar descend into the realm of vulgar journalism and debate. One of the primary problems that I perceived deterring from the establishment of a preliminary balance of positions is the centrality of the theory of evolution. Rather than basing a discussion on such a subject as cosmogenesis or anthropogenesis and then presenting the contrary viewpoints of religion and modern science, the center stage is given to evolution with Dawkins eulogizing it and Armstrong taking a "reactionary" position which as you stated makes too many concessions. Regarding the nature of the reactionary position according to Guenon, ... [see Social Action and Reaction]

In the field of academic religious studies of which Armstrong is a scholar, the reactionary position is represented by the emphasis placed upon what is referred to as "the hermeneutics of suspicion". It consists of placing great value upon the criticisms of religion made by its greatest opponents, people such as Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud. The rationale for such an emphasis is that it serves as a counterpoint to many of the uncritically accepted beliefs of popular religion and for the non-secular scholar that it may serve as a gauge to strengthen weaknesses in apologetics.

From the beginning of her discussion, Armstrong establishes very clearly that she employs the hermeneutics of suspicion eliciting the aid of Darwin and Dawkins to clarify the traditional understanding of God. In doing so, her efforts have proved to be both inadequate and even counterproductive as her perspective degenerates into the position characterized by Karl Marx who described religion as an opiate of the masses. In turns, she portrays various elements of religion as a psychology, a therapy, a kind of art form, an attitude, and ultimately a convenient fiction useful for achieving peace of mind in a tumultuous world removed from direct access to spiritual realities of a transcendent nature.

I hesitate even to mention the performance of Richard Dawkins, but will do so only to take note of the prime example that it affords of the usurpation of religious sentiments. Karen Armstrong began by stating that "Richard Dawkins has been right all along ... Evolution has indeed dealt a death blow to the idea of a benign creator, literally conceived." On the contrary, what it has done is not to deal a death blow, so much as give it a new name. To quote Dawkins, "Evolution is the universe's greatest work. Evolution is the creator of life, and life is arguable the most surprising and most beautiful production that the laws of physics have ever generated ... Never once are the laws of physics violated, yet life emerges into uncharted territory. And how is the trick done? The answer is a process that, although variable in its wondrous detail, is sufficiently uniform to deserve one single name: Darwinian evolution, the non-random survival of randomly varying coded information." Dawkin's seems to be continually singing the same refrain, "there is no god but evolution, and Darwin is his prophet."

Ultimately, I cannot but feel that in entering into a perspective determined by the framework of this debate in her forthcomming book, The Case for God that Armstrong's scholarship is taking a turn for the worst.

Now, this article does raise a few interesting observations and questions ... First, I do not believe that it is possible to effectively enter into a debate on evolution from a reactionary perspective alone. In order to be effective, the entire framework must be changed and the centrality of the evolutionary position must be exchanged for a subject of mutual consideration as for example, cosmology or the emergence of species. Furthermore, it is not sufficient merely to deconstruct the evolutionist hypothesis as a means of discrediting it because it is not only the hypothesis that is in question but its function as a modern worldview accepted to explain the origins of the universe and of life. It is relatively simple to provide the main arguments against it (as summarized by Nasr, Stoddart, and others) but what also must be done is to provide a viable alternative as in the form of a (or the) traditional perspective. As a worldview, however convoluted, the theory of evolution provides a focus for the derivation of a sense of meaning such that it will prove impossible to remove it without first positing a more suitable foundation.

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I would like to share some further considerations from the work of Frithjof Schuon concerning the ideas that were introduced in this discussion. The present article demonstrates the "framing" of the evolution debate, to borrow a term of George Lakoff, within which the opposing critic and representative of religion must take a reactionary stance vis-a-vis the evolutionary propositions rather than expressing in a positive manner the traditional perspective. In his article "In the Wake of the Fall" Schuon describes the negative ramifications of this form of debate as follows:

"One of the effects of modern science has been to give reli­gion a mortal wound, by posing in concrete terms problems which only esoterism can resolve; but these problems remain unresolved, because esoterism is not listened to, and is listened to less now than ever. Faced by these new problems, religion is disarmed, and it borrows clumsily and gropingly the argu­ments of the enemy; it is thus compelled to falsify by im­perceptible degrees its own perspective, and more and more to disavow itself ... The absence of metaphysical or esoteric knowledge on the one hand, and the suggestive force emanating from scientific discoveries as well as from collective psychoses on the other, make religion an almost defenseless victim, a victim that even refuses more often than not to make use of the arguments at its disposal."

According to Schuon, the corresponding perspective of the cosmologia perennis, an appeal to which may explain the phenomena misinterpreted by the evolutionist hypothesis, is based upon the traditional teachings concerning ontological hierarchy. In "The Five Divine Presences", he wrote,

... all the philosophic and scientific errors of the modern world can be said to proceed essentially from the denial of the [traditional concepts relating to the cosmogonic emanations]. In other words, what invalidates modern interpretations of the world and of man at their very root and robs them of every possibility of being valid, is their monotonous and besetting ignorance of the supra-sensible degrees of Reality, or of the ‘five Divine Presences’. This is an observation which cannot escape anyone who is more than a simple logician of sensory experience.

In a discussion of the process of anthropogenesis wherein the ontological hierarchy is taken as the framework of explanation or debate, the traditional perspective may be expressed as in the following words of Titus Burckhardt from "Traditional Cosmology and the Modern World":

"Fundamentally, the evolutionist thesis is an attempt to replace, not simply the ‘miracle of creation’, but the cosmogonic process—largely suprasensory—of which the Biblical narrative is a Scriptural symbol; evolutionism, by absurdly making the greater derive from the lesser, is the opposite of this process, or this ‘emanation’ ... In a word, evolutionism results from an incapacity--peculiar to modern science—to conceive ‘dimensions’ of reality other than purely physical ones; to understand the ‘vertical’ genesis of species, it is worth recalling what GuĂ©non said about the progressive solidification of the corporeal state through the various terrestrial ages. This solidification must obviously not be taken to imply that the stones of the earliest ages were soft, for this would be tantamount to saying that certain physical qualities—and in particu­lar hardness and density—were then wanting; what has hardened and become fixed with time is the corporeal state taken as a whole, with the result that it no longer receives directly the imprint of subtle forms. Assuredly, it cannot become detached from the subtle state, which is its ontological root and which dominates it entirely, but the relationship between the two states of existence no longer has the creative character that it possessed at the origin; it is as when a fruit, having reached maturity, becomes surrounded by an ever harder husk and ceases to absorb the sap of the tree. In a cyclic phase in which corporeal existence had not yet reached this degree of solidification, a new specific form could manifest itself directly from the starting-point of its first ‘condensation’ in the subtle or animic state; this means that the different types of animals pre-existed at the level immediately superior to the corporeal world as non-spatial forms, but nevertheless clothed in a certain ‘matter’, namely that of the subtle world. From there these forms ‘descended’ into the corporeal state each time the latter was ready to receive them; this ‘descent’ had the nature of a sudden coagulation and hence also the nature of a limitation and fragmentation of the original animic form ... the process of materialization, from the supra-sensory to the sensory, had to be reflected within the material or corporeal state itself, so that one can say without risk of error, that the first generations of a new species did not leave a mark in the great book of earthly layers; it is therefore vain to seek in sensible matter the ancestors of a species, and especially that of man ... let it be recalled once more that the bodies of the most ancient men did not necessarily leave solid traces, either because their bodies were not yet at that point materialized or ‘solidified’, or because the spiritual state of these men, along with the cosmic conditions of their time, rendered possible a resorption of the physical body into the subtle ‘body’ at the moment of death."

It is only natural that an explanation as sophisticated as this and relying as it does upon esoteric theses cannot successfully enter into the realm of popular debate wherein effective communication is limited to the least common denominator of understanding and experience, namely, physical matter. Ultimately, it seems best to remember that the position of the simple believer in a literal interpretation of scriptural symbols but who nonetheless retains a sense of the sacred and of dependence upon God is much better than the alternative of the scientific-materialist who denies the reality of the spirit in the pursuit of concrete facts. According to Schuon again,

"From the point of view of total truth— let it be said once more—it is a thousand times better to be­lieve that God created this world in six days and that the world beyond lies beneath the flat surface of the earth or in the spinning heavens, than it is to know the distance from one nebula to another without knowing that phenomena merely serve to manifest a transcendent Reality which determines us in every respect and gives to our human condition its whole meaning and its whole content."

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