Saturday, September 3, 2011

Leo Behe, interviewed

The New Humanist has interviewed Leo Behe, son of Intelligent Design (ID) extraordinaire and Irreducible Complexity (IC) proponent Michael Behe. I remember hearing of his atheism through rumbles on blogs several months back; if I recall correctly, he made his debut over at Reddit.

Interestingly, Michael Behe is Catholic. And if I get a correct impression from Edward Feser, ID does not have a place in Thomistic philosophy. For now, I leave that dispute to others, but my overall impression is that Catholic objections to ID are two-pronged: (1) the anti-evolutionary portion of ID (practically all of it) is inadequate, and (2) ID conflicts with Thomistic philosophy. Though the Church itself has a record of some ambivalence as regards particular details of evolutionary theory, I think I can understand why its popularity is primarily due to evangelicals who are not ready to risk defending Young Earth Creationism or who think a literal Ark unimportant. I'm not a `compatibilist' in any broad sense as regards modern science and religious orthodoxy, but as regards Catholicism, the door here hardly seems to have been `forced open by our Enlightenment and the advancing progress of Science', as one narrative popular amongst atheists runs. At least not in any non-trivial sense I can think of.

On to Leo Behe: I do not think that his atheism is a particularly strong indictment of ID or Christianity. (I haven't seen it used as such by any big names yet. Let me know if I am wrong.) Following the interview, his story is very similar to those of other atheists who grew up without ever being exposed to critical writing regarding their faith. Though my own deconversion was a longer and more stochastic process than Leo Behe's seems to have been, there are many similar threads. I happen to have been much younger, and it was a first exposure to the history of philosophy which started my intellectual journey. What resonates more deeply with me is the following:
I told my mother, initially, who told my father. The discussion was very calm—there was no argument. I didn’t suffer any sort of restrictive backlash, however, there is a sort of social taboo on the topic with family and friends. I mostly keep it to myself, as atheism is generally frowned upon among the people I know. Basically, it’s not a problem as long as it’s not talked about.
I experienced only a brief, sputtering attempt at argument. Apart from that, my impression was exactly the same, and it was a common one. Atheism is fine, as long as you're quiet about it. The destruction of this conceit and the utter extirpation of its vestiges is what I take to be the primary and most worthy task of the `New Atheism', my other disagreements aside. Once it is wholly acceptable to bring religion back to the discussion table and the wincing noises subside, I hope we can move on to a more careful understanding of philosophy and science. Hence why I take fighting trends to the contrary to be an important task.

Echoing an earlier comment by PZ Myers, I am glad to see that Michael and Leo are not locked in bitter conflict over this. And I do not see the lack of bitterness as overly surprising. I find the following to be particularly important:
I would like everyone to realize that [Michael Behe] doesn’t have any sort of religious agenda and he’s not trying to denigrate science in any way. Long-held beliefs, especially beliefs developed during childhood, operate on a very deep and basic level of thought—almost subconsciously. These beliefs can exist independently in a perfectly honest and intelligent scientist who is simply doing his part to further theories or ideas that he believes are supported by the scientific data. The best way to progress is through respectful and thoughtful discussion and debate, as it has always been.
Perhaps this could be said of Michael Behe, but I can hardly feel the same way about the ID movement generally, not with Dembski and Johnson and Luskin floating about. But Eugenie Scott, amongst others, has recognized that a common thread in ID thought is that morality and the goodness of society are really threatened by materialistic science. I think that this belief is quite sincere; that continuity from the YEC school, conjoined with culture warrior mentality and hysteria about abortion, has yet to fade. I'm not sure that I have high hopes for `respectful and thoughtful discussion', at least not on the popular level.

But it nevertheless remains important that we give credit of sincerity until the contrary is decisively demonstrated. I of course have often failed to do this.

(H/t Jason Rosenhouse.)

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