Steve Fuller lecture

Steve Fuller lecture ticket

Bristol’s Festival of Ideas kicked off today with a short lecture by social philosopher Steve Fuller, which I popped along to. A flaky friend didn’t show, so you, my dear readers, get what would have been my post-lecture pub ramblings.

Before we get the first round in (mine’s a pint), let me say I’ve not yet read any of Steve Fuller’s fascinating-looking books. An hour or so of listening to the guy talk and respond to questions gives a good impression, but I’ve probably missed some of his subtleties.

Fuller seems to be doing what I’ve always thought should be done, and only recently, through this lecture, realised is being done: he applies the principles of sociology and anthropology to science itself. He studies our own science in the way we might curiously observe the beliefs of a foreign tribe. Obviously this ruffles his colleague’s feathers, especially when the relativism that this stance necessitates sees him standing in defence of “Intelligent Design” (in court, no less). ID, according to almost anyone who hates fundamentalist Christianity, is a contemporary ruse with which to smuggle Creationism into classrooms. Fuller is much more generous towards ID – too generous, many would say.

Given the ludicrously limited choice of neo-Darwinism and Creationism, I side with Dawkins & co. as the lesser of two evils. ID, Creationist links notwithstanding, tries to hold out the promise of a “third option”. I’m not sure it wholly fulfills this role, but it’s the most publicly visible concept that has the potential to complexify the standard face-off between scientists whose concepts of science’s bounds have become worryingly fuzzy, and monotheists whose rationality has suffered a similar fate.

Fuller’s great contribution here seems to be to use ID as a tool for critiquing the calcified strata of belief that often underpin the dazzling commitment to objectivity in science. He contends that belief in a designer actually initiated and fertilized much, if not most, of the origins to modern science.

Ancient of Days by William Blake

OK, so Newtonian tradition (if not Newton himself) has God as some great rational designer of an artifact universe; but why should the beliefs that got science off the ground not be shed, like scaffolding, when they outlive their usefulness?

Indeed, says Fuller. He took the work of Kenneth Miller, a biology professor at Brown University, who stood against ID in the court case where Fuller stood in defence of it, and who Fuller regards as the bee’s knees when it comes to the orthodox anti-ID evolutionary position. Tracing most of the arguments that Miller rallies back to the Journal of Molecular Biology, he decided to look at what is really being said about evolution by hard-nosed scientists. Not in their pop science titles where expressions implying a “designer” at work might be forgiven as convenient metaphors, but in their own technical periodicals, where their language is free to be as tediously bereft of such needless personifications as it wants to be.

Well, Fuller claims to have discovered that every step of the way, the concept of a “designer” at work is at least implied in the language of the discussions in this austere journal. This, he says, marks the Darwinists as disingenuous folk trying to have something both ways, with ID at least coming clean and trying to grapple with the issue as it can be conceptualized.

This is where he lost me. It’s an interesting take, perhaps, but it’s more than a little specious. He did, at least, come clean himself; he confessed that he personally can’t conceive of “design” without a “designer”. Suddenly I saw that he’s probably not as well qualified for the job he’s got as one might hope. How can someone so fundamentally trapped within a specific (if currently widespread) model of the world hope to offer useful meta-critiques of science itself?

Perhaps he addresses this in his books, but he made no mention this evening of Chinese thought. Alan Watts, in a lecture I was listening to a few nights ago, remarks that the Chinese ideogram for “nature” literally translates as “that which happens by itself”. Clearly, the Taoist appreciation of spontaneous order affirms that “design without a designer” is a humanly possible conception, even if it might be an effort to grasp from within a culture not used to the idea. Taoism, I feel, has a lot to offer the frustrating, explosive debate between science and religion in the arena of creation and evolution. Indeed, it’s no coincidence that John Gray‘s biting Darwinian attack on secular humanism, Straw Dogs, takes its title and opening quotation from Lao Tzu (“Heaven and earth are ruthless, and treat the myriad creatures as straw dogs”).

What is more, post-Darwinian Western science is home to another legitimate current of conceptions of spontaneous order: Chaos theory. Are Darwinians really being dishonest? If science is able to coherently formulate theories of spontaneous order arising in matter, surely the fact that writers in the Journal of Molecular Biology aren’t able to avoid language that implies an active “designer” simply begs questions about the limitations of our language? Our verbs may all need subjects, but does every action need an actor? Are we perhaps projecting limitations of our language onto the world? Fuller, at least, seems to be.

In all, an engaging and important thinker. But he may be more effective after a long meditational retreat.


I must finish here with another take on “spontaneous order”. Last night I found Adam Curtis’ most recent documentary, The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom, on Google Video (you might have to click around for the 2nd and 3rd parts). Not as wholly gripping as The Power of Nightmares and The Century of the Self (also to be found on the net for free viewing), but essential if you’re interested in the arguments he built up in those works. At heart it is a critique of post-World War II laissez-faire social and economic policies, and has some good analysis of the failures of the theory that “spontaneous order” arises when the state apparatus is dismantled (a la Reagan & Thatcher, Blair & Clinton).

My favourite part was near the end, and reminded me of that wise adage, “Economics is a form of brain damage.”

In economics, the whole idea that the free market is an efficient system is coming under serious attack. Over the past five years, many of the Nobel Prizes for Economics have been awarded for studies that show that markets do not create stability or order; that what Adam Smith called “the Invisible Hand” is invisible because it isn’t actually there; and politicians do have a powerful role to play in controlling the markets.

And a new discpline, called Behavioural Economics, has been studying whether people really do behave as the simplified model says they do. They show that only two groups in society actually behave in a rational, self-interested way in all experimental situations: one is economists themselves; the other is psychopaths.

Curtis believes that simple models of reality (here, John Nash’s game theory and classical economics) have been taken too literally, and in the process of applying them to society, people have been subtly moulded to conform to the image of people required by the model. The economic theory that people are rational, self-interested agents who behave in a roughly mechanical way is held at least partly responsible for creating a world where people are cut off from their non-rational feelings and altruistic empathies.

This all resonates strongly with David Kidner’s contention in Nature & Psyche that industrialism’s minimal conception of the natural world has led, through the forceful application of industrialism, to the literal reduction and destruction of much of the natural world. A simple model is enacted, and the world, like the taller guests of Procrustes, is violently made to conform to the model.

My vote for Curtis’ next project would be a dramatic exposition of Kidner’s thesis. So far Curtis has delineated the crucial issues at stake in politics, business and society; with ecological awareness bearing down as the weightiest contemporary issue, it would be fantastic to see his documentary series extend to our relationship with the natural world.