Noam Chomsky can’t boast the precision of a broken clock that, as we know, is right twice a day. Outside his day job, linguistics, he gets things right much less frequently.
But infrequently doesn’t mean never. And here I must yet again remind my conservative friends (and especially myself!) that ideas shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand just because they come from someone whose politics we dislike. Once an idea is enunciated, it breaks the umbilical connecting it to the enunciator and starts walking – or falling – on its own.
Thus, Chomsky wrote in 1968 that: “… the processes by which the human mind achieved its present stage of complexity and its particular form of innate organisation are a total mystery… It is perfectly safe to attribute this development to ‘natural selection’, so long as we realise that there is no substance to this assertion, that it amounts to nothing more than a belief that there is some naturalistic explanation for these phenomena.”
Here is an atheist scholar capable of thinking not only as an atheist but also as a scholar. This is a rare ability nowadays, when ideologies have replaced both ideas and ideals.
Chomsky brings to mind Alfred Russel Wallace, Darwin’s contemporary and fellow evolutionist. In 1858, when Darwin was researching his “big species book”, Wallace beat him to the punch by publishing an article on natural selection produced by competition among and within species.
Darwin, who was obsessed with priority, immediately set his magnum opus aside, wrote a sketchy outline of the book and published it next year as On the Origin of Species. Later, in his preface to The Descent of Man, he wrote that his work on evolution was motivated by an urgent need to prove that God doesn’t exist. At work there was the mind of an ideologue, not a scientist.
Wallace, on the other hand, kept his atheism and his science in separate compartments. Thus, though he couched his disagreements with Darwin in polite terms, he presaged Chomsky by denying outright that natural selection could account for the complexity of the human brain.
“The human brain,” he wrote, was “a totally new factor in the history of life”. Hence he refused to “regard modern primitives as almost filling the gap between man and ape”. No missing links then, thank you very much.
Wallace saw that the evolutionary theory was too small to contain giants like Newton, Bach or Dante. Genius for music, mathematics, philosophy or art belonged in a different domain, “the unseen universe of Spirit”.
That Spirit, which he refused to call God, had, according to Wallace, taken matters in its own hands at least three times in history: “the creation of life from inorganic matter, the introduction of consciousness in the higher animals, and the generation of the higher mental faculties in man.”
Wallace also believed that natural selection was teleological, proceeding not chaotically but towards achieving a certain objective. It’s that “unseen universe of Spirit” again, for setting objectives isn’t what inanimate nature does for a living.
That’s the problem with ideological evolutionists. While denying that Christianity is true, which is legitimate, they also deny it’s true to life, which is disingenuous.
It’s astounding that, for all the amazing scientific progress in the subsequent two centuries, our understanding of the mind hasn’t advanced since the time of Darwin and Wallace. Yet anyone untouched by rabid ideology has to realise that, even though the brain is a physical entity, the mind isn’t.
It indeed functions in “the unseen universe of Spirit”, which removes it as an object of study from the domain of natural science and shifts it into the realm of metaphysics. It’s only in that realm that the mind can be explained soundly, if not necessarily to everyone’s satisfaction. That’s what Jacques Maritain meant when insisting that philosophy was superior to natural science, and theology was superior to philosophy.
Both metaphysical sciences are devoted to the study of first principles and primary causes, and man’s mind has to act as Exhibit 1 in any such investigation. Even those who deny it’s made in the image of God’s mind struggle to suggest what else it could possibly be made in the image of.
Still, the natural science of the brain shouldn’t be dismissed lightly. It has made some startling discoveries, the greatest of which is that the brain is indeed the centre of mental activity. This trivial fact, these days known even to children, escaped even the man with a valid claim to history’s greatest intellect, Aristotle.
Today we know that mental activity produces electrical pulses clearly visible on oscillograph displays. We also know, within limits, which sections of the brain are responsible for various mental processes. What scientists don’t know is what the mind is. That’s where philosophy comes in, lending a helping hand and emphasising the inanity of intellectual pygmies who insist that science and religion are incompatible.
Before modernity emerged fetidly victorious, important scientists of the past, from Copernicus to Maxwell, from Newton to Mandel, were believers who saw the symbiotic potential of fusing physics with metaphysics. Even half of today’s scientists agree that science and religion can complement each other. It is only for those ignorant of philosophy and incapable of ascending to its intellectual heights that they become incompatible.
The key word in Chomsky’s passage is “belief”. What we see here is opposition not between faith and science but between two faiths. One is based on God’s revelation given by methods both natural (through the possibility of perceiving much of his creation experimentally) and supernatural (through the Scripture and church tradition). The other is based on nothing but man’s own fanciful speculation. As such, it’s not so much faith as superstition.
Unable to believe that God could create something out of nothing, atheists have to believe that nothing could create everything. That represents a suspension of disbelief much greater than anything a believer has to enact.
Even scientists trying to use science to vindicate their atheism start from accepting the existence of rational natural laws. If they wish to be logical, then, while rejecting the existence of a rational law-giver, they are forced to ascribe rational behaviour to nature itself.
That’s the most primitive pantheism, discarded by all serious thinkers long before Christ. Strip such inanities bare of scientific cant, and they descend to the intellectual level of a prehistoric shaman.
A theocentric thinker will be able to explain next to everything that matters, while his anthropocentric counterpart will explain next to nothing. Above all, the theist will be able to get closer to an understanding of what makes us human.
Unlike other parts of nature, we don’t merely function according to the law of causality. Man’s future can’t be predetermined because man himself isn’t predetermined.
An animal, vegetable or mineral has no choice in its destiny. It can’t break out of the predetermined rut of its chemical or biochemical makeup. Man can do so because he possesses both the will and the ability to make free choices. In a world ruled by causality he seems to be an envoy from another world, one governed by freedom.
Two atheists born a century apart, Wallace and Chomsky, agree with all that, although neither would use the same language and especially not the G word. They also prove inadvertently that intelligent atheists must at times compromise their atheism or risk compromising their intelligence.