Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Kenny's "What I Believe"

Sometimes when you read something by an author you admire that reveals his or her personal convictions and beliefs, it's a bit disappointing. Anthony Kenny's What I Believe is one of those times. Kenny is an extraordinary historian of philosophy, whose works show the ability to deal deeply and subtly with complex philosophical problems in thinkers as diverse as Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, and Wittgenstein. He also has written a number of broader historical books aimed at less specialized readers, including his phenomenal four volume history of philosophy, which ought to be on the shelf of anyone interested in the arc of philosophical history.

So I've said all those nice things as a preface because I'm pretty much done saying nice things for this post. What I Believe was a serious disappointment. The first two chapters, "The Story of My Ideas" and "Why I am a Philosopher," provide some interesting details on Kenny's life and the development of his overall views on what philosophy is and what it's good for. He started his academic life as a Jesuit and spent some time in the priesthood before returning to the "lay state" after becomes doubtful about the doctrines of the church. He was later excommunicated for failing to get papal dispensation to marry after leaving the priesthood. In his early academic work, influenced by Peter Geach and Elizabeth Anscombe, he learned both that it was possible to "combine the techniques of linguistic analysis with an appreciation of the teaching of St. Thomas," as well as that Wittgenstein occupies a central place in philosophy in the 20th C (4).

Kenny's view of philosophy (13-20) is one that I am actually more or less sympathetic with. Noting that throughout much of western history philosophy had been considered the "handmaiden" to theology, Kenny resists the urge to substitute science for theology that lots of modern philosophers succumb to, as if philosophy just has to be someone's handmaiden. Kenny views philosophy as I do, as an independent set of methods and problems that connects to other disciplines, including science, but which is not a part of any other discipline.

But his early Aquinian training makes itself apparent at several points to the detriment of What I Believe. It is most notable in his discussions of abortion and sexuality. His discussion of abortion relies on the notions of potentiality and individuality, concepts the Aquinian tradition places significant emphasis on, and thus settles on the (in my opinion) philosophically unstable view that there is some moment we can pinpoint at which the fetus is sufficiently likely to become a single, individual person when we should bestow upon it legal rights of protection (98). Absent from his discussion is any serious consideration about why or whether a woman ought to be compelled to carry an unwanted child to term. Why should we think that potentiality of personhood creates an actual obligation in an actual person? This question is essentially left unaddressed, as if the Aquinian analysis is all that is needed.

Similarly, when discussing same sex relationships, Kenny falls into mediaeval, essentialist thinking. While recognizing (to his credit) that same sex couples deserve legal rights available to heterosexual couples, Kenny still thinks that there is some mysterious essence of marriage that ought to preclude us from extending that concept to same sex couples. He connects the notion of procreation to this essence, as if the fact that it possesses some biological function overrides other facts about us as persons, at one point even suggesting that "an incapacity for normal heterosexual congress is... a disability" (145). Kenny notes that we can't derive an ought from an is, and correctly argues that facts should still be relevant in developing out moral theories (135), but makes no case for the position that the procreative, biological facts are in a privileged position when we talk about sexual morality. There are lots of facts that pertain to our sexuality, and procreation occupies a narrow subset of those.

Kenny is perhaps at his most cringe-worthy in his discussion in the chapter "Why I Am Not An Atheist." Kenny is a confirmed agnostic (if such a thing exists), and argues that agnosticism is the only respectable position to hold regarding the existence of God. He is skeptical that the findings of science can provide any final answers on this question, and thinks that scientists should adopt a merely methodological naturalism; we do not have warrant, he thinks, for a full ontological physicalism. All that is defensible, and maybe even good advice in certain cases. 

But Kenny goes off the rails entirely when he characterizes the arguments of atheists that use the findings of science as evidence for their views. He claims that "fashionable atheists" argue that "the origin and structure of the world and the emergence of human life and human institutions are already fully explained by science" and that "neo-Darwinians offer to explain the entire cosmos" by natural selection. He thinks three origins tell against the view that Darwin explains it all: the origin of language, the origin of life, and the origin of the universe (23-4).

But this is a strawman opponent to be sure. I don't know of anyone who thinks that everything has been fully explained. I should also note that other than the origin of language, evolutionary biology wouldn't be expected to provide much insight. The origin of life is a subfield of biochemistry, which would be informed by the findings of evolutionary biology, but not identical to it. The origin of the universe is something cosmologists and physicists are concerned with, and that is far beyond the purview of evolutionary biology. But even so, while Kenny is right that these issues have not been fully explained, is it correct to imply that the state of the science in any of these cases ought to make us despair of ever finding a scientific answer, meaning only a divine one should suffice?

His complaint about the ability of evolution to explain the origin of language is that it's difficult to see how it would have arisen in one individual, since language is a social phenomenon. But this is to put too narrow a constraint on how a feature might develop. It's not as if a fully formed language needed to be the result of a single genetic mutation arising in a single individual at a given time. Animals other than humans that live in groups often have systems of communication that enable individuals survive and reproduce, ranging from simple chemical trails ants leave to food sources to the sophisticated protolanguges of chimps and dolphins. The notion that language immediately and magically appeared at some precise moment in human history is simply false. The final explanation is still being sought ("evolution of language" yields over 2 million results on Google scholar) but there is nothing about the phenomenon that appears resistant to evolutionary explanation.

Similarly, while the origin of life is not fully understood, scientists are investigating a number of possible hypotheses, one of which may yield an explanation. Because of the difficulty of determining with precision the conditions of the early earth on which life arose, we may never have a definite, final answer, but that doesn't mean that something miraculous likely happened. Even if science cannot pin down exactly how life arose, the plausibility of some of the theories on offer at least makes the positing of a supernatural origin unnecessary. Kenny's issues with the origin of the universe follow the same logic. The full account of the origin of the universe may never be had, but as physicists learn more about the early universe, divine intervention seems increasingly unlikely, or at least increasingly unnecessary for an explanation of what happened in the moments preceding the big bang. 

All of which points to the fatal flaw in Kenny's thinking on this issue: agnosticism in the sense that we don't know with certainty whether God exists might be the appropriately modest philosophical position. But agnosticism doesn't require us to assent to the proposition that the two opposing positions of theism and atheism are equally plausible given what we know about the universe, nor that we ought to suspend judgment on the issue pending further argument or evidence. In arguing for this sort of agnosticism, Kenny has decontextualized the purpose of positing the existence of God in the first place. Arguments for the existence of God are designed to show that God is necessary to explain certain features of the world, or of the world itself. As science is able to better account for those phenomena once thought to be inexplicable without God, there is less reason to even entertain the idea that such a being exists. Philosophical agnosticism yields to practical atheism.

Kenny, A. 2006. What I Believe. New York and London: Continuum.

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