Interview with Steve Fuller

Interview with Steve Fuller
Decrease Font Size Increase Font Size Text Size Print This Page

Steve William Fuller is an American philosopher-sociologist in the field of science and technology studies Fuller was admitted as a John Jay Scholar to Columbia University in 1976, from where he graduated summa cum laude in History and Sociology in 1979. He then studied at Clare College, Cambridge, on a Kellett Fellowship, from which he received an M.Phil. in History and Philosophy of Science in 1981. He then received a Ph. D. in the same subject from the University of Pittsburgh in 1985, where he was an Andrew Mellon Pre-Doctoral Fellow. Fuller’s Ph.D. was entitled “Bounded Rationality in Law and Science”, which explored the implications of the views of Herbert A. Simon for political theory and philosophy of science.

Can you please tell us something about yourself, early age, schooling and college life?

I was born in New York City in 1959, an only child, but my father was a travelling salesman (of the sort in the 1987 film Tin Men) and so we moved around a lot in the American South until high school, when I attended a scholarship-only Jesuit prep school, Regis, back in New York City. I excelled in my studies, resulting in admission on a full scholarship to Columbia University a year before graduation. Over the years, I have come to believe that my Regis experience provided the most formative influence on my thinking – but this is a judgement that has only dawned on me gradually.  The Jesuits constructed the curriculum with very few electives and a focus on big questions in every class, regardless the putative subject matter. The style of pedagogy was at once exploratory and demanding: There was a lot of accounting for oneself and justifying one’s opinions. There was a strong emphasis placed on written and oral expression. However, the range of options placed before the student was very liberal: Thus, I first read Marx and Freud in any detail in this environment – mainly in theology. There was also much discussion of the heretical Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin who not only advocated evolution but also justified on theological grounds humans steering the process to a kind of cosmic self-realization and salvation. The bottom line was that science requires a religious sensibility to steer humanity to a truly better future – but it was clear that this future was a kindred spirit to what the left would recognise as ‘progressive’. Remember that in the 1960s and 1970s, Christianity was one of the sources of liberal and even radical political thought in the West (e.g. the US civil rights movement, Liberation Theology in Latin America). It had a strongly Existentialist flavour, in which everyday life is fraught with potentially life-changing decisions. I still carry that world-view with me. One consequence is that I have never experienced religion in the ways that are all too common today: I never regarded the church as a place of spiritual sanctuary but equally (and perhaps more adamantly) I never regarded religion as a retardant to the advancement of civilization.

ID ( Intelligent Design) is often viewed as an unscientific theory. According to you, does this theory have any basis in real facts?

Well, ID certainly has a real basis in historical fact. ID is basically the latter-day descendant of the world-view that made Europe’s Scientific Revolution possible in the 17th century. Indeed, had Darwin not come on the scene, today’s science would be a kind of ID science, and the society associated with it would be just as technologically advanced as today’s society – possibly more so. For example, we might have taken the idea of ‘genetic code’ literally much earlier, as an extension of the idea that the book of nature is written in mathematics. Despite the rhetoric on both sides, ID and its opponents (broadly ‘Darwinists’), agree on most of the scientific facts but disagree over their relative significance, and most importantly, the ultimate explanatory framework for them. It has been always a big mistake to think about the ID controversy as simply about ‘the facts’. For example, ID supporters and Darwinists agree on the problems that modern evolutionary theory faces with regard to, say, gaps in the fossil record. The difference is that the ID supporters believe that this points to a fundamental problem that requires a change in explanatory framework, whereas Darwinists do not.

Your opinion is that ID should have a “fair run for its money”. How much is modern science one-sided on this issue, how much is atheism promoted through science, as the only accurate position?

First, you need to understand that atheism doesn’t really exist – at least not in the robust ideological sense that your question implies. ‘Atheism’ today is best understood as a strategy for evading ultimate explanatory questions about the nature of reality, especially through science. Scientists find it safe to call themselves ‘atheist’ simply to avoid having to commit to an explanatory framework that might be informed by religion because that might make them captive to a particular church or faith community. I see where they are coming from, because scientific inquiry is meant to be open-minded to new facts, etc. In the 20th century, most people who felt this way called themselves ‘agnostic’, following Thomas Henry Huxley’s coinage for an attitude that was still open to the possibility of divine intervention, though as of yet unpersuaded. Unfortunately, agnosticism has come to lose much of this original nuance and now it amounts to a declaration of permanent ignorance.  As a result, today’s ‘atheists’ are populated by many who might have called themselves ‘agnostic’ in the past. However, ‘atheism’ as an ideology distinct from agnosticism requires the outright denial of God’s existence, if not on the basis of fact then on probabilities. Of course, there are people who say such things, but they are usually turning absence of evidence into evidence for absence.  In the end, the atheist needs to explain how it is possible that for a creature (Homo sapiens) that they believe came into existence largely through chance-based processes nevertheless has been able to know so much about the wider world: Is it just luck or a projection of our fertile imaginations – or a sign that reality is organized in a way that enables us to understand all of it (not just the very small part we inhabit). If this last possibility is reasonable, then I think you are sent back to the idea of God as an intelligent designer. However, the exact nature of this deity would remain an open question.

Are the debates between atheists and theists about the existence of God, a vicious circle that leads to nowhere?

The question contains a false assumption. The debate may lead to nowhere on its own terms (i.e. no proof will ever be presented to everyone’s satisfaction), yet the debate may be worth having anyway because of what is revealed in the process.  What is revealed is basically ‘the meaning of life’. People who want to keep the door open to theism believe that ‘humanity’ (in some sense) is a quality with deep metaphysical significance. In Judaism and Christianity, this is explicable in terms of our having been created ‘in the image and likeness of God’. The European Enlightenment basically transferred this idea decisively from the churches to the sciences – but it did not get rid of the idea. Thus, ‘progress’ is rightly seen as the secular descendant of ‘salvation’.  Those who wish to get rid of this idea – the proper ‘atheists’ – are forced to imagine that our achievements are local and transitory, reflecting just one among many life forms that come and go as the cosmos spontaneously recycles its raw materials (aka genes).  If one is an atheist in this proper sense, then there is a serious question to answer about why fuss so much over science and technology – why not just leave the planet to be as it ‘naturally’ is? This is why, even though I am not especially moved by Green concerns, I believe that they would provide a natural moral compass in a godless universe. After all, if we are really created in ‘the image and likeness of God’, then we should be able to take off to new worlds if our grand experiment on earth fails. I have spoken about this implied contrast in terms of ‘down’ versus ‘up’ wingers, a 90-degree rotation of the ideological axis from ‘right’ versus ‘left’.

In your criticism of Richard Dawkins you mentioned : “My guess is that Dawkins just doesn’t know enough about the history of secular humanism to realize that Darwin killed off man at the same time as he killed off God,”. Can you please explain to us what you meant by “killed off man”?

See the answer to my previous question for background. ‘Humanism’ doesn’t make sense as an ideology – let alone a replacement to religion – unless it can justify the privileging of human beings in the cosmos. Unfortunately, Darwin offers no grounds for thinking that we enjoy such privilege. Indeed, the more we learn from evolutionary psychology and genetics, the more we learn about our marked similarity to the rest of the animal kingdom. In effect, the advancement of biology forces us to think about ‘humanity’ in rather new ways – what is so special about us, when it gets down to it?  Historically, ‘humanism’ was tied to the European Renaissance, which was a period when scholars began to read the Bible (and other ancient works) in their original languages.  This was very important for the Protestant Reformation in Christianity because it meant that people actually encountered a sacred text that said (to them) that they are created ‘in the image and likeness of God’. It would be difficult to exaggerate the significance of this eye-opening development, as witnessed, e.g., in Isaac Newton’s library being mostly dedicated to works of biblical exegesis. Before the Renaissance and the Reformation, most Christians knew of the Bible only through what priests had told them in church services: They never read the work for themselves. Once they read the Bible for themseleves, they didn’t lose their faith in it per se – but they gradually lost their faith in the church, first of Rome but then even the Protestant churches. Little surprise, then, that the founder of the British Humanist Association, H.J. Blackham, author of a popular introduction to Existentialism, was a Christian dissenter, not an atheist.

According to you, can modern atheism be defined as a religion?

If you mean atheism’s current incarnation, the answer is clearly no, because it remains largely defined in negative terms – i.e. what is against rather than what it is for. There is no agreed ‘atheist world-view’. Any such apparent world-view is a stereoscopic illusion created by people who like bits of libertarianism and humanism but know nothing of their ideological history. The sort of ‘atheist’ of who identifies with the (respectable) left – a la Christopher Hitchens – is susceptible to this delusion because they imagine that theism is inherently anti-Enlightenment and anti-liberal, but neither could be further from the truth. (That Hitchens himself regarded the Anglo-American revolutionary political theorist Thomas Paine as a precursor to his particular brand of militant atheism betrays his ignorance on the matter.) My own view is that the fashion for atheism in the American left reflects a frustration with its own ideological ineffectiveness, despite having a left-leaning president, etc. Under the circumsances, it is tempting to raise the various opponents they face on the right to a more metaphysical, and hence ‘religious’ level, to amplify the significance of the challenge they pose.

At what position could befall an individual whose opinion is contrary to the policy of science (academy)?

To be honest, I don’t think that scientists are actively policed in terms of their day-to-day activities. It’s quite clear from surveys taken of scientific opinion, their informal statements and even their popular works, that scientists hold a wide variety of often contradictory views, especially with regard to the ultimate explanation and significance of their work. However, matters become much more actively policed when it comes to publication, funding and the curriculum. Publication is determined by a peer review process that tends to favour research that does not deviate from the dominant line (what Thomas Kuhn called ‘paradigm’), not for specifically ideological reasons but simply because it is easier to tell whether something that looks like past research is any good. But as a result, it is difficult for truly innovative research to be funded or published, which may make it difficult to pursue a career in science. So in that respect, there is a conservative bias in science. In the case of the curriculum, which is where most of the controversy surrounding ID has centred, the problem is mainly to do with the peculiar way in which American judges have interpreted the constitutional ‘separation of church and state’. In effect, any view that is religiously motivated, or even inspired, is defined as ipso facto ‘anti-scientific’. I’m afraid that the problem is as simple as that. Thus, in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, where I served as an expert witness, all that the plaintiffs had to do was to demonstrate the religious motivation of the school board members who supported the teaching of ID, which was relatively easy. That was sufficient to condemn the very idea of ID and ban it from the classroom. I regard this as a very perverse consequence of a constitutional principle that was designed to encourage the free expression of faith in the public sphere. I should add that while ID is certainly controversial in the UK, ID advocates are not as actively persecuted as they are in the US.

How much does the media have the power to affirm or limit the choice of the public when it comes to atheism and religion?

As a matter of fact, I see the media as a largely moderating force in these matters. Indeed, at least in the English-speaking world, most of the complaints about the media’s role in science-religion controversies have been about creationists and ID supporters being given too much air time in the guise of ‘journalistic objectivity’, which requires that all sides be given a fair hearing. (Something similar might be said about the controversies surrounding climate change, where believers and sceptics of global warming are often treated equally, even though most scientists believe in anthropogenic climate change.) You mention ‘atheism’ in your question but I don’t think that the media recognises ‘atheism’ as an organized movement, perhaps because there isn’t an official atheist ‘church’ or even agreed set of doctrines. ‘Atheism’ is simply a collection of vocal, and sometimes prominent, people who are opposed to the role of religion in public life for a variety of reasons, ranging from moral (as in the abortion or stem cell controversy) to more strictly epistemological reasons (as in the ID controversy).

There is this ironic quote saying: “Scientists have discovered that people will believe anything when you say scientists have discovered it”. How accurate is that today, when the monopoly on information and knowledge is disappearing, when in this era of developed mass-media people can be critical of the alleged new scientific discoveries?

The quote is certainly false, especially nowadays. However, let me quickly add that this is not because people don’t believe in science. On the contrary, we live in a time when science is being taken more seriously by more people than ever before.  However, what is perhaps not being taken so seriously is official scientific opinion, or scientific authorities, or even experts. I have compared the current public understanding of science with the Protestant Reformation in Christianity. (My term for this is ‘Protscience’.) This was the moment when Christians literally took their religion into their own hands by interpreting the Bible for themselves. The internet has updated this sensibility in a time when scientific institutions arguably function as the Roman Catholic Church did in the 16th and 17th centuries. In effect, scientific authority has been democratised, with people more willing to take responsibilitiy for their own knowledge claims, including ones regarding their health, making them more prone to take risky decisions than in the past. In this respect, science is become more ‘client-centred’ rather than ‘provider-centred’. Scholars are beginning to pursue this line of thought across many different domains under the rubric of the ‘customisation of science’. But needless to say many representatives of the scientific establishment are frightened by the prospect of a proliferation of ‘heretical’ sciences. For example, Richard Dawkins interviewed me as one of ‘the enemies of reason’ on his television programme for putting forward just this view.

 People are often skeptical about the compatibility between science and religion, believing that science has replaced religion in many ways, that we don’t need religion anymore to give us answers to life issues, such as cause and effect in nature or origin of the world. However, you mentioned that religion is the root of all science?

It has only been in my lifetime that (some) scientists have felt the need to argue that their scientific activity disproves or excludes religion in some significant way. Similarly, the kind of dogmatic anti-evolutionism of some creationists today does not represent the general attitude of theologians to developments in science, even when those developments have provided prima facie challenges to orthodox interpretations of sacred texts. After all, the emergence of modern science in the West is a direct product of a rather specific understanding of Christianity, which in turn was informed by the specific way that medieval Muslim scholars compiled, synthesised and transmitted the classical Greco-Roman corpus. In light of this history, it is perhaps best to say that science and religion address the same general, even ultimate questions, but typically by rather different means, which implies an overlap and even an interpenetration of concerns. The ‘interpenetration’ is perhaps most easily seen in the normative boundaries of medical research and practice, which are much narrower than they could be from a technical scientific standpoint because the ‘sanctity of life’ is taken seriously.

In this respect, the people who do the greatest disservice to science and religion are the self-avowed ‘moderates’ — from paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould to pop theologian Karen Armstrong – who see science and religion as two non-overlapping spheres of human experience. This view radically underestimates the metaphysical aspirations of both fields. In contrast, even though Richard Dawkins’ theological competence is risible, he understands the one big point that these ‘moderates’ miss completely – namely, that science and religion are both making truth and reality claims, and so some measure of conflict should be expected. But I believe that this conflict should be understood in the spirit of a Hegelian dialectic, in which the best of both sides can transcend to a new level of unified consciousness, shorn of their excesses, errors, etc. In contrast, Dawkins simply wants science to eliminate religion. However, a counter-witness from the evolutionary camp that supports my view is the Huxley family, which has played a century-long supporting role in the Darwinian narrative. Both Thomas and his grandson Julian were fervent and distinguished evolutionists, yet they sought a scientifically satisfactory response to the Abrahamic intuition, which refuses to reduce the appearance of humanity to simply one more moment in natural history. I argue that ‘transhumanism’ (a term coined by Julian Huxley) responds directly to that impulse today, though admittedly most of the movement’s current members remain as theologically ignorant and hostile as Dawkins.

What are your future plans?

This interview has been focussed mainly on my views on the relationship between science and religion, especially in light of the ID controversy. The two books that came out immediately in response to the issues raised in the ID controversy (Science vs. Religion? and Dissent over Descent) offer strong hints of my current work on ‘Humanity 2.0′, which takes forward the concerns of ‘transhumanism’ mentioned above. (Those interested should read the books themselves rather than some of the bigoted Darwinist reviews that came out in the heat of the ID controversy.) I will be shortly embarking on a history of transhumanism that will follow the outline suggested here, which presents the movement as an extended Christian heresy. Those who want to learn more about my general philosophical horizon, which is called ‘social epistemology’, should have a look at this new book. Finally, there is my website, which contains many audio recordings of lectures and other items that may be of use.

Interviewed by Irma Velić