Contra Kass, Not All Scientific Claims About Origins Are Metaphysically Neutral

Logan Paul Gage

This past Thursday, October 26, Dr. Leon Kass, learned intellectual and former Chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics, presented a paper before an excellent group of intellectuals at the American Enterprise Institute (Stephen Barr, Eric Cohen, Joseph Bottum, Charles Murray, and Marcello Pera, among others). Dr. Kass had many good things to say about the false nature of scientific reductionism and how it goes against everything we know about reality from everyday life. He also denied that random mutations and natural selection were the whole story to life’s evolution. That said, I took umbrage with one major point Kass made.

Dr. Kass embraced a sort of NOMA approach to origins questions, claiming that scientific findings in this area would not affect humanity’s special status at the apex of nature. He claimed that science has a “metaphysical neutrality,” and hence a scientific finding is “indifferent to questions of being, cause, purpose, inwardness, hierarchy, and the goodness or badness of things, scientific knowledge included.” So for instance, scientists don’t ask what happened before the Big Bang; they just describe the Big Bang.
When I had the opportunity to ask a question, I first said that I found myself in an odd place that day, agreeing more with Dr. Dawkins than Dr. Kass on this supposed neutrality. For Dawkins would claim that scientific findings on origins should affect our view of what it is to be human, and therefore such findings are not metaphysically neutral. (And I would only add that, if we understand that evidence in science can bolster the claim for a world devoid of purpose and teleology, we must also acknowledge that evidence from science could bolster the case for a world with purpose and teleology.)
I mentioned two examples. First, if the Big Bang was somehow overturned by new evidence, and it then looked like the universe was eternal rather than finite. I think this would have HUGE implications for who we are and where we came from. Second, I continued, if, as the Darwinists say, evolution has no discernable goal or direction, and a different random mutation could have made a totally different species than Homo sapiens, this too is more than just a material description and should certainly affect our view of humanity and whether we are intended to be here. That is, it affects a question of purpose.
To all this, it seemed to me, Dr. Kass did not really provide a counterargument. He simply said that if I did not know the monumental difference (presumably by natural reason) between humans and lower species, then there was nothing more he could say to me; and no scientific discovery could possibly take away our natural perception that humanity is of a different status than other species.
Dr. Kass is right, of course, that we can know through the use of our everyday perception that humanity is exceptional. But then how odd if scientific discovery did not back this up? How odd if our natural perception would be at odds with our scientific exploration? Our natural perception of humanity’s unique status should only serve to highlight that the Darwinian theory is wrong since it implies that, contrary to our everyday observations, we were not intended to be here. That is, we were only a few random mutations away from being something totally different.
Scientific discoveries certainly can affect our view of what it is to be human. My hope is that Dr. Kass can find harmony between his common sense perception of the world and the scientific enterprise. ID offers just such an explanation. For ID argues that nature, by showing signs of intelligent agency, is likely the product of intelligence–not just chance material forces. And these scientific observations lend themselves to a view of the world in which humanity was intended and purposed to be here. Thus scientific theories of origins are not metaphysically neutral. There is more going on here than a just-the-facts-ma’am, descriptive science.

Logan Paul Gage

Logan Paul Gage is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Franciscan University of Steubenville. Dr. Gage received his B.A. in history, philosophy, and American studies from Whitworth College (2004) and his M.A. (2011) and Ph.D. (2014) in philosophy from Baylor University. His dissertation, written under the supervision of Trent Dougherty, was a defense of the phenomenal conception of evidence and conservative principles in epistemology.