Saturday, August 20, 2005

Hell Lost its Bite; Heaven its Lustre

“God before and after Darwin”

Before Darwin shows why he was not the first to find a divine watchmaker scientifically and religiously comforting. By Ashton Nichols (August 19, 2005)

Before Darwin: Reconciling God with Nature. Keith Thomson. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2005. 314 pages. $27.00 hardback.

You will already know that there is a acrimonious ‘debate’ (using ‘debate’ in its loosest sense) in progress, if that is the right word for a subject that is long past its best days, which were already closing down when Adam Smith, David Hume and others had to work under the ever-present threat of persecution by zealots – if an idea is enforced by vigilantes through intimidation and tyranny, its best days are nearly done and are prelude to its last days.

The contestants, Intelligent Design (a.k.a. creationism) versus Evolution, are at it all over the USA, and possibly Australia, if it is true to form; a minority of impressionable Ozzies tend to pick up on silly nonsense from across the Pacific. I am not going to get into the kafuffle here; my unpublished, as yet, “Pre-History of the Deal”, which needs a little work on it, takes an evolutionary look at the history of bargaining, so you may guess which side I write on.

However, reading as I do books and reviews of books outside of my field of political economy, from The Times Literary Supplement and elsewhere, I occasionally come across gems that link (in the loosest possible sense) indirectly to Adam Smith. One such, is a review by Ashton Nichols of Before Darwin: Reconciling God with Nature by Keith Thomson, New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2005.

In the review (in Science & Religion) there is a description of Charles Darwin’s status as a ‘synthesiser’, which seems to me an apposite description of the role of Adam Smith and his predecessors, though I believe that Darwin was being overly modest describing himself solely in the vein (and so would Adam Smith if he had done so):

“Charles Darwin is clearly the Copernicus of the modern era. No other scientist (not Einstein or Crick) and no other thinker (not Marx or Freud) comes close to the lasting impact that Darwin has had on our sense of ourselves and our place in the world. At the same time, like many other great scientists before him, Darwin admitted that he had very few original ideas. He was more of a synthesizer, one who brought together the ideas of others and the insights of several centuries into a unified field theory of life: a testable, repeatable set of observable hypotheses which have stood the test of two centuries. Darwin’s ideas and their applications are now virtually transforming our daily lives and the lives of countless living things around us. Think genetically modified food. Think artificial intelligence. Think cloning.”

The reviewer also makes an interesting comment on David Hume, Smith’s close friend (whom he let down badly, in my view, when Hume was dying, the details of which are in “Adam Smith’s Lost Legacy”). It is the best one paragraph summary of David Hume’s views on belief in a Deity (on the same subject that Smith went out of his way to avoid committing to Hume that he would see to it being published after Hume’s death):

“As Thomson reminds us, the Scottish philosopher David Hume literally emptied the churches of England with two simple questions. If we can believe in any being that we cannot see (a dragon, an alien, a God), then surely it is just as easy not to believe in that being? Similarly, miracles in every religious tradition — Christian, Buddhist, or Hindu — resolve themselves into a simple question: is it more likely that the laws of nature (hitherto so absolute and eternal) have been suspended for an instant, or is it more likely that one human being has told a lie? In Hume’s view, the Christian God could not have existed when the Egyptians were worshipping only Ra, or the Greeks were worshipping only Zeus, since all of these monotheistic deities are mental constructs, just as all of the polytheistic gods were. For Hume, Lazarus was resuscitated by a supremely wise doctor and teacher, just as we now resuscitate dying people simply by breathing into their lungs, in countless hospitals every day, whatever religion we practice or do not practice.”

I should say that Thomson, the author of “Before Darwin”, exaggerates about Hume’ emptying the Churches’, but we get the idea – over time, others asked the same questions about ‘miracles’ and the rest, and thus began the decline in threats of Hell’s fire and promises of Heaven, until they lost their bite.

Postscript: I should have mentioned when commenting on Smith's 'synthesising', that Professor Salim Rashid (University of Illinois) would not agree with my assessment. He argues that Adam Smith was an outright plagiarist (see Salim Rashid: "The Myth of Adam Smith", Edward Elgar, 1998). Hence, in his view, Smith went beyond synthesising by not acknowledging his intellectual debts to several 17th and 18th-century pamphleteers. This is not the place to pursue this issue, but I believe Salim Rashid's assessment is problematical and he exaggerates the case. I assess these issues in the book on Adam Smith I am writing at present for Palgrave's Great Thinkers in Economics series. Needless to say, perhaps, Professor Rashid is a very knowledgeable contributor to studies of Adam Smith's work and his views require a proper consideration, and an answer if they are not accepted.


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