Larry Arnhart on Anastaplo on Physics and Religion

(from “Darwinian Conservatism” – a blog by Larry Arnart – 12/07/07)

George Anastaplo is a remarkable human being–and perhaps the best teacher I had at the University of Chicago. He graduated from the University of Chicago Law School at the the top of his class in 1951. But he was refused admission to the Illinois Bar because he refused to answer questions about whether he was a communist. Eventually, he argued his case before the U.S. Supreme Court and lost in a 5-to-4 decision (In re Anastaplo). He became a student of Leo Strauss. In fact, I believe he attended more of the classes Strauss taught during his years at the University of Chicago than anyone else. Since he was prohibited from practicing law, he earned a Ph.D. from the Committee on Social Thought at Chicago, and became a political science professor at Rosary College (later renamed Dominican University). He also taught–and continues to teach–in the Basic Program in the Liberal Arts of the University of Chicago, a “great books” program for adults that was originally founded by Robert Maynard Hutchins and Mortimer Adler in 1946. He retired from Dominican and joined the faculty at the Loyola University of Chicago Law School, where he still teaches.

I am bringing up Anastaplo’s name only to recommend a short paper he has written on “Yearnings for the Divine and the Natural Animation of Matter,” which can be found here.

Anastaplo has noticed that physicists speaking at the University of Chicago–at the weekly Physics Colloquia–have a tendency to use language suggesting that matter has a natural tendency to animation that implies a divine purposiveness. Of course, most of these physicists would surely say that this is only metaphorical language that should not be taken literally. But Anastaplo rightly raises the question of whether this indicates something about the tendency of the human mind to intuit some divine purpose in the order of nature.

Anastaplo also wonders whether physicists really understand what they are looking for. In their search for the smallest and most elementary particles of matter, aren’t they looking for the ultron–i.e., the ultimate particle (or principle) underlying all material order? Do they really understand what it means to search for whatever it is that allows the universe to be and to be intelligible?

Anastaplo’s questions bear upon the issue of ultimate explanation that has often come up on this blog. In the search for ultimate explanation, we seem to assume some ultimate ground of explanation that itself cannot be explained but only intuited. Religious believers would say this ultimate ground is God as the uncaused cause of nature. Scientific naturalists would say that nature itself must be accepted as a self-contained order that we know as a brute fact of our experience.

The ultimate cause of life–including the life of self-conscious, thinking beings–seems particularly mysterious. Religious believers would say that without assuming a Divine Mind behind the order of nature, scientists could not explain their own capacity for–and longing for–a rational explanation of natural order. Skeptical naturalists would suggest that whatever thoughtful purposefulness there is in the universe is a contingent outcome of evolutionary processes of emergent order that are not themselves thoughtful or purposeful.

Darwinian science must leave these questions open to thoughtful inquiry, because, as Darwin said, “the mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us.”

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