Ernan McMullin

Ernan McMullin died yesterday.  He was born in 1924, so although this is a sad moment for his friends and admirers, and I am very much one of those, it is also a time for celebration of a life well lived.  He was one of the best-known philosophers and historians of science in the past half century, being a specialist particularly on the work of Galileo.  Just over Christmas I wrote a review of a collection that he edited, devoted to that great scientist.

Ernan was an Irishman and never lost the heavy accent of his home country.  He taught for many years at the University of Notre Dame.  He was a Catholic priest but not a member of the order that runs Notre Dame, the Congregation of Holy Cross.  Technically he was on leave from Ireland and reported back to his bishop over there.  I should say that I never saw Ernan in priest’s garb.  To be honest I am not sure that I ever saw him wearing a tie, for his usual dress—almost his trademark—was a gray roll-neck sweater.

Philosophers of science tend to be a pretty secular group.  I never sensed that Ernan concealed or compromised his faith and calling. He wrote quite extensively on the relationship between science and religion. But a less preachy person it would be hard to imagine. He was fun to be with and much respected by all. He served a term as president of the (American) Philosophy of Science Association.

I started to publish and go to conferences in the late 60s, so I got to know Ernan then or shortly thereafter. There was the distance of someone 15 years older and already established, but we were friends from the start—not an obviously easy relationship between an Irishman and an Englishman, for remember those were the days of great tension and suffering in Northern Ireland, and although I could never live there no-one is more chauvinistically English than I. For me, what bridged the gap was that, apart from the great warmth of his personality, from the first I admired him greatly for trying (what seems to have been much more common back then) to integrate philosophy and history of science into one whole. (Today, my sense is that the philosophers of science have returned to the analytic fold and historians have gone over to sociology and the gap is bigger than ever.)

You can imagine therefore that I found it really quite upsetting when Ernan chastised me more strongly than any other academic has ever done. This came about because I was an expert witness for the ACLU (along with such people as the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould and the theologian Langdon Gilkey) in Arkansas in 1981, when a (successful) attack was mounted in court on the constitutionality of a bill demanding that Creationism be taught in the state’s public schools along with evolution. As the philosopher, my job was to explain the difference between science and religion and point out why evolution is science and Creationism is not, it is religion.

In those days “demarcation” attempts (between science and religion) were not popular in the philosophy-of-science profession—Karl Popper, the most famous demarcationist, was a figure of fun (often contempt)—and Ernan was very, very upset at me for claiming publicly that one could distinguish science from religion according to specified criteria (like the willingness to be refuted or falsified). It didn’t help when the judge took my testimony verbatim and plonked it right into the middle of his ruling. Ernan felt, and he was not alone, that I had really let the side down badly. It was not that he endorsed Creationism, he thought it false, but he wanted it rejected properly not by expedient deceit or philosophical ineptness. (I am not quite sure of which he thought me guilty.)

I should say I have not changed my mind much on this, I still think you can distinguish science from religion, and I am still proud of my testimony. Importantly, our disagreement (row would be a better term) was not long lasting. I think one thing was Ernan saw that, even though I am a nonbeliever, my testimony was anything but a general attack on religion.  The other thing is that about that time Ernan got some new colleagues, the Calvinist philosopher of religion Alvin Plantinga for one, people who were (to say the least) not very friendly toward evolutionism. My sense is that over the years Ernan started to think that I might have had a point.

I don’t think Ernan McMullin was a great philosopher. There was not the brilliant innovation of someone like Thomas Kuhn, or the systematic treatment of science that one found in people like Rudolf Carnap. His forte was the solid essay on a topic, bringing out the various positions and assessing them carefully. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t have any philosophy of his own and one piece by him—actually his presidential address to the Philosophy of Science Association in the early 1980s—stimulated me more than just about any other piece of that ilk.

Ernan addressed the divide between those (generally philosophers) who thought that science was a reflection of disinterested reality, and those (generally historians) who thought that science was a reflection of the culture and the values of its day (so-called “social constructivism”). Trying for a compromise, he argued that there is no doubt but that science in its genesis reflects the values of its society, but that over the years the attempt and need to be objective—employing what are known in the trade as “epistemic values” like consistency and predictive fertility—wash out the cultural values. To take an example (mine not his), today no one takes seriously Nazi racial science, not primarily because it is immoral (although one hopes that does come into it) but because it doesn’t lead to successful predictions and so forth.  It’s just no good as science.

I thought this a terrifically exciting idea and, agreeing that the divide between philosophers and historians on cultural values was the big question for those of us trying to straddle the two, spent some 15 years on a case study trying to evaluate it.  I choose the topic of progress in evolutionary biology, the idea that organic history shows a direction from the less to the more, from the value worthless to the value worthy, from blobs to humans in short. And I asked whether or not the history of evolutionary theory from its beginnings (early in the Enlightenment) to the present showed a gradual diminution of enthusiasm for biological progress, a diminution fueled by the ever-greater adherence to epistemic values.

I should say that this was a popular interpretation of the history of evolutionary theory.  Indeed I think McMullin himself (perhaps in conversation) had expressed this view.  Back in the 18th century, at the time of such early evolutionists as Erasmus Darwin (Charles’s grandfather), biological progress rode high. Today it is absent. And the reason is simply the coming of Darwin’s natural selection—something epistemically powerful but very anti-progressive in that success is always relative—and then Mendelian genetics—equally epistemically powerful and equally anti-progressive in the randomness of the moments of change, the mutations.

As it happens, I found that the full story was much more complex and interesting. In fact, biological progress did go but the main motivating factor was less the desire to be epistemically pure and more the desire by evolutionists in the middle of the last century to be taken seriously as professional scientists (worthy of university jobs and grants and so forth). All of the wild talk about humans triumphing in the struggle for existence earned nothing but scorn from the establishment, the physicists particularly. So biological progress had to go—publicly at least.

I wrote all of this up at length—at very great length—in my book Monad to Man: The Concept of Progress in Evolutionary Biology. I am still pretty proud of it. But I mention it not to discuss its merits but to acknowledge that the biggest and most important piece of intellectual work that I have done in my life could not have been done without the inspiration of my friend and intellectual guide. I mourn the passing, but oh how I celebrate the life, of Ernan McMullin.

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