Shrine gate at Itsukushima shrine, Hiroshima Prefecture, Japan. Photo by Dan Smith.
One of Paul Gauguin’s most famous paintings is entitled: “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” Historically, the world’s great civilizations have offered very different answers to these three questions. In this post, I’d like to draw readers’ attention to a fascinating lecture given by Kagefumi Ueno, entitled “Culture and Religiosity in Modern Japan.” Ueno is a “cultural thinker,” who has published several books and spoken at various congresses. Currently, he is Japan’s ambassador to the Holy See in Rome.
As someone who lives in Japan, I found Ueno’s talk deeply insightful and very perceptive. It’s a must-read for people who are interested in Intelligent Design: although Ueno focuses on the profound differences between Japanese religiosity and Christianity, the implications for ID are obvious. To explain why, I’d like to quote a short passage from Ueno’s speech:
For westerners, divinity lies in the Creator rather than in Nature, a product of Him. On the other hand, for Buddhistic-Shintoists, divinity lies in Nature itself, whereas there is no concept of the “Creator” who created Nature (Universe ) from without or from above. Nature was generated by itself, not by an extra-universal force, out of nothing. The divinity permeates through Nature. It does permeate even into humans.
The divinity in the Mother Nature envelops everything – humans, trees, plants, rocks, fountains and so forth. For Buddhistic-Shintoists the Highest Reality does not exist outside of Nature. In other words, the divinity is intrinsic to Nature.
Of course, Intelligent Design is compatible with many different world-views. However, if you believe that Nature is both all-encompassing and self-explanatory, you probably won’t feel inclined to go hunting in Nature for effects caused by intelligent agents. If Ueno is right, then the concept of Intelligent Design will only make sense to people growing up in an environment where monotheism – or at least, a God-Nature dichotomy – is part of the intellectual and cultural milieu, and where people feel free to question naturalism.
I’d like to ask my readers what they think about this. Do you agree or disagree?
Another question that I’m curious about is: how did the notion of Intelligent Design gain a toe-hold in ancient Greece, which was originally polytheistic, like the “Buddhistic-Shintoist” society of Japan? If any students of history can enlighten me on this point, I’d be much obliged.
Judging from the foregoing quote, it might seem that Japan should be very “Darwin-friendly” territory – and certainly, it is true that almost nobody publicly questions the notion of common descent in Japan. However, my impression is that while Darwin is widely respected in Japan as a scientist, the Japanese have not imbibed Darwinism as part of the warp and woof of their thinking, on a popular level. For instance, I could not imagine a Japanese equivalent of Daniel Dennett or Richard Dawkins. To Westerners, this may seem puzzling, but really, it’s not. Here’s why.
If your world-view is animistic, then you’ll reject Darwinism for the same reason that you reject ID. Both of these accounts of origins invoke the notion of intelligent agency – except that in Darwinism, it’s smuggled in through the back door as an illicit metaphor, whereas in ID, the conclusion that life is the product of intelligent agency is derived through honest intellectual toil.
To see how Darwinism illicitly appeals to the notion of agency, consider the following:
1. In Darwinism, nature is said to select those individuals that are better equipped to handle change. However, only agents can select. Right from the very beginning, the notion of natural selection was explained to the public by likening it to what human agents (e.g. dog breeders) do when they select for certain traits.
2. The workings of natural selection are said to be inherently mechanistic. However, a machine is itself a product of design.
3. Popular expositions of Darwinism commonly invoke the argument that “A Creator would never have done it that way.” In doing so, they are appealing to a notion of what an Intelligent Agent would have done, had He/She designed Nature.
4. Even an avowed atheist like Richard Dawkins, when explaining the concept of evolution to his readers, invokes the metaphor of God’s utility function:
“Utility function” is a technical term not of engineers but of economists. It means “that which is maximized.” Economic planners and social engineers are rather like architects and physical engineers in that they strive to optimize something…
Let us return to living bodies and try to extract their utility function. There could be many, but it will eventually turn out that they all reduce to one. A good way to dramatize our task is to imagine that living creatures were made by a Divine Engineer and try to work out, by reverse engineering, what the Engineer was trying to maximize: God’s Utility Function….
The true utility function of life, that which is being maximized in the natural world, is DNA survival. But DNA is not floating free; it is locked up in living bodies, and it has to make the most of the levers of power at its disposal. Genetic sequences that find themselves in cheetah bodies maximize their survival by causing those bodies to kill gazelles. Sequences that find themselves in gazelle bodies increase their chance of survival by promoting opposite ends. But the same utility function – the survival of DNA – explains the “purpose” of both the cheetah and the gazelle.
What I find odd about this passage is that even though Dawkins’ aim is to argue against the existence of God, on the grounds that “[t]he universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but pitiless indifference,” he can only do so by appealing to a theistic metaphor: “imagine that living creatures were made by a Divine Engineer.” Dawkins’ metaphor for evolution is thus inseparably bound up with theism.
Getting back to Japan: if you grow up in a culture where the metaphor of Nature being the work of an Agent is largely absent from the intellectual milieu, then the Darwinist metaphysical framework will seem alien to you, precisely because it borrows its central metaphors from the very Agent-centered monotheistic world-view which it is seeking to supplant. Or putting it another way: a “post-Design” theory will make no more sense to an animist than a Design-based theory.
I imagine it will take several decades before the Japanese start to seriously grapple with the arguments for Intelligent Design, but in the meantime, there is a ray of hope. Ueno, in his lecture, writes that “the proportion of Christians in Japan always remains at a little less than 1 % of the total population”; but according to an article in The Japan Times dated 24 February 2009, the commonly quoted “1%” figure is derived from counting only those who have been baptized and are currently regular churchgoers – some 1 million people. The true number is much higher, according to a poll recently conducted by George Gallup: “Our study indicates that 4% of Japanese adults identify with Christianity.” Readers of Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Christianity will appreciate the significance of this figure: a critical threshold has been crossed. Let us see what it brings.
I’ll finish by quoting the final paragraph of Ueno’s thought-provoking talk:
All in all, my message today is very simple. Allow me to call Buddhist-Shintoism as “Spiritualized Sushi” and Christianity as “Spiritualized Spaghetti”. All I talked about today was that “Spiritualized Sushi” and “Spiritualized Spaghetti” have distinctive tastes. Nevertheless, I added that both of them are “exquisite”. They – both of them – profoundly enrich human lives. Without one of the two, human cultures would have been immensely boring and arid.