A Dialogical Campus Ministry

Tom Grosh IV —  June 24, 2013 — 4 Comments

Dr Vinoth Ramachandra serves on the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES) Senior Leadership Team as Secretary for Dialogue & Social Engagement.

“I’m still waiting to read a scientific paper that gives a biological explanation of the emergence of biological science among us human beings, also a naturalist account of what motivates people to become evolutionary psychologists and why others are impressed by their explanations.” — A taste of the pointed wit which draws one into Part 3 of  Vinoth Ramachandra‘s Engaging the University (22:04). As you my remember from Part 2, the recording cut off as he began a “defense of the human.” Ramachandra focuses on resisting the biological reductionism which combines neurological imaging of the human brain with “the popular pseudoscience of evolutionary psychology.”

Biological reductionism requires much more consideration than that given to it by Ramachandra. What better way than a dialogic university ministry, i.e., “a ministry which takes the university seriously on its own terms”? But can we as members of the campus community truly take up Ramachandra’s challenge to embrace university ministry as “a distinctive calling, not simply an extension or parallel of church based ministries”? Can we support a ministry which “listens as well as speaks . . . seeks to stimulate respectful conversations both within and across academic disciplines, and with Christians and non-Christians alike”?

In following Christ, Ramachandra pushes ahead where few campus ministry leaders dare to tread:

The ideas and issues on the frontier of learning and the leading edges of debate are celebrated for what they reveal of God and of his reign. The barriers between students and faculty or professors are overcome in much the same way that they are in research laboratories, advanced seminars and major research projects. Dialogue is a central defining activity of any respectable university. It’s what academic freedom is all about. . . .

There is much more to consider and apply to particular campus and disciplinary contexts as Ramachandra advocates Christians being on the forefront of promoting a dialogic pluralism throughout the university. I encourage you to listen to and discuss the audio on your campus. May it will lead you into

  • starting conversations and joining on-going conversations on every topic that is of public interest.
  • practicing “constrained disagreement” when engaged in teaching and inquiry, i.e., inquiry within the point of view and enter controversy with rival standpoints. — Note: Ramachandra draws a “mouthful” from Alasdair MacIntyre.
  • cultural criticism guided by a hermeneutics of charity. Note: Ramachandra draws from Charles Mathewes’s Augustinian perspective.
  • a paradigm shift in university missionary engagement.

A paradigm shift in university missionary engagement?

Ramachandra offers, “A prophetic Christian engagement with the university would involve . . .

  • forming learning and witnessing communities comprising students, researchers, faculty and administrators who engage courageously and dialogically with the diverse academic disciplines and conversations that constitute university life. . . . the crossing of status hierarchies and not replicating in universities whatever can be done in local churches. . . .
  • seeking to influence universities so that they become more humane and just institutions . . . Jesus Christ is present even though unacknowledged in the laboratory, the music class, the radio astronomy center, the student union debates . . . and all the conversations formal and informal that make up university life. And we are called to discern His Presence and activity and then articulate it with courage and wisdom.
  • reminding the university of its ultimately religious character. . . . all knowing is interpersonal. . . . all knowing is premised on love of that which gives itself to be known and trust in members of a seeking community. That is the first profession of every professor whether acknowledged or not and it is the founding confession of the university, even if the university pretends that faith commitments have no place within it. . . . ” — Note: Ramachandra draws from Augustine.
  • [realizing that] “around the world these are life and death issues.” I encourage you to listen and not miss the ending quote from Terry Halliday, political sociologist in Chicago, on his experiences with students and professors in China who are great heroes of faith “pleading for the tools to think Christianly” across the spectrum of fields in the face of the rapidly approaching future.
  • Note: A Mission to the University (5/13/2013) focuses upon material from the Question-and-Answer time exploring the paradigm shift in university missionary engagement.

As I have noted before, please consider this series a teaser inviting you, your peers, and campus community into dialogue with the primary material of Dr. Vinoth Ramachandra‘s 2012 Henry Martyn Lectures. Feel free to engage in conversation with this post/series not only by commenting below, but also in sharing stories of how such communities of engagement are developing with those whom you are connected with and proposals you have for sharing the fruit with the Emerging Scholars Network.

Updated 6/14/2013. 8:25 AM.

Tom Grosh IV

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Enjoys daily conversations regarding living out the Biblical Story with his wife Theresa, four girls, around the block, at Elizabethtown Brethren in Christ Church (where he hosts the Christian Scholar Series), on campus as part of InterVarsity Graduate & Faculty Ministry (serving fellowships such as the Christian Medical Society/CMDA at Penn State College of Medicine), online as the Associate Director of the Emerging Scholars Network, in the culture at large, and in God's creation.

4 responses to A Dialogical Campus Ministry

  1. I wish I had time to read Ramachandra’s thoughts on EP in order to do it full justice, but based on what you quote here I worry he is setting up a straw man. He’s right in that EP as the hypothesis that there are discrete mental modules produced in humans by evolution is looked upon a lot more critically in the relevant academic circles than ten or fifteen years ago. But in that sense it’s bad or mediocre science rather than pseudoscience. The larger project in sociobiology — what aspects of human nature are subject to natural selection pressures — is alive and well, and certain aspects of it are hard to ignore. For instance, the ratio between the second and fourth digits on a human hand as a proxy for pre-natal testosterone exposure and various behavioral outcomes (increased aggression, risk-taking etc.) is something widely acknowledged. That’s not the only example. As to why people would study such things and why people would believe them I’m sure a Darwinist would say brains capable of such are pretty adaptive. I’m not saying that’s the ultimately the truth of the matter. I just see such a point as polemical, and not any substantive challenge to EP.

    A great majority of the people who study EP are reductionists of course, and stretch the explanations too far, but other disciplines are just as or more guilty (the neuroscientists are perhaps the worst, and I do see he mentions them). I don’t know why Ramachandra wants to single EPs out so much but for having read his blog in the past. He sure seems to have a lot of what I’d call “culturally Marxist” instincts in his thinking, and the idea that certain aspects of human nature are pretty hardwired doesn’t comport with that. A lot of evangelicals these days seem eager to demonstrate their theological comfort with Darwinian macro-evolution, but if you are going to accept natural selection as a force powerful enough to produce speciation you must accept at least the possibility if not the likelihood that personality/temprament/skills will be selected for as well.

    Just to be clear, this is a longstanding discussion. When Francis Schaeffer wrote that old pamphlet for IVP, Back to Freedom and Dignity; it was a response to B.F. Skinner’s reductionism. That was based on the idea that environment cracks the whip, and heredity doesn’t count for too much in human behavior. As Christians, we should reject reductionism period, and call out scientists when they over-interpret their findings — whether hereditarian or environmentalist or some sort of 50/50 blend. There is nature and there is Person, and the space in which they intermingle is a permanent mystery.

    • “He’s right in that EP as the hypothesis that there are discrete mental modules produced in humans by evolution is looked upon a lot more critically in the relevant academic circles than ten or fifteen years ago. But in that sense it’s bad or mediocre science rather than pseudoscience.”

      This is an important distinction. Hypotheses which have been disproven, or which have so far failed to be proven, do not represent pseudoscience.

      As for the comment about a paper that “gives a biological explanation of the emergence of biological science” is a bit of a straw man. For one thing, it is an argument from silence. For another, it’s not clear to me what he would offer as an alternative explanation.

      “but if you are going to accept natural selection as a force powerful enough to produce speciation you must accept at least the possibility if not the likelihood that personality/temprament/skills will be selected for as well.”

      Actually, I think regardless of whether one believes natural selection is sufficient for speciation, one needs to allow for a certain amount of selection on behavior. All selection needs to operate is a mechanism for reproduction and transmission (possibly heredity, but other modes work also), a mechanism for variation, and differences in reproduction/transmission success based on those variations. Some portion of our behaviors and personality are learned, thus satisfying the requirement for reproduction and transmission. Variation in behaviors is fairly self-evident. So the questions for a particular behavior become: how faithfully is it reproduced and transmitted, what the mechanism of transmission is, and whether/how much the variations contributes to differences in the outcomes.

      “There is nature and there is Person, and the space in which they intermingle is a permanent mystery.”

      This is a fairly strong assertion. How did you arrive at this conclusion? Personally, I have difficulties with any statement that says we will never know “X”. When those statements are made in defense of Christianity, one of my concerns is that, should we ever actually learn “X”, it provides another opportunity to say “See, Christianity has been proven false!”

      Finally, I sense that perhaps in this discussion in general there is a conflation of the concepts of reductionism and physicalism. It is possible to be a non-reductive physicalist.

  2. All good points Andy, and you’re quite right: all selection needs is a transmissible genome and an environment to provide pressure and you will get selection pressure on the next generation.You don’t need universal common descent for that. As to selection on behavior and some of those behaviors being learned that makes sense too, but the behaviors you learned (because you had skill and affective interest and opportunity) or didn’t (because of lack of the same) will have a partially genetic basis. To quote Jacques Monod, from back in the day, it’s Chance *and* Necessity.

    Now,

    Quoting me:

    “There is nature and there is Person, and the space in which they intermingle is a permanent mystery.”

    Quoting Andy in response:

    “This is a fairly strong assertion. How did you arrive at this conclusion? Personally, I have difficulties with any statement that says we will never know “X”. When those statements are made in defense of Christianity, one of my concerns is that, should we ever actually learn “X”, it provides another opportunity to say “See, Christianity has been proven false!”

    Finally, I sense that perhaps in this discussion in general there is a conflation of the concepts of reductionism and physicalism. It is possible to be a non-reductive physicalist.”

    That’s such a huge discussion, and how you define the terms dictates a lot. And for my part I’m thinking that “X,” as you call it, is a lot bigger and broader than an MRI showing a distinct part of my brain lights up when I do calculus or cook an omelette. A lot of the new atheists are so hard-headed that the attitude seems to be, “see, science is, so Christianity is false” so I’m not sure how practical your concern is. Provisionally I’d say this. I have no a priori problem with defining the physical to include non-reductive phenomena. In that case I’d re-state what I said as “there is mechanism and there is Person, and the space in which they intermingle is a permanent mystery,” or more to the point “there is subject and there is object, and the space…” However, any way you want to slice it, I think Naturalists will still say its reductionism all the way down and fight you tooth and nail that non-reductive physicalism is no better than dualism. It’s not immateriality that bothers naturalists about Persons or Agents; it’s Personhood and Agenthood period. Defining those terms to include materiality without making them ultimately reducible doesn’t change the mystery, just the setting.

    • Vinoth Ramachandra June 27, 2013 at 1:04 am

      I have indicated to Tom Grosh my discomfort at discovering that my lecture was not only transcribed but excerpts are being posted and then commented on in this Blog. I would prefer people listen to the entire lecture. Tom has graciously apologised and I accept his apology.

      However to respond briefly to James and Andy.

      I think that the program of EP is entirely speculative, and demonstrates little of the patient and meticulous observational approach of Darwin himself. It is inherently reductionist in that it claims to encompass all human behaviour within the explanatory strait-jacket of natural selection and inclusive fitness. It thus ignores or trivialises all that is truly and distinctively human. There is no such thing, therefore, as a “non-reductionist EP”. (The latter would not be EP but a different program entirely). Even where there are similarities between humans and chimpanzees in social behaviour, EP has not demonstrated that the same processes mediate the two behaviours let alone that they can be subsumed under the same category (e.g. “altruism”). Both birds and bees fly, but the evolutionary origins and mechanisms behind the capacity for flight are not the same.

      Why I label EP a pseudo-science is not only on account of its speculative nature and cavalier disregard for evidence, but because it puts itself beyond refutation- for when one assumes that all our current behaviour is the outcome of selective adaptive practices in our hominid past, that includes every attempt to refute EP. This is why EP devotees live in a charmed circle; and they exclude their own cognitive behaviour from EP explanations.

      See my short Blog post “Mindless Science” at: http://vinothramachandra.wordpress.com/2012/01/10/mindless-science/

      For more full-length and scholarly treatments of EP, I recommend:

      1. Raymond Tallis, Aping Humanity: Neuromania, Darwinitis, and the Misrepresentation of Humanity (2011), esp. chs.4,6,7

      (You can read my review of Tallis’s book at: http://vinothramachandra.wordpress.com/2012/08/10/aping-humanit/ )

      2. H. Rose & S. Rose (eds.), Alas, Poor Darwin: Arguments Against Evolutionary Psychology (2000)

      James, your point about the 2D:4D ratio is not a vindication of sociobiology, let alone EP. The idea that high fetal testosterone levels lead to more aggressive risk-taking behaviour is not as “widely acknowledged” as you imagine (see, for instance, Vermeersch, et.al, “The role of testosterone in aggressive and non-aggressive risk-taking in adolescent boys’, Hormones and Behavior, 53 (2008): 463-71).

      I am sure you know that identical twins are not identical in feelings, beliefs or behaviour. One cannot deduce a specific personality profile from a genetic profile. The latter only limits the envelope of possible outcomes. As the developmental psychologist Jerome Kagan points out in his book The Three Cultures:

      “Evolutionary psychologists like to write that genes keep cultures ‘on a leash’. However, a culture, like a large, powerful dog, can pull the person holding the leash in new, unplanned directions. The genetic programs that monitor brain development guarantee that individuals will be able to perceive and manipulate objects, acquire a symbolic language, and feel uncertain about the future. But the reach of biological forces stops at this point, for these processes cannot dictate what specific objects will be perceived, what motor manipulations will be learned, what languages will be mastered, or what events will provoke uncertainty. The brains of 1,000 persons, like 1,000 urns constructed of clay from the same pit, have the same material composition, but their similar appearance does not reveal whether they contain oil, grain, wine, or ashes.”

      Does this make people like Professor Kagan and myself “cultural Marxists”? (I would be interested to know what in my writings prompted you to make this jibe at me)

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