A world of natural born stewards

Creation, Evolution and Meaning
April 6, 2007

Will it do?" asked the nervous curate, having just read over his first sermon to his vicar. "Will it do what?" replied the vicar. My reaction to the book under review is somewhat similar. Robin Attfield's book will certainly "do", in the sense of being a more than competent piece of scholarship covering the areas set out in its title. But "what it will do", what its author intends it to achieve, is less obvious. In particular, why does Attfield put together in one volume a number of partially related topics only for the most part to treat them separately rather than weave them creatively and cumulatively together?

Even where his primary theme (the doctrine of creation) has clear relevance to his final one (human beings as stewards of the natural world), Attfield goes out of his way to distance the two. While pointing out that theistic believers have special grounds for seeing themselves as stewards, he also argues convincingly for a secular version of stewardship, invoking Karl Marx no less as one of its exponents. As a result, the book is an uneasy compromise between an even-handed setting forth of different views and an intellectual defence of one favoured position.

The book is divided into three parts, each focusing on a different pair of the title's triad, creation, evolution and meaning. Creation is defined as "the dependence of each and every physical entity on a divine creator, not situated in space or in time, possessed of the power and the knowledge to bring the world into being, and to select its natural laws". In the first part, Attfield defends such language against the charge that it is meaningless and lacks explanatory power. He argues in turn against atheist claims that it cannot be verified (Ayer) or falsified (Flew) and against the religious anti-realism of philosophers such as Don Cupitt and D. Z. Phillips.

Part two concerns creation and evolution. The first task is to distinguish creation (as defined above) from superficially similar beliefs such as Platonism, pantheism and, above all, creationism, a doctrine beloved of the Religious Right in America that denies the compatibility of Christianity and Darwinism. Attfield, by contrast, argues that creation and evolution are entirely coherent, and his position might be labelled deist, were it not that his only mention of deism is ambiguous and in parenthesis. Other chapters in this second part offer routine treatments of arguments for the existence of God (the cosmological argument being found more persuasive than that from design); God and evil; and free will. There are also two chapters focusing on the origin and nature of value in both a Darwinian and a Christian perspective. Here, Keith Ward's arguments from intrinsic value to God and to purpose in evolution are described and developed, especially in relation to Michael Ruse's argument from adaptive complexity.

The third and final part, "Evolution and meaning", has just two chapters, and both explore the concept of stewardship as the best way to understand humankind's role within the natural world as a whole. In the author's words: "This involves care of the fruits of evolution, and can be found in both religious and secular versions." This view is defended against the idea championed by Daniel Dennett, among others, that meaning has just evolved alongside complexity and emerged out of it. In the closing chapter, the "ethics and metaphysics of stewardship" are discussed. This is uphill work for Attfield, who tries to defend the thesis that "not all obligations or responsibilities are owed to anyone at all" while maintaining an objective realist ontology, and in the end he gives up: "Perhaps no fully satisfactory account of answerability or of ownership is to be had, and the ethics of stewardship has to motivate compliance on the basis of stewardship itself."

And so back to my opening question: What will the book do? Individual chapters and even sections of chapters do well enough, never less than worthy and sometimes showering sparks of insight. But, as for the whole, it is if anything rather less than the sum of its parts, and I am still unclear what it will, or was intended to, achieve.

Anthony Freeman is managing editor of the Journal of Consciousness Studies and honorary assistant priest at Crediton Parish Church.

Creation, Evolution and Meaning

Author - Robin Attfield
Publisher - Ashgate
Pages - 234
Price - £55.00 and £16.99
ISBN - 0754604748 and 0754604756

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