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Public Lecture

Sarah Coakley at Regent College

Thursday, Oct 4, 2018 at 7:30PM - 9:30 PM PST

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Regent College is hosting an evening lecture with Dr. Sarah Coakley on October 4 as part of our Fall 2018 Interface Faith and Science Lecture Series.

"Is there a Future for 'Natural Theology'? Evolution, Cooperation, and the Question of God"

In this lecture, Dr. Sarah Coakley is concerned, critically, with the way that evolution has been purveyed in the last generation as selfishly-oriented genetically, yet devoid of either positive meaning or discernible structure. The evolutionary phenomenon of cooperation, she argues, suggests otherwise; and indeed it may, by a series of steps, lead inexorably to the question of a natural basis for ethics and thence to the God question. Coakley first reviews the biological evidences for cooperation and explains the mathematical calculus which has been utilized of late to clarify the conditions under which cooperation is favoured in evolutionary populations. She then turns to the disputed question of what such cooperation (altruism in its intentional, motivated form) might mean in both ethical and metaphysical terms, arguing that philosophical contestation is here unavoidable for both empirical and mathematical biology. Her own view is that a narrow utilitarian explanation of evolutionary ethics (focusing solely on the immediate genetic advantage of individual entities in a population) is less convincing overall than a richer multi-level account which is able to encompass natural law or "categorical imperative" renditions of ethical demand. By the same token, the pervasive phenomena of cooperation and altruism also press metaphysical questions about the overall structure of evolution: is the evolutionary narrative one of pure randomness and essential meaninglessness, or do the patterns of cooperation/defection (alongside mutation and selection) suggest a picture in which teleology still holds some meaning? In the last section of the lecture Coakley turns more ambitiously to a re-interpretation of the genre of natural theology within the contours of this contemporary debate. Arguing that what is distinctive about natural theology is the pressure meaningfully to perceive the natural world as-a-whole, she turns back to a late antique form of contemplative endeavour (termed physikē) for inspiration. On this view, natural theology represents the perennial tug to gain a complete vision of the natural world’s meaning, a task which involves a process of creative integration for the knowing subject itself, finally aligning intellectual, moral, and affective dimensions. The contemporary debates about evolutionary cooperation therefore represent a fork in the road between different unitary readings of evolution’s meaning: does evolution bespeak nothing but competitive genetic "selfishness," or is there some alternative that might itself enhance the expansion of human altruism to face pressing contemporary political, ethical, and ecological crises?

Prof. Sarah Coakley took up her current appointment at Norris-Hulse Professor of Divinity at Cambridge in 2007. She received her first degree in Theology at Cambridge, before doing initial graduate work at Harvard (as a Harkness Fellow), and her doctoral work at Cambridge on the Christology of Ernst Troeltsch. Appointed to her first position at the University of Lancaster while still writing her doctorate, she later taught at Oriel College, Oxford (in Theology and Philosophy of Religion), and at Harvard Divinity School, where she was Edward Mallinckrodt, Jr., Professor of Divinity, 1995-2007.   Prof. Coakley teaches modern and contemporary Philosophy of Religion in the faculty, and has an interest in combining both analytic and continental traditions in her own research, whilst also charting the connections with feminist philosophy. She is currently particularly interested in religious epistemology and in what challenges are brought to it by contemplative and ‘apophatic’ traditions of thought, both East and West. In 2012 she gave the Aberdeen Gifford Lectures on evolutionary cooperation and its proposed relation to ethics and apologetics; and more recently she has been working on the second and third volumes of her systematic theology (on sin, racism, and redemption).

This lecture series is supported by a generous grant from the John Templeton Foundation.

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