The Story of a Philosophical Problem


Saving Creation. Nature and Faith in the Life of Holmes Rolston III . Preston, C. J. 2009 . Trinity University Press , San Antonio , TX . 251 (viii + 243) pp . $25.95 (hardcover). ISBN 978-0-159534-050-4 .

Creativity is the core of nature's value and of its theological truth. Creativity is found whenever life suffers through a trial by growing into an evolutionary possibility that allows it to survive. God, for Rolston, is found in these possibilities and in life's swimming upstream against entropy to explore them through struggle. God is a creation maker by being a creation enabler and inspirer. Everything else is chance, and there is no pre-set design. These are the views Christopher Preston paints as Rolston's own, the results of Rolston's own struggle throughout life to properly value the nature he first came to love as a child and which he has relentlessly studied his entire life. Rolston's life mirrors his views. When faced with a block early in his career, his creative, sideways adaptation into a new possibility made him a world-renowned philosopher of environmentalism and, in particular, the preservation of wild nature.

In Saving Creation, Preston takes on a tough task. He tries to show how the life and ideas of a philosopher are intertwined and turns a conventional biography into the story of a philosophical problem. This is difficult because the demands of biography and the demands of philosophy can pull in different ways, and to settle them in the middle risks weakening both. Biography demands an almost detective-like thoroughness and insightfulness into the details of a person's life and its motivations. It also demands not trying to paint a rosy picture of a person, but rather an objective one, where empathy eschews idealization. Philosophical exposition, by contrast, demands that ideas be presented intelligibly and in light of obvious criticisms, which means ideas should not simply be described but made to evolve through argument. What is admirable about Preston's attempt to join biography and philosophy is that together they can illustrate the philosophical life. Some think the philosophical life is the true object of philosophy.

Preston's book is a convenient introduction to Rolston's thought, yet it suffers from a number of limitations. The book does not work because it is neither good biography nor good philosophy and, perhaps more troubling still, because it seems at times to approach hagiography. My way of making the most out of these limitations is to return to the idea of the book as one portrait, out of many possible, of the philosophical life. After all, the book can be read as an example of how studying nature in person can be “a way of doing philosophy” (p. 111). Perhaps in reading the book this way, one can explore a possibility even in its failures, which is exactly what Preston claims is Rolston's idea of grace in evolution.

Holmes Rolston III is often thought of as the father of environmental ethics. His work on the intrinsic value of wild nature shaped 30 years of environmental ethics and weighed heavily into such political debates as the proper management of Yellowstone National Park. What is less well known is that Rolston is a devout Christian, a former Presbyterian minister, who long wanted to join theological with evolutionary explanation. His efforts to do so won him the Templeton Prize, the largest cash prize in the world awarded for intellectual work. The prize is given to people who make religious discoveries. Rolston won it for his attempt to reconcile Christian theology with the life sciences. Saving Creation tells the story of how Rolston won the Templeton Prize in 2003 after being fired from his post as a pastor in the Valley of Virginia in 1965.

Preston tells Rolston's story chronologically, within the frame of the 38 years between the failure in Rolston's life and the success he made out of it. That frame is like a window through which Preston peers backward into the childhood of Rolston, following him up to his early work as a pastor and far ahead to where he is now, retired and active as ever. Because, for Rolston, life's value and Creation's meaning are found in suffering through trials on a path toward greater complexity, his response to being fired as a young man exemplifies his philosophy.

Rolston's grew up in the rural Shenandoah Valley, the son of a minister, and his life's passion came from his early childhood love of exploring wild nature. Rolston studied physics and biology at Davidson College but decided to follow in his father's footsteps and enter seminary. After seminary, he took up a post in the Valley of Virginia in the early 1960s. At this eventful point in Rolston's life, he was diverted by a conceptual and philosophical problem. His parishioners were suspicious of a pastor who spoke in the terms of then-contemporary biology and who spent so much of his time alone studying wild nature meticulously. Rolston was absent, too, soaking up every course he could take on ecology or evolutionary biology at nearby universities.

At the same time, he challenged the ethic that motivated the struggling economy of his flock. In the 1960s, the Valley of Virginia was beset with industrial agriculture, mining, and logging. Rolston's gut appreciation of the land and knowledge of ecology put him in opposition to the form these practices took at the time. Rolston was fired. Whether his ideas or his absence alienated his parishoners, Rolston understood that he was fired because Christian concepts did not cohere with biological ones and because modern industrialism did not value wild nature.

Not long after, Rolston discovered philosophy and became a philosophy professor. At this point in the book, Preston turns more to history of ideas and away from biography: Rolston's work in the 1970s and 1980s on natural value and then his struggle to balance nature preservation with his duties to the poor in the 1990s. Preston ends his book by coming full circle to a section on theology that revisits Rolston's being awarded the Templeton Prize.

Saving Creation does not work as a biography. There are too few sources cited and too many angles unexplored. As a result, I didn't come to know the man. For example, Preston passes over Rolston and his wife adopting children rather than having their own. Given what Preston has said of Rolston up to that point, one would expect a trial of some sort in Rolston's life. We learn repeatedly that Rolston deliberately thought in terms of his ancestors. And it is around the same time Rolston is adopting children that he decides DNA is the source of value in the natural world. Something remains unspoken when a faithful follower of the family line claims DNA is the source of value yet adopts children. I understand why Preston did not go into this matter, but good biographers do. They find the language to deal humanely with what may have made someone suffer and which may also illuminate a life. Telling the outward story does not lose the trail of life's inner story because creativity lives therein.

The second problem is that the book does not work as a history of ideas. The book's main ideas are frustratingly underargued. Rolston's first big idea was that there are intrinsic values in nature. Preston's recapitulation of this foundational idea for Rolston contains poor reasoning. Take, for instance, this argument:

If we valued Earth's biota instrumentally for their ability to support us, then it was reasonable to value the simpler lives responsible for the supporting. These lives did not gain their value simply from their use by the more important species. The values were intrinsic to the organisms themselves (p. 125).

This argument is an assertion of the claim that there is intrinsic value. But readers want to know why there is intrinsic value. Moreover, what enables something we use is usually thought of as valuable in terms of our end of using what we use.

The deeper issue is that Rolston's vision of value seems shoddy. Something valuable in the context of ethics is desireable. That means value must be understood in terms of an agent, relative to ends. But none of this standard background is discussed, and there is no explanation for how Rolston can talk about values without any agent in sight. The matter is not helped when Preston claims Rolston concluded that if something is valuable, yet not merely useful, then no valuer is needed. How does that follow? Since Aristotle, there have been at least two kinds of value that are not explained by usefulness, and both of them depend on a valuer. A good history of ideas should not claim positions make sense without presenting them sensibly.

Also confusing is Preston's explanation of how Rolston finds God in evolution—the big idea of the book. Rolston's position hinges on the idea that life increases in complexity over time and that such complexity is intrinsically valuable. He can see no explanation for increased complexity in a random universe gripped by entropy without some kind of creative space “coaxing” innovations that build on each other. God, for Rolston, is the possibility of further complexity and the “suction” toward it. But two omissions loom here. First, in Full House, Gould (1997, Three Rivers Press, New York) took on E. O. Wilson's claims about complexity and life's apparent drive toward it. Rolston draws heavily on Wilson, and Gould's proposal seems an important contrast to Rolston's vision. Gould held that complexity develops as a result of morphic limitations that give only specific directions evolution can move within a genetic line. Once a creature is a vertebrate, doing without a backbone will not do. You have to develop on the backbone. But complexity is not biological triumph. In terms of fecundity and adaptability, the simplest organisms happen to be the most biologically successful. This contrast is mainstream and not hard to find in the literature.

Second, if Rolston is not simply renaming a biological possibility with the name God, then an explanation must be given as to why he—an avid natural scientist—could possibly move from the empirical method to faith. Time and again, Preston cites Rolston's realization that there are natural mysteries presently unanswered by science as a reason that theology should be adopted. But a gut feeling is not a reason. And just because we have not learned something scientifically does not mean we can not. Moreover, that there are mysteries at the limits of our understanding is in no way grounds for the abandonment of the empirical method when seeking knowledge. Kant made this point over 200 years ago. The book is weakened by problems like this because Preston makes Rolston appear dogmatic.

Illustrating the Philosophical Life

The most interesting part of Preston's book appears if you read it sideways, not for what it intended but for what it opens up. Saving Creation can be read as a portrait of the philosophical life. In this, it is often instructive, especially in the more biographical parts of the first half of the book.

Hearing Rolston's story, one is struck by how uncompromising he was in his search to understand and recapture the meaning of the Shenandoah Valley he explored as a boy. His love of studying nature took him to study science at Davidson College to which he later donated the million dollars from the Templeton Prize. His love of studying nature led him to lose his job as a pastor. It took him to philosophy and then to the formation of a field of thought. This itinerary, in itself, is remarkable.

Moreover, Rolston's trajectory can be understood only as a search for a kind of wisdom, rather than detached theoretical knowledge. Rolston wished to see the Earth valued properly. This zigzagging across disciplines and vocations in search of an answer that illuminates how things should be seen is a mark of strong philosophical natures, as is the sense that theoretical work comes from a passionate inner drive to restore human priorities. Both are antidotes to scholastic professionalism and its view of philosophers as good students who master someone else's books.

A third antidote comes in the way one does philosophy. Although Rolston proved to be a traditional—albeit lyrical—scholar in his writing, Preston manages to show how Rolston did philosophy in other, equally vital ways. The best example is when Rolston went out to study life in person. Rolston, it turns out, is much more like an ancient philosopher than one might think. He pursued—almost ascetically—practices beyond verbal dialectic that enabled him to experience value properly and to keep his love of wisdom alive. This is what the ancient schools of philosophy taught—Platonists, Stoics, Cynics, Epicureans. They taught a way of life, not simply a way of verbiage or even a way of theory.

Here is where any scientist or professional philosopher might profit: the life one lives can seek wisdom, not simply knowledge. What remains to be worked out is what it would be to accept that studying nature in person is a way to do philosophy. From the side of the discipline of philosophy, how should fieldwork, teaching, research, and tenure be incorporated? These are questions that have been asked recently (notably by K. Anthony Appiah). And from the side of the natural sciences, how should wisdom become an organizing concept that knowledge serves? This question, too, has recently received significant funding (notably at the University of Chicago's multidisciplinary Defining Wisdom project, which draws on the arts and the sciences; More personally, one might ask, Have I ever searched for anything that hard? Was my search universally and truly valuable?