Monday, November 26, 2007
Entomologist E.O. Wilson of Harvard has written an essay on the religion-inspired controversy concerning evolution in which he touches on a very important aspect of the dispute:
In the more than slightly schizophrenic circumstances of the present era, global culture is divided into three opposing images of the human condition. The dominant one, exemplified by the creation myths of the Abrahamic monotheistic religions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam - sees humanity as a creation of God. He brought us into being and He guides us still as father, judge and friend. We interpret His will from sacred scriptures and the wisdom of ecclesiastical authorities.I set aside my major criticism of Wilson's essay -- that it makes the common error of mistaking science for rational philosophy (on whose foundations it depends) as the fundamental alternative to faith-based religion -- to focus on the crucial fact that it identifies: Man's conception of himself does indeed depend upon his most fundamental beliefs, be they based on evidence and reason or on faith.
The second world view is that of political behaviourism. Still beloved by the now rapidly fading Marxist-Leninist states, it says that the brain is largely a blank state devoid of any inborn inscription beyond reflexes and primitive bodily urges. As a consequence, the mind originates almost wholly as a product of learning, and it is the product of a culture that itself evolves by historical contingency. Because there is no biologically based "human nature", people can be moulded to the best possible political and economic system, namely communism. In practical politics, this belief has been repeatedly tested and, after economic collapses and tens of millions of deaths in a dozen dysfunctional states, is generally deemed a failure.
Both of these world views, God-centred religion and atheistic communism, are opposed by a third and in some ways more radical world view, scientific humanism. Still held by only a tiny minority of the world's population, it considers humanity to be a biological species that evolved over millions of years in a biological world, acquiring unprecedented intelligence yet still guided by complex inherited emotions and biased channels of learning. Human nature exists, and it was self-assembled. Having arisen by evolution during the far simpler conditions in which humanity lived during more than 99 per cent of its existence, it forms the behavioural part of what, in The Descent of Man, Darwin called "the indelible stamp of [our] lowly origin". [bold added]
This fact certainly accounts for much of the emotional nature of the "debate" over evolution, although Wilson does not elaborate enough on his own position to allow me to divine whether it has merit or offers any guidance for an intelligent being with free will. Is Wilson a determinist? Does he pooh-pooh any and all human aspirations as cultural relics of our primitive religious past? Would he smirk at the notion that man can lead a purposeful life and that he must break the chains of religion to do so? I strongly suspect that Wilson's "scientific humanism" is very thin gruel.
I have touched on what religion attempts to offer man quite a bit here lately, and it is not just such airier notions as reverence and awe. Many people, when confronted with a challenge to their religious beliefs, really feel on a visceral level not just the fear of others that Dostoevsky's saying, "If God is not, everything is permitted," captures, but also a chasm of emptiness that comes with a lack of purpose. Religion has taken from them the idea that their life is their own and convinced them that without its framework, life is not worth living. (And it does not help matters that when one's mind is atrophied through the life-long practice of taking the shortcuts of faith, one naturally has little confidence in his own mind.)
While I suspect that, were the philosophy of Ayn Rand only better known, many intelligent people would accept much or all of it, many others would (as many already do) still strongly oppose it on very powerful emotional grounds. It takes time to digest and appreciate an argument, but an emotion, even if a consequence of mistaken beliefs, is felt with the same immediacy and strength as a perception.
This presents a serious difficulty, but addressing such a difficulty begins with identifying it.
Today: Minor edit.