Evolution, Morality and the Meaning of Life

31Oct10

Once upon a time the world was a comforting place in which to live, for we human beings were able to embrace a worldview that provided us with endless flattery and ego gratification. The whole universe, we were told, had been created by God FOR US. We had been placed at the physical and moral centre so that we could act out, on centre stage and before a divine audience, our individual dramas of sin an redemption. Suffering might befall us; but, if so, this would be our own fault – our failure to use the impressive gifts of free will and moral responsibility in the proper and approved way. This picture dominated Western thought throughout the Middle Ages.
With the onset of the Renaissance scientific revolution, however, it seemed as though a group of killjoys were attempting to put ugly blots upon this beautiful picture. Even more upsetting, these faggots seemed to be able to defend their acts of defacement with powerful evidence and arguments. Copernicus rendered it plausible to believe that our earth is not even at the centre of our little solar system, let alone the whole universe. Galileo and Newton showed how the phenomena of astronomy and physics could be explained in terms of mechanistic and deterministic casual laws, thus dispensing the need to explain things teleologically – i.e., in terms of God’s plans and purposes.

What was orthodox religion to do? One option, of course, would have been simply to give up and quit, thus giving new meaning to the concept of a religious retreat. For obvious reasons, this option had little appeal. Another option was to use violence against the new science – suppress the circulation of new scientific ideas, imprison or kill noncooperative scientists, sabotage their work. Though this option was, alas, sometimes exercised, it did not represent the best within the religious traditions of Christianity. Thus many Christians searched instead of morally and intellectually respectable ways of dealing with the threat posed by the new science. One option adopted by the Christian philosopher and scientist Rene Descartes, was to adopt a position of dualism – a distinction between physical body and spiritual mind as two fundamentally different kinds of substance. Very roughly the position of dualism proposes the following : The world of physical bodies is to be totally explained by deterministic science; this poses no threat to true religion, however, since true religion concerns the realm of mind, soul, or spirit. As long as this realm is conceived as fundamentally different from the physical, what is essentially important about human beings will be insulated from any threat posed by the march of science.
As a temporary holding measure, dualism was a success. As long as religion and morality get to keep the mind and spirit, and as long as what goes on in that world is to be explained in terms of purposes (God’s and our own)mthen what threat could be posed by a non-teleological account of external matter?
The stage is now set for the next generation of killjoys : the group of scientists beginning with Darwin and going through Freud and Skinner. Darwin eliminated religious teleological explanations from the animal world by arguing that species arose, not because God planned or created them that way, but by purely casual processes. So too, he argued, for the species homo sapiens. No special creative miracle is required to explain the origin of human beings. Therefor,e a good case can be made that we descended from nonhuman animals, and thus if their behaviour can be explained mechanistically, then so too can ours.  The idea that mind or spirit is really something separate from the physical body had long been challenged by philosophers, but the biology and psychology that started with Darwin seemed to provide hard evidence for what had previously been just a philosophical speculation. Bad news again, it seemed, for the world of orthodox religion.
Now there are many ways (some of them obscure, some of them quite clever) in which one might attempt to save religion from this onslaught of scientific discovery: Interpret religion metaphorically or symbolically, talk of faith and mystery instead of evidence and reason, insist that religion is mainly ethics and not metaphysics, regard religion and science as two radically different ways of talking about he world that are compatible since we talk for different purposes in the two cases, or even use Humean scepticism on behalf or religion. Religious imbeciles can even joyfully embrace such scientific theories as evolution by natural selection by regarding this mechanism as God’s way of effecting His purposes in the world.
The above, of course, are all various strategies of avoidance.

 

– An excerpt from Jeffrie G Murphy’s book “Evolution, Morality and the Meaning of Life”; subtle changes and colorful language incorporated courtesy of Captain Pinhead for your reading pleasure, or lack thereof.

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One Response to “Evolution, Morality and the Meaning of Life”

  1. This is a clever little article, do you allow full text in your RSS subscriptions?
    I’m only a little bit drunk, I’m sorry. Please don’t judge.
    I write like mad, every day, and no one visits my blog, that looks similar to yours. What could I be doing wrong?
    Would anyone tell a joke about this? I can’t stand being depressed like this.

    If things get any worse, I’ll have to ask you to stop helping me.


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