Monday, September 14, 2009

Evolution, God and the Absurd

Over the weekend, we the “Man vs. God” piece on the front page of the Weekend Journal of the Wall Street Journal, the subtitle of which ran “Two prominent thinkers debate evolution, science and the role of religion.” There were two columns. One was by Richard Dawkins, the author of The Selfish Gene and a tireless defender of evolution against the creationists. The other was by Karen Armstrong, author of a variety of books on theology.

Evolution, as we’ve noted, boosts the absurd view of the world as indifferent and our existence as without meaning. Oddly, it is the theological Armstrong who states the case clearly in the beginning of her piece:

“Richard Dawkins has been right all along, of course—at least in one important respect. Evolution has indeed dealt a blow to the idea of a benign creator, literally conceived. It tells us that there is no Intelligence controlling the cosmos, and that life itself is the result of a blind process of natural selection, in which innumerable species failed to survive. The fossil record reveals a natural history of pain, death and racial extinction, so if there was a divine plan, it was cruel, callously prodigal and wasteful. Human beings were not the pinnacle of a purposeful creation; like everything else, they evolved by trial and error and God had no direct hand in their making.”

The rest of Armstrong’s piece was weak beer. It seemed a gooey effort to try and make religion like painting or music, and therefore an art form and somehow beyond reason. But these opening lines are a pretty good start on the absurd path as it admits life is essentially an accident, a result of a blind process. From there, you are only a few steps from absurdity.

Dawkins’ essay made a good point near the end, which also touches on the absurd, in particular those who acknowledge the absurd, but insist on creating meaning anyway. I’ll quote from Dawkins here, as this is worth thinking about:

“Now, there is a certain class of sophisticated modern theologian who will say something like this: "Good heavens, of course we are not so naive or simplistic as to care whether God exists. Existence is such a 19th-century preoccupation! It doesn't matter whether God exists in a scientific sense. What matters is whether he exists for you or for me. If God is real for you, who cares whether science has made him redundant? Such arrogance! Such elitism."

Well, if that's what floats your canoe, you'll be paddling it up a very lonely creek. The mainstream belief of the world's peoples is very clear. They believe in God, and that means they believe he exists in objective reality, just as surely as the Rock of Gibraltar exists. If sophisticated theologians or postmodern relativists think they are rescuing God from the redundancy scrap-heap by downplaying the importance of existence, they should think again. Tell the congregation of a church or mosque that existence is too vulgar an attribute to fasten onto their God, and they will brand you an atheist. They'll be right.”

On this blog, we’ve had comments whereby people admit that the life has no meaning, but then go on to say that that insight is not important. What is important is whether meaning exists on a personal level, echoing Dawkins’ theologian. “If meaning is real for you, who cares whether there is or isn’t meaning on an objective level.”

We’ve long maintained that is a very slippery slope, at best, and flat out contradictory and wrong, at worst. It seems to us if you accept the absurd premise that life is essentially meaningless, then you can’t pretend that you can carve out an exception for yourself. That is the equivalent of recognizing evolution as true, but then insisting in some way that God did create you.

Anyway, these are just a few reactions to the columns. You can find the whole of Armstrong and Dawkins here.


  1. I know I'm not exactly welcome here any more, but I feel compelled to quickly point out the straw man nature of your final paragraphs as they relates to the contrary point of view you hint at.

    If one argues that personal experience is the sole source of meaning, as Jack does (or rather did), then there is no "outside" source to render that meaning valid or invalid, right or wrong, and so on.

    That is to say, the universe, existing on its own without man, could not be accurately called "meaningless" (from this standpoint) because there would be no human available to make the declaration.

    Before man came on the scene, the universe was not "meaningless", such a view would say. It just "was." After man disappears from the scene -- assuming he goes extinct some day -- the universe will again be neither "meaningful" nor "meaningless." It will just "be."

    Granted, you may wholly and vehemently disagree with the statement that "all meaning derives from personal experience." You may reject it as a worldview not to your personal tastes.

    But, with that said, it might be worthwhile (or at least sporting) to recognize the implications of such a viewpoint when characterizing the view of those who hold it.

    The key implication being, if meaning (or lack thereof) is a personal designation, born of personal experience, then it doesn't make sense to talk of ubiquitous meaninglessness independent of personal experience.

    And thus, it is not fair to characterize the personal experience view as hypocritical. Such a view does not say "I recognize that life is meaningless but pretend otherwise." Instead it says, "All meaning or lack thereof derives from personal experience... and therefore I create my own." This second, more accurate depiction of said viewpoint leaves plenty of room for the ineffable, unknowable universe without passing a meaning judgment one way or another.

    It just seems a shame that such an intriguing and potentially freeing worldview has to be presented in such a dogmatic way -- declaring with certainty how things "must" be, how one "must" accept this or that -- when it seems wholly possible that all the same principles and ideals and concepts could be presented without the dogma, in the fashion of "here is an attractive way of looking at the world and we highly recommend it," without need to make dogmatic purchase of some higher metaphysical claim in a manner that would make Nietszche laugh. (Or curse.)

    That's all, apologies for the intrusion.

  2. We wouldn't argue with your choice to create meaning, as you've laid out here. It's really a different option, and we're mostly focused on the absurd perspective here - which begins with the idea that life has no meaning.

    As you present it, you don't accept the absurd premise, necessarily, which allows you to argue something different.

    Also, we agree that the absurd only exists in a human mind. That is a key point we've mentioned before. As Camus says, without life, the "absurd wager has no basis."


  3. Fair enough (and fairly put). One might say the absurd exists for some as a pleasing color choice -- a highly recommended choice even -- within a palate of broader options. Your focus is appreciated... onward and upward!


  4. Curious, looking for a point of agreement between your two viewpoints, would you both be saying "Nothing outside of oneself can provide meaning or happiness."

    And then you take it in different directions

    - (Inigo) because nothing has ultimate meaning and there is no seperate self and therefore no basis for providing happiness, so enjoy the absurd ride.


    - (JS) because as prisoners of our own point of view nothing is outside onesself and therefore happiness or meaning is at the discretion of the self.

    Is that your common ground?

  5. Anonymous,

    We regard Sparrow as a fellow traveler in the caravan. He rides a different camel up the mountain and carries different goods than we do, but nonetheless is part of the same caravan.

    Sparrow's position is the traditional existentialist position, it seems to us, which embraces creating one's own meaning in the face of a longing for such meaning in an indifferent universe. In contrary fashion, the absurd embraces the absurdity.

    Still, there is common ground as you point out.


  6. Inigo said: "Sparrow's position is the traditional existentialist position, it seems to us, which embraces creating one's own meaning in the face of a longing for such meaning in an indifferent universe."

    Close, but still not quite the cigar...

    Jack's intuitive response is to ask two questions:

    "How is it possible for the universe to be 'indifferent' - as if the universe had feelings or perspective or point of view?"

    "If meaning is self created (as Jack believes it is), why need there exist an unrequited 'longing' for anything... except in the sense that one "longs" for a near at hand glass of water when thirsty, and reaches out to drink it?"

    To describe the universe in human terms is a highly anthropomorphic, and thus highly personal, act.

    To Jack, saying "the universe is indifferent" or "the universe is meaningless" is of the same class of statement as "the universe has a purpose" or "the universe is brimming with love."

    Such statements could be classed not as empirically grounded observations regarding the nature of reality, but instead highly subjective, personal statements -- aesthetic statements almost -- in regard to the manner in which one chooses to perceive reality.

    So, in this, Jack would see the dogmatic aspects of the absurd view as being closer to, say, the dogmatic aspects of opinion on art or music. To declare flatly that "the universe is meaningless" is like saying "Mozart is the sine qua non of composers" or "In his interplay of light and shadow, Caravaggio holds the true essence of art."

    This is why Jack rejects the idea of a meaningless universe not along the lines of taking an opposing position... but instead pointing out that meaning and/or meaninglessness simply do not actually exist outside of personal purview.

    The idea of an "indifferent" universe is a wonderfully illustrative example... how can that which neither thinks nor feels express a characteristic such as indifference?

    We can ascribe anthropomorphic tendencies to the universe (or mother nature) in order to communicate what such our experience feels like... and so when an individual says "mother nature is cruel," what he or she really means is that "I have had personal experiences, or recognized certain characteristics of reality, that feel cruel in my judgment and estimation."

    What Jack attempts to do is embrace the importance of subtle distinction... Jack recognizes that ascribing anthropomorphic tendencies or value judgments to broader reality is just another act of personal experience -- another instance of self-created meaning and nothing more.

  7. p.s. Another example that just came to mind, re, dogma, personal preference, absence of a higher arbiter, etcetera...

    Consider Euclidian vs Riemannian geometry.

    Let it be said, Jack is no mathematician. But as he understands it, Euclidian geometry proceeds from the axiom that parallel lines never intersect.

    Euclidian geometry, of course, is what we all learned in school. We all possess a deeply held belief (recognized or not) that euclidian geometry is "correct." For most it is the only game in town.

    And yet there is another form of geometry, Riemannian geometry, that proceeds from the axiom / postulate that parallel lines CAN intersect.

    Within their respective spheres, Euclidian and Riemannian geometry are both internally consistent. The necessary axioms and proofs flow out in such a way that both systems could be considered "true" mathematics.

    And yet they begin with directly opposing postulates!

    (If one wonders what use there might for Riemannian geometry, by the way, Einstein used the stuff to formulate some of his more powerful theories... which in turn have trickled down into our understanding of physics, nuclear power systems, and so on.)

    Getting back to Jack's view, then (only because Inigo took a stab at characterizing it)... Jack sees himself as akin to the individual standing outside the Euclidian / Riemannian camps.

    Jack can see the logic in choosing a camp... in saying "it makes sense to build a comprehensive, fully functional world view based on starting postulate X for the sake of well being and good living etc"... but Jack would still argue for the value in recognizing there is no be-all end-all metaphysic, just as there is no be-all end-all system of mathematics.

    Just as with geometry, there are a handful of postulates to choose from when making the deliberate choice to "construct" one's view of reality... but some of those postulates contradict each other, and no higher form exists to break the tie.

  8. p.p.s. Responding to anonymous' characterization: (JS) because as prisoners of our own point of view nothing is outside onesself and therefore happiness or meaning is at the discretion of the self.

    Yes, Jack would say that is quite close, albeit with a few explanatory adjustments and caveats.

    The great mystery is how consciousness arose (as a complex emergent property) from an otherwise inert reality; every conscious being will be a "prisoner" of his/her/its personal manifestation of consciousness, making the prisoner label a questionable one (this is less a regrettable imposed condition than a key aspect of existence); and, while plenty of things exist outside the realm of one's self (physical reality, the laws of physics, fellow travelers etc), there are no such instances where meaning exists outside the self, except in symbolic form (as in a painting or the pages of a book).

    Jack sees all meaning as quite literally, "self created," with some very deep implications attached to that, main one being, it does not make logical sense to talk of meaning in a non-personal, non-subjective context.

    Consider the question, "What is the opposite of light?"

    One might argue that darkness is the opposite of light... but Jack would say no, darkness is actually the absence of light. Similarly, a universe void of meaning is not necessarily a "meaningless" place... it is all in the eye of the beholder, just as light must travel through the eye of some beholder in order to be perceived.

    And, as such, the beholder is free, TRULY free, of higher standards in determining how reality must be interpreted and experienced... Jack puts great stock in the value of the "meaningless" overlay, and in that shares many, many convictions with Inigo. But Jack remains convinced that an overlay, a personal perception preference, is all that we are talking about here, and some deeper irrefutable truth.

  9. "But Jack remains convinced that an overlay, a personal perception preference, is all that we are talking about here, and some deeper irrefutable truth."

    And NOT some deeper irrefutable truth meant to say. (Typing too fast again...)