Monday, September 23, 2013

Can Science Satisfy? Pt. IV

This is our last post in a series on an article in the Boston Review by Tania Lombrozo. Lombrozo, it will be remembered, wishes to argue that science can fill one's life with as much meaning, significance, hope and joy as can traditional religious beliefs.

Unfortunately, the arguments she musters in support of this project are pretty thin. She bases much of her case on research which, as we saw in part III, does little more than infer causation from mere correlation. In other words, the conclusions of the research she cites, as Lombrozo presents them, are a bit like the conclusion that roosters cause the sunrise because every morning the sun comes up about an hour after the roosters start crowing.

At any rate, toward the end of her paper Lombrozo discusses how one can inject meaning into his or her life through the contemplation of the exquisite wonders of Darwinian evolution.

She writes that our sense of powerlessness in the face of cosmic randomness makes us susceptible to embracing origin accounts that invoke a Creator who has everything under control. Thus, if we frame evolution as an orderly, deterministic process in which things proceed in a fairly regular fashion people will find it comforting.

"This suggests that, like intelligent design, the idea of a non-random, deterministic evolutionary process helped relieve the discomfort of feeling powerless," she avers. But when evolution was presented to test subjects as a deterministic and orderly process, "the two appeared to be equivalent in their ability to compensate for low personal control."

So, the key to alleviating our existential forlornness, our despair at finding ourselves embedded in the meaningless cosmic flux, is to meditate not just upon Darwin's Origin of Species, but also on how law-like the whole evolutionary process is.

One imagines rescue teams dispatched to talk potential suicides down off the ledge being trained to have a few excerpts from Darwin committed to memory to recite to distraught souls convinced that their life is no longer worth living. Of course, it's not clear how assuring people that they're just an insignificant atom in the swirl of dust that is the cosmos would help convince anyone that he really shouldn't jump from the ledge. It seems, rather, that it'd have the opposite effect.

Anyway, Lombrozo enthuses about the deep existential satisfactions waiting to be mined from biology as long as the dross of random, chaotic features are filtered out:
What we can do is rethink the way evolutionary ideas are presented, and work to improve people’s understanding of the ways in which natural selection is—and is not—a random and unpredictable process. While humanity may be an evolutionary accident in some sense, our place in the tree of life can be characterized in highly systematic ways that highlight the exquisite dynamics of evolutionary change. There are patterns in the natural world, and grasping them can be revelatory.
That biology can be exciting and rewarding I heartily agree, but what religious belief does that no science can do is provide hope that personal death isn't final and that one's life has meaning. It provides a ground for thinking that justice will ultimately prevail, if not in this life then in the next, that those who suffer now will be rewarded, and that our moral judgments are grounded in something more solid than arbitrary personal preference. Religion, at least many forms of theistic belief, gives us a basis for thinking that human beings have dignity and worth, and that we're endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights by virtue of the fact that He bestowed them upon us.

Those are some of the consolations of theism, and, pace Ms Lombrozo, evolution, deterministic or otherwise, simply can't provide any of them.