Philosophical toe-dipping

Here’s a caveat before I start: this philosophical toe-dipping will be simple-minded to some, and profound to others. Such is the study of evolution. However, to build a step-wise explanation and argument for evolution, one needs to start somewhere. I side with Lewis Carroll, who liked to start at the beginning. Please understand that this is the briefest of outlines. There are lots of good books on the topic written with big words in long paragraphs. For my purpose, though, a short and easily understood outline is enough.

But first, a story 

Salmon Swimming UpstreamI went to a restaurant with a friend and his girlfriend, once. It was Argentinian and in an upscale part of town. They were reading Rhonda Byrne’s book The Secret and were as excited as puppies about the book’s philosophy of creating one’s own reality. At one point, smack in the middle of my biftech au poivre, my friend shouts that the only reason he can’t slide his hand straight through my chest like a salmon swimming upstream is because he lacks belief, poor soul. I set my fork down, grimaced, and gave a deadpan reply. “No. You can’t stick your hand through my chest because of the repulsive power of electromagnetism.” I laughed, and he shouted louder. “Ha! This science crap holds you back! You see the world as you want to see it, and this limits you to nothing but dirt and blood! There are greater things!”

He was right in a way. Science is all about descriptions and natural facts. If we were to understand all natural facts, and how these facts relate to each other, we would understand the physical workings of everything in our world. However – and it’s disputed – if something were outside of nature, we would still have no way to understand or parse the thing. In fact, we would have no way of even proving or disproving that such a thing existed.

Two Worldviews

So, here are two world views, loudly laid out for the patrons of a charming restaurant. One – I like his words – is about dirt and blood. Things exist, and we can hold them. Firewood is heavy. If you drop that log on your toe, the pain is real, your foot turns purple, and you apologize to the kids for letting those words slip out of your mouth. Science emphatically requires that the world is a real place with repeatable rules. If the is anything existing outside the world, outside of nature, something supernatural, it’s not in the parlance of science to explain it.

Not everyone believes this. My friend doesn’t. Deepak Chopra doesn’t and has made a famous living by doing so. He and my friend argue that there are no real material things. What looks to be real is an invention of limiting beliefs. Belief enables imaginary materials to imaginarily appear. Substance, pain, light, dark; all these are inventions of minds who may or may not understand our true nature. Christianity, I think, requires material substance, but there’s room for argument here though it’s mostly semantic. Along these lines, I know a guy who refuses Novocaine at the dentist’s office when the dentist repairs a cavity. In his words, he knows the pain isn’t real. It’s a chemical signal in his brain saying that something is amiss with his teeth. This is clearly recognized as an evolutionary adaption: teeth are essential for reproductive success: we need them for gnawing, and any infection can be life threatening. This guy I know, a hypnotist, has trained himself to ignore these signals. This allows him to have the work done without deadening. In this case, it’s… kind of true that believing something makes it true. He believes in what we know about nerves and pain and uses that knowledge for his purposes. I believe that science too, but enjoy to sleep at the dentist, waking up with teeth that are shiny and new. 

Along this pendulum’s arc, these ideas that nature is real or imagined, are at least two different expressions of dualism. The most common is that some form of ‘spirit’ exists and interjects itself into the real material world. Mind is considered something different from the body, or at least something different from the atoms and molecules and cells that make up the brain. When we die, our non-material part, our spirit, wafts off like smoke from a blown out candle to a place outside of material things. The Christian bulldog, St. Paul, alludes to this when he says, ‘now we see through a glass darkly, but then [in the spirit world] face to face.’ He acknowledges the reality of the material world but sees it as a transitory springboard to heavenly things. A smaller but still large population swings harder toward spirit: that though material things can be real, they exist interchangeably with spirit, and spirit is the ultimate reality. 

Even for the religious, science responds with a shrug. Its job is to describe the natural and material. If something can’t be sliced, diced, replicated, or reliably explained, then it’s outside the realm of the lab. So science doesn’t necessarily preclude spirit but requires the same evidence that the composition of granite does. 

A Uniform Experience

One way scientific explanations differ from otherwordly ones is in its consistency. Read through the Hebrew book of Judges, and it’s clear that, for these folks, G intervenes at every turn. Science can’t work like this. To understand the effect of gravity on a thing, we require that the result is the same everywhere at all times. It does no good for us to say that a Saab falls from the Tower of Pisa at a rate of 9.81 m/ss unless an angel is holding it up. What does it mean that science argues and examines from this view of reality? It means that the laws of nature are universally and always applied, also called uniformitarianism.

It’s experimentally evident that the universe works according to rules or laws that are the same in all places and at all times. We don’t fully understand the rules and laws – their discovery and explanation are at the heart and art of science – but they work whether or not we understand them. Where do the laws of nature come from? From the fabric of our making. From the nature of the materials that make up the universe. The world must work the way it does, or it cannot exist. Electrons repel each other. Why? I don’t know. What I know is that the universe would collapse on itself if electrons attracted each other. Could the world be different? I suppose it could be, but it isn’t. Are these rules immutable? At some level, the answer must be yes, or the universe couldn’t exist. How could gravity pull in one place and push in another? That’s not to say that our understanding of the laws is perfect, or sometimes, even accurate. It’s why we test and re-test findings and apply them to new scenarios. 

As scientists watch the world and seek to answer questions, there appears to be scant requirement for something ‘other’ to invade the material world. This is not an argument against its existence, but only against its necessity. Some argue that evolution defies the laws of nature, that DNA mutations alone cannot give rise to the diversity of life we see through history. They argue that something from outside the universe, by necessity, must have nudged the process, set it in motion, that the odds are too great for even the first molecule to form. They might be correct; we simply don’t know enough yet. But this argument has been used for dozens of phenomena that were not understood. It says more, I think, about men than nature. In every case, the necessity for something ‘other’ is eventually ruled out as not required. I see no requirement that anything but the laws of material nature has provided the mindless constraints and energy for the march of life. I could be wrong.

Critics argue that we don’t know enough about the laws to understand their interrelationships, that the world is too complicated. Maybe so. But isn’t this the job of science? To discern what we know, and then, to stretch from there to what we don’t yet know?

Sum It Up

So, to wrap up, here are four assumptions we make with a high level of confidence to do science:

  •   The material world is real.
  •   The material world works according to immutable laws.
  •   The laws of nature are the same at all times and in all places.
  •   Spirit is not required for reality to function as we see it.

They have served us well as a framework for understanding the universe, the earth, and ourselves. Many don’t believe this to be accurate, but, when push comes to shove, when one stands on top of a building wondering if gravity is real, every single human who has ever lived acts as if it is.

Can science and evolution and religion live in the same boat? It’s a pregnant topic worthy of a full exploration, but, yes, they can live together, and, in fact, for religion to be true, they have to. Augustine, I think, was the first to say it, but the quote has been ascribed to every teacher coming down the pike, “All truth is G’s truth”. From any religious view, this is true by default. If G is the ultimate creator, then everything in that creation can be ascribed to them, whether it be algebra, paper making, or evolution.

But can one result of that evolution – humankind – give an honest rendering of that science? And can the putative result of G’s creation – humankind – provide an accurate rendering of the god who made them? Good questions.

Here’s another good read that helps with the process: Carl’ Sagan’s Baloney Detection kit on Brain Pickings. A good read!

For some good reading, check these out:

The Demon Haunted World by Carl Sagan

The Canon by Natalie Angier

Intuition Pumps and Other Tools For Thinking by Danial Dennett