A few weeks ago, a contest put on by Discover Magazine was brought to my attention. The publication asked for short video submissions explaining evolution (by which they meant specifically Darwin’s theory) in a lucid enough way that even the most dim-witted of creationists would be able to grasp it.
From Discovery’s submission page:
“Think you can convince even the most hard-headed creationist that Darwin was right? If so, show us—and that creationist—how it’s done.”
I was a bit annoyed with the polemical attitude of the guidelines, but nonetheless decided to enter a submission with the A/V help of several others, which you can watch below. My hope was to find a form of discourse friendly to both scientists and the spiritual.
As you can see, I decided to ignore the narrower focus of the contest’s guidelines, and instead tried to expand our scientific perspective of reality beyond the biological into the cosmological. If science and religion (or spirituality) have anything to talk about, the discussion would begin with cosmology, not with biology. This is not to say that our understanding of life is uninformed by our spirituality, not by any means–but merely to suggest we begin at the beginning so as not to get lost in trying to tell the story.
P.Z. Myers, atheist apologist and associate professor of biology at the University of Minnesota (his blog), just so happens to be the judge of the contest, and based on the debate I just listened to him have with Dennis Alexander, directer of the Faraday Institute of Science and Religion at Cambridge, I’m rather certain my entry will not be chosen.
Myers was basically accused of scientism by Alexander–a charge I would have to agree with. Of course, the term needs to be explained a bit to avoid it being merely pejorative. Scientism is a view of the world wherein the only valid knowledge one can hold is that produced by the scientific method. Myers, while he acknowlegdes the existence of “other layers of reality” like poetry, religion, and politics, does not grant these layers the same dignity that he grants to the scientific sphere. As far as he is concerned, the scientific sphere (ie, the empirically measurable external world) is the only true and real layer of what is in fact a layerless (purely extended and surfacial) universe of mechanism and chance without any interiority or depth.
What was most frustrating about listening to this debate was the way in which the scientific method and materialism were conflated. Myers continually, and I think correctly, argued the point that materialism and Christianity (or any spiritual tradition) are incompatible. The question at hand, however, was whether the scientific method and spirituality were somehow in conflict. Myers would probably argue that science and materialism are functionally equivalent, as the former cannot operate but under the assumptions of the latter. While I agree with Myers that one should not and need not discuss God in the laboratory, I think there are numerous metaphysical perspectives one could interpret the findings of science from other than materialism (ie, dualism–Leibniz, pantheism–Spinoza, panexperientialism–Whitehead, etc.). The scientific method provides us with valid theoretical relationships between facts from an ever-growing array of diverse fields. An individual scientist produces facts in only one very narrow slice of this larger torrent of experimentation, which is why talk of God is usually unnecessary in any specific scientific paper. In the science of cosmology, however, where all this theoretical information needs to be organized into a coherent whole, one cannot avoid asking metaphysical questions, such as “why should there be something rather than nothing?” Perhaps talk of “God” is still unnecessary in cosmology, but certainly questions of formal and final causation–the sorts of reasons for things that empirical science can leave (at least temporarily) unexplored when investigating various features of intra-universal phenomena–become of paramount importance.
Many cosmologists will refer to the anthropic principle whenever the issue of teleology comes up, which to oversimplify a bit states that ours is a universe that produced intelligent life, and so anything we scientificially discover about its nature must be such as to imply or at least allow for our existence. The fact that our universe is so finely-tuned as to produce such complexity is not explained by this principle, but it at least points out the way in which we as observers are necessarily embedded in an intelligence-producing universe. We can only know a universe capable of creating beings capable of knowing so. It’s a mouthful, but if you can manage to digest it, its meaning is profound.
A materialist could easily argue that, while paradoxical, the anthropic principle doesn’t rule out the possibility of our universe being created with the particular cosmological trajectory it has had entirely on accident. I would grant this, however I’d argue such a position contradicts what I find so laudatory about the M.O. of the scientific method: that we ought to pay attention to experience over conjecture. This is, after all, the only universe we can know. It has evolved over billions of years into intelligent life. Can we really, as cosmologists, ignore the implications of such a creative process? Can we hope to explain even the possibility of its existence, much less the actual emergence of life and intelligence, in a purely materialistic/mechanical way (ie, without formal or final causes)? I have argued extensively in other blog postings that we cannot.
I am not a supporter of creationism or intelligent design (my views are more in line with the likes of Teilhard and Whitehead than the Kansas Board of Education), but I do support organizations like Alexander’s and the Templeton Foundation in their attempts to redirect the evolution of the culture war between fundamentalists of whatever stripe, whether atheist or theist, in a more encouraging direction. I do think that there are regressive forms of religious belief, but so too are there regressive forms of materialism. Myers said in the interview that he wanted to look at the world in a rational and logical way, and I of course agree with him, at least on the surface. In reality, though, what he really means is that he wants to assume the world is reducible to mindless forces. Obviously, Myers and I have a different understanding of the nature of rationality and logic. He assumes they both necessarily lead one to interpret the world as a purposeless machine. I see our mental capacities as evidence of something quite the contrary, that we are in a universe capable of generating human organisms that contemplate the meaning of existence. Humans do not project meaning onto the universe, but express the meaning of the universe in their very humanness.
Finding the proper human expression of the meaning of the universe is religion’s reason for being. No doubt it has lead past civilizations to commit attrocities, but we cannot simply jettison all those layers of reality deeper than scientific measurement can reach because they are more difficult to agree about. Human beings are always going to ask big questions. Leading meaningful lives is always going to require that we have attempted at least some sort of answer to these questions. The scientific method should of course inform our journey as earthlings and our attempts to come to terms with our existence, but I think one unnecessarily handicaps themselves if they base their worldview soley on that layer of reality grasped by scientific discourse alone. There are artistic, moral, political, spiritual, etc., layers to reality, and none has final authority over any of the others (though each can aid our understanding of the other). Science is one perspective of many that human beings are capable of taking on the unfolding event we call the cosmos, each with its own limited spectrum of validity. Coming to some coherent, integral picture of the whole of reality requires going beyond the scientific method to tackle issues more existential than can be tested in a laboratory.
The results of Discover Magazine’s contest haven’t been announced yet, and perhaps I’m not helping my chances. I’d much prefer to speak up about my version of our universe’s story than win a contest, however. Alexander used the metaphor of a “drama” to describe our existence here on earth, and I think that reaches right to the core of the disagreement between Myers and myself. I cannot help but hold an enchanted worldview in which our universe is the play of spirit in time as evolving matter. I realize there is no scientific proof of this, but then I don’t expect science to pronounce one way or the other upon such metaphysical issues. As Myers himself admits, there are no scientific answers to metaphysical questions. I don’t think this means we cannot or should not continue to ask them.