A Scientist Finds Meaning On His Own Narrow Ground

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I

Say what you will about New Atheism: that it requires the leaps of faith it claims to disdain, that it uses the worst of believers to categorize all, that underneath their liberating rhetoric its adherents often harbor bigotry rivaling that of religious conservatives. Much of it is true. But one common criticism of the philosophy—that its view of the universe has no place for morality or awe—is false.

Eminent biologist E.O. Wilson makes as much clear in The Meaning of Human Existence. Wilson doesn’t merely explain the complexity of the chemical signals most species use to communicate, or debunk a once-popular theory on the mechanics of natural selection; he revels in doing so, appreciating the glory of the natural universe and relating scientific facts to philosophical questions. (The scope of this book, of course, should be apparent from its title.)

He explains the tension between our better and worse natures, a central contradiction of the human condition, in evolutionary terms. The answer lies in multilevel selection—in other words, natural selection occurring among both individuals and groups. Selfish individuals tend to be more likely to pass down their genes within a group, while groups of altruistic individuals tend to do better overall. “Risking oversimplification,” he writes, “individual selection promoted sin, while group selection promoted virtue…So it came to pass that humans are forever conflicted by their prehistory of natural selection.”

Wilson sees humanity, with the help of both science and the humanities, reaching a healthy medium between both natures, as “[t]o give in completely to instinctual urgings born from individual selection would be to dissolve humanity. At the opposite extreme, to surrender to the urgings from group selection would turn us into angelic robots—the outsized equivalent of ants.”

This is The Meaning of Human Existence at its best: Wilson explains a scientific concept and applies it to philosophical questions. In doing so, he makes a convincing case that science, like the humanities, can play an important role in our search for meaning.

Too often, though, Wilson denigrates what the humanities and our quest for God can offer to that search, making the leap from science (the process of learning about the world through observation and experiment) to scientism (an unfounded faith in the power of that process to explain not just the natural universe, but everything). Here, Wilson’s book starts to unravel.

II

Wilson calls for a “more fruitful contact” between science and the humanities, which would involve, among other things, the former exploring phenomena traditionally left to the latter, such as consciousness. The humanities, he claims, are limited to rehashing the same topics, and ignore the vast range of senses (such as chemical trails) recognized by science:

“We are a very special species, perhaps the chosen species if you prefer, but the humanities by themselves cannot explain why this is the case. They don’t even pose the question in a matter that can be answered. Confined to a small box of awareness, they celebrate the tiny segments of the continua they know, in minute detail and over and over again in endless permutations. These segments alone do not address the origins of the traits we fundamentally possess—our overbearing instincts, our moderate intelligence, our dangerously limited wisdom, even, critics will insist, the limits of our science.”

In short, the humanities can’t explain how humanity reached its current state as effectively as science can. That’s true, in the same way it’s true that a psychologist can’t probe human fallibility with as much compassion and humor as Anton Chekhov.

The humanities don’t try (not primarily, at least) to answer “How did we get this way?” Rather, they say, “Here we are, full of contradictions—both angels and demons, geniuses and fools, running toward and away from God, the future, and our better natures. What do we do about it?” Elie Wiesel’s memoir Night doesn’t analyze the historical factors that led to the Holocaust, or the evolutionary psychology attempting to explain how supposedly civilized people can take part in such an atrocity. Instead, it captures one man’s experiences in the midst of Auschwitz and his struggles going forward.

Wiesel’s exploration of tragedy is only one facet of the supposedly “small box of awareness” that the humanities grapple with. With each “endless permutation” of the humanities, we push the boundaries further by asking new questions and finding new ways to answer them.

While science can explain how we got here and can give us the tools to move forward, it’s primarily the humanities through which we decide what direction to move forward in.

Wilson occasionally acknowledges this, as when he writes that the question of whether humans should use brain implants is “best solved within the humanities, and one more reason the humanities are all-important.” Yet he more often demonstrates his misunderstanding of the humanities through laughable statements such as “the history of philosophy when boiled down consists mostly of failed models of the brain.”

III

Wilson makes his humanism clear early on: “[t]he accidents of history, not the intentions of a designer, are the source of meaning.” I’ll concede this point to him, not because it’s true but because I can’t refute it. Belief in God requires a leap of faith—something that can be evoked and justified, but not, even in the highest of human thought, explained. (Some philosophy has brought us to the very edge; this is one of the many things other than “failed models of the brain” the discipline has provided us.) I’ll also concede that good works and a semblance of meaning are possible without belief in God.

I’ve made a leap of faith. But Wilson isn’t entirely obedient to rationalism, either, committing the classic atheist fallacies of 1) assuming that mechanical explanations of natural phenomena preclude a creator, and 2) using the most unthinking of believers to characterize us all.

“With the coming of science,” he explains, “more and more natural phenomena have come to be understood as effects linked to other analyzable phenomena, and supernatural explanations of cause-and-effect have receded.” That’s true. I, and many believers more conservative than myself, will readily acknowledge that lightning is a result of electricity building up in clouds, not an expression of God’s displeasure at our sins.

But we don’t look to God asking why lightning strikes, or why the tides ebb and flow, or even why tectonic plates shift. We look to Him for guidance in how to respond to these often devastating natural phenomena, and thank Him for creating a world in which these exist for us to enjoy and suffer through—and explore through science. C.S. Lewis wrote that looking for the presence of God within the natural world is akin to looking for the presence of an architect within the walls of a building. The metaphor can be made a bit more apt, and messier, by adding that the building in question sprang seemingly at random from raw materials lying around.

Wilson also characterizes religion as a “tribal” force that prevents people from working in unity. Religion can be tribal, and human beings continue to do terrible things in the name of God, as a glance at headlines from the Middle East shows. But religion is hardly the only thing that divides people—God’s name is often invoked to justify hatred based on race or politics—and can be used to unite people as well.

And not all people of faith are “led by men who claim supernatural power to in order to compete for the obedience and resources of the faithful.” Religious institutions, like any other, have hierarchies and fallible leaders, but the most honest of these don’t claim to be any more the voice of God than the average citizen. Protestants are perfectly capable of wrongdoing—look at the Klan—but in stressing scripture and faith over the edicts of mortal men, we’ve gotten something right. (Many of Wilson’s arguments in this vein would make more sense had they been written before the Reformation.)

“The best way to live in this real world,” writes Wilson, “is to rid ourselves of demons and tribal gods.” Absolutely! Let’s do this not by losing faith but by recognizing that God is not tribal. People of faith can reach out and work together with those of different faiths or no faith—not because all religion is metaphor, but because God is universal, and we all can agree of the necessity of good works on this earth.

IV

Throughout The Meaning of Human Existence, Wilson makes clear humanity’s potential for progress despite our worse natures. “We have enough intelligence, goodwill, generosity and enterprise to turn Earth into a paradise,” he writes, “both for ourselves and for the biosphere that gave us birth.”

In the same spirit, I think he’d agree with all but the last of Paul’s admonitions to the Corinthians: “Rejoice. Change your ways. Encourage each other. Live in harmony and peace. Then the love of God and peace will be with you.”

Have people of faith lived up to this ethos? Have the secular societies of the last century? Hardly. But we try. As humanity moves forward, we’ll need our quest for God (not just the cultural accouterments of religion) to keep in touch with our ultimate concerns, the humanities to explore those concerns and our relationship with them, and science to provide us tools and a limited measure of self-knowledge. Denigrating any part of this earthly trinity brings us closer to neither truth nor peace.

–Published in October by W.W. Norton

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3 thoughts on “A Scientist Finds Meaning On His Own Narrow Ground

  1. Eusociality Site

    This is interesting. I’ve read most of Wilson’s books but haven’t had a chance to read this one yet. On the subject you write, I’m curious if you’ve ever read the book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976) by the psychologist Julian Jaynes. It was Jaynes’ only book I believe, and in just reading it recently, it seems to have a lot to do with Wilson’s view of group selection (if the thesis is correct). I’m not sure entirely what I make of Jaynes’ thesis, but it seems to be a very important historical book that makes an effort to tie together these major questions. I would definitely recommend it.

    Reply
    1. rnaokiobryan Post author

      Thanks for your comment. I have, unfortunately, not read any of Julian Jaynes’ works, or much on evolutionary psychology at that. Could you recommend some shorter articles of Jaynes’ I could read to dip a toe into the water?

      Reply

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