Darwin, Dawkins & Dennet et al vs. A Meaningful Life.
The issue of science versus spirituality is a dilemma which many people around the world have been grappling with for the last few hundred years. And the absence of soul life has become increasingly acute in the 20th and now 21st centuries.
This post is a look at what these challenges are to the life of the spirit, presented by science, where they come from and what, if any, answers may be offered in defence of the human soul.
This paradox came into the world with the advent of modern science. A new truth ushered in by the likes of Rene’ Descartes, Sir Isaac Newton, Nicolaus Copernicus, Sir Francis Bacon and Galileo Galilei, amongst others.
With these men a new spirit of intellectualism was born. Epistemology and crucially the concept of empirical verification became the standard as the absolute test of truth. Empiricism and the scientific method became transcendent and remained so amongst the intellectual elite, the thought leaders, for the last four hundred years of human history.
With the transcendence of science the previous transcendental truths of religion and the belief in God were challenged. Truths which prior to the scientific revolution were considered unimpeachable.
This movement towards a secular society and away from theism was further promoted by Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud who each in his own way challenged the very tenants of traditional religion. Marx challenging the social relevance and morality of organised religion and ushered in a social revolution and Freud suggested that it was darker more clothonic aspects of the human soul which moved us rather than the conscious and superficial beliefs we gave testament to.
I think though, it would be fair to say that of all of these men the one man, a scientific giant, who truly changed our previously held perceptions, was Charles Darwin and his Opus Magnus, The Origin of the Species.
The Theory of Evolution provided an alternative to Creationism, (at least on the face of it). It offered a believable, viable, rational alternative to Creationism, which is now looking increasingly like an antiquarian, antiquated myth. Most importantly of all what Darwin gave us was scientific, supported by empirical research and subject to the scientific method.
I personally had occasion recently to visit the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site at Maropeng, in the Gauteng Province of South Africa. I highly recommend it. The fossil display and simple yet powerful presentation of the evolution of modern man, Homo sapiens, from earlier hominid creatures is very impressive. It brings evolution home in a way not entirely evident in a text book.
With the Theory of Evolution and the scientific movement as a whole we, as humanity, were no longer being asked to believe blindly. We were offered the option of personal, active and observable inquiry. The option of applying our critical facilities as opposed to the yolk of passive faith.
This, in and of itself, is cause for celebration. A real and meaningful step forward in the evolution of human consciousness; one that has become ubiquitous throughout the First World, East and West. We are all scientists today in the broader sense of the word, it is our modern zeitgeist.
Victory! Yes certainly, but at what price?
However with this new found Promethean freedom, a shadow has been born into the world. What has happened to our religious and spiritual life?
Nietzsche said God is dead, and I think history has proved him right. God not as a metaphysical being but as a human reality has died.
Not for everyone certainly, otherwise we wouldn’t be living under the threat of the current Islamic ‘ Judeo-Christian conflict, as well as the other myriad of atrocities, violence, perversions, cruelty and lack of humanity practiced in the name of God.
However I contend that institutionalised religion is on the way out. I think that the writing is on the wall, so to speak . Whatever the traditional religions have given us in the past, their relevance in the modern world is fast diminishing.
Those that cling to these religions in much of the world are either financially or educationally disenfranchised, or both. And as people in the poorer parts of the world are brought into the 21st century the hold of religious and cultural fundamentalism will lose much of its grip.
I must concede at this point that these statements, about religion, (above), are sweeping, sound arrogant and have the potential to offend. For all of this I apologise. It is not my intention to offend, nor to make arrogant sweeping statements as though they were the roilhoil truth.
However let’s say it is my ardent prayer along with much of the secular world that we are moving away from fundamentalism, religious, cultural and political. (Who do we pray to you ask? Well I’m not sure…but it’s a good question ).
Anyway getting back to the issue of our spiritual life post the birth of modern science…
Cartesian Duality properly speaking is Descartes suggestion that we find two fundamentally different types of substances or entities in existence: spirit and matter, or in more modern terms consciousness and matter.
However it is worth noting that another split emerged with Descartes and the birth of Science. This is the split I mentioned above between spirituality and science. We can express these opposites in a few of the ways that they have become evident in our psyche:
Religion (traditional) vs. Science
Spirituality vs. Materialism
Faith vs. Knowledge
Rational Intuition vs. Empiricism
Theism vs. Secularism
Soul vs. Mind
Imagination vs. Intellect
Constructivism vs. Reductionism
Then Another Small Step for Science, a Big Step for Material Reductionism
In the 2oth and early part of the 21st century science has gone quite a bit further in its destruction of what has traditionally been considered sacred. Much of this has not filtered down to everyman who is still struggling to assimilate the rapid shift from a theistic theology to a secular theology. I write about this in another post In Search of the Transcendent.
Briefly the very tenants of our humanity and what might be called our sense of the dignity of man are being challenged by recent scientific research and developments.
I am referring here to (amongst others):
‘ Free Will: although the concept of free will has long been contentious in philosophy, I think it is fair to say we all operate from the assumption of free will. However research started by Benjamin Libet and continued by others seriously questions this assumption through clinical tests. And although these findings are still controversial their implication, if true, is devastating to any illusion we may have of making conscious choices.
‘ Artificial Intelligence: the Turing Test for AI (can a machine create the illusion of human consciousness) aside, what is beyond doubt is that machines are intelligent, their intelligence is increasing exponentially and within the next 100 years their intellectual capacity will (a) become capable of self replicating (b) will exceed the boundaries of the wildest imagination of today’s science fiction writers. Man’s role as the supremely intelligent being in the known universe is under serious threat.
‘ The Science of Consciousness: current research and finding in the newly emerged science of consciousness questions much of what we have long taken for granted and with which we essentially identify ourselves. This topic is too complex to do justice to here however I will mention a few of the issues worth considering:
1)The absence of a homunculus (executive chairman of the board of consciousness is absent and not expected to return in the near future ).
2)The possibility of a complete mapping of the human brain and its replication in a virtual environment. (This is still far from definite the brain is immensely complex even by today scientific standards, however I am willing to place a bet let’s say $10 000 US that this will in fact be achieved before the century is out- any takers?)
3)The fallibility of consciousness, its poor replication of its own environment. We have an impression that are brains are camera like in their ability to reproduce what is being fed in about our environment by the senses- this is an illusion. There are huge gaps in conscious cohesion in relation to the surrounding environment, if consciousness is a camera of sorts it’s not a very good one.
‘ DNA mapping, gene therapy, artificial insemination and cloning.
‘ Transhumanism, the increasingly blurred lines between man and machine. Impossible to say how far this will go but if we listen to the likes of futurist Ray Kurzweil a time may come in the future where the lines between man and machine will be completely undifferentiated, essentially creating a new life form.
So the old gods have died my friends, but what are we left with?
Modern Man in Search of a Soul
This is the spiritual dilemma we face today. For one, science has largely usurped God as the transcendent entity in which we place our faith and furthermore opposes any overtly spiritual position.
Secondly, science presents us with a soulless reality, and life devoid of the soul, pure utilitarian materialism is a very dead experience. It is an experience which leaves us wanting, succinctly articulated up by the title of one of C.G. Jung’s essays ‘Modern man in search of a soul.’
Is there an answer, a spiritual answer, to the age of science besides one of pure materialism?
First of all a definition: what do I mean by Spirit?
Once I had occasion to be in Mauritius during Diwali and as were sitting in the restaurant we were offered tattoos by the woman celebrating the festival. I requested the word Spirit to be tattooed on my arm. (Not because I am any great original thinker or anything like that, I saw someone else with the word tattooed on them and liked it.)
Anyway my sister-in-law asked me, once I had it done, why I chose the word, what it meant to me. I was unable to answer impromptu ‘as frequently happens, which is most frustrating. The perfect response only occurred to me sometime later. (Ah who says writing is not without its own compensations.)
This is I mean when I use the word here:
Spirit the ineffable, irreducible, essence without which we would be mechanistic, meat, machines.
Then an answer:
Well yes I think there is an answer. A spiritual and/or philosophical answer which is not a purely materialistic one. No doubt there are a number of answers but I am going to suggest two answers which I believe are not mutually exclusive.
The Wonder of Life (1). Where Technology meets Spirit.
We are growing up and as we all know growing up is a painful condition. Having a parent to turn to in times of crisis, having a ubiquitous, benevolent presence to watch over and care for us is naturally appealing. God of course is the ultimate parent- our Father in Heaven.
The downside is that as long as we subscribe to this belief we remain eternal spiritual children.
We are becoming gods ourselves. Not omnipotent (although who is to say omnipotence is not ultimately within our grasp) and certainly not omniscient, but gods none the less. I wouldn’t say a comparison to Yahweh would be appropriate but we are fast approaching and overtaking the pantheistic gods.
The myths about Pandora’s Box and Prometheus are being lived today. And yes of course there is grave danger, our wax wings may well melt and the terrible power unleashed by opening Pandora’s Box may overcome us.
But it hasn’t yet.
We are still alive, doing the most incredible things, things which only a hundred years ago were unimaginable, things which transcend the wildest imaginings of the occultists and alchemists of yesteryear.
In the next few centuries, assuming we survive them, we will redefine man, life, death, the universe, basically reality itself. This is not science fiction this is what is happening today and following an exponentially increasing curve of change. We stand now at a point where we can no longer tell where technology and science will take us.
Yes it may be hell, but then again it may be Paradise.
I’ll tell you this much the train aint stopping now so you either need to get on or become irrelevant. Not much of a choice I know but there you have it.
The challenge we face is finding love. All of these material advancements will be empty if we are unable to evolve our spiritual life as well. We need to find in ourselves the capacity for love, love of self and love of each other.
In as much as God can be said to exist, even if we understand God as a conceptual rather metaphysical entity, we are Him, and He is us.
We are the thoughts of God ergo we are God.
So the challenge of finding our way spiritually is not unimportant.
The spiritual challenge we face in light of the reality we perceive is to personalise God. We need to understand this spirituality as something out there, but rather as something in here. We need to grow up and assume personal responsibility for being alive, for being human, for living and loving. We can no longer afford to place this burden on a God out there; we need to shift it to the god in here.
If each of us learns to imbue every action he or she takes, every thought, every interaction with another person or the world at large with a sense of reverence for the enormity of this gift we have been blessed with we may start approaching something akin, but superior, to morality, and to a legacy that we might be proud of that bears testament to the divine in man.
If we accept for a moment the Darwinian Universe and I don’t propose that this world view is not subject to correction. Science, or rather certain spokesmen of the scientific community, has a tendency to dogmatism which frequently contradicts the very tenant they serve- the scientific method. (Science by definition is subject to change and correction over time.)
Nevertheless dealing with the scientific truths as they currently present themselves.
In the Darwinian Universe man, you and me, consciousness itself, has emerged from the primordial slime. There was nothing and now we have this life, this world, each other, our civilisation and our culture. We have architecture, science, literature, music.
If all of this evolved through a series of random mutations, unguided by intelligent design, then truly we have a miracle of untold and unspeakable magnificence. A miracle so spectacular, so profound, as to not only seem unlikely but one that eclipses anything spoken about in any religious text dating back to the dawn of time.
We are the Spirit, we are the Miracle. There is no need to look outside ourselves for something greater- what in truth could ever be greater than this?
The Wonder of Life (2). The Mystery of Being.
I think a part of the problem in becoming spiritually disenfranchised is the idea that we have absolute knowledge and/or knowledge of the Absolute.
I would like to suggest that the mystery of our being and of being in itself is far, far greater than anything suggested to explain it.
I think in our naivet’ we are inclined, or led, to view the metaphors the great spiritual teachers, who have visited us, as objects. We treat the metaphorical as literal. This is a vestige of an earlier atavistic or mythological type of consciousness.
We live in a world of stories. Science too is a story. This is not to say that the teachings of both science and spirit do not refer to an ontological reality. The error is to believe we have direct access to that knowledge, we don’t.
The absolute is infinite; it is not containable in a finite mind. It is at best symbolically represented.
So what I’m saying to you here is do not get too caught up in the manifest world.
Live it, enjoy it, contribute to it, live the best life you possibly can- but don’t for a second believe that you have understood all its mysteries.
Until next time.
Go in peace,