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Darwin and/or the Quest for Meaning February 12, 2009

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Current Events, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Science.
Tags: , , ,

Philosophers like to point out that the Western intellectual world has had its rug pulled out from under it three times (so far): First, with the heliocentric theory of Copernicus, next with Darwin’s theory of evolution, and lastly with Freud’s theory of the unconscious, each time causing thinkers to think again, to make a complete break with the assumptions of the past. The ongoing celebration of Darwin’s 200th birthday and the 150th anniversary of On the Origin of Species makes it very clear that what for some is a paradigm shift that was firmly and convincingly established a long time ago is for others at best an irritant, at worst a challenge to the very meaning of their lives. In other words, the rug is still being pulled, and we are reacting—some by rejoicing, some by adjusting, and others by pulling at the other end, with all their might.

                Of course it really isn’t the introduction of the Theory of Evolution that we are celebrating this year, because theories of evolution were already being formulated in the scientific community while Darwin was maturing as a scholar, but it is his principle of evolution, the concept of natural selection, that created the paradigm shift. And this principle or theory has, according to the scientific community, shown itself to be a better explanation of biological diversity than any other theory so far, because it can be clearly demonstrated, in the fossil record as well as in rapidly changing species such as insects—and now with DNA research. Furthermore, it passes the falsifiability test. So what is it that still causes such a fuss? Why are people still kicking and growling?

Whenever Darwin comes up in my philosophy classes, I experience the same phenomenon: a clash of world views, perhaps more excruciating than at any other time and any other discussion of philosophical topics, perhaps with the exception of the abortion debate. We can have heated discussions about free will vs. determinism, or whether there are any merits to psychological egoism, or the positive rights of socialism vs. the negative rights of libertarianism, but nothing brings out the sharp wit, frustration and even rage among my students as a good ol’ debate of evolution vs. creationism. According to polls from Gallup and the Pew Research center, more than 40 percent of Americans believe human beings are not the result of evolution, but have always had the form we have today. Most of my students are aware of the teachings of Creationism and its anti-evolution stance, but interestingly, even students who do not consider themselves fundamentalists or creationists seem reluctant to embrace Darwin—as though they have been warned that in doing to, they will lose their souls. And this appears to be at the core of this reluctance: The assumption that an accept of Darwin’s theories will send you down the greased slope of non-belief toward absurdity and loss of meaning—the assumption that if Darwin is right, then there is no god, and if there is no god, there is no meaning, and we have no souls, and there will not be an afterlife. In other words, to embrace Darwin is to embrace nihilistic secularism.

But isn’t this a slippery slope fallacy? Or even a false dilemma? Like many others, my students are grasping for a middle way, a way to accept science (the realm of facts) and keep God (the realm of faith). This in itself shouldn’t have to be such a challenge, since many scientists have not had any problems doing their work in the secular realm, and having their religious faith as a personal commitment, separate from their professional identity. For what it’s worth: the Vatican has come to the rescue, declaring that Darwin’s theory is correct, but that Christianity is compatible with the theory of evolution, so you can adopt a world view of evolution without thereby losing your faith. The Church of England has gone in the same direction. And creative minds have suggested ways of interpreting Genesis so that the 6 days of creation can be read as a poetic expression for the 4 billion years of Earth-time (out of the 5 billion years of existence in our solar system) needed to bring about the species as we know them today. (And, by the way, evolution has not stopped, according to biologists: Humans are evolving more rapidly now than ever before, because there are so many of us.)

Of course these creative efforts seem like a colossal waste of good mental energy to those who have no problem accepting natural selection as a solid fact-based theory with room to grow, and who are at peace with either having or not having a religion.  But we all do what we must in order to maintain our grip on reality as well as our sanity. Thomas Aquinas made a valiant effort to make the biological theories of Aristotle fit into the teachings of Genesis. For a philosopher, this kind of valiant (even when misdirected) effort has two focal points: One is the relationship of the theory to available evidence—the kind of evidence we built our sciences on, the very same kind of evidence we rely on in our everyday world of mechanics and weather forecasts. In other words, can we blend fundamentally different ideas into a consistent world view, without losing sight of scientific evidence? But we shouldn’t forget the other focal point: The quest for meaning. Although that side of life tends to be neglected in our modern society, or relegated to religious groups, it is in all likelihood a genuine need residing in most of us, a need for direction and purpose—for our story to make sense. For some, it is enough that our story involves the love of family and friends, or meaningful work, or even fame and fortune, but the notion that “there must be something more to life” is alive and well, and life without such a direction seems impoverished. And if the only institution stepping up to the plate with an offer of meaning and purpose is a religious institution, then perhaps it becomes less astonishing that 40 or more percept of Americans are reluctant to believe in human evolution. But beware of other institutions rising to meet that need: This is what happened in the 1920’s Italy with Mussolini, and in the 1930’s with the Nazi movement. And some of us would say that Communism has also been very skillful at presenting itself as a secular substitute for/version of faith. And, in fact, a variety of social and political fads seem to be responses to this need for a greater vision and purpose of life. So my question to you is, if you belong to the large group of people who have a positive view of the sciences, and you don’t consider yourself particularly religious, but find yourself still searching for a personal answer to the riddle of life, where do you see this answer coming from? Can you find it in science? In philosophy? Politics? Art? Family life? Sports? Computer games? Is there an answer? And if not, do we have to invent one, or stop looking?

So: Happy Birthday, Darwin. The rug has been pulled out, and we’re standing on an interesting bare floor. It may be a little colder without the rug, but if we dance, we can keep warm…and bare floors are better for dancing, anyway.



1. Paul Moloney - February 12, 2009

Brilliant post!

2. Huan - February 12, 2009

Haha what a controversial comparison of religion and facism, quite valid as well.

In response to the question, it was found in philosophy. It seems to me that this seek for meaning is an emotional state, thus any attempts to satisfy it should treat it like an emotional state. In fact what do we even mean by meaning in this case? Isn’t it just some sort of emotional significance? People(philosophically oriented) often mistakenly dismiss our emotional states as something inferior to reason, something primal(perhaps this is Plato’s influence), but that’s a horrible mistake when looking for the meaning of life.

In other words I just don’t think meaning in one’s life can be obtained through rationalization, that’s probably why most people have trouble finding it.

3. Dwight Furrow - February 15, 2009

I doubt that Mussolini’s Italy or Nazi Germany (or any other nationalism for that matter) were substitutes for faith. (At least not an adequate substitute). There are similiarites between nationalism and religion, but one fundamental and important difference. Religion offers solace despite the contingencies of this life. What Jonathan Lear calls Radical Hope. (See earlier post https://philosophyonthemesa.com/2007/06/21/radical-hope-and-the-atheists-dilemma/)

Radical Hope is the ability to maintain hope in a meaningful existence even when one’s existence has lost all meaning. In the throes of radical hope, nothing that happens in this life need count against belief in a salvific ultimate reality.

By contrast, nation states and their fate are too bound up in the contingencies of history to offer believers radical hope.

Many people find meaning and purpose in religion and I suppose, for some, life would lack meaning and purpose without religion. But I have never understood why. Why would a person’s family or life’s project be less meaningful without God?

So I don’t think Darwin’s theory threatens our understanding of a meaningful life. But it does threaten the capacity for radical hope. Darwin shows that we are just another animal (albeit with a highly developed, flexible intelligence) subject to the same historical forces as any other organism and facing extinction (individually and collectively) if our behavior is maladaptive.

For people disposed to need the psychological certainty of radical hope, Darwin is indeed a direct threat.

4. Huan - February 24, 2009

Professor Furrow, I’ve always had the same lack of understanding of “ultimate meaning” you have, but I think I finally understand it now.

If anyone is interested please refer to this thread I made on philosophyforums.com(A very high quality forum)


5. Michael Durfey - May 13, 2009

The big question:

Recently, I believe that the media has played a significant role in the meaning making process. The media knows what special meaning we want and they accordingly portray what we ought to be or what we need to mean something. It seems that when I stroll around town I am surrounded by walking billboards at times. Is that who I should be like? The infamous question of whether or not I should be like another.

I believe that we have not always been so outward with our meaning. It was only when people started living in societies that they became connected enough to idolize a common form of meaning which most likely exponentially grew in popularity. It is only natural that one would outwardly find meaning through his peers, family, religion, the media, science, politics, art, etc. When one finds that the meaning that was once made is fallacy, it might not be so easy to change views. Hence the lively discussions in class concerning creationism! Though, is it not the purpose of modern education to disconnect the assumptions and theories that were commonplace when growing up? –To disconnect outward views thereby encouraging internal views? Though, outwardly I am easily influenced, Inwardly, I am held-fast and steady–especially without the aid of my education.

We make meaning through assumptions, which leads to fear and meaning is all about not being afraid. Or is it that meaning is only having somebody else notice you. If I can turn enough heads with my 20” wheels then I mean something. This only confirms existence. We think that we are nothing so we turn to an “off the rack identity”. We lose touch with our internal selves. The last place we look for meaning is inwardly. Though, I personally, will settle for the least significance.

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