A few years ago I wondered how a naturalized Buddhism could avoid advocating suicide. If our goal is the cessation of suffering, and death is not the beginning of a new birth but a simple ending, shouldn’t death itself be our goal? I didn’t go very far with this argument, in part because I didn’t identify as a Buddhist at the time – there was a certain way in which not being a Buddhist made it not my problem. But now I am a Buddhist. And an excellent recent chapter by Jan Westerhoff, in Jake Davis’s fine new edited volume on Buddhist ethics, brings the point back into uncomfortable focus. Continue reading
Advaita Vedānta, Aurobindo Ghose, Charles Darwin, evolution, Friedrich Schelling, G.W.F. Hegel, intelligent design, John Paul II, Ken Wilber, Michael Behe, Pali suttas, SACP, Śaṅkara, T.R. (Thill) Raghunath, theodicy
T.R. Raghunath, a professor in Nevada, gave an interesting talk at the SACP conference explaining Aurobindo Ghose‘s theory of the development of consciousness. There were a number of intriguing points in Raghunath’s talk, but the one that jumped out at me was a point about evolution. Aurobindo, according to Raghunath, accepts “the fact of evolution,” but not “Darwin’s explanation” of evolution. It is a developmental process that has the goal of growth, unfolding. Biological evolution is itself a developmental process of the spirit, in a way that diverges from a Darwinian materialist explanation.
A bell went off in my head when I heard this. In a later conversation with Raghunath, I asked him whether Aurobindo would support the contemporary idea of intelligent design and related critiques of Darwinian evolution, and he said basically yes: there is a guiding spiritual principle at work in the development of new species, it cannot be merely a matter of natural selection through random beneficial mutation. Throughout Raghunath’s talk I had been noticing Aurobindo’s influence on Ken Wilber, and here I saw a still more direct link.
On page 23 of what probably remains his most-read and best-known work, A Brief History of Everything, Wilber makes this now-infamous claim:
A half-wing is no good as a leg and no good as a wing — you can’t run and you can’t fly. It has no adaptive value whatsoever. In other words, with a half-wing you are dinner. The wing will work only if these hundred mutations happen all at once, in one animal — and also these same mutations must occur simultaneously in another animal of the opposite sex, and then they have to somehow find each other, have dinner, a few drinks, mate, and have offspring with real functional wings. Talk about mind-boggling. This is infinitely, absolutely, utterly mind-boggling. Random mutations cannot even begin to explain this. (emphases in original)
I’ve previously written against NOMA, Stephen Jay Gould’s assertion that “science” and “religion” are completely compatible because they represent two incommensurable domains of inquiry. But there’s at least as much of a problem with the other extreme, the view of New Atheists like Richard Dawkins that the two are completely incompatible because “science” refutes “religion.” (Few seriously assert incompatibility in the other direction, to reject science. Creationists, for example, typically proclaim their acceptance of science except where it conflicts with the Bible – thus the popularity of intelligent design, sold as a scientific theory.) Both of these views, to my mind, are almost painful in their oversimplification of the matter. There is incompatibility between certain parts of each domain. Many beliefs called “religious” are perfectly compatible with the evidence from controlled hypothesis testing; many aren’t. In the “scientific” domain, the only views I can think of that are incompatible with all “religious” belief are those which involve scientism: the belief that the only valid forms of knowing are based on the practice of science. (It’s worth stating repeatedly that this belief cannot possibly itself be based on the practice of science, and is therefore self-refuting.)
New Atheists often don’t want to admit this point. When they accept common-sense views at odds with their exultation of science as the only true way of knowing, they do it by equivocating on their definition of “science.” One finds the point in a recent exchange on P.Z. Myers’s blog. Responding to Larry Moran, Myers attacks what he calls:
the bizarre claim that “No scientist that is also a decent human being subjects all her/his beliefs to scientific scrutiny.” I think otherwise. There is a naive notion implicit in that statement that scientific scrutiny is somehow different from critical, rational examination. I’d argue the other way: no decent human being should live an unexamined life.
“Critical, rational examination,” eh? If that’s all science is, then every theologian is a scientist par excellence. I don’t think that’s a claim the New Atheists want to be making. Rather, the “science” they are defending is a) completely empirical, and b) based on the controlled experimental testing of hypotheses. So John Pieret responds to Myers by saying:
Really? What tests did you do on yourself to see if you love your wife and children? Hormone testing, eegs, what? Thinking about things is not “science” per se. Science is empiric investigation. Nor is the question whether “love” can be scientifically investigated, the question is whether individual scientists do it before they decide who they love.
In my intro religious studies course last semester, I taught a unit on theism and evolution. This was the first time it really hit me that God had once been considered a verifiable – and confirmed – scientific hypothesis. Until he made his famous voyage, Charles Darwin, just like so many medieval philosophers, had looked at organisms’ suitability for their environments and concluded it must have been the work of an intelligent designer. The particular theory that had best fit the available empirical evidence, Darwin and most of his contemporaries thought, was Charles Lyell‘s view that there were “centres of creation,” different places on earth where divine creative activity had been focused. In an era of rapid-discovery science like our own, that had been the best available hypothesis.
Then, the HMS Beagle made its famous voyage to the Galàpagos Islands, where Darwin observed his famous finches. A huge variety of birds, each on different islands and looking dramatically different, each well suited to the conditions of its own island – but they all turned out biologically to be finches, closely related to each other and to the finches of distant South America. It seemed needlessly complex to suggest that God would create so many different birds in so many different places and yet make them all part of the same family. A more straightforward hypothesis was that the different finches had evolved from a common ancestor, by natural selection. God was no longer needed as a scientific hypothesis – and hasn’t been needed since.
In retrospect, the point that God was once a legitimate hypothesis seems obvious to me now. But when I encountered it, it came to me as something of a surprise, because I’m so used to living in a world where any attempt to find empirical evidence for God’s existence looks like a desperate grasping at straws. Continue reading