Human beings used to believe that their Earth was the center of the universe, then they learned from science that the Earth is only one planet revolving around the Sun, then they learned that the Solar System is a tiny part of a vast galaxy of stars, then they learned that the Milky Way galaxy is just one of at least a hundred billion galaxies, and now in the past twenty years, astronomers have discovered that there are at least a trillion galaxies in the observable universe, each one having at least a hundred billion stars, and including many thousands of planets, many of which are similar to the Earth.
Human beings used to believe that the universe is not much older than 6,000 years, and that it all began as the creation of a God who loves and cares for human beings. Now, they have learned from science that the universe is at least 14 billion years old, starting at the Big Bang, that fully human life began only a few hundred thousand years ago, and that in the remote future, all life must be extinguished, because all of the stars will exhaust their nuclear fuel, they will fall into black holes, and even these black holes will eventually evaporate into a mess of elementary particles in a dark and empty universe. It is possible that this universe is only one of many universes in a multiverse that must forever be beyond human observation or comprehension.
Friedrich Nietzsche saw the nihilistic consequences of this modern scientific knowledge of the human place in the cosmos:
"In some remote corner of the universe, poured out and glittering in innumerable solar systems, there once was a star on which clever beasts invented knowledge. That was the haughtiest and most mendacious minute of 'world history'--yet only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star grew cold, and the clever beasts had to die."
These various human pursuits correspond to what I identify as the 20 natural human desires. Carroll observes that desires are built into us by evolution, and it's those desires that make us care about ourselves and others (421). So even if the cosmos does not care about us, we care
about ourselves and our fellow human beings, and it's this human caring that makes human life meaningful.
Our human search for meaning is part of our pursuit of human happiness or flourishing. Flanagan agrees with Aristotle on this, and he regards Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics as an empirical science of "eudaimonics" that has been confirmed and deepened by modern natural science. Although there is no transcendent Idea of the Good--no objective standard of the Good woven into the fabric of the Cosmos or created by a Cosmic God--we can reach intersubjective agreement on standards of the human good by seeing that some ways of living are better than others in satisfying our natural human needs and desires. In such a naturalistic view of morality, there are no categorical imperatives strictly speaking, but there are hypothetical imperatives that are constrained by our human nature as very clever social mammals. If you want to live a happy human life, then you have to have those moral and intellectual virtues necessary for such a life.
But while there are certain generic goods that are human universals because they conform to the stable propensities of our human nature, the diversity and contingency of human cultures and human individuals create variability as to what is good for particular individuals in particular circumstances. There is no single good or kind of life that is best for all people in all situations. But there is a range of goods and kinds of life that are worth seeking. Our lives have meaning when we and those who know us well can judge that we have lived good lives. (That's why I think newspaper obituaries can be so fascinating, because they allow us to look back over a whole life and judge whether or how it was a happy or flourishing life.) We can understand this human happiness as suited to our nature as smart social mammals without any need for believing in supernatural or transcendental norms.
Of course, those who do believe in supernatural or transcendental realities offer many arguments for why a purely naturalistic view of human life makes it impossible for us to find any meaning in things. There are at least nine arguments, which have to do with (1) reductionism, (2) cosmic teleology, (3) individuality, (4) free will, (5) consciousness, (6) First Cause, (7) death, (8) spirituality, and (9) political theology.
Carroll admits that modern science is very limited in its knowledge. But despite our ignorance, we do know that the fundamental reality of everything in the universe is particles and forces, and "the vast majority of life is gravity and electromagnetism pushing around electrons and nuclei" (177), which is what Carroll (following Frank Wilczek) calls "the Core Theory," which explains the substances and processes that we experience in everyday life.
But if everything is ultimately reducible to elementary particles and forces, does this mean that everything else is illusory? So the world of ordinary experience--the world of tables, chairs, rocks, dogs, and my wife--are only illusions of my mind? Such reductionism seems to deny that the world that matters to us has any meaning.
Carroll and Flanagan reject this strong reductionism, however, because they defend the idea of emergence--that there are emergent realities of higher levels of complexity that cannot be completely reduced to the lower levels of simplicity. I have often defended this idea of complexity, and I have used some of the same examples that they use.
For instance, we are all familiar with how water passes through emergent phase transitions. Depending on temperature and pressure, water can be a frozen solid, a liquid, or a gas. The macroscopic descriptions of the solid, liquid, and gaseous forms of water are emergent realities. But the microscopic description--molecules of hydrogen and oxygen--remain the same. The macroscopic properties change from one phase to the other. The solidity of frozen water and the wetness of liquid water are real, and this does not change when we learn that water is ultimately reducible to molecules of hydrogen and oxygen.
Carroll observes that this illustrates how the way we talk about water changes as it passes through different phases. We don't speak of pouring ice or chipping liquid water. There are different ways of talking about the natural world that correspond to different domains of experience.
This illustrates what Carroll calls poetic naturalism (19-20).
Naturalism can be stated in three propositions:
1. There is only one world, the natural world.
2. The world evolves according to unbroken patterns, the laws of nature.
3. The only reliable way of learning about the world is by observing it.
The poetic aspect of naturalism has to do with the different ways we talk about nature, or the different theories, which can also be stated in three propositions:
1. There are many ways of talking about the world.
2. All good ways of talking must be consistent with one another and with the world.
3. Our purposes in the moment determine the best way of talking.
So, for example, we can talk about the air around us in our room as composed at the microscopic level of individual atoms and molecules--mostly nitrogen and oxygen; or we can talk about the macroscopic fluid properties of the air. Both ways of talking are true at their appropriate levels of reality. This illustrates the different emergent levels of air in our room.
Similarly, we can talk about how people might be moving around that room as motivated by their beliefs and desires about how they should behave, which is the level of morality, aesthetics, and meaning. These people might be conversing, or fighting, or dancing. To explain what they are doing, we need the languages of psychology, ethics, or aesthetics. Explaining this at the microscopic level of atoms and molecules is not appropriate because it does not usefully make this behavior comprehensible.
So, even though the microscopic level of elementary particles and forces is the fundamental reality of naturalism, the higher macroscopic levels are just as real, and they require different ways of talking. It's at those higher levels, that the meaning of human life emerges.
(2) Cosmic teleology.
If the natural cosmos does not serve any supernatural purpose, then it might seem pointless, which might seem to make the human lives within that cosmos meaningless. Strauss and others seem to say this when they argue that the idea of natural right or natural law loses its meaning if it cannot be grounded in the purposefulness of nature, because modern science has denied any teleological conception of the cosmos.
But I agree with Carroll and Flanagan that the naturalistic denial of cosmic teleology is consistent with the affirmation of the immanent teleology of life. All living beings have evolved natural ends or purposes. And that is certainly true for human beings in their natural desires for survival and well-being, which constitute the ground for the natural teleology of human life.
Science generally and Darwinian science in particular are often criticized as too impersonal. This was one of Peter Lawler's favorite arguments against my position. Science--like every form of abstract thought--explains things through types or kinds. So Darwinian science explains the general traits of each species of life, but it cannot explain the uniqueness of each individual. But if the search for human meaning is the search for the meaning of each human life in its personal uniqueness, then we might think that to find such meaning, we need a religion with a personal God who knows and cares for me as the person that I am, and for all other persons as they are in themselves. It's all about ME, Peter insisted.
Flanagan responds by saying that it is usually not the job of science to offer "thick descriptions" of individual instances of things, because like every form of abstract thought, science explains things through conceptual generalization. Art and literature are better at capturing the personal reality of life as it's actually lived by individual human beings in all of its rich concrete complexity.
I would say that biology teaches us that every living being is unique in its individuality as a product of genetic uniqueness and the uniqueness of its life history. And although it is generally true that science abstracts from individual cases, it is possible in some areas of biological study to strive for the "thick descriptions" of individual cases. This is true, for example, in medical case studies and in natural history. Oliver Sacks' "clinical stories" capture the personal drama of particular people struggling with neurological disorders. Jane Goodall's Chimpanzees of Gombe is a social history of a particular community of chimpanzees with vivid life histories of the unique individuals in the group.
(4) Free will.
Darwinian science is often accused of a biological determinism that denies the free will required for the moral dignity of human beings as beings capable of being held responsible for their moral choices. And sometimes Darwinian scientists like Robert Sapolsky have even argued that biological determinism means that legal systems are unscientific in holding people morally responsible for their behavior. Religious believers often argue that the human capacity for free will manifests a freedom from natural causality that must be the work of an immaterial mind or soul that is supernatural.
Flanagan rightly responds to this argument just as I do in Darwinian Natural Right and Darwinian Conservatism by indicating how human freedom of choice is compatible with natural causality, as long as one rejects the idea of free will as uncaused cause. For Aristotle, voluntary action requires that the agent know what he is doing and act from his own reasons and desires without external compulsion. That his reasons and desires have more distant causes--his innate temperament, his social circumstances, and so on--does not deny the freedom of his choice. Thus, the agent can be the immediate cause of action while still being subject to the wider causal order of nature. By contrast, the idea of free will as uncaused cause could apply only to God as a completely self-subsisting being or unmoved mover. The Aristotelian understanding of voluntary and deliberate choice does not require any supernatural uncaused cause. And it's the Aristotelian understanding that is compatible with Darwinian science and with legal conceptions of moral responsibility.
Scientists have a hard time explaining consciousness. Both Flanagan and Carroll admit that no one has explained consciousness, which remains one of the deep mysteries of science. Almost no one doubts the reality of consciousness, because we all have direct access to our personal consciousness. But this subjective experience of consciousness is not directly observable as is everything in our objective experience.
Determining the objective traits of apples is a matter of direct, public observation. But my inward conscious experience of the "redness" of this apple before me--the "personal feel" of redness--is not open to public study. Although we might observe the neuronal patterns in my brain correlated with my conscious awareness of "redness," but still my conscious awareness would be directly available only to me. So it's not clear how, or even whether, my brain's activity fully explains my mind's conscious experience. The religious believer might say that this introspective experience of consciousness can only be explained as the activity of an immaterial mind or soul that transcends the material brain, because consciousness belongs to a supernatural realm of experience beyond natural material causality.
Many philosophers and neuroscientists identify this as the "hard problem of consciousness," and they see it as an unresolvable mystery that creates an explanatory gap between explaining the material brain and explaining the immaterial mind. Flanagan agrees that there is now an explanatory gap between subjective self-conscious awareness and the neural events in the brain correlated with that awareness. But he believes that embracing the idea of "subjective realism" should allow us to continue research on the neural basis of subjective experience until the gap is closed. "Subjective realism says that the relevant objective state of affairs in a sentient creature properly hooked up to itself produces certain subjective feels in, for, and to that creature" (29). "Conscious mental events are essentially Janus-faced and uniquely so. They have first-person subjective feel and they are realized in objective states of affairs" (27). We should see, then, that "mental events are neural events but that their essence cannot be captured completely in neural terms" (29).
But instead of solving the problem--the explanatory gap between brain and mind--Flanagan's talk about the "Janus-faced" character of subjective experience in which mental events "cannot be captured completely in neural terms" seems to just restate the problem. Religious believers can enter at this point to insist that the human mind can only be explained as a divine spark, because the human mind has been created in the image of the Divine Mind.
To defend Flanagan's naturalistic account of the mind/brain as a unity against the religious idea of the dualism of immaterial mind and material brain, I suggest that the religious argument here shows at least two fallacies (as many philosophers have noted). First, there's the Fallacy of Arguing from Ignorance. Flanagan correctly concedes that neuroscience cannot now fully explain human consciousness, but this is often the case with emergent phenomena in science, in which traits arise from complex interactions of simpler elements that cannot be found in the elements themselves. Water is wet even though the elements of water are not wet. Emergent phenomena are often so mysterious that it is hard to explain exactly how they arise, and that is certainly true of the mystery of how mind emerges at a certain level of size and complexity in the primate brain. But we can hope for better understanding of this with progress in neuroscience. And, in any case, to infer that our presently incomplete knowledge proves that there must be divine intervention at work here is a fallacious inference from ignorance.
Second, there's the Fallacy of Explaining a Mystery with Another Mystery. How the mind emerges from the brain is now a mystery. But to say that God's creation of the mind explains this mystery only adds a new mystery--how exactly does such a miracle occur? Replacing one mystery with an even deeper mystery is no explanation at all.
(6) First Cause.
Another big mystery is how to explain the ultimate causes of the natural universe and natural laws. Why is there something rather than nothing? Flanagan admits that science cannot answer this question, which creates an opening for positing God as the First Cause (190). We can say that it all began with the Big Bang, but both Flanagan and Carroll admit that no scientist can explain the Big Bang.
Flanagan even concedes that human beings might benefit from a satisfying story about God as Creator, and he allows this as long as it is not asserted as a literally true story. He notes that Plato's Timaeus suggests something like this (190-91): a myth about how a good demiurge might have created the world, but a myth that is understood as a satisfying story that is not literally true.
This is what I have identified as the conundrum of ultimate explanation. We can keep asking, Why? But ultimately we must reach the final ground of explanation that cannot itself be explained--the causal order that is its own cause. Some of us will be satisfied to say this ultimate ground is Nature. But others will want to say that the cause of Nature is God. Who or what caused God? The religious believer might say that God is self-caused. But if we are going to allow for a self-caused ultimate ground, why can't that be Nature? Invoking God to explain Nature is once again employing the Fallacy of Explaining One Mystery with Another Mystery. In facing up to such profound mysteries, we face up to the limits of human reason, perhaps the sort of limits we might expect of an animal mind that was not evolutionarily adapted for explaining why there is something rather than nothing.
If we're animals, then we're going to die. Many human beings don't want to believe that they are animals because they don't want to believe that they are going to die and never live again. They don't want to believe this because they think that death without rebirth would make life meaningless. Whatever we pursue in life that is good, true, or beautiful will be lost when we die. So for many religious believers some religious doctrine of human rebirth with eternal rewards and punishments is the necessary condition for meaning.
Aristotle is clear in stating that to wish for immortality is to wish for the impossible. But he does not seem to think that this makes the human pursuit of happiness meaningless.
Flanagan's response to this problem of death echoes that of Lucretius:
"I recently heard a wise Buddhist friend say that 'death is the ultimate absurdity, you lose everything you care about.' This, it seems to me, is not true. Furthermore, it is not a particularly Buddhist way (even for a secular Buddhist) to see things. Here is a better way: If you live well, then when you die you lose nothing you care about. Why? Because you are no longer there. You are just gone. That which is gone has nothing to lose. That which was once something, but is now nothing, cannot suffer any loss. But assuming the world and the people in it, including the loved ones remain, then your good karmic effects continue on. This is something to be proud of and happy about while alive. Your goodness, your presence, your worth are why the living feel your loss, and are sad, possibly very sad. But you are not sad, you neither suffer nor experience any loss because you are gone. Nothing absurd has occurred. True, dying could be miserable, but your own death is nothing to worry about" (203-204).
Flanagan includes "spirituality" as one of the "spaces of meaning." After all, if finding meaning and purpose in life comes from making sense of things and attaching oneself to something larger than oneself, then the experience of spirituality--of being in contact with the transcendent, cosmic source of all being--would seem to essential to a meaningful life. And, in fact, psychologists who study what people around the world want to make them happy often report that "transcendence" is a universal human longing.
But how can a Darwinian naturalist recognize the importance of such spirituality for human beings, if this requires religious belief in a supernatural realm beyond the natural world? Flanagan's answer is to look for spiritual traditions that do not require belief in the supernatural, which would therefore be compatible with Darwinian science. He wants religion to be tamed so that it can be a "strong cat without claws" (183). In particular, he looks to Buddhism, and especially the Tibetan Buddhism of the Dalai Lama.
One reason for this move is that Buddhism is non-theistic. The classic teachings of Buddhism do not include any doctrines about God or gods. In fact, some people suspect that the Buddha was actually an atheist. This makes Buddhism attractive to atheists like Flanagan who want to have religious feelings without believing in religious doctrines about divinity.
But even if it is true that there is no theistic teaching in the classic texts of Buddhism, observation of how Buddhism is actually practiced around the world suggests that many, maybe most, Buddhists believe in divinities of some sort and perhaps in the Buddha as a god.
Another reason for Flanagan's move towards Buddhism is that he is attracted by the Dalai Lama's respect for modern science. In The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality (2005), the Dalai Lama writes: "My confidence in venturing into science lies in my basic belief that as in science, so in Buddhism, understanding the nature of reality is pursued by means of critical investigation: if scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims" (2-3).
One remarkable example of the convergence of neuroscience and Buddhist spirituality is that some neuroscientists have discovered that the effects of Buddhist meditation can be seen in the brain, particularly in the activation of the left pre-frontal cortex, which is associated with having a positive mood. Here, then, Flanagan argues, is an example of how science can explain and confirm the natural basis of spirituality: meditation techniques can exploit the neuroplasticity of the brain to induce mental states of equanimity, euphoria, or ecstasy.
But then we must wonder whether psychic states of spirituality can be separated from religious beliefs in the supernatural. After all, a core belief of Buddhism is karmic rebirth--the belief that at death, we pass into a cycle of rebirths in which our bad conduct is punished and our good conduct is rewarded.
This idea of karmic rebirth has had a powerful appeal to the human mind. It originated in ancient India and then passed into the ancient Greek thought of Pythagoras and Plato and then into the Abrahamic religious traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Flanagan argues, however, that belief in rebirth is not really required for Buddhism. To me, his argument here seems remarkably weak. He doesn't even mention the fact that the status of the Dalai Lama depends on the belief that he as the 14th Dalai Lama is the reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama.
Another attraction of Buddhism for Flanagan is Buddhist ethics, and especially the ethics of universal love and compassion. But he is remarkably uncritical in his acceptance of Buddhist ethics. He notes that Buddhist ethics has no place for courage, spiritedness, and greatness of soul, as does Aristotle. Isn't this a problem? How can we eliminate human suffering--as Buddhism teaches we must--if we lack the courageous spiritedness for attacking injustice and tyranny? Remarkably, Flanagan does not even mention the Chinese atrocities against the Tibetan Buddhists or the Dalai Lama's traditional position as a political ruler. Nor does Flanagan mention the atrocities carried out by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, which would raise the question of why the Buddhists in Cambodia did not overthrow this bloody tyranny.
Flanagan's attempt to naturalize spirituality is unpersuasive, at least to me, because he relies so heavily on an implausible and uncritical interpretation of Buddhism as the best expression of naturalistic spirituality.
My answer to the problem is to say that spirituality is rooted in two natural desires. The natural desire for religious understanding will express itself in religious believers as a spiritual experience of awe before the supernatural mysteries of the universe. The natural desire for intellectual understanding will express itself in scientists or philosophers as a spiritual experience of wonder before the natural order of things. The religious believers will be grateful that they are the objects of divine care and love. The scientists and philosophers will be grateful that they happen to live in a world with a deeply intelligible order that is open to investigation by the human mind.
(9) Political theology.
As indicated in my posts on Tom West's account of the American founding (here and here), he claims that the American Founders agreed on the need for legally enforcing religious belief and practice, which would include punishing blasphemous speech and writing. After all, doesn't the Declaration of Independence appeal to a theological cosmology affirming belief in God as Creator, Lawgiver, and Judge of human conduct?
But as I indicated in my response to West, this ignores the fact that during the founding period, America moved towards a liberal policy of separating church and state based on the arguments of those like Roger Williams who insisted on a separation between the realms of "civil things" and "spiritual things." In a liberal social order, moral virtue and religious belief will be enforced in families and voluntary associations; but there will be no legal coercion in matters of morality and religion except to enforce the equal liberty of all from force and fraud.
This explains why the anti-blasphemy laws were not enforced in the early days of the American Republic. For example, Tom Paine's attack on Biblical Christianity in The Age of Reason did not lead to any punishment for blasphemy.
Similarly, Darwin's books have never been censored as blasphemous. Darwin himself denied that his theory of evolution was necessarily atheistic. Theists, atheists, and agnostics should be free to debate the moral and religious implications of evolutionary science without any fear that such debate threatens the social order.
Thus it is that scientific atheists like Flanagan and Carroll can debate theists over whether theism is compatible with modern science. And in a largely open society, such freedom of speech and thought need not be subversive of the good order of society.
In such a liberal social order, esoteric writing is neither necessary or desirable, because theists, atheists, and agnostics can find meaning for their lives without fearing any harm to social order from the freedom of speech and thought for philosophers and scientists.