Monday, May 04, 2009

Can Darwinian Science Answer the Existential Questions of Life?

Over this past weekend, The University of Chicago's Basic Program of Liberal Education sponsored a weekend study retreat at the Illinois Beach Resort in Zion, Illinois, on "Charles Darwin: A Continuing Challenge." Participating in the program brought back memories for me of my years teaching in the Basic Program when I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago in the 1970s.

On Friday evening, I lectured on "Does Darwin Support or Subvert Morality?" On Saturday, Jack Melsheimer lectured on "What Does 'Species' Mean in the Origin of Species?"; and Michaelangelo Allocca lectured on "More Fun than a Barrel of Monkey Trials: Darwin's Complex Relationship with Religion." The only part of the program that I regrettably missed was Richard Milner's performance Saturday night--"Charles Darwin: Live and in Concert." On Sunday morning, the final lecture was by George Anastaplo--"On the Suggestive Origins of Darwin and Lincoln."

The lectures and discussions gave me much to ponder. In particular, I found myself thinking more about questions that have come up on this blog about whether Darwinian science can adequately explain the existential questions that human beings ask themselves.

The "existential questions" are questions about the meaning of death, depravity, and transcendent longing. Why do we have to die? Is death the end of our personal existence? Or can we somehow live on? Why do we see so much depravity in human life as human beings inflict suffering on themselves and others? And why do human beings strive for some transcendent purpose beyond their transient mortal lives?

Can Darwinian science--can any science--account for and respond to such questions? Or are such questions too "personal"--too much tied up with our self-centered personal concerns--to be answerable by a seemingly impersonal science of nature and human nature?

A Christian (like Augustine, for example) would say that such questions are uniquely human and that they point to the supernatural. The only answer to death is immortality. The only answer to depravity is redemption. And the only answer to our transcendent longings is eternal union with God.

As I have indicated in some previous posts, Peter Augustine Lawler has criticized my "Darwinian natural right" as failing to explain or satisfy this existential anxiety of human beings. (It's fitting that "Augustine" is his middle name!)

There really are two sets of issues here. First, can Darwinian science explain why human beings ask such existential questions? Second, can it answer those questions?

Christians like Augustine and Lawler will say that no purely natural science or philosophy can account for or answer such questions, because the questions show a yearning of the human soul to transcend the natural world--a longing for some spiritual realm beyond nature--which cannot be understood or satisfied by any purely natural knowledge. To understand this longing, we must have religious faith--we must believe in order to understand. To satisfy this longing, we must see by faith our future redemption.

It is not surprising, therefore, that Lawler and others have objected to the Darwinian naturalism conveyed in the last paragraph of Darwinian Natural Right:

"The idea of Darwinian natural right offers us one way of understanding our human place in nature. We are neither mindless machines nor disembodied spirits. We are animals. As animals, we display the animate powers of nature for movement, desire, and awareness. We move to satisfy our desires in the light of our awareness of the world. We are a unique species of animal, but our distinctively human traits--such as symbolic speech, practical deliberation, and conceptual thought--are elaborations of powers shared in some form with other animals. Our powers for habituation and learning allow us to alter our natural environments, but even these powers are extensions of the behavioral flexibility shown by other animals. So even if the natural world was not made for us, we were made for it, because we are adapted to live in it. We have not been thrown into nature from some place far away. We come from nature. It is our home."

Lawler rightly sees that this paragraph is a direct attack on his Heideggerian existentialism and Gnostic dualism. Like other Gnostic Christians, Lawler rejects what Heidegger called "biologism"--the idea that we can fully explain human beings through their biological nature. By contrast, Gnostic Christians and Heideggerian existentialists insist on a radical dualism of matter and mind in which the human mind or soul utterly transcends the human body. Indeed, in the original Gnostic vision, the natural body and all of nature is a prison for the human spirit that strives to escape to a transcendent world beyond nature.

Against this, I argue for the idea of embodiment--that matter and mind are inextricably bound up together. The science of human nature, therefore, must explain this psychophysical unity of human experience. Orthodox Christianity affirms this psychophysical unity in doctrines such as the incarnation of Christ and the resurrection of the body, which recognizes that to be a human being is to be a body that thinks. Radical dualism--like that of the Gnostics--denies this unity of body and mind.

This radical dualism runs through much of modern thought--from Descartes to Pascal to Heidegger. Darwinian science denies this dualism by explaining mind as an emergent property of matter.

Darwin acknowledged that human beings were unique in their propensity for reflecting on the meaning of life and death. Explaining how such human self-awareness arises by emergent evolution in the primate brain is crucial to the fulfillment of a Darwinian science.

But could such a perfected Darwinian science ever fully explain the despair that Darwin felt in response to the death of his beloved daughter Annie? Or is such experience too personal to be properly handled by science? Does religion provide a more adequate response to such experiences?

For some of my previous posts related to these questions, you can go here, here, here, here, here, and here.

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