Tom Gilson

Naturalistic Evolution Reckons Too Little With Its Own Meaning

In a Facebook comment on my Stream article about Darwin Day, Ryan Downie asked,

How does it not make sense to create your own meaning? Meaning doesn’t have to be imposed from the outside.

Also, evolution doesn’t need to provide any kind of moral principle. That’s not what it’s purpose is. It is merely a descriptive theory. Moral principles come from rational reflection, our nature as humans, and the values we share.

Fair questions, both of them.

The meaning question comes from this in my article:

Darwin’s theory “showed” that the human species was the product of unintended accidents (random variation) and natural selection. Natural selection means “survival of the fittest,” where “fittest” is known only by “that which survives.” Every species that’s ever appeared on earth was the product of accidents and the survival of, well, the survivors.…

If that looks meaningless at first glance, it remains so under full-length analysis. To be human (under naturalistic or undirected evolution) is to have meaningless origins, and those meaningless origins mean we live in a meaningless world.

Many staunch Darwinists will grant there’s no meaning behind human existence, but still insist, “I create meaning for myself.” But that hardly makes sense. More likely, it’s meaninglessness creating the illusion of meaning.

Reckoning Too Little With the Theory’s Meaning for Meaning

My answer to Downie is that he’s reckoning too little with the meaningless of where we come from, according to evolution. It’s an understandable error. No human doubts that we have the ability to create meaning. We need to pay more attention, though, to how unlikely that is under naturalistic evolution.

Review again the accidental manner (random variation) in which every new organismic innovation appears. Review the meaningless manner in which those innovations may be fixed in populations (natural selection; the survival of that which survives). Neither process is the kind of thing that we would expect could make creatures that could make meaning.

Again, no one, least of all myself, would begin to deny that we can make meaning. Well, maybe no one but atheist philosopher Alex Rosenberg, who quite literally thinks thinking is quite literally impossible. He gets the problem, although he doesn’t approach it from the evolutionary perspective. Humans coming from strictly natural origins ought not have the ability to make meaning. Such origins do not explain the current reality; the purported cause does not explain the obvious effect. That’s much of what makes naturalistic evolution so impossible to take as the whole, correct answer.

Reckoning Too Little With the Theory’s Meaning for Morality

Downie’s second question comes from my comments on the moral effects of Darwinism. I wrote of its dangers as a philosophical basis for our self-understanding, because even though Darwinism may not cause human evil, it removes the most important barriers to it.

Downie wants to sweep that aside by saying that’s not evolution’s job. I’ve addressed this recently, showing that evolution can’t create real moral values and duties, and if evolution can’t do it, then (on naturalistic evolution) then there are no real moral values and duties. It’s not really wrong to (pardon me, but this needs to be a strong statement) twist babies’ heads off of them. Or to twist young gay men’s heads off of them, for that matter.

So Downie might say, okay it’s not really wrong, but we decide it’s wrong — our “moral principles,” come by way of “rational reflection, our nature as humans, and the values we share.” That last part, “the values we share,” is empty. To say we derive our moral principles from the values we share is to say we derive the values we share from the values we share. That gets us nowhere.

Does “rational reflection” get us any further? Reflection on what? Our “nature as humans”? Just what is that, on naturalistic evolution? Can Downie answer that without his view being tainted by his long history of association with Christian-based values of human worth? I doubt it. Human nature, on evolution alone, isn’t real. It’s but a snapshot, a moment’s tick in evolutionary history as we move (Do not say forward! Evolution knows know directionality!) toward either extinction or gradual change into something else.

Why value this moment in natural history? Why value this species? Why regard it more highly than any other? Why care about sentience or pain or any such thing, when even death and extinction are essential to are very arrival on the scene? There’s nothing in our nature, (again, given naturalistic evolution) that says we ought to be any way at all toward each other.

We Can’t Get Past Our Humanness. Be Thankful.

But this is like the first question: Downie’s strict evolutionism is tainted by human reality. We know matter. We know we have worth. We know some things are really right, and others really wrong. The problem isn’t with knowing these things, it’s with explaining them on purely naturalistic premises.

Naturalism by its nature wipes away our uniquely valuable, worth-filled, morally significant nature. Or rather, the theory would do that, if theories had that power, for that is the natural conclusion one must draw from the theory. It fails because reality won’t let it succeed. We can’t be what we aren’t; we can’t be meaningless or morally insignificant. It’s hard, I know for people who are committed to naturalism to set aside what they know of themselves as humans, and to follow the logic of naturalism to its inhuman conclusions. I get that. But if they want to remain so committed, they owe it to themselves to make that journey of logic. If it lands somewhere unacceptably inhuman, that ought to signal that it was the wrong road to follow.

Image Credit(s): Andrew Stawartz.

1 thought on “Naturalistic Evolution Reckons Too Little With Its Own Meaning

  1. And the “strict evolutionist’s answer” isn’t even strictly rational either, as it actually denies any possible notion of morality or ethics.

    I think Richard Dawkins & William Provine put it most starkly.

    Dawkins wrote in “River out of Eden”, “In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”

    And Provine, in a debate with ID advocate Phillip Johnson said, “Let me summarize my views on what modern evolutionary biology tells us loud and clear — and these are basically Darwin’s views. There are no gods, no purposes, and no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death. When I die, I am absolutely certain that I am going to be dead. That’s the end of me. There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life”.

    But possibly the greatest atheistic delusion is that our “moral principles” come by way of “rational reflection”. As evolutionary geneticist Prof John Haldane noted, “If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true… and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms”.

    And as atheist Thomas Nagel wrote in “Mind and Cosmos”, “Evolutionary naturalism implies that we shouldn’t take any of our convictions seriously, including the scientific world picture on which evolutionary naturalism itself depends”.

    But I think C S Lewis explained the irrational nature of atheism better than any:-

    “‎”Supposing there was no intelligence behind the universe, no creative mind. In that case, nobody designed my brain for the purpose of thinking. It is merely that when the atoms inside my skull happen, for physical or chemical reasons, to arrange themselves in a certain way, this gives me, as a by-product, the sensation I call thought. But, if so, how can I trust my own thinking to be true? It’s like upsetting a milk jug and hoping that the way it splashes itself will give you a map of London. But if I can’t trust my own thinking, of course I can’t trust the arguments leading to Atheism, and therefore have no reason to be an Atheist, or anything else. Unless I believe in God, I cannot believe in thought: so I can never use thought to disbelieve in God.”

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