Monday, October 8, 2012

Swimming against the stream?

A small subpopulation of regular and occasional attendees at the Union Gospel Mission’s chapel services is The Skeptics.

I am one of them. By skeptic, in my case and others', I don’t mean atheist. What I do mean are guys who are not Christian and haven’t yet found an argument coming forth from the mission preachers that is enough compelling to make us budge in our views and move how ever modestly in the direction of committing our lives to Christ.

More so than me, other fellows in this skeptics classification of chapel guests have a breadth of knowledge about cosmology, religions, philosophy, evolution and exegesis.

One thing that is sure to rattle us when listening to the preachers are instances when something is said that is factually flat wrong.

One preacher believes that humans and dinosaurs lived contemporaneously on the planet before the Great Flood. No Way, say us skeptics. Carbon dating of fossils shows otherwise. Science with its Himalayan Mountain Range-high piles of evidence tells us dinosaurs died out 65 million years ago, whereas human-like apes first appeared two million years ago. Besides that, there is not evidence of any flood that engulfed the earth (with or without water coming out of nowhere to make such a cataclysm possible).

This same preacher believes that before the Fall of Man, alligators were vegetarian. Since alligators all have large sharp teeth and a mouth that clamps tight on prey, it is hard to imagine them delicately eating grapes off a vine. It seems clear to us skeptics that alligators have a niche in the ecosystem as carnivores that evolution has molded them for.

A common theme in the last year or so from several preachers has been severe criticism of Charles Darwin, both for the promulgation of his evolution ideas and, personally, for his character and his abandonment of faith.

As for Darwin’s character, there is this testimonial:
I have the pleasure of the intimate friendship of one of the very first Naturalists in Europe [i.e., Charles Darwin]. He is a most accurate observer, and never states anything as a fact which he has not most thoroughly investigated. He is a man of the most perfect moral character, and his scrupulous regard for the strictest truth is above that of almost all men I know. I am quite persuaded that if on any morning he met with a fact which would clearly contradict one of his cherished theories he would not let the sun set before he made it known. I never saw a word in his writings which was an attack on Religion. He follows his own course as a Naturalist and leaves Moses to take care of himself.
-- Anglican clergyman John Brodie Innes,
from a declaration of his given to a gathering of clergymen.
From Darwin Correspondence Project
Also, having read through a book of Darwin’s letters, I can attest that he clearly seems to be a respectful, modest, good man.

As for the idea that has currency that Darwin was a wanton womanizer, this comes from confusing Charles with the reputation of his grandfather Erasmus Darwin.  It was the very fat stutterer Erasmus, and not Charles, who gained fame for chasing the ladies.

As to his faith, while he is said to have not confronted religion, his personal beliefs may have changed as a result of his investigations into evolution and theorizing about how the qualities of humans and different species of animals survived the test of time.

From the book The Moral Molecule, by Paul J. Zak, PhD:
Darwin argued that religious beliefs arose and endured because they made societies more willing to cooperate and to sacrifice for the common good, which enabled them to out-compete groups of self-centered individuals who lacked the social glue of a shared faith and a sense of purpose beyond the self.
If Zak is correct, then he is telling us that Darwin saw religion as purposeful, but not in the way that it sees itself, as insight into the truth of things and instruction on “how to be.”

Darwin, as I have written before, did not invent/discover evolution, an achievement he is commonly tagged for. People were breeding dogs to select for desired properties in the animal before the dawn of history.

And, indeed, the earliest-evidenced written argument for evolution is surely from the Greek Epicurean Lucretius’ De rerum natura [On the Nature of Things], written in about 50 B.C., nineteen hundred years before Darwin’s Origin of the Species.

From the book The Swerve, by Stephen Greenblatt, Humanities professor at Harvard, we learn this information is contained in On the Nature of Things:
Nature ceaselessly experiments: There is no single moment of origin, no mythic scene of creation. All living beings, from plants and insects to the higher mammals and man, have evolved through a long, complex process of trial and error. The process involves many false starts and dead ends, monsters, prodigies, mistakes, creatures that were not endowed with all the features that they needed to compete for resources and create offspring. Creatures whose combination of organs enables them to adapt and to reproduce will succeed in establishing themselves, until changing circumstances make it impossible for them any longer to survive.
The universe was not created for or about humans: The earth – with its seas and deserts, harsh climate, wild beasts, diseases – was obviously not purpose-built to make our species feel at home
There is no afterlife: Humans have been consoled and tormented themselves with the thought that something awaits them after they have died. Either they will gather flowers for eternity in a paradisal garden where no chill wind ever blows or they will be frog marched before a harsh judge who will condemn them, for their sins, to unending misery (misery that somewhat mysteriously requires them after dying to have heat-sensitive skin, and aversion to cold, bodily appetite and thirst, and the like). But once you grasp that your soul dies along with your body, you also grasp that there can be no posthumous punishments or rewards. Life on this earth is all that human beings have.
To Christians (and to ME!), Lucretious’ assessments sound bleak and hope-less. He is a reductionionist (of his time) finding nothing to assuage life from its path of pain and suffering to (at best) then bear old age with its special (and extreme) miseries and indignities before an inglorious fall into death and rot.

But, Lucretious does offer a best way to live this temporary and temporal existence that is all he believes we have. Greenblatt describes it thus:
The highest goal of a human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain. Life should be organized to serve the pursuit of happiness. There is no purpose higher than facilitating this pursuit for oneself and one’s fellow creatures. All the other claims – the service of the state and the glorification of the gods or the ruler, or the arduous pursuit of virtue through self-sacrifice are secondary, misguided or fraudulent. The militarism and the taste for violent sports that characterized his own culture seemed to Lucretious in the deepest sense perverse and unnatural. Man’s natural needs are simple. A failure to recognize the boundaries of these needs leads human beings to a vain and fruitless struggle for more and more. The greatest obstacle to pleasure is not pain; it is delusion. The greatest enemies of human happiness are inordinate desire – the fantasy of obtaining something that exceeds what the finite mortal world allows -- and gnawing fear. Even the dreaded plague in Lucretious’ account – and his work ends with a graphic account of the catastrophic plague epidemic in Athens – is most horrible not only for the suffering and death but also and still more for the “perturbation and panic” that it triggers.
For Lucretius, death was not the extreme of horror to be feared because, in death, there is no one left to know anything. Death is absolute nothingness; it’s neither horrible nor wonderful. It is zilch.

Speaking for myself, I cannot doubt the possibility of Lucretious’ account of what life is -- updated a bit to a refined sense of what all we know, today, about atoms and psychology and a life well lived.

What bothers me, however, is that Lucretius’ wholly plain, humanist ideation makes a central existential question about Life and Everything all the more evocative and unanswerable: Why (if life has no satisfying meaning or purpose) is there something instead of nothing? How could it be that there is anything at all?


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