Saturday, December 25, 2010

God's Will

In my last post, I made a simple point - human beings, and indeed all species, seek to flourish. This is their primary motive, their “prime directive”, the organizing principle of their lives as individuals, as a species and as living creatures.

However, if we accept this simple point and follow it to its logical conclusions, the assumptions of philosophy and religion are revolutionized. Let me explain.

First of all I must make clear that I learned about the importance of human flourishing from Aristotle. He said the purpose of human life is “eudaimonia”. Through the centuries that term has been typically translated as “happiness”, but in recent decades a translation closer to “human flourishing” has become increasingly preferred.

The problem with the early translation is that manifestly people do not seek happiness. For example, a recent series of studies showed that people who have children are not made happier for it – in fact the opposite is true.

So why do people continue to make having children one of their life goals? Because they are not seeking happiness, they are seeking to flourish, and flourishing, seen from an evolutionary perspective, means reproducing. Happiness is a serendipitous by-product of flourishing, something that happens to you if you are flourishing.

Another problem with viewing mere happiness as the purpose of life is that it assumes an individual purpose. In fact, like childbirth, education, prosperity, or pretty much anything else associated with happiness, human flourishing is a collective effort. As humanity flourishes, so does the individual.

What the theory of evolution and the study of life have taught us is that the goal of every species is to flourish. So we must understand the prime directive of humanity to be eudaimonia: human flourishing, not individual happiness. Human flourishing seen from the point of view of evolutionary philosophy is the flourishing of the species.

If there ever was a species that did not seek to flourish, it would face extinction almost immediately. This fundamental drive, the mainspring of all living activity, the purpose of it all, the meaning of life, is the drive to flourish.

The so-called “New Atheists” tend to two mistakes. Firstly, they tend to say life has no purpose. The fact that every living thing greets every day with one over-riding goal, namely to flourish not only as an individual but primarily as a species, is apparently lost on them. The second mistake, and here Dawkins is perhaps the worst offender, is to view religion as irrational, unscientific, and probably resulting from a virus-like infection called a “meme” that is either a useless spandrel or an actively harmful parasitic idea to the species.

Religion should not be viewed as anti-scientific. Science is our attempt to explain the world. There are methods that have gained a lot of support because they provide reliable and effective explanations of the world, led by what is called “the scientific method”. And there are methods of explaining the world that are full of holes, such as mythology and religion.

Religion is an attempt to make sense of the world. That it does not use scientific methods means only that it is bad science. But religion exists because it makes sense of some natural phenomenon that real people really experience, and for which there is no generally accepted scientific explanation.

Science is here surrendering ground to ignorance. Science needs to step up to the challenge and instead of denying that there is a purpose to it all, something that is obvious to religious believers, it needs to provide a rational explanation of that purpose.

For the devout, purpose comes from God, and all that happens is “the Will of God”. It’s a simple formula. We mortals are not privy to the motives and logic of God. We are insects on the planet’s face, subject to an immense and somewhat inscrutable force. Our role is to respect that His will is law. Our role is to submit, as Islam in particular makes so clear.

When religious people speak of the Will of God, the scientist needs to recognize they are speaking in metaphors about the laws of physics, they are speaking of time and motion, they are speaking about the natural world as if it were a watch created by a master craftsman. God’s will is a metaphor for the logic of the universe. The Holy Spirit is a metaphor for the life-force that motivates us all, the drive of all living species to flourish.

We should be reminded that the first sentence of the Bible reads, “In the beginning was the logos”, where the Greek word “logos” has been translated as “the Word”, but could just as easily be translated as “the point” or “the logic”. The religious are using mythology, superstition, and bad science to explain the logic of the universe.

The scientist must approach religion as bad science, a science that encourages us to submit to the world as we find it instead of making it a better one, to surrender to nature instead of taming it. In the end what religion really tells us is to submit to the real human beings – the priests, rabbis, and imam – who take on the role of interpreting God’s will, and arrogate the power that this role confers.

The logic of the universe that we find ourselves in directs us as a species to flourish or perish. The great debate, between science and religion, between all good science and all bad science, comes down to this question: what is humanity’s surest path to flourishing?

Religion has one answer – can science provide a more rational and compelling one?

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Meaning of Life

I have procrastinated for too long, but now let me take up the question raised in my previous post: what is the meaning of life?

For those who are interested, a good overview of the philosophical and scientific inquiries into this question can be found at Wikipedia.

It seems to me that there is only one answer to this question from the point of view of what I will call “evolutionary philosophy”, defined as the application of evolutionary theory to persistent philosophical questions. But let me develop the argument.

We can’t do better than to start with Aristotle, who believed “all knowledge and every pursuit aims at some good”, and that the “highest good” was what he called “eudaimonia”.

Eudaimonia was originally translated from the Greek as “happiness”, but in recent years it has been recognised that the English term “happiness” refers to the subjective state of mind of an individual, and is necessarily fleeting, whereas Aristotle’s intention was to describe something more objective and therefore lasting. For this reason, a more accepted translation has come to be the word “flourishing”.

When we speak of “a flourishing business” or of “blackberries flourishing on the slope”, we are not exactly speaking of happiness, but of a state of doing well or even thriving, growing, and reproducing the means of success. Isn’t it the goal of us all to flourish?

In defining the term “eudaimonia”, we encounter the tension between the individual and the collective, for what makes an individual happy is subjective and individualistic, whereas flourishing is externally defined and thus is in some sense objective (or rather “intersubjective”). Defining “eudaimonia” as simple happiness gives it quite a different meaning to that intended by Aristotle, for if the goal of life is no more than a purely subjective and individual state of pleasure and personal satisfaction, a neglect of social well-being will result. Those who are purely concerned with personal pleasure and self-interest to the neglect or even detriment of the common interest are referred to as anti-social, as psychopaths or sociopaths, and in some jurisdictions are regarded as suffering from a dangerous mental disorder.

Humans typically don’t only pursue simple happiness, for personal happiness is fleeting. Ordinary human beings seem to encounter happiness mainly as a by-product of their pursuit of loftier goals. And the phrase “loftier goals” is generally understood to refer to goals which serve the collective interest.

So what are these greater goals, or so-called “higher callings”? Examine them at all closely, and they turn out to be goals that serve the cause of human flourishing, of the flourishing of the arts, of culture, of commerce, of children, families, and communities, of knowledge and science, of humanitarianism and charity, of humanity itself.

We can say without much need for evidence beyond common experience that every living thing seeks not simple happiness, but eudaimonia, in the Aristotelian sense of “flourishing”. And such flourishing is not confined to individuals of any species, but is proper to the species itself. In other words, it is at the level of the species that the term “flourishing” takes on its greatest meaning - individuals strive for the flourishing not only of their mortal selves but primarily for the flourishing of their species.

From the point of view of evolutionary theory, surely the goal of every species is to flourish on this earth, to achieve what Aristotle described as “eudaimonia”.

Why should this be so? For the simple reason that those species who did not seek to flourish died out – and those that were most successful - those that flourished - passed on their innate desire for eudaimonia through their DNA.

As I will argue in future posts, accepting this apparently obvious drive to flourish as the fundamental motivation of human existence has profound implications for our interpretation of traditional philosophy and religion.