Darwinists and Divinity

A whirlwind tour through western thought explores the big questions.

Walking around Greenwich Village with Allen Ginsberg during a rolling interview I was conducting with him some 20 years ago, we paused at a traffic light long enough for him to seize upon both the incarceration of his mother in a mental asylum and the point that as human beings we were all living in “these meat bodies.”

The latter observation was unremarkable coming, as it did, from a committed Buddhist. But issuing from a poet, and a pre-eminent one, gave the existential crisis embodied in it added zing, a definitive affirmation that no intellectual or spiritual attainment constitutes escape from our housing within a decaying animal corpus.

The spectacle par excellence of the fleshy layer of our existential conundrum has been turning up in recent years in science museums over three continents as Body Worlds, German anatomist Gunther von Hagens’s exhibitions of human cadavers set in ambulatory postures and exposed from hairline to bone marrow. Using a plasticizing technique he originated, von Hagens is able to comprehensively expose human muscle, sinew, abdominal viscera, the brain and circulatory vessels while displaying the deceased as participating in familiar activities from consuming breakfast to playing tennis. I attended one of the Toronto shows with my daughter, then eight years old. As the son of a medical family, I was determined that neither of us should be squeamish about it. My feisty child, indeed, was fine. But I emerged from the Ontario Science Centre that afternoon a little haunted by all that meat.

What are we, why are we and how do we reconcile our self-exalted human consciousness with an existence so unnervingly predicated on a bucket of electrolytes and a slab of bloody flesh the neighbourhood dogs could devour in a trice?

“Mindware—our thoughts, feelings, hopes, fears, beliefs, and intellect—is cast as nothing but the operation of the biological brain, the meat machine in our head,” the English philosopher Andy Clark writes of a current strain of thinking in the cognitive sciences. This is one of many bracing stops on a whirlwind historical tour of grand pensées about our miraculous somethingness and biochemical near-nothingness in Michael Ruse’s Science and Spirituality: Making Room for Faith in the Age of Science.

The title and subtitle are excessively broad, perhaps strategically so. Ruse, longtime professor of philosophy at the University of Guelph and now director of a program in the history and philosophy of science at Florida State University, has actually assigned himself the much narrower thesis of testing whether conservative (but not literalist) Christian belief can be held simultaneously with an acceptance of modern science, particularly evolution. That his answer—spoiler alert?—ultimately proves to be yes is not a reach. You can hardly use science to refute the Resurrection; to say we have never seen such a thing in nature simply reinforces the religious point. In any event, Ruse’s conclusion will matter nothing to evangelicals and fundamentalists, who reject such efforts a priori, and probably little to the many secular-oriented Christians, both those in liberal denominations and others who just bring independent attitudes to more traditional ones and who engage far less struggle with Darwin than with clerics pronouncing on their sex lives.

But for a philosopher of biology, that is not the point, and it need not be for Ruse’s readers, either. “I am simply interested in the nature of science, its scope and its limits—and, in the light of this, in what the Christian can then legitimately say and claim … My interest in limits does not belie my belief that the highest form of knowledge is scientific knowledge,” writes Ruse.

Science does not tarry with “ultimate why” questions or what academics call final causes. Kant’s famous critique of reason uses the metaphor of the horizon, which in a sense does not exist; just as you can keep asking why there are humans, then why life, why a planet, why a universe—until reason and science have no answer, so does the horizon keep receding before us, as we sail toward it. We may know through mathematics that the universe is this big and this old and features an Earth with biodiversity created by means discernable through physics and chemistry. But none of that adds up to an answer to Gottfried Leibniz’s big question: why is there something rather than nothing? Of course, the Judeo-Christian theistic response covers the matter readily, and on some implicit level so does the secular notion of human consciousness as the pinnacle of the evolutionary process. Or does it?

“Why is thought, being a secretion of brain,” demanded Darwin, “more wonderful than gravity [as] a property of matter? It is our arrogance … our admiration of ourselves.” As Ruse demonstrates, significant academic thought views such vaunted human refinements as love, morality and altruism as mere biologically driven adaptations to leverage natural advantage. To a thinker like biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, writes Ruse, “we are all machines, and basically consciousness is just irrelevant froth on the top.”

Ruse steers clear of exposing his own religious orientation but can hardly avoid declaring himself a Darwinist; the author of Darwinism and Its Discontents and co-author of The Cambridge Companion to the “Origin of the Species” gave expert testimony in a 1981 trial that overturned Arkansas’s right to teach “creation science” (a.k.a. intelligent design) in public schools.

The value and pleasure of Science and Spirituality for the lay reader is in embarking upon a fast–moving journey from the Ancient Greeks to the present while wrestling with our metaphysical Godzilla, to choose a name that invokes both divinity and the primitive lizard brain that continues to issue so many of our marching orders. Through chapters titled “The World as an Organism,” “The World as a Machine,” “Organisms as Machines” and “Thinking Machines,” Ruse offers an accessible distillation of the most pertinent great western thinkers and their great thoughts. Of course, those greats identify with differing and not infrequently opposing sides of the equation.

Notable contrasting duos here are Plato and Aristotle, Aquinas and Augustine, Hume and Kant, with giants from Descartes and Spinoza to Newton and Freud weighing in. Plato, who postulated Forms that represented the Good, had in Aristotle a student who saw purpose in nature without presumption of a designer. Aristotle seems “to have formed his philosophy simply by putting negatives in front of all of his teacher’s main verbs,” writes Ruse. Plato’s conception of soul sets out an understanding of the divine as separate from the world, just as soul (and hence mind) was separate from body. This is also an early metaphysical foundation for Catholicism’s Holy Trinity.

Platonic thinking significantly influenced fourth-century philosopher Saint Augustine as well as Descartes, who made the mind-body bifurcation normative in much of western thought. In coming to his ever-receding horizon of reason, Kant in turn calls a limit to scientific knowing and commends a separate place within us for the unknowable knowledge that is faith.

Conversely, Aristotle and those he inspired, from the 13th-century Italian priest Thomas Aquinas to the Scottish philosopher David Hume, eschew these central dualities and posit a worldview of organic interdependence among things—a holistic approach, in current parlance. Nature has a life force of its own for Aristotle, a position that figures in the body-soul unity potently advanced by the 17th-century Sephardic philosopher Baruch Spinoza. Flirting with accusations of pantheism, God and nature are here one.

One way or another, God was always somewhere. Refuting that directly was a rare option until recent history, so that even those thinkers who most shook up traditional religious views could not fairly be labelled atheist. Isaac Newton, who effectively showed that the universe ran according to immutable laws of physics rather than divine manipulation, and Charles Darwin, whose theories of adaptation and natural selection would for many destroy the creation story and the notion of original sin in one fell swoop, are identified by Ruse as deists. For deists, God put the world in motion and then stepped back, the best-known metaphor here being a clock that is wound and then hurled into space.

Deism clearly allowed the Scientific Revolution from the 16th century to go to extraordinary lengths in seeing everywhere a world that functioned as a machine, with a multitude of constituent parts that were just mechanisms. From the geometrical patterns of seeds within a sunflower through the biochemical interactions that power the human body and the forces of physics that dictate the movements of celestial entities, everything could be ensconced in the machine metaphor. Together with seeing the body as a machine, Hume believed reason itself was largely instinctual and hence similarly mechanistic.

The discovery of genetics sealed the mechanistic deal and, needless to say, in our own technologically voracious age, each new advance seems only to further this thesis of life. Ruse cites the victory of supercomputer Deep Blue over then-world chess champion Garry Kasparov, widely accepted as the strongest chess player in history at his height. That Deep Blue was capable of considering 200 million positions per second would have made its victory over the top human competitor merely one of brute strength, if victory in chess were predicated solely on collating precedents. But the implications of the event were considerably more unnerving than that. Competitive chess, as I observed over decades of my father’s own play, also has to incorporate creativity, innovation and independence of thought—all qualities we normally associate as distinctly human and clearly contrasted with the mechanical. Science fiction’s obsession with the melding of human and machine through self-aggrandizing robots, malevolent computers and bionic protagonists would seem to further identify this fear of dissolving boundaries—and fear is the usual colouration here—as something archetypal in us.

Which brings us back to the quest for God or, in Ruse’s more restricted terms, to the prophetic rabbi who was crucified and breathed again the third day, his death and return being a gift of salvation to a humanity cast in God’s image yet benighted all the same. As we are almost without historical evidence of even the human existence of Jesus (along with most other things in the New Testament and Hebrew Bible), there is no question of reaching the Resurrection by any path other than faith. And faith, as Christianity’s most influential proponents have insisted, will make everything else clear. Ruse brings us back to Augustine: “Understanding is the reward of faith. Therefore seek not to understand that you may believe, but believe that you may understand.”

That just may be the whole ball of wax, an ultimate separation between empirical investigation and faith. Faith is a window to the vista the intellect alone cannot see; as Kierkegaard says, going beyond the evidence is what makes it faith. The misdirection in the title of Science and Spirituality is that Ruse examines but one tree in this garden. He chooses four claims central to Christian belief: God is a creator, God judges our moral behaviour, Jesus Christ suffered for us and through him we have a promise of life ever-lasting. “If you do not believe in these, then you should not call yourself a Christian,” declares Ruse.

A goodly number of Christian theologians and clerics would not sign off on this. No less significant would be the mutiny in the pews. Below orthodoxy, it is apparent in the developed world that such literality can no longer be taken for granted, even among those who actually show up in houses of worship. And once we are speaking of spirituality rather than creed, all bets are off. The anthropomorphized male deity atop the Judeo-Christian belief system, so difficult for so many wounded by authority figures, has become a clogged bottleneck to traditional faith in much of the secular world, not least with the biblical god’s representation by the iron-handed patriarchies of the Vatican, the American religious right and the orthodox political parties in Israel. Not to speak of still more profoundly grievous things that have persistently issued from religious belief. These are not matters Ruse claims to address but a critical point that emerges repeatedly in his book is that even Christian religiosity has never adhered to a single template and has itself evolved from Judaism through Hellenism to confronting an array of modifying influences within secularism.

Is a godless nature—even a godless science—possible and if so, is it less wondrous, mysterious, terrifying than the work of a Creator who made the bright mountain and the plunging abyss? To our inherently flighty human consciousness, Darwin’s discoveries may be as awe-inspiring as Genesis, mathematics may feature divinity in pi and, no sense holding back now, the allegretto in Beethoven’s Seventh just might be the cosmic purpose in having us rise up on two legs in the first place.

Still, the poet Ginsberg’s self-reduction to meat that sunny afternoon in lower Manhattan remains disconcerting. And this was before scientists found evidence suggesting his homosexuality could be mapped via the physiology of his brain. Has all our mapping become what we call too much information? Ruse quotes Nobel laureate physicist Steven Weinberg: “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.” Sounds like trouble.

Unless, of course, we simply encourage what we hope are constructive versions of science and faith to continue doing their work while we do ours, whatever that may be. Voltaire suggested the answer awaits us in our back yard. With but a wife, two children and a Labrador retriever to forestall my nothingness, I tend to agree.