Why Start with Philosophy?
This philosophical toe-dipping will be simple-minded and self-evident to some and profound to others. Some will find it boring. But to build a step-wise explanation for evolution, one needs to start somewhere. I side with Lewis Carol who liked to start at the beginning. Please understand that this is only the briefest of outlines. There are lots of good books on the topic that use big words on long pages. But for my purpose, a short and easily understood outline will do.
Here is why this is an important point: Once, I was dining out with a friend and his girlfriend. They were reading Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret and were truly exercised about the book. At one point, right in the middle of my bifteck au poivre, he began to almost shout that the only reason he can’t slide his hand straight through my chest like a salmon swimming upstream is because of his lack of belief. I dropped my fork and gave a deadpan reply. “No, you can’t stick your hand through my chest because of the repulsive power of electromagnetism.” He shouted a little louder. “Ha. This science crap holds you back! You see the world as you want to see it and this limits you to nothing but dirt and blood! There are greater things!”
Two World Views
So here are two world views laid out for the patrons of a very nice restaurant. One – I like his words – is a view based on dirt and blood. Things exist and we can hold them. A piece of firewood has real weight. When dropped on the toe, it causes real pain and a purple foot. When a wildebeest is brought down by a she-lion, there is real fear and real blood. When I bite into an apple, I experience real taste and receive real nourishment. Science emphatically requires that the world we live in and walk through and see is a real world. It cannot be proven any more than the idea that firewood is a figment of the imagination, but it is a philosophy and outlook that has served mankind well. You have about two minutes to imagine that your need for oxygen is imaginary before you will see the real effect of that mistake.
Not everyone believes this. My friend doesn’t. Deepak Chopra certainly doesn’t and has made a rather fabulous living by doing so. He and my friend argue that there are no real material things. What looks to be real is an invention of your limiting beliefs. Belief enables imaginary materials to imaginarily appear. Substance, pain, light, dark – these are all inventions of weak minds who do not understand our true nature.
Along this pendulum’s arc are different expressions of dualism. The most common view is that some form of ‘spirit’ exists and can interject itself into the real material world. Mind is considered something different than body or at least something different than the atoms and molecules and cells that make up the brain. When we die our spirit wafts off to a place outside of material things. The Christian bulldog, St. Paul, alludes to this when he says that ‘now we see through a glass darkly, but then [in the spirit world] face to face’. He recognizes the reality of the material world but sees it as transitory and as a springboard to other things. A smaller but still large population swings harder toward spirit: that though material things can be real they exist interchangeably with spirit and spirit is the ultimate reality.
Science responds with a shrug. Its job is to describe the natural and material. If something can’t be sliced, diced, replicated, or reliably explained then it’s outside the realm of the lab. So science doesn’t necessarily preclude spirit but would require the same evidence that the composition of granite does. By definition, spirit is outside of this realm.
A Uniform Experience
What does it mean that science argues and examines from this view of reality?
It means that the laws of nature are universally applied. This is one component of what is termed uniformitarianism. It’s clear that the universe works according to rules or laws that are the same in all places and at all times. We don’t fully understand the rules and laws – their discovery and explanation are at the heart and art of science – but they work whether we understand them or not. Where do the laws of nature come from? From the fabric of our making. From the nature of the materials that make up the universe. The world must work the way it does or it cannot exist. Electrons repel each other. Why? I don’t know. What I do know is that the universe would collapse in on itself it electrons attracted each other. Could the world be different? I suppose it could be, but it isn’t. Are these rules immutable? At some level, the answer must be yes or the universe couldn’t exist. How could gravity pull in one place and push in another? That’s not to say that our understanding of the laws is perfect or even accurate. It’s why we test and re-test findings and apply them to new scenarios.
Uniformitarianism is often attacked by anti-evolutionists. It’s the basis of our uniform experience in science: the speed of light, radioactive decay, the age of the earth, geology, and other constants. These all add to the body of evidence for evolution. But must these laws be uniform? Can the speed of light be X in one place in the universe and 2X in another? What happens at the interface? Of course, we’ve only been watching things for a few hundred years but we’ve never seen real evidence that these constants change. The decay of Carbon-14 remains the same at all times and in all places. When we use that information to predict past events we find them accurate. Uniformitarianism is at the very heart of our experience. We remove it at out peril.
As scientists watch the world and seek answers, there is scant necessity for something ‘other’ to invade the material world. Some argue that evolution defies the laws of nature, that DNA cannot give rise to the diversity of life that we see today. They argue that something from outside the universe must have nudged the process, set it in motion, that the odds are too great for even the first molecule to form. But this argument has been used through history for dozens of phenomena that were not understood, that seemed beyond our understanding. It says more, I think, about men than nature. In every case, the necessity for something ‘other’ has been finally ruled out as not required. I see no requirement that anything but the laws of material nature has provided the mindless constraints and energy for the march of life. I could be wrong.
Critics argue that we simply do not know enough about the laws to understand their interrelationships, that the world is too complex. Maybe so. But isn’t this the very job of science? To discern what we do know and to then stretch from there to what we don’t yet know?
Sum It Up
So, to wrap up, here are four assumptions we make with a high level of confidence in order to do science:
- The material world is real
- The material world works according to immutable laws
- The laws of nature are the same at all times and in all places
- Spirit is not required for reality to function as we see it
They have served us well as a framework for understanding the universe, the earth, and ourselves. Many don’t believe this to be true – but, when push comes to shove, when one stands on the top of a building wondering if gravity is really true, every single human who has ever lived acts as if they are.
For some good reading:
The Demon Haunted World by Carl Sagan
Just as informative and useful as when it first came out. A wonderful primer on rational and scientific thinking.
The Canon by Natalie Angier
Overview of science
Intuition Pumps and Other Tools For Thinking by Danial Dennett
Useful in oh-so-many ways. Super book.
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