Friday, February 24, 2017

Have You Now, or Have You Ever Been a Creationist?

It was Douglas Adams in his remarkable Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy who coined the felicitous phrase about the meaning of life, the universe, and everything.

For the fact is that we do not know the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. But we insist that life, the universe, and everything should have a meaning, and for that we humans have gods.

It is the conceit of many moderns that we have done away with gods, and have now determined to stand naked in the world clothed only in the truth of Darwin and evolution. God didn't create the world; evolution did. All this talk of God and Creation is mere creationism, the crude insertion of "skyhooks" into the world to explain what we cannot, at least not yet, explain.

Enter Matt Ridley and The Evolution of Everything: How Ideas Emerge. Ridley proposes that it is not just animals and plants that evolve through their selfish genes. It is everything.

And anyone that demands a higher authority for, e.g., managing the economy, is nothing but a creationist. And you know what those people are like. Think Canada's liberal darling Margaret Atwood and The Handmaid's Tale. Only, of course, Atwood sensibly confines her examination of creationists and fundamentalists to the religious ones.

We humans do not just demand gods to wisely direct our moral and political affairs from above. We imagine it in all corners of our life, from religion to culture to the economy to education. It cannot be that grubby and ordinary humans, combining together in voluntary cooperation, can improve on the edicts of kings, bishops, moralists, and professors.

Rubbish, writes Ridley. If you look around, you will find that everything in the universe proceeds in a bottom-up way, by felicitous combinations and innovations. And it is not usually some lone genius that makes the breakthrough, but several people, all trying to solve the problem du jour.

For instance, in addition to Darwin there was Wallace. And there were several people in addition to Einstein around 1900 that were trying to solve the problem that the speed of light in a vacuum is constant. Einstein got there first, and to him the glory. But in no time there was quantum mechanics, an amazing collaboration of minds unlocking the secrets of the sub-atomic world.

And if you need a confirmation of the idea of evolution, here is a piece by Vaclav Smil from IEEE Spectrum about the five "Stages of Electronics," the evolution from Maxwell's unified theory of electricity, magnetism and light down to the present ubiquity of hand-held smart electronics. It is staggering that from the problem of figuring out light, magnetism, electricity, and everything, we have arrived in a little over a century at $100 smartphones that provide instant video communication across the world and a window on all the knowledge of the world. And nobody was in charge.

Matt Ridley, who is a climate skeptic, is making the argument against top-down wisdom from the right. But I am reading, courtesy of a liberal friend, The Master and his Emissary by Iain McGilchrist, about the left and right hemispheres of the brain. The left hemisphere is the abstract side and logical side and the right hemisphere is the experiential and emotional side. The book proceeds from a detailed exposition of the current science of the brain to a critique of culture. The left hemisphere, says the blurb,
has grabbed more than its fair share of power, resulting in a society where a rigid and bureaucratic obsession with structure, narrow self-interest and a mechanistic view of the world hold sway, at an enormous cost to human happiness and the world around us.
Yes, but, according to chaps like me, the problem is the usual suspects like the back page quotes from Huffington Post and the Times Literary Supplement. It is their conceits and their prejudices and their appetite for power from which issue all the problems of the world, including bureaucracy and mechanism. So I wonder how McGilchrist makes his argument which, according to chapter headings, goes through renaissance and reformation and  enlightenment and romanticism and industrial revolution and modernism and postmodernism. I can't believe that he takes too close a cut against our present evolved, educated, administrative ruling class and cultural elite. But we will see.

However, despite all the talk of creationism, of skyhooks and turtles-all-the-way-down to deal with the problem of what lies on the other side of the boundaries of knowledge, we humans still, as we ever, insist on the question of the meaning of it all, life, the universe, and everything.

And in my view the more knowledge we accumulate about the world and beyond it to the universe the bigger the question becomes. What is the meaning of life, the universe and everything?

Because if life, the universe, and everything do not have a meaning, or an origin, or a design, or a purpose then what does that mean?


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  2. You have asked what is probably the most important question in the universe at the very end of this article. Without a meaning, an origin, a design, a purpose, then what does that mean? Do we simply go dark at death? Is that all there is? If so, then why bother with any nicety of morality, care, love, obedience, community, nation....anything? Why bother at all? It would be pointless. If we are simply here for the moment, and gone in the blink of mortality, then the message of those who would have us live only for the moment, and live for what we can experience, collect, father, see, do, etc, etc, is the true message.

    Thought provoking. I have no answer. I choose to stack my chips on the square that says there is something after this, and judgement at some point...whether it is instantly upon death, or at some future time, will determine whether I get to experience the fullness of it.

    7th Day Adventists believe that death is merely sleep, and that a resurrection will happen at some distant time. Catholics believe that judgement is instantly after death. I'm not sure which is correct. It's just that most religions seem to consider an afterlife a real event. Anything else makes being here a mere coincidence, and makes any attempt at getting along or sharing an almost useless and pointless endeavor.

    Jack Riston (70)
    Bella Vista, Arkansas