What does evolution tell us about the value of human beings?

Nothing, of course,  but some people seem desperately to want to believe otherwise.

The theory of evolution is a fine scientific theory. It is a very good explanation of the historical process by which the current diversity of species came to exist on the earth. But, of course, as a scientific theory, it addresses the phenomenal level of existence; it has nothing to say about the substantial level whatsoever.

What Bob rightly objects to in this post is people who want to take a valid scientific theory and extend it to realms in which it has no applicability, such as metaphysics or ethics. It is as though, upon seeing a wonderful new plumbing fixture, someone concludes, "You see! I told you homosexuality is a sin!" Or encountering an innovative lightbulb, they exclaim, "It is as I thought: the universe is an indifferent place, devoid of meaning."

A particularly startling claim was made in the comment thread to Bob's post, and found some backing there. "Evolution," this line runs, "may not have proved there is no God; but it has certainly shown that humankind has no unique role in the living world."

This line of reasoning is so preposterous that, as I mentioned above, desperation is the only explanation for why someone might adopt it. Let us look at some similar "debunkings" of uniqueness claims based on identical reasoning:

Leonardo: The Mona Lisa is unique among my paintings in its excellence!

Debunker: No way: you painted it with a brush on a canvas, just like almost every other painting.

Sports analyst: LeBron James is a uniquely talented basketball player.

Debunker: Uh-uh: He was born from the union of the sperm and egg of two human beings, just like every other basketball player.

Automobile writer: The Lamborghini is unique among cars.

Debunker: What an idiot! Don't you know that the "Theory of Factory Manufacturing" forever discredited the idea of some uniquely great car?

There you have the entirety of this "idea": if the mechanical means by which X was brought about is very similar to how Y was brought about, then X can't have any special quality or value that Y doesn't have!

Once you really analyze what is being said, it is so shockingly silly that a truly monumental will to believe (in reductionist materialism, in this case) must be behind its being said at all.

41 comments:

  1. I would find it quite useful to understand this post better if you could provide examples of:

    1) something that would qualify as a proof that god did not exists ,

    and

    2) something that you would accept is evidence that god probably doesn't exist?

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    1. 1) God can be logically deduced from the fact of existence, as done, for instance, by Aristotle, Aquinas, Leibniz, Berkeley, Descartes, etc. So, I guess you would have to overturn those proofs. But I think is a lot like saying, "Gene, what would qualify as a proof that 2 + 2 does not equal 4?"

      2) rob, what would you accept as "evidence" that 2 + 2 does not equal 4?

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    2. I haven't read any of those thinkers. Do they perhaps just define "god" so that it is synonymous with something that can be derived from pure reason (like 2+2=4 can be) ?

      My definition of god would preclude such proofs and his/her existence would need to be supported by the same kind of evidence as answering the questions "does Father Christmas exists outside of our imaginations" or "are there really rats living in my attic" would need.

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    3. Well, rob, you could, I suppose define the Pythagorean Theorem as non-existent if it can't be weighed, but I think this would just be evidence that you have no idea what you are talking about, not that you have some decisive evidence against the Pythagorean Theorem.

      In particular, the kind of evidence that you demand would require that God be *one created being among the other created beings*! And in the whole tradition of classical theism (as well as Brahminic Hinduism and Taoism) that is exactly what God *isn't*.

      Look at it this way: let us say we were characters in a video game, and we sought evidence for "the programmer." It would make no sense whatsoever to demand that the programmer appear IN the video game as a character or a landscape feature, etc. The programmer is precisely the *transcendent* being responsible for every feature of the game, but nowhere in the game himself. (Of course, he could have stuck a character representing him in the game, but if you want to deny there is a programmer, you can just say, "That is merely a regular character with delusions!")

      So the kind of proof you demand just shows a lack of comprehension of what theists are talking about.

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    4. Yes, I agree I have no idea what theists are talking about.

      Either the "programmer" exists or he doesn't exist. If he exists then (in theory at least) we could find evidence of the greater reality that encompasses both him and us. We could at least theorize about such an possibility and be agnostics in the meantime.

      But what grounds could we (as characters in a virtual reality world) have for coming to any sort of theistsconclusions (beyond the type we might come to if we defined god as proven by 2=2=5 type, logic).?

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    5. "Yes, I agree I have no idea what theists are talking about."

      Good, we've gotten that far. And given that we are talking about many of the most brilliant minds in history, at that point I would say, "I guess I'm agnostic, but before I chime in on this God issue, I should at least read the geniuses who have spent tons of time thinking about it."

      Otherwise, you sound like someone who says, "I have no idea what physicists are talking about, but I don't believe in quantum mechanics."

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    6. Well, I have no real idea what physicists are talking about, beyond a certain level but I STILL believe in quantum mechanics.

      I.m pretty confident that if i spent enough time studying it I would find real evidence that it was true.

      But I think you're telling me that even if read Aristotle, Aquinas, Leibniz, Berkeley and Descartes I still wouldn't get evidence-based proof for god, just a 2+2=4 type proof which I suspect I would find dis-satisfying.

      So I'll just have to remain agnostic.

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    7. "I still wouldn't get evidence-based proof for god, just a 2+2=4 type proof "

      So, you are unconvinced that 2+2=4?!

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    8. Those calculus folks: they are not even wort reading! They can't provide me physical evidence of their theorems, they just keep presenting me with nonsense like 2+2=4! So I am not going to bother to read any calculus!

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    9. OK, probably "I still wouldn't get evidence-based proof for god, just a 2+2=4" was not a good way to say it.

      How about "just a redefinition of the words 'god' and 'exists' to mean something other than what is commonly meant by the words and that renders the statement 'god exists' true by definition"

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    10. "So I am not going to bother to read any calculus!"
      I thought you were an ex-Austrian.

      :)

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    11. 'How about "just a redefinition of the words 'god' and 'exists' to mean something other than what is commonly meant by the words and that renders the statement 'god exists' true by definition"'

      OK, rob, consider this:

      First of all, Plato and Aristotle were reaching monotheism by purely philosophical means, in a culture that was polytheistic. So they were not "re-defining" God, they were offering the initial definitions.

      Secondly, the arguments the classical theists offered were not tautologies, but metaphysical arguments: They were not saying "Given these definitions, God must exist," but "Given the nature of reality, God must exist."

      So really this is another way of saying that, before you reject such arguments, you ought to have some idea what they are!

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    12. In short, your position is, "Yes, I am completely ignorant of all the classical theist arguments for the existence of God, but... given the way in which I entirely misconceive their nature, I reject them!"

      Not a very "evidence" based approach at all, I say.

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    13. I like your virtual-reality based example from above.

      Suppose a programmer wrote 2 programs.

      In the first he creates a god-object that he models on the Old Testament god. In the virtual reality world people get punished for not worshiping god and rewarded for doing so. Not only theologians but also scientists would be able to accept that there is a god and that worshiping him leads to good outcomes.

      The second program is written so that things are just as in the world described by Berkley. Smart minds in this virtual reality decide that a "spirit" is behind the consistency of what they perceive and conclude that "when we consider the stunning complexity and systematicity of our sensory ideas, we must conclude that the spirit in question is wise and benevolent beyond measure, that, in short, he is God."

      But in both cases the ideas of god are objectively wrong. In both cases the "god" is just a logical but still incorrect derivation from experience.

      The second world appears to be a lot like mine (and the first a bit like Bob Murphy's - j/k)

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    14. "Yes, I am completely ignorant of all the classical theist arguments for the existence of God, but... given the way in which I entirely misconceive their nature, I reject them!""

      I don't reject them - I'm just a bit skeptical that I would find them convincing or even edifying and therefore I'm hesitant to invest time in studying them given all the other stuff (like re-reading "The General Theory" or watching EPL on DirecTV) that there is to do.

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    15. OK, that's cool rob: there are many things I doubt it is worth the time for me to study. But then I refrain from commenting on those things.

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    16. ok, I won't in future..

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  2. Holy cow Gene you need to evolve some sympathy. Even I used to be a materialist, remember?

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    1. You are confusing "sympathy" with "coddling": if I had no sympathy for rob's errors, I would not try to help him out of them. But sometimes the best help can come in the form of saying, "You are being a complete idiot."

      Of course, this will cause this person to reject you for a time. But the seed has been planted: their old error will never again be held to as securely.

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    2. I'm fine with Gene's style.

      He presents the case for theism strongly but so far unconvincingly. He is indeed good at pouncing on inconsistencies (or idiocies) in ones' argument but that in fact helps you understand the discussion better.

      He has even persuaded me that maybe I should read Berkley, a philosopher I have long been interested in, without every having actually studied.



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    3. Wikipedia article oon Berkeley says

      "my sensory ideas must be caused by some other spirit. Berkeley thinks that when we consider the stunning complexity and systematicity of our sensory ideas, we must conclude that the spirit in question is wise and benevolent beyond measure, that, in short, he is God."

      Is that true reflection of Berkley's view ?

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    4. "He presents the case for theism strongly but so far unconvincingly."

      I'm not sure I have ever presented a case for theism anywhere, rather than merely showing how (many) critics of that case come up short, or actually don't even address it.

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  3. If I may weigh in on this issue, at the risk of being ridiculed by Gene, I would say that evolution does tell us a little something about the value of humans. Bear with me.

    When theologians claim man to be unique, they often mean to imply by this that there is some afterlife, one which is exclusive to human animals. And though we cannot outright refute this claim using evolution, it is weakened.

    For example, consider your 'Theory of Car Manufacturing'. If I claimed that Lamborghinis turn into gold dust at the junk yard, as compared with other cars, which merely rust, such a claim would be weakened upon acknowledgement of the fact that both came into existence in a similar manner (so why should one exit existence so uniquely?).

    To summarise, I agree that man is different in many respects, and that his common heritage with other animals in no way diminishes this fact. However, man is not unique when it comes to death: he, like every other animal, eventually must face the oblivion of consciousness and the decay of matter.

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    1. 1) I find it somewhat bizarre that almost every commenter has chosen to focus on Christian theology, since my post never mentions it! Look, Aristotle, a pagan, thought humans were special. Buddha, a "non-theist," thought humans were special. Ayn Rand, a vitriolic atheist, thought humans were special. From reading Marx, another atheist, or Nietzsche, yet another, it is clear they both thought humans are special. So I don't really get where this "Christian, Christian, Christian" focus comes from?

      2) "And though we cannot outright refute this claim using evolution, it is weakened."

      OK, let's talk ridicule: do you actually have any idea what, say, the Catholic Church says about the ensoulment of humans? Do you realize that the Old Testament says humans were made from... clay?! Do you think it would be a good objection to the place of humans in the OT to note that clay pots have no special place in creation?!

      Here is the right car analogy: I say, "Lamborghinis (humans) come with a gold brick in the trunk (an immortal soul)."

      You reply, "Nonsense, they were built in a factory just like other cars!"

      The obvious answer is, "Yes, but the manufacturer slipped that in especially in these cars."

      NOTE: This is NOT my own view! I'm more Buddhist/Hindu in this regard. I am just noting that you have not even touched, let alone weakened, a view that I myself do not hold!

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    2. "Buddha, a "non-theist," thought humans were special." I'm a Hindu, but I have considerable familiarity with Buddhist scriptures, and as far as I know, Buddha did believe in the existence of the Hindu gods. What he disputed is the notion that they should be worshipped, or that worship of the gods has anything to do with how you ought to live your life. It was only later that some Buddhists, since they thought that the devas had nothing to do with the purpose of life, decided that there was no reason to believe that they even existed.

      "I'm more Buddhist/Hindu in this regard." What exactly do you mean by this? Hindus and Buddhists also believe that humans have an atma or soul. So what distinction are you drawing?

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    3. "as far as I know, Buddha did believe in the existence of the Hindu gods. What he disputed is the notion that they should be worshipped, or that worship of the gods has anything to do with how you ought to live your life..."

      Yup. That is why I said "non-theist" rather than "atheist." He thought theistic issues unimportant.

      "Hindus and Buddhists also believe that humans have an atma or soul. So what distinction are you drawing?"

      They also believe animals have a soul too.

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    4. Yes, we do believe that animals have souls. Do Christians believe that only humans have souls?

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    5. Tricky question. Thomists would say animals have souls, but not immortal souls. Other Christians would probably say "No." (Descartes, for instance, thought they were just machines.)

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    6. And what do you believe? Do you believe as Hindus do that animals have eternal souls? By the way, are you even a Christian? I was operating under the assumption that you are, but sometimes you sound more like a Mahayana Buddhist or especially a Vedantic Hindu.

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    7. MathMan, when I speak to my self, sometimes I sound like a Christian, sometimes I sound to myself more like a Mahayana Buddhist or even a Vedantic Hindu! :-)

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    8. Well, if you're interested in Vedantic Hinduism, I recommend reading the works of Adi Shankara and Ramanuja. They're the founders of the two major schools of Vedantic thought.

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    9. Thanks.

      I have taught comparative religion, FYI.

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    10. Oh, you have? By the way, have you read the philosophical works of Raymond Smullyan? He's most famous for his writings on logic and recreational mathematics, but he's written several entertaining books that deal with Taoism and Buddhism, for instance "The Tao is Silent", "What is the Name of This Book", and "This Book Needs No Title". (He's playful in his book titles.)

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  4. "What does evolution tell us about the value of human beings?"
    How much does religion?

    In your answer please distinguish between telling and pretending to tell.

    Nothing is better than the wrong something.

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    1. "How much does religion?"

      Please try to not threadjack: the question on the table is "Does evolution reveal metaphysical truths?"

      Whether or not something else does is not relevant to answering that question.

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  5. "Good, we've gotten that far. And given that we are talking about many of the most brilliant minds in history"

    Agreed. By the same token we should take astrology seriously (Newton). And phlogiston.

    Ideas progress. Brilliant thinkers work with and advance the ideas of their time. The average 2nd year physics student transported back to 1500 would be the greatest scientist, mathematician, and engineer in history, combined, and not because he's smarter.

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    1. "By the same token we should take astrology seriously (Newton). And phlogiston."

      On Newton, you mean alchemy. And yes, we should take it seriously, as recent work in the history of science has shown: it laid the groundwork for chemistry.

      "Ideas progress. Brilliant thinkers work with and advance the ideas of their time."

      And they also regress: astronomers of the eighth century AD probably knew less than those of the 1st century BC. We can only determine which by carefully examining those ideas... not by completely ignoring one huge chunk of them, as rob confesses he has done.

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    2. "The average 2nd year physics student transported back to 1500 would be the greatest scientist, mathematician, and engineer in history, combined, and not because he's smarter."

      Oh, and this is false, of course. He would just know a lot. The great people advance things.

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  6. Oh and yes, I strongly suspect the Indian concept of reincarnation is largely correct.

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    1. Wow, you surprise me more and more.

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    2. See new post, MathMan.

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