Friday, June 11, 2010

The End of Metaphysics II

In the same week that I read John Derbyshire's article on genomics, I saw Peter Singer's editorial, "Should This be the Last Generation" on the New York Times website. It was the perfect juxtaposition of idea and conclusion. If we embrace the logic of Derbyshire we eventually come to agreement with Singer. This is one of the terrible, unintended consequences of the enlightenment, it takes us to the place of hopelessness. Derbyshire alludes to this as the cost of honesty, he writes, "If self-deception gets more difficult, so will happiness." In other words, religion is a form of "self-deception" that enables us to face life optimistically. And, a "realistic" view of religion forces us to face the music in regard to the end of our existence.

The enlightenment began as a grand liberation movement that was supposed to release human potential. Central to the enlightenment hope was the belief in progress; enlightened science will eliminate disease and extend life spans, enlightened philosophy will end fear, prejudice, and inhibitions, and enlightened politics will create an educated, enlightened citizenry free of the burdens and insecurities of previous generations. The problem is that the leaders of the enlightenment never looked behind the curtain labeled, "the end of religious belief," which was one of their central goals.

The famous British philosopher Bertrand Russell pulls back the curtain for us.

That man is the product of causes which had no provision of the end they were achieving that his origin, his growth, his hopes, his fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collucations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all devotions, all inspiration, all the noon-day brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of our solar system, and that the whole temple of Man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins-all these things, if not beyond dispute, are, yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair can the soul's habitation henceforth be safely built." ( from A Free Man's Worship)

Peter Singer clearly describes the "unyielding despair" of modern enlightenment faith as he questions the value of human existence. He asks in the editorial if it is right for a couple to bring a child into the world based on the possibility that the child will suffer or contribute to the suffering of others. He asks at a crucial point in the article, "If there were no future generations, there would be much less to feel guilty about." His causes of guilt are such things as over population and global warming.

The irony in all of this is that guilt is an expression of the moral sense in man, it exists in that upper storey of abstractions that includes truth, beauty, goodness, and love. If human consciousness is nothing more than a biological accident, then guilt is as much of an illusion as religion, and ethics is reduced to "only to thine own self be true." It is no wonder that the primary consequence of the enlightenment has been the kind of self-absorbed hedonism we see in American popular culture.

The evolutionary scheme of things provides no explanation for guilt and the other abstractions of human consciousness. Nature only knows survival, the moral arose with the personal and the rational, both of which are unique to humanity. The aspirations to hope, faith, and love are inate, as are conscience and our sense of moral obligation. They stand as a transcendent reality in the midst of an impersonal, material universe.

The Bible declares that men are made in the image of God. It is these inner hopes, desires, and obligations that affirm that claim. How ironic that Peter Singer would invoke an aspect of his nature that he denies, yet which are fundamental to his motives and actions. He has lost all hope in the significance of life because he has lost hope in God, but his sense of obligation to prevent present and future suffering arise from that which is most deeply personal and even spiritual in his nature.

We must never give in to the nihilism of modern thought. We are not a cosmic accident. Too much about us, from consciousness to conscience, are beyond an accidental or natural explanation. We must never give up our hope in God, for goodness and God are linked. Without God there is no good, only darkness, hopelessness and despair. It is not that we embrace a fantasy to give ourselves hope, but that we see the deep need for hope in our hearts as evidence of the God who put it there.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The End of Metaphysics?

John Derbyshire has written an interesting article for National Review Online on the making of an artificial genome of a one celled creature. It is not quite artificial life, but it is close. Derbyshire's point is not journalistic, to report on a scientific advance, but philosophical, to declare the end of metaphysics and vitalism. This is a remarkable leap of logic. To say that because we can manipulate strands of DNA in the laboratory, and because we have "decoded" the genomes of several creatures, including man, that "life is essentially information" and thus we have removed any possiblity of mystery or of spirituality from nature and life. This is modern reductionism at its worst.

Mr. Derbyshire goes further, he invokes the Freudian view that religion is a delusion created to avoid the fear of death. Several generations of atheists have patted themselves on the back for being truly "courageous," completely rational, and fully accepting of the implications of modern science without ever questioning their own assumptions and the gigantic gaps in knowledge that their view of science prevents them from discovering.

At the top of this list is conscience and the sense of moral obligation. Immanuel Kant, in spite of his profound agnosticism, saw this as clear evidence of the existence of God. It is rather easy in your 20's and 30's to boast of your courage in rejecting religion, while never disclosing that your real motivation is to be free of moral restraint. Most people dislike the idea of God because they see Him as the enemy of their pleasures.

To return to the argument about the manipulation of the DNA of a single celled creature to make a new lifeform as a deathblow to metaphysics and vitalism. Just because we have acquired godlike knowledge that enables godlike power to manipulate lifeforms doesn't mean we have proven there is no God nor a non-physical, spiritual reality. We must keep in mind the fact that naturalism requires that DNA and all the creatures that inhabit this planet are the product of the random forces of nature. It is one thing for intelligent human beings, with all their equipment and technique to manipulate the chemistry to "create" a new single celled creature, it is another for the purely chance processes of nature to do the same thing. In fact, the chances of it happening accidentally is beyond any real possibility. It is unquestioningly accepted by evolutionists because they assume right from the start that there is no supernatural source thus it must have happened through natural processes. They allow themselves no other option than nature. We shouldn't be surprised, then, when they declare the end of metaphysics.

I am no fan of vitalism, but I understand the reason that many thoughtful writers, such as Gordon Ratty Taylor and Will Durant, have resorted to it. It provides a purposeful explanation for the amazing levels of organization and complexity we see in organic life. Even as great a critic of religion as Fredrich Nietzsche declared, "The development of matter into a thinking subject is impossible." He understood the utter inadequacy of pure materialism (matter is all that exists) to explain the world in which we live. There are far too many creatures, which all display levels of intricacy and design that defy any possibility of a chance explanation. Vitalism is the attempt to explain design and purpose by means of a "force," in other words without resorting to a personal creator God. The problem is that forces don't provide design or purpose. Forces are powers or tools that must be directed by intelligence which is ultimately personal. If we are going to invoke purpose and design, we are left with only one choice, a personal God.

Bio-engineering is a remarkable field. We certainly shouldn't deny its potential for curing disease, and improving life, but we must also be wary of its potential for abuse. We are not gods and we need to proceed very cautiously in assuming power over life, even the life of single celled creatures. In addition, our knowledge of nature is not as great as we think it is. We are basing many of our conclusions on unwarranted (and often unconscious) assumptions that we will surely come to regret. The Bible tells us, "The fool has said in his heart, 'There is no God.'" (Psalm 14:1) Even in this era of dramatic scientific advances foolishness is alive and well.