TELEOLOGY – ABSURDITY – PART II – SUBJECTIVE (CONTINUED)

Last time we saw how Camus labels the situation of man as absurd, but concludes fraternity and moral integrity in a spirit of devotion to life and defiance of an indifferent universe is preferable to despair. Thomas Nagel in a 1971 essay3 attributes the subjective sense of the absurd to the brevity of our lives and our insignificant size in an expansive universe. Like Camus, who emphasizes that Sisyphus is immortal, Nagel believes an extended life span of even one million years would not affect whether the human condition is absurd. Rather the problem is the “conspicuous discrepancy between pretensions or aspirations and reality.”4 This distills down to man’s propensity to take his life seriously while knowing all matters he takes seriously are arbitrary and dubious. Even the attempt to work for a larger purpose fails because its mattering can be doubted as well. Our sense of absurdity is thus based on epistemological skepticism. Nonetheless we default to life rather than madness from over-reasoning.

Nagel notes a mouse’s life is not absurd, but if it had self-consciousness it would be. We cannot adopt the mouse’s immunity by erasing self-consciousness, but we can be aware that our feelings of absurdity are due to our ability to be a spectator in our own life. Nagel questions whether Camus’ approach to live “in spite of” the absurdity makes us less absurd, though it may make us more noble. Rather Nagel does not believe our absurdity warrants either distress or defiance as this absurdity is integral to being human and our unique ability to identify truth. In the end, nothing matters, but that doesn’t matter either.

Irving Singer, in his 1992 book, Meaning in Life, appears to be unconvinced.5 He asks where our serious side comes from if there is nothing to sustain it. He answers that a sentient being wants what is valuable and meaningful to it – which is not the same as arising out of nothing or being unsustained. What is meaningful to humans originates in the vital necessities of the human condition, which is derived from nature through evolution. Man’s seriousness and values do not contradict the world but spring from it. “To say one’s interests are absurd would be to claim that…one’s knowledge about reality inevitably contradicts the gamut of beliefs implied by one’s behavior. That claim seems to me wholly unwarranted.”

Singer points out that absurdity, as for example rearranging the furniture on the Titanic as it is sinking, implies a non-absurd alternative. But that does not apply to human life in the sense suggested and “acting for realistic goals without harboring false expectation means avoiding the alleged contradiction.”7 He concludes man’s actions are not absurd if acting as a part of nature.

It seems to me the subjective sense of the absurdity of the universe and life, as we saw in the case of fate, is natural, even unavoidable, but not literally true. The knowledge of eventual death permits man to have reasonable goals for meaning and represents an evolutionary advance. Man as a product of nature is not absurd when pursuing the goals instantiated in his existence as a species. And as we saw earlier, nature escapes the label of absurd by virtue of its specialized laws conducive to our existence.

1Edwards, Paul (editor), The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. & The Free Press, 1972.   Volume 2, pages 15-17.

2Solomon, Robert C. No Excuses: Existentialism and the Meaning of Life. The Great Courses. Lecture 4.

3Klemke, E.D. (editor), The Meaning of Life. Oxford University Press, New York, 2000. ISBN 0-19-512703-X, pages 176-185.

4Ibid, page 178.

5Singer, Irving, Meaning in Life. The Free Press, New York, 1992. ISBN 0-02-982905-X, pages 33-41.

6Ibid, page 36.

7Ibid, page 37.

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TELEOLOGY – ABSURDITY – PART II – SUBJECTIVE

“This absurd godless world is, then, peopled with men who think clearly and have ceased to hope. And I have not yet spoken of the most absurd character, who is the creator.”– Albert Camus. Absurd Creation.

 

Last time we saw that the very special laws of physics that apply to our universe can be interpreted as evidence that neither the universe nor life (including humanity) qualify as absurd. Today we will look at the subjective experience of the absurdity of human life through the eyes of Albert Camus. In his  essays that make up The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus reviews the ancient Greek myth of Sisyphus who was condemned by the Olympian Gods to spend all eternity in fruitless labor rolling a rock up a mountain only to have it roll back down each time he neared the peak. Camus uses this myth as an analogy for our individual lives.

He sees this absurdity at several levels:

1)    Our eventual death makes life meaningless.

2)   There is an inconsistency in human rationality versus an indifferent universe. 

3)   There is no congruence between human values and reality.  

4)   Man is isolated as an evaluative and purposive being in a world that affords no support this attitude.  

5)   Absurdity is born of increasingly impersonal, abstract, scientific view of the world. 

6)   Human understanding does not lead to satisfaction.

Camus believes absurdity leads man to despair or nihilism, and entertains the pessimistic response of  suicide. He eliminates that option on the basis that suicide deals with only one pole of absurdity, the human, while ignoring the cosmic pole. Instead human pride impels us to live in spite of our absurdity. It is life, not truth that really counts. Like Sisyphus, we have two options: devotion to our task or defiance of our situation. Both can lead to meaning, that is, life is its own meaning. Only insofar as we are engaged in our own lives do they make sense.

Camus concludes nihilism provides no principle of action. Rather he settles on a positive ethic – not a metaphysical revolt – wherein each of us becomes guarantor of our values in the face of the indifference of the universe. His attitude to life becomes a stubborn moral integrity and deep sympathy with his fellow men. 1,2

(continued next post)

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TELEOLOGY – ABSURDITY – PART I – SCIENTIFIC

“To demand ‘sense’ is the hallmark of nonsense. Nature does not make sense. Nothing makes sense.” –Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

 

 

Last time I noted natural selection is the intermediate explanation for the universe and life and we considered one extreme – intelligent design. Today we will assess the opposite position; the universe as absurd.

Paul Davies addresses this question from the scientific standpoint in an essay from 1998.1 He notes cosmology and physics depend on four premises:

1)   The universe is organized in a rational and law-like manner.

2)   The universe could have been otherwise. 

3)   Nature is intelligible and its hidden subtext is revealed by physics and coded in mathematics.

4)   Nature’s lawfulness is completely dependable.

Cosmologists argue the universe sprung into existence spontaneously following the laws of physics and required no antecedent as time itself originated by virtue of the Big Bang. It is true these laws must have been pre-existing, or else we could not appeal to them to explain the universe. However those laws are descriptions rather than creations and transcend space and time.

Davies feels those laws could have been different, which is the crux of the issue of an absurd versus a purposeful universe. The laws of nature include deterministic and indeterministic properties amplified by complexity leading to creativity. But he notes when a scientist-atheist is asked about the origin of these laws, “a mental backflip is performed: the system of laws must simply be accepted as a brute fact, they say. The laws exist reasonlessly. At rock bottom, the universe is absurd.”2

Davies is unconvinced. For one the argument is contradictory as it attempts to ground a logical and rational world in a cosmic absurdity. He also doubts the particular laws of our universe are explained against the backdrop of a multiverse because the degree of lawfulness of our universe is more stringent than required for life. If cosmic selection on the scale of a multiverse is based on randomness, one would expect the minimum amount of order required for life to exist. Rather our universe demonstrates far greater order than required suggesting additional principles of order over and above crude selection.3 If the universe is governed by very special laws as Davies asserts, then we are significant as the product of these laws. If we genuinely wish to find out if there is a purpose to the universe, he recommends we pursue science “in the spirit of humility and openness.”4

Davies’ conclusions are refreshing if not completely persuasive. However his vantage point is objective whereas the experience of absurdity in the universe is more subjective. Next time we will explore the thinking of the great philosopher of absurdity, Albert Camus.

1Peters, Ted, editor, Science and Theology The New Consonance. Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado, 1998. ISBN0-8133-3259-1, pages 65-76.

2Ibid, page 74.

3Ibid, page 75.

4Ibid, page 76.

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TELEOLOGY – INTELLIGENT DESIGN

“It is crazy to postulate a trillion (causally unconnected) universes to explain the features of one universe, when postulating one entity (God) will do the job.” – Richard Swinburne

 

So far in our analysis of teleology we have considered accident, emergence, and natural selection as possible explanations of the universe. These represent the middle possibilities; next we analyze the two extreme alternatives that bookend the middle –the universe as the result of intelligent design and the universe as absurd. Today we will consider the former.

The greatest argument against the spontaneous origin of the universe, life, and consciousness is the incredible fine tuning of the physical laws and constants necessary for their appearance. Of course one could say there is only one universe and thankfully it was assembled this way, but this is unscientific and equivalent to saying “That is just the way it is!” There are two alternatives; (1) the hypothesis of a multiverse where an incredibly large or infinite number of universes exist and we of course live in one conducive to life, and (2) the universe eternally cycles big bangs followed by big crunches and we evolved within the current rendition since it happens to permit life. Richard Swinburne argues that a single universe with a designer is far simpler and logically more probable than a multiverse; while the weakness of eternal cycling is the absence of evidence and the contrary finding that the universe is expanding ever faster over time, making a big crunch unlikely.

The second challenge is based on biology and evolution. Michael Behe contends evolution cannot account for the ‘irreducible complexity’ of living organisms. By irreducible complexity he means “a single system which is composed of several interacting parts that contribute to the basic function and where the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning.”1 Behe reasons whole systems do not evolve at once making the appearance of even simple organisms like bacteria inexplicable. Other scientists disagree saying that organisms coopt separately evolving parts for novel functions.

Still other theistic scientists see natural selection as simply the mechanism of creation. Some note that mutations are not entirely random – for example, most mutations that determine the size of organs result in a reduction in the size of the organs concerned.2 Others emphasize that most mutations are fatal or at least debilitating for a species and it takes millions of generations for the occasionally beneficial mutation to become established, suggesting evolution should be much slower than the fossil record demonstrates. None of these objections seems convincing to me, rather I have always found the most compelling argument against natural selection is humanity’s inability to create a new species of viable life by breeding or genetic engineering to date.

Arguments for intelligent design then are inconclusive and look like an attempt to justify pre-existing belief in a creator. There is just too much evidence for natural self-organization and selection to unseat them as the best explanation for the universe we observe. If our goal is to find meaning in the universe, we need to accommodate this greater likelihood in our final synthesis. But before we can proceed we must dispense with the direct assault offered by the possibility that the universe is absurd, which is the subject of our next blog.

1Law, Stephen, Philosophy. Metro Books, New York, 2007. ISBN 978-1-4351-3895-0, pages 148-149.

Monsma, John Clover, The Evidence of God in an Expanding Universe. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, 1958. Page 53.

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TELEOLOGY – NATURAL SELECTION – PART V – HUMAN CONSCIOUSNESS (cont’d)

Last time we looked at the disproportionately large human brain and found natural selection may have favored it in the complex human hunting groups essential for a meat-eating primate. Social skill rather than physical survival became the operative dynamic in passing one’s genes to future generations. This was the trigger for the quantum leap humanity made from biologic to social evolution (Richard Leakey’s fourth great biological revolution).

The final development in rising consciousness and the highest emergent characteristic Nature has yet produced is self-reflexivity or self-consciousness – the knowledge of oneself as subject enhanced by the ability to evaluate oneself as object. Thomas Hobbes seems to be the first to have recognized the derivative importance  of this second component; the best way to understand and predict the behavior of others is by thinking how you would do in similar circumstances. This mental model called ‘the Inner Eye’ by Nick Humphrey also generates a sense of self or ‘the Inner I.’ The ability to make realistic guesses about the inner life of one’s rivals was a great advantage for our ancestors, leading to reproductive success. It would also be magnified over many generations.4

Nonetheless it is hard to imagine a gene directly leading to self-consciousness. Richard Leakey argues self-consciousness appears to depend on new laws supplemental to the laws of physics, chemistry, and life. Many scientists and philosophers feel this level of consciousness cannot be reduced to physics. On the other hand, Gordon Gallup’s mirror test (an animal’s ability to recognize its own image in a mirror) shows some other mammals and primates have a sense of self.5 So we must consider that even self-consciousness may be a spontaneous or emergent phenomenon of more complex brains.

Leakey reminds us that one final tier of self-consciousness appears only in late hominids – the awareness of death, that is, the ability to visualize oneself as dead when confronted with the death of others. It is a short distance from self-awareness and death-awareness to the big questions of why there is a universe and what is the meaning of one’s own life.6  Self-consciousness and the massive human brain takes us full circle back to the very questions this site is trying to answer.

Does the advent of self-consciousness imply design behind human existence or is complexity theory adequate as an explanation? I cannot give a definitive answer, but if complexity and chaos theory can explain life and animal consciousness, it seems a leap to argue that reflexive consciousness has a different origin. I suspect either all are purposeful and designed, or none are. Let’s bracket this and return to it in the synopsis and synthesis at the end of this section.

 

1Calverton, V.F.. The Making of Man. The Modern Library, New York 1931. Pages 761-770.

2Becker, Ernest, The Birth and Death of Meaning. The Free Press, New York, 1971. Pages 1-4

3Ibid. Pages 5-12.

4Leakey, Richard and Lewin, Roger, Origins Reconsidered. Doubleday, New York, 1992. ISBN 0-385-41264-9, page 296.

5Ibid. Page 298.

6Ibid. Page 305.

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TELEOLOGY – NATURAL SELECTION – PART V – HUMAN CONSCIOUSNESS

Consciousness is not an entity at all, let alone a special cybernetic mechanism. It is a condition built up of mental acts of a particular life episode…”– Susanne K. Langer

 

After animal consciousness we come to a discussion of perhaps the most unexpected of all of Nature’s products: human consciousness. Here we face two puzzles: (1) the sheer size and capabilities of the human brain, and (2) reflexive or self-consciousness. The teleological question can be thus formulated:  why would unguided natural selection lead to an animal with an over-sized brain and reflexive consciousness? Alternatively if human traits are simply the result of the need for survival, why does the human brain allow so much superfluous mental function? At first glance the question appears rhetorical, and no answer can be proven, but philosophically we must identify a theoretical explanation or default to design.

Let’s begin with the size and abilities of the human brain. Darwin considers this question and suggests that the mental constitution of man requires very little which has no precursor or analogue in animal brains. He considers several factors responsible for the  difference in brain size including  adoption of erect posture, the adaptation of the hand, and the change from frugivorous to  animal diet. But Robert Briffault, a later anthropologist, feels this is too simplistic. He thinks the gap between animal and human cognition is too wide: not a mere matter of difference in degree, but in kind – especially the human use of conceptual thought. In his opinion the human mind is in part a social product, and conceptual thought derives from the development of language, itself initiated to express emotions and sentiments. Since the period of dependency of human infants is longer in man than other mammals and other primates, the individual is permanently a member of a solitary social group. The conclusion is paradoxical, immaturity at birth and retarded growth relative to other species results in greater brain development and intelligence in humans.1

Ernest Becker augments this thesis noting mammals, unlike reptiles, introduced into evolution the mother-child relationship whereby the young start life helplessly dependent (infantilization). This allows greater growth and maturation of the brain after birth, time for learning, and increased sensitivity to others of the same species. Becker sees the divergence at the australopithecines (man-apes) who had many human features (loss of large canines and upright posture for instance) but brains less than half of modern man’s. The critical point for Becker is that the large human brain is a rather late development. It appears to be an outgrowth of the preference for meat – starting with the early production of tools and expanding to organizational skills for living peacefully in order to hunt in groups.1

The success of human tribes requires sharing of food and fair access to reproduction and sex. The complexity of living within a human hunting group includes large variations in the maturity and social status of members, the need for a high level of sensitivity to other individuals, and careful assessment of sexual interest and availability (menstrual rather than estrous female cycles) requires enhanced reasoning and understanding –  which selected for a larger brain.2

(continued next post)

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TELEOLOGY – NATURAL SELECTION – PART IV – NON-HUMAN CONSCIOUSNESS (cont’d)

Last time we followed the presumptive development of animals and their complex nervous systems within the framework of natural selection and ended on the mysterious phenomenon of consciousness. Now the word ‘consciousness’  it turns out is undefinable – we all know what it is, but definitions seem to be circular – often involving a synonym such as ‘awareness.’ The clearest understanding is empirical: our direct knowledge of the state of consciousness when awake as compared to unconsciousness when we are in deep, dreamless sleep. If this comparative understanding is accepted, then we likely must accept that animals are conscious, for example, by analogy, I know my dog is conscious when awake versus unconscious when asleep. While philosophers and scientists argue how advanced a species must be for consciousness, I would argue, any creature with a brain (and by inference  – sensations, ability to react to  environment, and learning) has consciousness, though of course  the level of consciousness varies by the complexity of the organism’s brain.

But our interest is in the origin of consciousness at whatever level it is granted, that is, why or how did it appear, and does it imply design? The answer is elusive, but it seems that the complexity of integrated nerve networks simply leads to this emergent of novel characteristic in animals. And of course complexity theory anticipates that the larger numbers of neurons in more advanced brains lead to higher orders of consciousness. In and of itself then consciousness does not require teleology, and we may be at a dead end. This seems a more viable hypothesis than the proposal that a deity or ‘conscious’ universe cultivated by design animals with brains in order to derive finite consciousness as a tool for its ends.

Of course we can never know that premeditated design is untrue for consciousness, but such a hypothesis is untestable and defies empirical confirmation other than the testimony of some mystics which can never be validated second hand. Mystic testimony is at best only weak evidence that animal and human consciousness were planned.

However consciousness as a novel characteristic allows goals and purpose in the actions of animals which adds to earlier support of teleology at the level of the individual. Needless to say, human consciousness offers additional features beyond animals (to our knowledge) and will be the subject of the next blog on teleology and natural selection.

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TELEOLOGY – NATURAL SELECTION – PART V – NON- HUMAN CONCIOUSNESS

Consciousness cannot be defined: we may be ourselves fully aware what consciousness is, but we cannot without confusion convey to others  a definition of what we ourselves clearly apprehend. The reason is plain: consciousness lies at the root of all knowledge.– Sir William Hamilton.

 

 

 

In our analysis of natural selection, we have considered inorganic evolution, the appearance of life, and the evolution of organisms. Last time we found natural selection is likely independent of preordained design, but entails a directiveness and leads to a teleology within living things. Now we will focus on the appearance of consciousness, perhaps the most surprising of nature’s byproducts. This subject breaks into two parts: (1) non-human animal consciousness, and (2) human (reflexive) consciousness. This blog and the next will look at the first of these.

It seems most likely that early life was able to receive its energy directly from sunlight, using chlorophyll or a similar substance; which means most early living things were “plants.” These organisms would be able to float freely on or in water, and eventually could survive on land. But because they created energy directly from sunlight and a few simple surrounding chemicals, they did not need to evolve specialized functions such as locomotion or sensation. Thereafter some organisms living in an environment rich in plant matter abandoned photosynthesis and seized on deriving their energy for living by consumption of plant species, thus becoming the first animals. (Of course with time these early animals evolved and some even began to consume other animals leading to the scenario that exists today.)

But animals required new abilities including locomotion and sensory functions necessary to find food, water, and mates. New organ systems were required to permit these key functions, especially a nervous system. Early neurons were probably just specialized cells sensitive to temperature or touch. Over time these developed connections (synapses) with other neurons, forming nerves that could transmit information throughout the organism. Natural selection meant advantages for specialized senses – vision, hearing, touch, smell, and taste – and for greater mobility, balance, and fine movements, all of which depend on nerves. With time these nerves became integrated into networks or ganglia.

At some point, likely with early worms, ganglia in the front part of the organism (quite logical as that is where the mouth is located) became enlarged and began to coordinate the senses with the muscular system at which time the most primitive brains can be said to have formed. Increasingly complex organisms required larger brains. All of these changes seem to be reasonably explained by natural selection within a long enough time-frame.

Less easily explained is the still mysterious appearance of consciousness.  We will pick up there in the next post.

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TELEOLOGY – NATURAL SELECTION – PART IV – ORGANIC EVOLUTION (cont’d)

We saw in an earlier post3 that George Gaylord Simpson identified three theories on the forces acting throughout the history of life: (1) materialistic, (2) vitalistic, and (3) finalistic.

The materialistic theory argues that the evolution of life is simply an extension of the evolution of all matter with only the difference of the organization of life. The vitalistic theory suggests the possibility of forces peculiar to and inherent in life. The finalistic theory assumes a force that brings progression toward foreordained goals or a transcendental purpose.  Scientists typically affirm the materialistic theory. He does not see progress as an essential feature of evolution. Man is a new kind of animal with a second order of evolution – the ‘inheritance of learning’ or ‘societal evolution.’4 This phase of evolution does involve purpose and plan unlike organic evolution. Teleology then is an outgrowth of societal evolution not vice versa.

Bernard Rensch concedes an upward trend in organization of some animals, for example, mammals as compared to reptiles or fish, and considers it one of the “distinctive characteristics of life.”4 He also considers as fact their “capacity for progressive evolution.”5 But he is clear in a later chapter, that given the regular biological and biochemical laws that can explain evolution and the finite expectancy of life on any planet based on modern cosmology, science “can offer no proof of an ultimate aim of existence for the organisms which emerge and vanish again as life rolls on in a continuous stream, nor a purport of existence for the highest species, Homo sapiens. We humans too are no more than temporary, finite, highly complex systems of the protophenomenal ‘matter’ of which the world is composed, a ‘matter’ representing a system of certain relationships subject to universal laws… the ‘purport of existence’ can therefore be looked for in finite aims alone.6

Natural selection then leads to a denial of design behind the appearance and variation of living things and of  particular species, but does allow a directiveness and an internal teleology. Through man, a second order of ‘societal evolution’ leads to a novel teleology.

1Fadiman, Clifton, Editor, The Treasury of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.Viking Penguin, New York, 1992. ISBN 0-670-83568-4, page 434-440.

2Russell, E.S., The Directiveness of Organic Activities. Cambridge University Press, Great Britain, 1946. Page 1-9.

3See Post on this site September 4, 2019, Human Destiny – Part III – Biologic.

4Bernhard Rensch, Biophilosophy, Columbia University Press, New York, 1971. ISBN 0-231-03299-X, page 53.

5Ibid. Page 65.

6 Ibid. Page 314.

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TELEOLOGY – NATURAL SELECTION – PART IV – ORGANIC EVOLUTION

 “This survival of the fittest, which I have here sought to express in mechanical terms, is that which Mr. Darwin has called ‘natural selection’, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life.” – Herbert Spencer

Now we move to Darwinian evolution; the gradual development of species by virtue of variations in makeup (particularly genetic variation) and adaptability to environment.  Since the mid 19th century, natural selection has upended the religious explanation for man and other creatures. Julian Huxley presents the evidence in a 1926 entry in The Encyclopaedia Brittanica: (1) paleontology meaning fossilized remains of organisms now extinct, (2) embryology which in land animals repeats the forms of earlier species, (3) distribution of animals, (4) comparative anatomy, and (5) vestigial organs (e.g. remnants of limbs in snakes). Darwin “assumed as a fact the existence of variation, showed the universal presence of a struggle for existence due to the invariable birth of more young that can come to maturity, and then pointed out that this would inevitably lead on average to the survival of those that were best fitted to survive and so to evolutionary chance and progress.”1

E.S. Russell writing 80 years after Darwin sees natural selection as “directiveness.” He sees life as showing directed action towards the biological ends of self-maintenance, development, and reproduction in contradistinction to the inorganic . He does not see this as purposive, but neither is it completely mechanistic. In fact he considers this directive activity an “irreducible characteristic” of life. He believes trying to reduce biology to strict physical laws and data does not help us understand living things and their activities, and so is not sufficient for the biological sciences.2

(continued next post)

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