A belated reaction to the splendid ‘Don’t worry, God probably doesn’t exist, so stop worrying and get on with life’ bus adverts going around London a while back. Excellent – I’m only sorry that there aren’t more.
How about ‘God was just Jesus’ imaginary friend’, or perhaps ‘God’s only excuse is that he doesn’t exist’ over a picture of a small child in Auschwitz? I’ve always wondered what excuse God will come up with over that one. If I had stood by and done nothing when I could have ended all that suffering in an instant, can you imagine what the world would have thought of me? So why think otherwise of God?
But despite the rightness of the sentiment, Richard Dawkins (who I believe a hand in these advertisements) is far from having a credible answer to the problem religion is trying to solve. His response to religion seems to be, in brief, that it is scientifically incorrect, and so should be disregarded. The first part is right enough, although I doubt that the Pope or the Archbishop of Canterbury would consider it much of a criticism. But I am sure that they would respond – equally correctly, I’m afraid – that religion isn’t about empirical truth anyway. And when they start getting onto what religion is about, their solutions may be completely fanciful but they are also solutions to perfectly real problems before which science (at least in the guise Dawkins favours) is as helpless as a baby.
Religion is about meaning – about what life means, about where we come from and where we are going to, about our relationship with one another, with ourselves, and with the world. The religious response to all these questions is God, which is where I, like Dawkins, get off. But they are all perfectly valid questions: without a sense that life has any meaning, not much is left but boredom, horror and ashes. Yet this is precisely what Dawkins is committed to. Not only is his general (very conventional) account of science absolutely incapable of posing, let alone answering, questions of meaning, but the specific theories to which he is committed – above all natural selection – is completely opposed to the idea that life has any meaning at all. In this he finds himself in good, if uncongenial company, for Stephen Jay Gould, who seems to have disagreed mightily with Dawkins about the very Darwinism to which they were jointly committed, once wrote a sad little book about the place of the individual in evolution, and could only conclude that individuals were empty, futile, accidental things.
In both Gould and Dawkins’ versions of Darwinism, there is no way out: not only does life have no intrinsic significance (true) but it is quite unthinkable that we should have the capacity to construct a meaningful reality (profoundly false). In their conventional forms, random variation and natural selection allow no space for meaning over and above being programmed to seek out and respond to things that enhance our reproductive fitness. Above that level there may be all manner of meaning-like things, but that is where they all lead. But if meaning is really just code for reproductive fitness (or making a lot of money, or any other contemporary cultural shibboleth) then it is resting on its own antithesis. Like existentialism and a dozen other philosophies, the only advice it can offer is to look the other way, and then die. Meaning is essential if the scientific view of life is not to be turned into a tragedy, but if the best we can hope for is Dawkins/Gould/Dennett’s narrow reading of Darwinism and scientistic undermining of meaning, the only possible outcome is the mutually assured destruction of science and happiness.
It is clear from their writings that not that either Dawkins or Gould is comfortable in this position. Who would be? This is their lives we are talking about too – according to their own theories, meaningless accidents. Yet when they try to get out of this bind – as when Dawkins appeals to our big brains to fight back against the worst excesses of our genes or Daniel Dennett (another member of this charmless circle) asserts that real freedom just ‘evolved’ because it was selectively advantageous that it should – they just sound stupid. Were they – and we – not so blinded by the authority of this rather trite interpretation of natural selection, we would all be shouting that the emperor has no clothes. Or rather, that he may be fully dressed, but he is not emperor.
And it is all so unnecessary. Natural selection is completely compatible with the idea that intelligent beings are capable of constructing a meaningful reality, and we don’t have to be constantly undermining ourselves by sneaking back and claiming that it’s all really about reproductive fitness after all. The crucial thing to understand is that, just as there are things that precede evolution and cannot be sensibly explained in such terms – the whole of physics and chemistry, for example – so there may be things that are every bit a material as bodies and genes and nervous systems, but which are also post-biological. That is, they rely entirely on the existence of a functional biological ‘platform’, but once that platform is assured, their interests are as far removed from those of life in general as life in general is from a chemical reaction. The differences are qualitative, fundamental, and include a huge range of novelties – consciousness, history, culture, technology, and so on.
This layer is intelligence. And I cannot emphasise too strongly that this is not simply as intelligence considered as just another faculty of the brain. Rather, the relationship between intelligence and life in general is much the same as that between life in general and chemistry or chemistry and physics – a radical reorganisation leading to both the resolution of key problems biology by itself finds insuperable and the introduction of new problems that our biology finds unintelligible.
The former includes the objectivity (as expressed in science, technology, industry, and the possibilities of radical environmental management) that allows intelligence to ‘see’ random variation and natural selection in a completely different (i.e., objective) light from any non-intelligent creature, and so to grasp its logic and the solutions it requires in ways that completely circumvent evolution itself. The second is this very problem of meaning, which spins form the very same source – the objectivity that tells us not only our place in evolution but also questions our place in the universe and in our own existences. Sometimes intelligence comes up with blindingly incorrect answers of which religion is only the longest running. But that does not mean that it cannot come up with something better. Darwinism, for example.
So if Richard Dawkins – and the late Stephen Jay Gould and all the other biologists – cannot even imagine this possibility, it is not because Darwinism precludes it (see my Birth of Reason) but because they are unable to grasp that Darwinism describes only one step, and by no means the last, in existence. And intelligence is the next.