Given the complexity of the subject matter treated in Ms. Christoff-Kurapovna’s excellent essay, “Quiet Desperation & the English Way,” I hope to avoid unnecessary grand standing in my response, opting for taut rebuttal. To be clear: I rather disagree with her argument, and by implication, with Sir John Carew Eccles whose views on the Mind, evolution, and God Ms. Kurapovna presents and defends. I am not a scientist, so I will not pretend to write as a scientist. Rather, I will write as a lay person who happens to be more convinced by scientists opposed to Sir John Carew Eccles and as a Catholic who is convinced by the theological teachings of Pierre Tielhard de Chardin, Benedict XVI and Father George Coyne SJ rather than the theological conclusions reached by Mr. Eccles on the basis of arguments which are not scientific but rather aim to plug holes in scientific understanding with theological hypothesizing – something which I believe to be bad science, worse art.
Naturally, all of us who are not scientists can never fully grasp this subject matter, and thus I hope not to attack, but merely offer this essay of mine as a charitable rebuke which, I am sure, wiser readers will see as one large question begging for answers.
On Biological Evolution & The Philosophy of Mind
I am as yet unaware of any scientific evidence, be it in the form of proven experiment or paleontological discovery which even hints at any purpose, meaning or design (Divine or otherwise) in the history of biological evolution, whether of wombats, wallabies or the human mind. All of biology demonstrates beyond any doubt that evolution is totally random. Here, one must take into account what is meant when biologists use the term “random” to describe evolution. Of course everything has its cause; the logic of causality is not at issue. Random evolution does not mean that evolutionary processes take place outside of the logic of cause and effect. Random evolution does mean that given the multiplicity of possible causes and possible effects that could appear in the evolutionary process at any given point, the combination of the exact, specific causes and effects that make up the history of evolution are random. To be rather precise, the mechanisms of evolution (natural or artificial) always work according to the principle of random variation generated by mutation. This is not an opinion, nor a theory – it is a fact of basic biology. Non-biologists often simply do not understand this distinction, which leads them to proclaim purpose or meaning where there is no evidence for it. It is worth noting that in her essay, Ms. Kurapovna provides no such evidence either. In place of scientific evidence, she writes:
“I am constrained,” Mr. Eccles wrote in his 1991 book Evolution of the Brain: Creation of the Self, “to attribute the uniqueness of the Self or Soul to a supernatural spiritual creation.” Darwinian Evolution, he continued, just fell too short. The facts require “Divine creation” because “no other explanation is tenable; neither the genetic uniqueness with its fantastically impossible lottery, nor the environmental differentiations which do not determine one’s uniqueness, but merely modify it. This conclusion is of inestimable theological significance…”
Yet, as a matter of science, “facts” never “require” anything as a consequence of those facts. The fact that hydrogen atoms combined with oxygen atoms did not require that protozoa would later evolve in water. Likewise the fact that rat-like mammals survived the extinction of the dinosaurs did not require these creatures to later evolve into human beings. Likewise the random attachments of certain parasites to certain hosts did not always have to require that the hosts evolved at the biochemical level thanks to rather than despite the parasite, which sometimes led to the death of other hosts. Certainly the battle of Dan-no-ura did not require the later evolution of the Heike crab. That an evolutionary cause and effect pattern can be discerned in both natural and artificial evolution does not mean that this evolution was not random.
Likewise, the lack of facts certainly does not and cannot logically require that they must be explained by “Divine creation” at any stage of scientific inquiry, no matter how exhausting our inquiry has been. It is simply bad science. Paleontology and biology are not criminology, where deduction can take the place of digging. While biologists and paleontologists do construct hypotheses about evolution on the basis of known facts, these hypotheses are constantly modified with the emergence of new data. Naturally, since no scientific data can ever emerge about the Divine, a hypothesis “explaining” scientific problems by reference to Divine causes cannot be falsified nor proven and is irrelevant to scientific knowledge. Yet, the “God of the gaps” is not only poor science, it is worse theology because it reduces God to something He is not (more on this point later). No amount of inexplicable mystery resulting from scientific inquiry can justify jumping from the inexplicable to Divine explanation, because by definition, God is inexplicable and cannot therefore be an explanation Himself.
As a matter of philosophy, it is, of course, tempting to return eternally to certain philosophers for insights regarding the nature and origin of the Mind, the Soul, the self-conscious ‘I’ and so forth, but it is disingenuous do so whenever one reaches the limits of contemporary scientific inquiry and is faced with questions science is as yet incapable of answering. It is highly dubious to do so without even pausing to consider the paleontological and neuro-paleontological evidence which fairly conclusively maps the evolution of the conscious Mind. We can agree that all living things have “souls” if by “soul” we mean anima, animating principles. However, given what science teaches us about those animating principles, it is a far cry from acknowledging souls as animating principles and acknowledging an ethereal, spiritual being which, as Ms. Kurapovna writes, “survives death—a conclusion Mr. Eccles came to as a result of his scientific research, not a hypotheses he randomly, or hopefully, started with. This self-conscious Mind does not fit other known physical phenomena or known physical laws.”
In point of fact, anything which by definition does not fit known physical phenomena or known physical laws cannot therefore be a scientific “conclusion,” and cannot be the “result of scientific research.” The results of scientific research that a scientist can term a “conclusion” must be verifiable in a laboratory experiment or, in the case of paleontology, verified by physical evidence. Yet not only is Mr. Eccles’ “conclusion” erroneously advanced as the result of “scientific research,” but no mention is made of the vast quantity of scientific research and paleontological discoveries which lead to the opposite conclusion.
If we take the time to study the work of the actual paleontologists who have been digging and writing since Darwin rather than reading Descartes, we find an imposing body of evidence which suggests how the human brain evolved. An excellent place for the lay reader to start is with Christopher Stringer and Robin McKie’s “African Exodus,” which I found to be a perfect primer in paleontology and evolutionary biology. For the visually inclined, no better condensed history of paleontology exists than the Nova documentary Becoming Human.
Above all, if anyone wishes to have a serious discussion about the evolution of consciousness in the human brain, the best place to start seems to be with brain endo-casts. Brain endo-casts are fashioned inversely from the fossilized skulls of our ancestors and they clearly show that the portions of the brain preoccupied with vision receded over time in favor of the portions of the brain responsible for cognition in general as can be seen with reference to the lunate sulcus. The most important factor in the growth of the human brain was hunting meat, which was rich in protein. Hunting meat became feasible only when homo erectus appeared, because only homo erectus was anatomically capable of running long distances; and hunting was a marathon, not a sprint. A secondary factor was the principle contribution of homo habilis, namely the capacity to make tools (useful for homo erectus when killing prey). The most important factor in brain evolution was the loss of the majority of our hair and the ability of our ancestors to sweat through the skin, as opposed to our prey, which required long periods of immobility, mouth agape, to avoid overheating, thus giving our ancestors the advantage in the hunt. If we did not first sweat, we would not have later developed advanced conscious thought—hardly logical, very random, factually correct. Consciousness as such, or what Ms. Kurapovna calls “the highest levels of consciousness in homo sapiens sapiens—self-consciousness—the unique experience of each human self” actually evolved long before homo sapiens and was evident in Neanderthals, homo erectus and homo habilis to some degree.
In one of many instances of proof that evolution is random, fossil evidence suggests that bipedalism, which was a prerequisite for brain development in homo habilis and homo erectus, was a characteristic of Australopithecus, whose brain was still no more “conscious” than that of a chimpanzee. Nevertheless, Australopithecus walked on two legs, and without this characteristic, the future evolution of the brain would not have been possible. Yet this creature, standing on two legs for reasons scientists can only speculate, marked the beginning of our journey to consciousness. This journey would not have been possible without the radical environmental changes that, at one point, compelled our ancestors to adapt to extreme variations in living conditions, thus stimulating prolonged brain creativity. Of course, neither of these factors alone, nor in combination with tool making, sweating, meat-eating and so forth, can be shown to have arisen linearly.
There is no “bio-historical progress” of evolutionary history, only chance encounters. What appears progressive on the Macro-scale is sinusoidal on the Micro-scale. Whether we like it or not, the scientific data is staggeringly in favor of the very “lottery” view of evolution that Ms. Kurapovna refuses, with Mr. Eccles, to accept which is likely why this evidence is often simply not presented by those who would advocate any form of “intelligent design” – or presented in the wrong way. That there remain vast gaps in the six-million-year-old evolution of the hominids, just as there remain gaps in the evolutionary history of Earth itself, is no more proof for Divine creation than any random event from last week, last year, last century. That these events, seen on the macro-scale, appear to have taken place in seamless sequence is illusory, as any detailed analysis of most evolutionary processes demonstrates, beginning from the very principles of biochemical mutation.
The fossil evidence for the development of human consciousness communicates the following: self-consciousness matured with social consciousness. The homo ergaster known as Turkana boy is a prime example of this, though homo habilis’ capacity to build fires and make tools in groups also indicates it. Socialization around the fireplace or the rock quarry awakened our ancestors to the existence of the Other, and once the primitive recognition of “Other” is made, a category and identity of “Self” can arise in conscious form. Turkana boy is perhaps the most moving example of this because fossil records have shown that he was physically deformed and dying from a painful tooth infection that eventually rotted his brain. Yet given his relatively advanced age, it is clear that he was not regarded as expendable. He was part of his society and he was cared for. He likely died while attempting to return to the females of his society, unable to press on in his venture due to the extreme pain his disease caused. Everything about this amazing find points to creatures cognizant of the dignity of the individual self and the duty to care for the other. Of course, there is likewise fossil evidence for a consciousness so advanced as to conceive of religion. Hisashi Suzuki and later Yoel Rak both made a fascinating discovery; the grave of a fifty-thousand-year-old Neanderthal in Galilea who, by all indications, was given a religious funeral which indicated the existence not only of a consciousness of the Other and the Self, but of Mystery as well (so much for Christopher Hitchens’ question, “where was God over the space of ninety thousand years, why did He show up only a couple of thousand years ago?”)
It is true that one cannot speak directly to the evolution of homo sapiens’ conscious mind by indirect reference to the evolution of his ancestors or those species which, like Neanderthals, were for a time his contemporary. Certainly neurologists cannot study the pre-human brain, because brains do not fossilize. Nevertheless, it is likewise impossible to speak of our species’ brain-consciousness evolution abstracted from broader evolutionary history. Having briefly dwelt upon that history, we may now come to homo sapiens himself and feign no surprise that he was capable of understanding the tides on the coast of South Africa in order to fish on the shore, nor that he happened to express symbolism and art in his caves. Certainly, we have no reason, given the vast quantity of paleontological data, backed up by new discoveries in genetic dating, to require, let alone accept as plausible, that all of this was orchestrated by a Divine Being who, like some Swiss clock maker, fitted all of the pieces just right. Quite the contrary, we might ask ourselves, given the imperfections of the human consciousness and the foul habit of human beings to never use their brains before their brawn: if this is all God’s work, then why is it so flawed?
This question, of course, is not a scientific question, but a theological one. Science does not tell us that this universe is “flawed” any more than it tells us that this universe is shaped in the Divine image. Science only tells us what this universe is. It does not assign any value to the universe, nor does it devalue the universe. Science does, however, rather conclusively explain the evolution of human brain-consciousness and while the precise workings of the brain remain in question, there is little doubt as to how the current human brain came to be. Most importantly, it is clear that consciousness of the self and Mind emerged long before homo sapiens; unless we wish to be snobs and claim ourselves wiser than homo habilis. If so – I invite anyone to try to fashion tools as exact and effective as the ones homo habilis fashioned. We know how conscious Mind arose and can know how without God. To squeeze God into the gaps is actually sacrilegious because it risks reducing God when those gaps are themselves reduced by the introduction of new paleontological data.
On Biological Evolution & Theology
This brings us to the question of theology. In order to avoid misunderstanding at the outset, I will be clear that I will address these matters solely from the perspective of Catholic theology. In doing so, I do not mean to imply that other religions have nothing to contribute. Rather, as a Catholic, I wish to share the ideas of my religion in relation to the universal problems discussed above. The best starting point for these reflections are the words of Benedict XVI who, speaking to these issues as Joseph Ratzinger in 1968 (Bavarian Lectures, Polish edition of Einfuhrung in das Christentum) made crystal clear that Christianity had no cause for alarm on account of the relativization of thinking brought about by scientific progress because Christianity is a relativist religion.
As the future Pope Benedict XVI, the intellectual authority of modern Catholicism, argued quite clearly: Christianity is a relativist religion because the whole basis of Christianity is Christ relative to you and you relative to Christ. Christianity is, fundamentally, about a relationship. The absolutism of the Jewish God is not an accurate description of the Christian God because it is not the Platonic Absolute that the Jews worshipped, it is the Absolute-Person whose coming they yearned for. The personified absolute is distinct from the impersonal Platonic and Aristotelian absolute. It is also distinct from the Absolute as Nothing of Asian religion. The Cross, in fact, is a crossroads between East and West; between the impersonal absolute as some Thing and the impersonal absolute as no Thing in the Person of the suffering Son of Man and his relative status within the Trinity and via mankind. Thus, Benedict XVI argues, there is no reason to fear scientific relativism, just as there is no reason to fear inter-religious dialogue: both can be cathartic for Catholics, whose religion—Christianity—is a relativist religion.
With this in mind, we must take into account the theological thought of a Jesuit who Benedict XVI never ceases to reference in the various theological works that I have read of his: Pierre Tielhard de Chardin. Father de Chardin deserves a separate essay of his own, but here it is enough to write that this paleontologist developed a radical theology which took account of the discoveries of paleontology and the history of biological evolution. de Chardin recognized that the birth of human consciousness was unique in biological evolution and marked the beginning of a sphere beyond the biological; a sphere of the Mind, which de Chardin called the Nousphere. However, unlike earlier theology, de Chardin did not consider the Mind, Nousphere, separate from the Biosphere but saw them as overlapping; the one grew out of and immediately into the other. The greatest manifestation of this was the life of Jesus Christ; the intrusion into the biosphere of the highest form of the Nousphere; of the height of conscious Mind. This in and of itself suggests the randomness of evolutionary processes; not its’ linearity, since if true, it means that the highest form of Mind is behind us; we are regressing in time from it. Of course, this is not so, and Father de Chardin does not believe it to be so precisely because he understands what randomness in evolution means. What appears, over the course of two thousand years, as a regression may yet become a progression towards unity. Father de Chardin’s principle theological work, the human phenomenon, was a spirited defense of Catholic dogma in light of paleontology. While de Chardin, who wrote and worked in as an exile in China for the first half of the twenieth century, committed many errors (including scientific errors), the framework of his theology was solid and was clearly adapted by Benedict XVI who had a better grasp than de Chardin of theology as such.
Thus, Benedict XVI argues that Christians should not follow the ancient Greeks in their understanding of the immortal soul because the immortal soul is a scientific impossibility. Certainly Benedict XVI, who opposed the idea of an immortal soul rooted in Socratic rationality, opposed it all the more so when presumably rooted in science. Instead, Benedict XVI recommends Catholics embrace the Catholic teaching of the resurrection of the body, noting that by “the body”, Catholics should understand “somebody” or, as the Jesuit Cosmologist George Coyne puts it “the Person”. Theologically, this concept has been identified by, amongst others, the Jesuit François Varillon as the “spiritual body of Christ.” Varrilon argues in his book Joie de croire, joie de vivre, that the spiritual body of the Risen Christ is not the resurrected body of Lazarus, nor is it a disembodied soul. The resurrection of Lazarus is a miracle which is not akin to the passage through death to eternal life, but is a return from death to finite life on Earth. The Risen Christ has not returned to His finite life on Earth, but has passed through death to everlasting life.
Benedict XVI, identifies the passage through death as Christ’s descent to Hell. Hell, teaches the Pope, is “not a cosmological dimension, but a personal dimension.” He goes on to define this personal dimension in the language of Sartre and Hess as essentially being the murder of God by the individual in his heart; the fulfillment of Nietzsche’s proclamation “God is dead and we have killed Him.” The murder of God in the life of the individual begins with man closing himself to others and remaining within himself. This is because in everyday life, the Other is the image of God; God is eternally—as Levinas teaches–in the face of the Other. Hell is a personal dimension where man is alone with himself. It is not a cosmological dimension “below” us, any more than Heaven is a cosmological dimension “above” us.
It follows, of course, that since neither Heaven, nor Hell, are cosmological dimensions, then God is likewise not a cosmological dimension. For the Christian, God is always a personal dimension named Jesus Christ. This argument is radically at odds with earlier cosmological concepts of God and the Universe such as those so beautifully summarized by C.S. Lewis in his The Discarded Image. God is, in fact, completely divorced from science—as well He should be. If we wish to glimpse the conceptual essence of God, Benedict XVI teaches us, we need only grasp the Personhood of Christ: Love. Love is the definition of God, not any sort of scientific theology or metaphysical construction. Love is the essence of God and Love is always and everywhere a relationship between Lover and Loved and the Spirit of Love which dwells within them and is embodied in them.
God is love. God is not an “explanation.” He is not an explanation for consciousness or Mind or gum trees or human anatomy or sunshine or photosynthesis. God is love. Science, a discipline of the human mind, is a tool for discovering explanations. God is love. Love requires no explanation, transcends explanations. Love acts. What does Love do? It loves. Who does it love? Us. What is it? Christ. This is the Catholic teaching. This teaching has nothing to do with the chemical structure of the brain and never will. This teaching is independent of future scientific discoveries because even if science explains love and concocts it in a laboratory out of chemicals and genes, it will never do more than what Mary did when concocting love in the laboratory of her womb out of chemicals and genes. The creation and the explanation are always secondary to the phenomenon and its action.
This is something British and American religious thought tend to misunderstand because they misunderstand what is broadly known as Continental Philosophy. They misunderstand Nietzsche as a destroyer of “values” when in fact Nietzsche created values because of the collapse of principles. They misunderstand Heidegger as a nihilist when in fact Heidegger was a believer in Care and the supremacy of religious poetry above philosophy. They misunderstand Levinas and Husserl. The causes of these misunderstandings are many; chiefly I think they have to do with history; the tragic history of the German and Continental mind as opposed to the jolly history of the British and American mind. Thus, the Anglo-American mind seems forever intent upon viewing God as an explanation. Little wonder that, like Richard Dawkins, when the Anglo-American mind discovers science, it rejects God as an inferior explanation or embraces God as Mr. Eccles and proponents of Intelligent Design do, as an explanation for the unexplainable. The Continental mind rejects both because God is Love, not an explanation.
It may be asked, in conclusion, what exactly this disagreement is about? For in the end, Ms. Kurapovna and Mr. Eccles proclaim God as a result of scientific inquiry and as “required” by the facts of evolution, while de Chardin, Father Coyne and Benedict XVI proclaim God against the results of scientific inquiry and against the facts of evolution, both of which clearly make God superfluous in the scheme of things. Since both views proclaim God, what is the point of disagreement? Chiefly, the point of disagreement is over the definition of God (since clearly it cannot be the disagreement over science–God is not and never will be a scientific explanation for anything). For if God is an explanation that fills the gaps, if He is “required” by facts of this world, then He is not God in the Christian sense: he is a tangible part of the facts of the universe of which He Himself is a part and which His Being explains. Such a view of God reduces the God of the Apostles into a necessary component of a finite time and space which we just happen to call “infinite” without really divorcing His infinity from finitude. Such a God is seen as a Creator in the same sense that Mozart created his music or Henry Ford his car. This type of creation is interpreted in the modern, scientific sense and does not accord with Biblical accounts which were a poetic testimony written in pre-scientific times. To nurture our faith in the God of the Bible requires a Biblical heart, not a scientific mind. The “God of the gaps” offers us nothing of value in terms of science except to serve as a large place-holder indicating where deeper research is necessary. As religion–we must ask: do we really want to reduce the Lord to a placeholder in our biology books?
The God of the Catholic faith is not a soothing explanation, He is a desperate question: “Father, why have you forsaken me?” This question, asked first in the Psalms then on the Cross, is the question of the human condition, understood at some level throughout history, made visible by science. We are alone in a meaningless universe, a universe which itself, like Man, is a Being-Towards-Death due to the principle of entropy. In this meaningless universe towards death, there is no scientific means for discovering hope, and all philosophical inquiries end in illusion or despair. Human life is a tragedy; human consciousness is the history of awareness of tragedy. Human accomplishment is a defensive mechanism turning our gaze away from the darkness. This darkness eventually catches up to us all, as it caught up to Christ, forsaken by God on the Cross. When it does, when the terror of man alone in a nihilistic void strikes him, only then does he awaken—somewhat like Nietzsche’s supreme pessimist from the 54th aphorism of Beyond Good and Evil—into a total submission to the Father, a total rebirth in Christ. Christ is not an explanation, he is a question posed to each of us in the form of loving words and deeds despairing on the cross. He is indeed superfluous to the universe at large precisely because He has humbled Himself to appear in history to die pointlessly for a pointless humanity in order that, through His death, human life might acquire a meaning it previously did not have. This is the point that marks the beginning of the Nousphere proper. It is a point which appears illogical, inexplicable, untenable. It is a point which, like the points in the microcosm of biological evolution, appears contradictory and unclear in direction. It is a small blip in cosmic time and it may yet become a unitary point in the ultimate destiny of the universe. This is why Christianity is a matter of faith, and this is also why we must take care not to console ourselves with a “God of explanations” lest we lose sight of the poetic truth of the Bible and the superiority of poetic to scientific truths. To marvel at the creation and praise the Creator is wholly separate from knowing the creation (science) and knowing the Creator (faith). So separate in fact that the Biblical concept of knowing, ידע, which is etymologically tied to love, is not the modern scientific concept of knowing.
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