grasping at space



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  • Thursday, June 02, 2005

    Human nature is nothing new

    From Mark at WitNit, on that old time religion:

    [Many scientists] look at history and point to the ignorance of religion, its superstitions, its justifications for oppression and slaughter. And these same scientists forget that the same finger can be pointed to science. That natural selection has given thousands of power brokers justification for financial, legal, and military control, manipulation and slaughter, all in the name of "survival of the fittest." That Einstein's greatest scientific discovery led to atomic weapons.

    That Science AS PROOF [emphasis his] of no external moral intelligence or design has led to thousands and millions of people who see no reason to take responsibility for being decent and good, who see no good reason not to be out for themselves at the expense of others.

    I want to focus on the second of those paragraphs.

    It is true of some people that they will use the lack of an “external moral intelligence or design” as a justification for an evil act. It’s also true that a perhaps roughly equal number of people have used the existence of such an intelligence or design to justify an evil act. And there are undoubtedly several other possible justifications for an evil act that have nothing at all to do with whether or not there is an external moral intelligence or design. Now, reread this paragraph, replacing the phrase “an evil act” with “the indulgence in a benign vice.” Now, reread this paragraph again, replacing that phrase with “a good act.”

    If the statement of the author of the Book of Ecclesiastes – that there is nothing new under the sun – is true of anything, it is certainly true of human nature. Human nature did not change upon publication of Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief Systems of the World, or Darwin’s Origin of Species, or Einstein’s General and Special Theories of Relativity. A person will do what she wants, not because of the existence or non-existence of an external moral intelligence or design, but simply because it is what she wants to do. Other people’s ideas may influence her, but in the end, unless she truly acted under duress, her motives are her own and no one else’s. If you turn on the typical episode of Cops, you will see a lot of selfish people, but no clear line of causation from a scientific theory to a criminal act.

    Important note to readers: I’m focusing on the second quoted paragraph above because when I first read it, I heard faint echoes of the old Christian fundamentalist complaint that ever since Darwin, the world has allegedly gone down the tubes. I want to emphasize that the paragraph I’m focusing on certainly does not represent Mark’s main point. The article as a whole deals with (1) whether scientists are just as guilty of making leaps of faith about the non-existence of God as believers are of making leaps of faith about God’s existence, and (2) the validity of personal experience in deciding what is true. Read the excellent article (and the comments) for yourself.