Friday, 17 April 2009

Accounting For Life

What does the breadth of the reality of human experience point to? What set of facts can most easily account for life as we know it? What ultimate reality most comfortably explains the wide range of things that happen in the world? When I ask those questions, the things I'm thinking about are those which cluster around man. He's an amazing creature. He can accomplish astonishing things when he puts his mind to it, in a breath-takingly wide realm. Breath-takingly good, and breath-takingly bad. Men can plan and study to reach the moon - and get there. On the other hand, ten-year old children can torture and then murder toddlers in cold blood. Man can work obsessively for years for some grand achievement of study, athletics, business or otherwise. Or they can lie around wasting their lives doing nothing, taking drugs, stealing, etcetera. Amazing acts of good can be performed - whether one-off acts of incredible heroics, or lifetimes of self-less service. Appalling atrocities of evil can also take place - whether the one-off act of slaughter of 9/11, or the year-after-year killing machines of Stalin's Russia or Tsedong's China. There is the beauty of a classical symphony, and the genius of the boy chess grandmaster; there is the pointlessness of going out every Saturday night to get drunk. There's all the world of literature and arts; and the empty lives wasted in bitterness, moaning and complaining and watching never-ending television. What account of reality can most comfortably take in all of this?

Some atheists try to rule this question out of court as soon as it's asked. They are called "logical positivists". They believe that no idea should be accepted unless it can be proved from first principles. Unless there's a mathematical-type working out beginning at the assumptions and landing at the conclusion "therefore, God", they won't accept it. Because the above set of questions aren't in this mode, therefore they think its OK to ignore them. Logical positivism, though, is not itself logically provable. You have to accept it as a prior philosophical assumption before you begin. Or in other words, it's a faith position. There's no way of proving from first assumptions that logical positivism should be dictating what is or isn't an acceptable argument - and there's no non-arbitrary set of "first assumptions" for the logical positivist to start with anyway. If logical positivism can't account for itself, it's not reasonable to make it the arbiter of what else we should accept. It's an intellectually vacuous position, and those atheists only cling to it because they don't like where reasonably considered evidence actually leads.

If, then, it is reasonable to toss aside logical positivism and ask whether atheism or Christianity most reasonably accounts for reality as we know it, what do we get?

Christianity accounts for the range of human experience with two key assertions. Firstly, an original perfect creation by God. Secondly, a terrible fall when the first humans rebelled against their maker. The wonderful beauty of the creation and the incredible achievements of man are because we are not just animals - God made us in his own image. The heights we can climb are echoes of what he made us for. The terrible pits of depravity come from the fall, when sin came into the world and corrupted everything. We are now not only objects of God's love and kindness, but of his wrath and displeasure, and he often withdraws his favour and the restraint that holds the flood-tides of our evil back. As a result, we are still capable of wonderful things - but also of terrible things. Indeed, it's only because we remember the wonderful that we are so appalled by the terrible. If one ant fights and kills another to be queen, it has no real significance. But when one child kills another, we're right to be appalled. Christianity asserts that both the beauty and the squalor are real - and make perfect sense, because of where we've come from.

The consistent atheist, though, is at a real loss here. Relying on Darwinism as his explanation for man's nature, he only has one tool to explain humanity where the Christian had two. The Christian can use both creation and fall to interpret what he sees; but the atheist has only a single idea - the survival of superior genes. According to the atheist, man comes as a result of the struggle for survival. Features that had some survival value have survived - features that didn't, haven't. All that we have now is something we have because it was somehow useful in the competition for limited resources. Our ancestors were fish and before that amoeba - and everything that makes us differ from them is in our genes, because of Darwinism. Whether it's the ability to compose Beethoven's third, or the genius who can do university-level abstract mathematics at age 11, or the senseless killing of Jamie Bulger, somehow it's all something to do with those selfish bits of DNA. Does someone perform some heroic self-sacrifice for no personal benefit? That's because of Darwinism. Does someone perform some horrifically selfish and pointless act of wanton destruction? That's because of Darwinism too.

The problem the atheist has here is that Darwinism is a monergistic system. It has only one principle to explain everything. Does X happen? Darwinism. Does the opposite of X happen? Darwinism again. Darwinism's a hammer, so everything's got to be a nail. When dealing with such a wide and impressive range of data as that found in man, though, this fails badly. In this kind of case, when a single idea purports to explain both everything and its perfect opposite, it testifies that really it explains nothing. If selfish genes lead both to pointless destruction and glorious creativity, then ultimately they lead to neither. They become nothing more than a "just so" story, retro-actively engineered not to explain the facts, but to explain them away. Handel's Messiah, the nun's vow of perpetual chastity, and the desire of this blogger to run a faster marathon are self-evidently not mere by-products of the struggle for limited resources or opportunities for reproduction. The attempts to make them appear so serve only to make the Darwinian Emporer's lack of attire more obvious.

Christianity provides a plausible explanation for man, in his height and in his depths. The atheistic alternative explains neither. That's because the former, unlike the latter, is actually true. Wouldn't it be better to face up to the implications of that, instead of running away?

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