No design, no purpose, no evil and no good

Great Saturday morning — one of those rare moments when sunshine somehow manages to get into our livingroom (fortunately, this shadowy environment is going to change soon… in a couple of weeks we will be in our new home).

Stumbled upon a good old Richard Dawkins text that appears in River Out of Eden:

The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive; others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear; others are being slowly devoured from within by rasping parasites; thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst and disease. It must be so. If there is ever a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored.

Theologians worry away at the “problem of evil” and a related “problem of suffering”. On the day I originally wrote this paragraph, the British newspapers all carried a terrible story about a bus full of children from a Roman Catholic school that crashed for no obvious reason, with wholesale loss of life. Not for the first time, clerics were in paroxysms over the theological question that a writer on a London newspaper (The Sunday Telegraph) framed this way: “How can you believe in a loving, all-powerful God who allows such a tragedy?” The article went on to quote one priest’s reply: “The simple answer is that we do not know why there should be a God who lets these awful things happen. But the horror of the crash, to a Christian, confirms the fact that we live in a world of real values: positive and negative. If the universe was just electrons, there would be no problem of evil or suffering.”

On the contrary, if the universe were just electrons and selfish genes, meaningless tragedies like the crashing of this bus are exactly what we should expect, along with equally meaningless good fortune. Such a universe would be neither evil nor good in intention. It would manifest no intentions of any kind. In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.

Yes, it almost sounds like he is advocating that it is OK to behave with ‘pitiless indifference’, it is OK not to try to differentiate evil from good, and it is OK to live a life without a purpose. But, again and again, let’s not fall in the trap of the naturalistic fallacy and let’s follow Hume’s guillotine: what is true is not necessarily ought to be true. From the statement that nature has ‘nothing, but blind, pitiless indifference’, it does not follow that this state of the world is awesome and we should be indifferent and selfish.

Understanding evolution

I stumbled upon a new website on evolution, created as a teaching resource by the by the University of California Museum of Paleontology. Among its many authors are Eugenie C. Scott (director of the National Center for Science Education) and Carl Zimmer (who wrote Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea). Excellent website, there is material that could fill a book (or more), including subjects like the nature of science, evolution 101, history of evolutionary thought, etc. It is websites like these that increase exponentially the value of the internet and make it worthwile to pay the monthly fee for a high-speed connection…