Friday, October 21, 2005

Evolution and Religion

I recently attended a day long seminar at Wits University, titled The Story of Life - A new perspective on South Africa's 3.5 billion year fossil record. It was a large event - there must have been about a thousand people who attended. There were 18 lectures from prominent South African palaeontologists, geologists, geneticists, and archaeologists, who sketched out what science currently knows about the origins and evolution of life. It was absolutely fascinating, and confirms - for me at least - the wealth of evidence and data that currently supports evolutionary theory.

The seminars fuelled some of my own thinking on the perceived tension between religion and evolutionary theory. The more I learn about evolution, the more I fail to understand why there is tension at all. I, for one, strongly believe - and have for sometime - that evolutionary theory does not prove or disprove the existence of God. Any atheist or agnostic who claims that God does not exist because of evolutionary theory is using a faulty argument - evolutionary theory only tries to explain the changes that we observe in living organisms, including humans, over time. It makes no claims at all about the supernatural.

Moreover, there are many Christians - referred to as theistic evolutionists - who have no problem at all with evolution. From what I understand, theistic evolutionists believe that God created life, and he guided evolution to bring about man. In fact, when I was still a Christian at university, studying Botany, I had come to accept evolution in animals and plants, although I still had reservations about human evolution at the time.

I should also note that evolution had nothing to do with my struggle and eventual journey away from Christianity - this was a result of other philosophical problems that I had with my faith. I think that, if I were still a Christian, I would have finally accepted evolution in its entirety. I believe that evolution is compatible with a belief in God - it only presents a problem for those who hold a literal interpretation of the bible.

So this means that I will never use the argument that proof of evolution disproves the existence of God. Likewise, if creationists ever convince me that evolution is false, I will not automatically accept this as proof of God's existence. I believe that God's existence does not depend on the proof or disproof of evolutionary theory at all.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Complexity of Mind

While posting on a faith & philosophy discussion group, a question was raised about reductionism. Does all of human experience stem from neurons only? I personally believe so, although I agree that one should not try and explain the whole of reality on one small aspect of reality. A holistic approach is definitely needed. However, my approach follows the ideas of John Searle, a mind philosopher who argues against reductionism and dualism. His approach is not reductionistic in the strictest sense, because it considers the impact of complexity. The human brain contains billions of neurons. This is an incredible amount! Synapses within the brain fire ten million billion times a second. Like a single molecule of water, a single neuron on its own doesn't express many properties. But if we add billions of water molecules together, for example, they exhibit unique properties that a single molecule of water cannot express on its own (e.g., wetness, coolness, etc). As we add more water, complexity increases, and additional properties enter the system: such as capillary action, complex weather systems, and hurricanes.

Likewise with neurons: if you consider only one neuron, there is nothing special about it. If you consider a couple of million neurons, the complexity of the situation can be explored through neurobiology. But if you consider the entire brain - all the billions of neurons - new properties emerge from the system, such as consciousness, feelings, emotions and maybe even the mind. To understand this level of complexity you need to use tools such a psychology. If you consider trillions of neurons (i.e., many millions of brains), new properties emerge that only be explained by sociology, and new properties at this level might include morals and culture, and maybe - as Richard Dawkins argues in his essay, Viruses of the Mind - religion.

Different tools and different fields of study need to be used to explain different levels of complexity of human nature, but I still believe that all these different levels of wonderful complexity have their origins in the humble neuron, but not on one neuron alone, or just a few. The levels of complexity have their origins in many billions (or trillions) or neurons that interact to form complex neural and social networks - in other words, many intertwined layers of complexity. My personal philosophy is one of finding meaning this complexity, and celebrating it to its fullest.