This is the 5th blog in this series which is reflecting on E.O. Wilson’s book The Social Conquest of Earth. The first blog in the series is “What Does It Mean to be Human?” and the previous blog is Wilson’s Critique of Religion.
Wilson recognizes that there is a problem for scientists, though he portrays it as a problem for all humanity.
“We are terribly confused by the mere fact of our existence, and a danger to ourselves and to the rest of life. Religion will never solve this great riddle.” (Kindle Loc. 202-4)
The unanswered question, and perhaps unanswerable question for scientific materialists, is “Why do we exist at all?” Why is there something instead of nothing? Questions which can only be asked if there are conscious observers of the universe – but even consciousness itself is called into question by some neuroscientists. Wilson dismisses religion’s answers to these questions because there are a multitude of religions on earth each which comes up with its own explanation but with no ability to prove its answer is any more reliable or true than any other religion’s answer. Thus for Wilson religion is nothing more than human speculation and fantasy.
“… the solution of the riddle has been left to science. What science promises, and has already supplied in part, is the following. There is a real creation story of humanity, and one only, and it is not a myth. It is being worked out and tested, and enriched and strengthened, step by step. I will propose that scientific advances, especially those made during the last two decades, are now sufficient for us to address in a coherent manner the questions of where we came from and what we are.” (Loc. 249-53)
Wilson holds true to his philosophical materialism and atheism. The answers to the life’s most important questions must be found alone in the physical materials of which we are made. In doing this Wilson will ultimately have to say there is no meaning to being human and the questions of why we exist can only be answered in the cause and effect nature of physics, which also turns out to be the limits of the answer. This explanation can take us back through the chain of cause and effect to the primordial Big Bang, but nothing can be known beyond that point. Beyond the material existence, there are no answers and nothing more to know about the universe. Nothing exists beyond the material world and thus what humans can observe and measuer, though Wilson admits the human mind is capable of creating all kinds of fantastic myths about gods and heavens. These religious stories served (past tense) an evolutionary purpose according to Wilson.
“The creation stories gave the members of each tribe an explanation for their existence. It made them feel loved and protected above all other tribes. In return, their gods demanded absolute belief and obedience. And rightly so. The creation myth was the essential bond that held the tribe together. It provided its believers with a unique identity, commanded their fidelity, strengthened order, vouchsafed law, encouraged valor and sacrifice, and offered meaning to the cycles of life and death. No tribe could long survive without the meaning of its existence defined by a creation story. The option was to weaken, dissolve, and die. In the early history of each tribe, the myth therefore had to be set in stone.” (Loc. 211-16)
Creation “myths”, and thus religion itself, emerges in evolution in the eusociality of conscious human beings. Why consciousness itself arose and what evolutionary benefit it serves is not answered. And some scientists, such as Raymond Tallis (APING MANKIND:NEUROMANIA, DARWINITIS AND THE MISREPRESENTATION OF HUMANITY) claim that consciousness appears to be of no evolutionary advantage since responding by instinct is so much quicker and a better tool for survival. Thinking slows the human animal down. Wilson has to drop the questions about what it means to be human and why we exist because the answers cannot be found in the material world. So he tries to set a paradigm in which different questions are asked.
“The creation myth is a Darwinian device for survival. Tribal conflict, where believers on the inside were pitted against infidels on the outside, was a principal driving force that shaped biological human nature. The truth of each myth lived in the heart, not in the rational mind. By itself, mythmaking could never discover the origin and meaning of humanity. But the reverse order is possible. The discovery of the origin and meaning of humanity might explain the origin and meaning of myths, hence the core of organized religion. Can these two worldviews ever be reconciled? The answer, to put the matter honestly and simply, is no. They cannot be reconciled. Their opposition defines the difference between science and religion, between trust in empiricism and belief in the supernatural.” (Loc. 217-23)
The “creation myth” (read “religion”) for Wilson is nothing more than an evolutionary device which helped the humans survive. However, such myths can only emerge in conscious human beings, beings who are free to think, speculate, try to understand their universe. Consciousness makes it possible for us to know the universe in a way different from how all other creatures know the universe. And it is this same consciousness and free will which make it possible for folks like Wilson to philosophically reject the existence of both consciousness and free will. On the other hand, scientists like Tallis at least readily admit that consciousness enabled humans to free themselves from biological determinism. Humans now affect their own evolutionary history – medical science for example by being able to keep alive many humans affects the human gene pool by rescuing it from the ravages of natural selection.
This becomes part of the strangeness of Wilson’s thinking. On the one hand he totally accepts the notion of biological or evolutionary determinism as the power which guides human history. He rejects the notion that we can ever get above or escape biological determinism which is part of his rejection of religion. On the other hand he sees scientific rationalism as able to escape these evolutionary benefits such as the creation myth or religion. Rationalism thus is a force no longer subject to biological determinism.
By his own logic, one might conclude that scientific rationalism is also simply an evolutionary device which temporarily serves a purpose, but which our species will eventually evolve beyond. By Wilson’s own logic, scientific reasoning is not eternal truth, but is limited and conditioned by the current conditions on earth. It too will pass away.
Also as previously noted he does accept that there are social forces (peer pressure for example) which shape the scientific world and which influence what gets researched and what gets ignored. Scientists have their own biases, which include anti-religious biases. Thus his rejection of religion is very selective in what he doesn’t allow as real. He follows a philosophical path, not the pure claimed objectivity of science.