On the Pragmatic Virtues of Naturalism
As a long-time fan of Stephen Jay Gould, I could hardly resist attending his lecture on immortality at the Harvard Divinity School. (The lecture was part of a semiannual series in which luminaries from various disciplines are invited to address the ever-popular topic of our prospects after death; previous speakers have included William James and Josiah Royce.) What would the eminent geologist and neo-Darwinian venture to say on a topic so far outside his ordinary concerns? It seemed obvious at the outset that two time-honored approaches were available to him: one, to critique the notion of immortality as wishful thinking, not to be countenanced by those of a scientific frame of mind; the other, to declare that, since science and religion do not share any aims, methods, or domains of discourse to provide the basis for disagreement, they cannot truly be said to be in conflict. In his witty and engaging talk, Gould took the second approach, arguing that, since religious claims--such as the existence of an immortal soul--are not testable hypotheses, they cannot be challenged by science.
It seemed logical, Gould admitted, that having taken this position, he would have nothing further to offer on the topic of immortality. But, not wanting to disappoint us, he managed to say a good deal over the next hour and a half, during which he applied his expertise on evolution to a pair of related questions. First: was the concept of immortality directly selected for by evolutionary mechanisms--that is, did it have survival value leading to the reproductive success of those individuals who may have "carried" it? Second: given that some theological schemes of transpersonal immortality (like that of Teilhard de Chardin) are based upon the notion of progressive evolution toward some collective and eternal "supermind," is there any indication that evolution has teleological, purposive characteristics?
Because I want to return to the issue of what might be called the "commensurability" of science and religion, I will give just the briefest account of Gould's persuasive answers to these questions. (His responses are recurring themes in many of his articles and books, for those who want to pursue them further.) On the first, Gould argued that the concept of immortality originated well after the appearance of our species and so was not directly selected for by biological evolutionary mechanisms. The brain--the physical basis of our ability to form such abstract concepts--was indeed selected, but for its advantages in dealing with far more concrete problems than the existence of the soul. The marvelous fact is that the neural architecture conferred on us by the exigencies of natural selection allows, as an "unintended" and "unnecessary" spin-off, the ability to elaborate all the intricacies of philosophy and theology, including that most intriguing issue, our fate after death.
As for teleology in evolution, Gould showed that there is no evidence at all that later creatures are necessarily more complex, better adapted, or in any sense "improvements" upon earlier creatures. Given that many significant shifts in organic design were precipitated by geological events and chance mutations which might well have turned out differently, there is no teleological necessity attached to our being the sort of creatures we are; nor is it inevitable that the complexification of adaptive strategies will continue. As Gould would put it, if you rewound the tape of history and played it again, we would most likely not be here, and other species, with very different features, would be exploiting very different ecological niches. If there is no evidence of progress in evolution, then mystics such as de Chardin cannot legitimately avail themselves of scientific backing when they try to extend accepted evolutionary theory into a teleological scheme guaranteeing eternal life.
At the end of his talk, Gould answered some questions from the audience, a few of which readdressed the possibility of conflict between religion and science. But he adamantly stuck to his initial position: science deals in empirical matters, religion does not, therefore they cannot be in conflict. Pressed at one point on the existence of an immortal soul, Gould admitted that he had his own doubts, but that these doubts were not grounded in his scientific views. The further question then arises (and unfortunately did not get asked): from what grounds do his doubts originate? If one …