Faith, Science, and the Soul: On the Pragmatic Virtues of Naturalism

By Clark, Thomas W. | The Humanist, May-June 1993 | Go to article overview

Faith, Science, and the Soul: On the Pragmatic Virtues of Naturalism


Clark, Thomas W., The Humanist


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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Faith, Science, and the Soul: On the Pragmatic Virtues of Naturalism
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.