Randomness and Meaning

I find it interesting that fair percentage of people who have chosen to follow my little blog here are religious.  Thank you for reading, and I hope you will comment from time to time.  We may not agree in our religious beliefs, but we may share other things in common, so, welcome!

I was looking at one such follower’s blog and noticed a post about evolution.  It always amazes me what the theory of evolution looks like from the “other side.”  It is completely misrepresented.  No wonder they don’t “believe” in it.  I don’t believe in that theory of evolution either!  There are two aspects of the strawman that creationists have developed that I would like to talk about.

The first is the idea that evolution is based on “randomness.”  The favorite bumper sticker analogy is having a tornado go through a junk yard and assemble a 747 in its wake.  Then they laugh and say something like and “They want you to believe that life was created like that.”  No, we don’t, because that is not even close to how evolution works.

Evolution works on variation, not randomness.  Think about it like this:  Next time you walk around the mall, look at all the people, some short, some tall, some skinny, some fat.  Lots of variation.  Now, in modern society, pretty much all of those variations are going to be able to feed themselves and reproduce, so the next generation is just as varied.  But let’s imagine a different environment.

If we put all those people in a place where, say, the grass grows six feet tall we start to see something interesting happen.  Suddenly, those at the taller end of the scale get more food and more chances to find a mate.  The poor short people (assuming no society to help them out) just don’t make it as often.  The population gets taller over all.  That’s it, the theory in a nutshell.

Darwin never used the phrase, “survival of the fittest,” and he certainly never used it in the sense that only the strongest and most vicious creatures survive.  Because evolution is really just a feedback loop, a better phrase for evolution is “when something works, you get more of it.” And “what works” is different all over the place. Bacteria were one of the first forms of life and they are still with us today. They “work” amazingly well and some researchers think that the biomass of bacteria is equal to all other life on earth.  If the earth was created, it looks like it was created for bacteria.

In some ways your Facebook feed works on an evolutionary principle.  In Facebook land, when something “works” you click on it.  So when you click on something, Facebook then feeds you similar items to see if you click on those.  Eventually your news feed evolves into a list of things you click on the most.  You and a friend could start with exactly the same friend list and just by the variation of what you both click on, your feeds will “evolve” in different directions.  If your clicks are similar, your feeds will look similar even after a fairly long time.  But if it turns out your interests are a bit different, after a while the feeds will look nothing alike.  That’s evolution.

Now, lots of creationists will agree that something like that can take place (micro evolution they call it), but there is no way it can make new species (macro evolution).  Well, it can, but not on the 6000 year time scale they believe the earth has been around.  Again, if you tell me there is no way that life on earth could have evolved in 6000 years, I agree with you absolutely.  But the earth has been around 5 billion years, an incomprehensible length of time.  Even Darwin, when he first started collecting evidence for evolution had this issue.  At the time, the best scientific  estimates for the age of the earth ranged in the hundreds of thousands of years, to maybe, at the outside, a million or two.  But as other sciences pushed back the age of the earth, first into the hundreds of millions of years, Darwin knew he had the time he needed to make “micro” evolution to be able to become  “macro” evolution.

So, evolution is not random, it is a feedback loop that builds on what it starts with.  Certainly not a whirlwind in a junk yard.  The other problem that people seem to have with evolution is that somehow if we got here naturally and not by divine fiat, that our lives have no meaning.

I find this a very sad philosophy of life.  Only god gives you meaning?  Invisible, silent, intangible god?  Personally, I think the opposite, I find that theism actually takes meaning out of our existence, rather than adding to it.

If heaven is eternal, what real difference does it make what I do here on earth?  “Oh, but your choices determine whether you go to heaven, so everything you do matters.”  That is unless you listen to the preachers who say that all you gotta do is clap for Jesus and then heaven is yours.  If Jesus’ dying sends me to heaven, then my life is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.  Thank you, Jesus.

In Catholic theology my life is slightly more meaningful in that my conduct basically determines how much time I will spend in purgatory.  But there is no list of how much time what I do might add or subtract to my sentence.  Plus, my descendants and friends can apparently beseech the almighty to alter my sentence.  So, other than accumulating superstitious friends, my actions had little or no meaning.

Or my actions and choices could send me to hell (ouch!)  But again, those choices are not clear cut.  To hear some preachers say it, I was going to hell back when I was a Catholic.  No matter how good a Catholic, or how moral a life I led, it was the eternal pit because I got the wrong water sprinkled on me when I was a week old.  Now, not only was my life meaningless, but I suffer for eternity as well?  Thank you Jesus??

Back in my Catholic days, I went on a retreat one time where we spent a lot of time sitting the floor.  Even then sitting on the floor was extraordinarily uncomfortable for me (I could never be a Buddhist monk!) and I spent most of the time fidgeting around.  A nun told me to sit still and “Offer my suffering up to Jesus.”  To this day, I still have no idea what that means.  Why not just sit in a chair?

On the other hand, I find life without the threat or promise of eternal life to be extremely meaningful.  Truly every decision I make is important because I only get one shot at it.  One chance to raise my kids, one chance to make a difference in my career, one chance to connect with another person.  One chance as in, this is not a rehearsal, this is not a drill.  If I screw up, I need to fix it here and now — god is not going to equalize things in the next life.

I will also say that most of the ways that religious people “serve god” and therefore bring meaning to their lives are remarkably similar to the sorts of things people who never heard of Jesus find meaningful as well.   But I find those things meaningful for myself, not because I imagine that it pleases some invisible sky god.  I want my kids to happy and successful.  I want my students to learn things that make a difference in their lives.  I want to make my community stronger.  I want to love and be loved.  I would like to see poverty and suffering eliminated.  I wish cancer would “go die in a hole,” as my son says.  Why do those things mean anything to me?  Not entirely sure, but they do and they do for most people around the world and throughout time, regardless of their religious beliefs.

And surprise, surprise, there is an evolutionary theory for that.

I’ll let the video explain the whole thing, but to make a long story short, we humans (and other social animals as well)  have “mirror neurons” in our brains.  These neurons allow us to actually experience in our own heads what others are experiencing.  You might also call them empathy neurons.  Of course, there is no way I can stop you from thinking that god must have created mirror neurons, but I don’t believe that.  I believe that they evolved and I agree with Jeremy Rifkin that we are “Homo Empathicus” and that the something “greater than ourselves” that we can find meaning in is the wonderful universe in which we find ourselves with our fellow creatures, no more, no less.


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