Tag Archive 'Darwin'

Feb 11 2009

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Does Nature Exist?

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This week marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin – the man whose name is practically synonymous with evolution.  It’s a good time to celebrate natural science, or at least acknowledge Darwin’s work.  But evolution has become politicized, like everything else.  When reading about an organization currently pushing the slogan: “evolve beyond belief,” I am tempted to dive into the fray and argue that belief and evolution are not mutually exclusive.  Then I remember who/what I am and where I really stand on this matter, and out comes this question: Does nature exist?

You think I’m kidding.  You look out the window at the sky, the trees, and the songbirds at your feeder and you think: “Of course it does.  It’s right here before us as plain as day.”  But I’m not so sure.  That’s why I call myself a philosopher and why most people despise philosophy.  Guys like me ponder for days on end what the average person accepts as common sense.  It seems pretty silly, I’ll admit that.  But in my defense, let me say just this:  Five hundred years ago, common sense dictated that the Earth was flat and the sun, moon and stars revolved around it.  Common sense isn’t wisdom.  The smallest kernel of new knowledge can radically change its trajectory.  If nothing else, Darwin’s life and work illustrates this.

If you’re one of those people who despises philosophy, now’s the time for you to click away to a more entertaining website.  Google “evolve beyond belief” if you’re bored.  I’m sure you’ll have fun with that.  But those of you who don’t mind delving deeper, read on.

No, I’m not kidding.  “Nature” is one of those words, like “truth” and “love,” so loaded with assumption that it’s practically meaningless.  The single most important assumption we make is that Nature exists at all (yes, that’s Nature spelled with a capital N).  If chaos rules the universe, as some scientists and philosophers insist, then what we perceive as order is only an illusion.  So my apparently absurd question can be better worded this way:  Does natural order reign in the universe or is the appearance of it only an illusion?  God or physics – take your pick.  You can believe in one or the other, but to use the word “nature” in any meaningful way, you have to believe in some kind of organizing force.

These days I’m deep into the revision of a philosophical piece that’s a real pleasure to work on.  But every time I come up for air, I am tormented by the kind of false choices that dominate the media and all conversations related to it.  Then suddenly I catch my reflection in the mirror: I am the madman yelling “pears” when everyone else is arguing apples and oranges.  Of course I’m tormented.  I insist upon being a philosopher in a world where the vast majority of people would rather argue than think.  So I should either accept that torment as an occupational hazard and get on with my work, or join the fray.  Hmm…  What would Darwin do?

Those of you who know my drill know that this is when I usually grab my rucksack and head for the hills, more to ruminate than to relax.  But let’s forget about me for a moment and think about that hard working 19th Century amateur scientist who put a wrestler’s hold on the idea of Nature and didn’t let go.  What was he really trying to tell us?  This is worth considering, I think, on the anniversary of the day when that exceptional mind came into the world.

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