Tag Archives: philosophy

From Descartes to Darwin

Darwin was wrong. So was Jesus. And Einstein. And Plato. And that weird dude from 7-11 that you told gave you the wrong change but he insisted that donuts were no longer on sale. Maybe not about that specific issue, but he was at least partially at fault. You were wrong, too. It’s nothing to be afraid of… in fact, quite the opposite. We cannot allow fear of being wrong to dissuade us from offering up ideas. And similarly, we have to ignore anyone who tries to shut us up because what we said wasn’t spot-on accurate. Christians should understand this concept quite readily. After all, their favorite authors have things like this to answer to:

“I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, she must be silent.” Timothy 2:12
“Happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us / He who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.” Psalm 137
“Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the cruel.” 1 Peter 2:18

Christians have a lot to answer for if they fail to recognize that a document can be imperfect. They seem to be less excited, however, about providing any kind of leniency to Charles Darwin. First off, we have to consider why nonbelievers are beholden to Charles Darwin at all. My theory—and I could be wrong—is that religious folk can’t wrap their head around the concept that atheists don’t take their marching orders from a single individual. I’m not talking about God—even within the monotheistic faiths they make the claim that God is not a single individual. I’m talking about Jesus. Mohammed. David. Siddhartha. Zarathustra. Kim Il-Sung. Religions are formed by cultures, by hundreds of years of development, but are often credited to a single individual.

To fit that custom, many are tempted to consider atheists followers of Darwinism. The fact of the matter, though, is that nobody thought Darwin was on to anything even when he was alive. He wasn’t persecuted like Jesus or Peter were, his contemporaries just thought he was wrong. He was also late to the party—exactly fifty years before Origin of the Species was published, French Zoologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck published Zoological Philosophy, which amongst other things scientifically proved that the theory of evolution by mutation was bullshit. Lamarck’s main theory was much simpler: if the only food is ten feet above the ground, the long-necked giraffe will eat and the short-necked giraffe will die, and that’s why the world doesn’t have any short-necked giraffes. Lamarck’s ideas, what we now refer to as “survival of the fittest,” were absolutely right, but they weren’t sexy. And as we’ve discussed before, for philosophy to survive, it has to be sexy. It also failed to answer the important question: where did the long-necked giraffe come from in the first place, if not from God?

Lemarck was too French to suggest that any of this was possible without God. French weren’t too big on being not Catholic. One of the great pioneers of atheist thought, Descartes, was French, and spent his entire life fighting off accusations that he was anything other than Roman Catholic. In fact, while we all know his most famous line, the cogito, few know the context in which he said it. “I think, therefore I am,” was Descartes defense against those who accused him of denying the existence of God. His argument:

If we cannot believe in God, we can not be sure of anything at all. But I am sure of at least one thing: I exist. I am.

In other words, there must be a God, or we wouldn’t even be here. This, from the founder of modern rationalism. Such is the religious pressure of the land of Jean d’Arc.

England, however, was much more secular, as happens when your state religion is based off an old King’s desire to get with his booty call, and there were many influential philosophers, writers, and scientists who made incredible discoveries free of the pressure of conforming to dogma. One of the most important was Alfred Russel Wallace, a hard working biologist who had been able to show a clear connection between animals and the place they lived, leading to the conclusion that animals who were a natural fit for their own environment survived, while animals who were a poor fit for their environment died. It was simple, obvious, and irrefutable. But it wasn’t sexy.

No, the sexy came from a rich, young adventurer with mad mutton chops by the name of Charles R. Darwin.

Charles Darwin, or as I like to call him, Chuck D, didn’t spend quite as much time proving his theories as Alfred Wallace, and his theories were not as sound as Lamarckism, but they were sexy. Lamarck’s world was that of rimmed glasses and pocket protectors. It wasn’t cool to be a Lamarckist. But Darwin talked about things like turtles crossing the Atlantic, and mutant butterflies outsmarting their monstrous prey. Darwin’s world was that of X-men and underdogs. Sex-y. Unfortunately, Darwin didn’t really have all the data he needed to support his theory, but he had to get published quickly or Alfred Wallace would beat him to the punch, so he released Origin of the Species, and history was made.

His discoveries were all the rage in the 1860s, when Darwin was the old, long-bearded man that we all think of today, and his thoughts inspired an entire generation of young biologists, attracted to the idea that any of us could sprout wings at any moment, or that every time a lizard had children, any one of them could be a dragon. Of course, that’s bullshit, and we all know it, but it’s sexy. It’s fun to think about.

The fact of the matter, though, is that Darwin’s theories were only popular for about forty years, until Mendel was able to prove the existence of genetics. From that point on, we realized that Darwin’s idea of transmutation and traveling turtles was, essentially, wrong, and while the theory of evolution is often credited to his name, he was by no means the first person to come up with the idea, and in fact there were contemporaries of his that were even more on base but just didn’t have his business sense, and ultimately, Darwin’s work was obsolete in less than a single generation.

And this is what sets rationalists and fundamentalists apart. Rationalists aren’t looking for someone to follow. They aren’t looking for a club to join so that other people will know they’re going to heaven. They’re just concerned with the Truth. And in our search for the truth, we’re always coming up with new ideas and new theories, and challenging the ones we already have. Sometimes, as with Descartes, we have to consider the context in which their beliefs are expressed. Other times, as with Darwin, we have to take what we can from it and use that as a launchpad to move on to more accurate and useful theories down the road.

When Christian fundamentalists mock the concept of Darwinism, dismissing the idea that monkeys are turning into humans, they’re absolutely correct. The idea that a monkey will spontaneously mutate into a thinking human being is the primitive mindset of people hundreds of years ago, the kind of idea that people would enjoy for thirty years or so before they grow up and start searching for more serious answers.

That’s why, despite their popularity 150 years ago, there just aren’t a whole lot of serious Darwinists around anymore. Because we rationalists kind of think that believing something that someone professed generations ago which has since been roundly disproven is, well, stupid. It’s what we’ve been trying to tell you people for years.


Posted by on December 23, 2011 in Uncategorized


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Dictating Reality

If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

Yes. Yes, it does.

20111027-213224.jpgThe fact that we consider this question at all profound is very revealing of how we think. The mere thought that there could be something outside of our own perception blows our minds. There are stars that we will never see. There are countries we will never visit. There are restaurants in New York that we will never go to. There are kinds of fish we will never eat. For those of up who grew up in crowded neighborhoods, there are old high school classmates whom, despite having grown up with us, having our very same upbringing, we will never meet. There are billions of things that we will never personally conceive of, and we accept that they all exist… intellectually. But this acceptance is a learned behavior. It goes against our instincts, and we’re born struggling to believe that those things really exist.

You see it when you play a game of peekaboo with a young child. Your child has, of course, met you before. They love playing games with you, cuddling up to you, sharing their lives with you, but the second you put your hands in front of your face, you cease to exist, because they don’t perceive your existence. Then, you open your hands and there you are! The child sees you, and suddenly you’ve come into existence! The child has someone to love, to smile at, someone to care for them and feed them and—wait, no… no, the child was mistaken, you in fact never existed. All there is in life is a pair of hands.

As I grew up, at some level I believed that my Grandma only existed on Sunday afternoons. There was no such thing as an omelet in the afternoon. School did not exist when I was playing in my room. Even when I got older and moved to Portland after college, the first time I spontaneously decided to go to the ocean in the middle of the night, when I got to the coast at 2:30 a.m., I was actually pretty surprised it was there. It was at that point that I realized that I had thought of the ocean the same way I had the state fair, or Christmas season. It was only at a certain time of the year that the carnival rides were built. There was only one month in which it made sense to put a tree in the living room. And it was only in early August that we put out 187 quintillion gallons of water between Japan and Oregon so my family could watch it splash.

So I get it. I get why we feel a sense of awe when we ponder whether sound only exists for us to listen to. But it’s not a great philosophical question for which there is no answer. When forced air causes molecules to push off of each other, it creates a ripple of energy. When that ripple cascades to a person’s eardrums at a certain frequency, our brains interpret it as sound, but those sound waves don’t go directly to our ears. When caused, they go everywhere, even through solid objects.

Now, that explanation is definitely not as sexy, and more importantly, it goes against that idea of how our perception dictates reality. There’s just something… missing from a physical description of sound waves that doesn’t capture what sound is. How can we describe a recording of Pachelbel’s Canon as just “a ripple of molecules that happen to hit one’s ear”? So, we feel obliged to explain how that purely scientific description fails to address the true philosophical question. Perhaps this is a better question: “if there is no ear interpreting the disturbed molecules in the air, can you really call it sound?”

Maybe not. But that wasn’t the question. To capture that profound emotion we get from the original question, we feel the need to redefine sound. The raw science, while absolutely accurate, is unsatisfactory in describing the world around us. But if we are going to assume the authority of redefining the world around us, of dictating what is reality and what is merely in our minds, we have to be very careful that we continue to see the forest for the trees.


Posted by on October 28, 2011 in Uncategorized


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