A couple of days ago, Ross Douthat, a Catholic, wrote a remarkably obtuse column in the New York Times about the “meaning” of the pandemic, and how religious people try to find one that comports with their faith. After many gaseous exhalations, he wound up implicating Satan, for crying out loud! I wrote a pretty critical post about his piece, pointing out that atheism and naturalism tells us that any “meanings” must be confected by humans alone, and that naturalism explains both moral and physical evils much better than does religion.
But then I decided that perhaps I should write a longer and more thoughtful piece for a more widely read venue about the atheistic and scientific view of both meaning and evil; and I made a bunch of notes about what I’d want to say. Now I see that Stephen Asma, a professor of philosophy at Columbia College Chicago, said some of what I wanted to say in a “The Stone” piece that’s a sort-of-rebuttal of Douthat’s column (click on screenshot below):
We’ve met Asma on this site before: in 2013 I criticized him for being soft on alternative medicine, and in 2018 for coddling religion. The new column isn’t too bad, and it does make both points I was going to make re Douthat: that humans make their own meanings since there’s no God-given ones, and that the “evil” of the pandemic comes from the workings of nature—in particular natural selection.
The column is a bit flabby, and does differ from what I would have written in that it’s more about the bad results of personifying nature—of seeing the virus as “the enemy”. While that can be salutary in motivating people to fight, Asma argues that, at least in this case, the personification has a downside:
Imagining our lives as a dramatic struggle with occasional enemies (microscopic and macroscopic) can help us change hearts and minds, embolden convictions, inspire sacrifice, and thereby change the actual outcome of epidemics and other trials and tribulations. But mythopoetic views of disasters like this one are easily influenced by charismatic leaders (formerly shamans and priests, now presidents and politicians). The “enemy” we war against gets personified into an ethnic group for scapegoating. So let us put our faith in science and give our gratitude to health care workers, but let us also use our imaginations carefully and responsibly, so that the denouement of this story is eventually a human victory, not just a national or political one.
That’s not a really powerful argument against seeing the virus as a humanlike enemy: it’s a criticism of Trump’s racism, as well as the divisiveness of both the Right and the Left.
But Asma does mention both natural selection and the human penchant for making and finding “meaning”. Re the first, there’s the subtitle above about the coronavirus wanting to reproduce, and then an introduction (similar to Darwin’s view that he couldn’t find a beneficent God in the horrors of nature) giving several cases of nature red in tooth and claw. Asma adds this:
Disease and death are not bugs in the system, but features. In fact, the cold-bath truth is that natural selection works only because many more organisms are born than can survive to procreate. Natural selection is not malevolent, but it’s clearly not benevolent, either.
Well, that’s not scientifically precise. Natural selection doesn’t require a limitation on population size to work; it’s true that the culling of most species’s offspring imposes strong selection on them. But even in a growing population, with virtually everyone surviving, some individuals will produce more offspring than others. And that will lay the grounds for natural selection without any deaths of offspring. It’s differential reproduction that counts, not differential survival. After having gotten that wrong, Asma further errs by leaving out a crucial feature of natural selection “working” to cause evolution: there has to be genetic variation that affects an individual’s chance of leaving its genes to the next generation. Without genetic variation, there can be selection, but it won’t cause evolutionary change (try selecting for the taller plants in a garden of clones). Still, though his characterization of natural selection isn’t very good, he does make the point that natural selection doesn’t always produce results we’d like, nor is there any morality or immorality to it. It just is.
As for meaning-making, Asma is correct here:
As a naturalist, I resist the theological version of human exceptionalism, but as a philosopher, I’m inclined to recognize that nothing has intrinsic value until we humans imagine it so. Since we cannot find our species’ value objectively by looking at the neutral laws of nature, then we must just assert it. And simply affirm that the universe is more remarkable with us in it.
Yes, but the universe is just as remarkable because it has trees and birds and fish. We aren’t anything special—we just have bigger brains and language. And with those features we’ve destroyed a lot of the other species that make our planet remarkable.
At any rate, after writing what’s above here, I realized that perhaps there is more to be said along the lines of my earlier piece, though not in the pages of the New York Times. You can let me know.