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.
18 thoughts on “Stephen Asma answers Ross Douthat (implicitly)”
Nice that he describes himself as a naturalist, meaning not a theist or supernaturalist.
Indeed; if only we could change the slogan from “survival of the fit” to “reproduction of the fit”, it would be more informative and less misleading.
I’m puzzled by this “the corona virus wanting to reproduce”, does that formulation not contradict what he’s trying to say? I think the virus wants nothing, it just reproduces.
On the growing populations, I think ‘Smilodon’s Retreat’ formulated it nicely: ‘It is not about the survival of the fittest, but about the reproduction of the fit enough.’
Good points! It is really hard to talk about such things without anthropomorphizing.
“I think the virus wants nothing, it just reproduces.”
This seems to be the evolutionary concept that many people have a hard time wrapping their head around. It’s easy to say that about a virus but it gets harder and harder as we consider more complex life. At what point do you allow one to say that an organism wants something? When does agency kick in? Of course, if you are arguing against the existence of free will, the answer is “never”. 😉
Are you planning to contact Asma to let him know about his mistakes in evolution? Do you generally find that sort of thing worthwhile? If so, do the authors evolve their evolutionary thinking? I suppose you don’t keep detailed score but I was wondering if you had an opinion on it.
I think that focusing attention on the fact that our values are decisions we make individually and collectively. Obviously, this is well-known among thinkers such as yourself but the general public often seems fuzzy on the concept. They argue for or against certain values but don’t spend much time thinking about where those values came from and whether they are the right values to have. Religion and politicians often don’t want people to think about these things which, of course, is exactly why we should.
As Milton pointed out in Paradise Lost, that cat’s always catching a bad rap.
I haven’t developed my thoughts on this very well, but I wonder if there isn’t a way to move the argument away from the good vs evil mythopoetic concept to a more naturalistic one by emphasizing what humans are doing to drive this virus to extinction (which would be the best outcome for our species and individual humans). By social distancing, wearing masks, developing vaccines, and many other actions, we are competing with the virus on the real “field of battle,” the evolutionary one. This may be a way to motivate at least some people to stay the course even though it is difficult. Basically, it might be helpful to flip the argument from the “what is the virus doing to humans” view to a “what can humans do to the virus” view on these naturalistic terms.
I was very disappointed in Asma’s essay, especially coming from someone who claims he’s a Buddhist. I teach a form of Zen called Zen Naturalism that rejects anything supernatural. As I shared in the Naturalism Facebook group, when I read Asma’s essay, I couldn’t help but think of this Zen teacher’s response to those who claimed the 2011 tsunami was either god (from the right) or nature (from the left) punishing us….
“As Buddhists we cannot take refuge in this being part of God’s inscrutable plan, or even in the notion of God’s wrath for a planet not cared for. We take refuge in something that is hard for many to understand. We take refuge in the truth of impermanence. As the Buddha said to his weeping disciples as he lay dying, ” All compounded things will fall apart and be gone.” Over centuries, or in a flash. When our lives rest on that foundation, on the strange and strong foundation of constant change, then our lives are anchored in truth.
“Vast ocean of dazzling light, marked by the waves of coming and going, being born and dying. ” We chant this at our memorial services. This week we have all seen it in action. We practice to be able to balance wisdom and compassion.
The wisdom eye sees constant change, even tsunami, as normal, as expected, as part of how IT IS. At the same time our tender hearts feel acutely the pain of human suffering on an unimaginable scale, and we are moved to do what little we can to help. The small blessing of a natural disaster is that there is no one to blame. The earth shrugged, a huge amount of water was displaced, and it flowed where it could. With no energy wasted on blame, everyone can work together to help.”
— Jan Chozen Bays
“It’s differential reproduction that counts, not differential survival.”
To go even further, it might be argued that it’s not even differential reproduction that is pivotal, but differential survival of offspring to maturity is most important. An organism can have 10 chicks in a brood and all could die or could have 5 chicks in a brood and most survive. Is natural selection is perhaps more concerned with the number grandchildren than children?
Hell, just ask the people of the Eurasian steppes where Genghis Khan roamed.
“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.”
I’m letting you know that I say, yeah.
“Against the frightening neutrality of nature, we humans marshal the powerful imagination. Imagining that we are in a species-wide war with a biblical-style evil enemy may be factually absurd, but I recommend we embrace this powerful fiction anyway.”
I’m put off by his ‘on one hand and on the other hand’ cop-out permission to use anthropomorphizing myths to create meaning. I see it as another, more sophisticated version of the “little people” (i.e., those of us who don’t have labs) argument for licensing religious/supernatural belief. I don’t think that fighting the virus necessarily entails mythopoeic (which I prefer here to “mythopoetic”) activity. I see it simply as an instinct to self-preservation. Animals don’t need to engage in myth-making in order be altruistic; and animals don’t need (in fact, they can’t, insofar as I’m aware) engage in myth-making in order to defend themselves against life-threatening enemies — it’s simply fighting for survival.
I find this arguing for or against the mythopoetic (thx Ms. Hanniver) point of view as not particularly useful. We all use metaphors, particularly ones involving war and battle. Even Trump, no stable genius, probably knows that our war with the virus is only a metaphorical one. The use of such metaphors doesn’t reflect so much on how the enemy looks at it but how we look at it. It means we need to put aside many of our everyday concerns, join together, and fight the virus. See, it is almost impossible to talk about our response to the virus without using battle terms. Just go with it.
So it is OK to bash religion but accept modern philosophy? Both are ‘wishful thinking’. Take Santa and god as great examples We enjoy Santa but somehow god is different? But both are made up by humans. That said, so is language, culture, philosophy, politics… even poetry and music. When honest methods of science are applied to these made up fields … then I will respect them more! Until then, to me, they are interesting fictions to possibly ‘enrich life’ (sometimes NOT) … but never to hinder life.
I’m certainly no expert on religion or philosophy, but when done well, philosophy clarifies thinking by constructing arguments based on empirical findings. That’s what Asma has done with this article with respect to natural selection. Fitness is all about how genetic information gets into the next generation. When bad philosophical arguments are identified, they are usually abandoned. So if there’s wishful thinking in philosophy, it will be short lived. When bad religious arguments are identified, they are rarely abandoned, but either become metaphors or otherwise become immune to reason.
I do like the 1st paragraph from Asma that you quote.
Since his article does not sufficiently spank R. Douthat enough, it would be great to see you publish something that does the needed job. I am sure there are other keesters that could also be included. Perhaps in the N.Y. Times, even.
“Yes, but the universe is just as remarkable because it has trees and birds and fish.”
I try to occasionally remember to remind students (especially when their humility appears lacking) that, whatever their opinion of/regard for plants, they can do one thing we human primates cannot do – make their own food (for the most part).
After reading about Asma’s mistreatment of evolution, one thing is clear. I would like to see the estimable Jerry give the subject the professional whack on the bottom it needs!
The early Malthusian “evolution” of Asma crystallize for me one other irritant that philosophers spread. Asma likely dug up that graveyard skeleton from reading more on the history of evolution than on evolution itself.