Behind Everything Is The Unknowable

The never-ending debate between faith and reason, and between science and religion, leaves us more perplexed than ever.  Explanations generate more questions than they answer.  Behind every apparent certainty lies an inscrutable unknown.  If we see science and religion as opposite poles, then perhaps we can begin to see the wisdom in Herbert Spencer’s assertion in his Autobiography that “Truth generally lies in the coordination of antagonistic principles.”  That is, Aristotle’s conception of the “golden mean” seems to be the best determiner of truth.  So, for example, courage can be seen as the median between the extremes of rashness and cowardice.

Neither science nor religion can answer all questions.  The atheist rashly believes that science contains all the answers that matter.  But we find just as many absurdities in science as we do in religion.  Do we really even know what matter is?  As we divide and subdivide the atom, we get a nearly infinite plethora of particles, strings, waves, and vibrations, all existing (we think!) in an uneasy cacaphony.  Space, time, and motion all seem to be (so we are told) relative to everything else, a fact that leaves us feeling more helpless and bewildered than ever.  Grand theories that purport to explain everything are replaced every few decades by ever more grand theories.  We are left to scratch our heads.

The theologian hardly fares better.  He constructs intricate cobwebs of metaphysics to convince himself and others of the eternal truths that, with the passage of a few centuries, appear to be neither eternal nor true.  Perhaps the problem lies in the limitations of thinking itself, in the very process of cognition.  If we choose to think one way, we are steered towards “rational” explanations; if we choose to think another way, we are steered towards “spiritual” explanations.  Viewed in this way, it is not difficult to reconcile religion and science.  Both of them are different ways of approaching the Unknowable.  Our very act of thinking helps determine the outcome of the thought.

What is evolution?  Spencer defined it as “an integration of matter and a concomitant dissipation of motion; during which the matter passes from an indefinite, incoherent homogeneity to a definite, coherent heterogeneity…”  That is, systems move from a state of chaos to something that looks more ordered and “coherent.”  But things do not “evolve” upwardly forever.  At some point, what was once evolution begins to disintegrate back into disorder and simplicity.  Empires collapse; societies disintegrate; and genius reduces itself to absurdity.  Disorder evolves from order, and then the process begins again.  Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence is a reality.  All things will repeat themselves, as prophesied in Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue when he says (IV.31):

A second Typhys will then arise, and a second Argo to carry
Chosen heroes; a second war will be fought, and great Achilles be sent again to Troy.

With regard to biology, Nature cares more about groups of organisms than about individual organisms.  It is the perpetuation of the species that matters for Nature; she cares little for the virtue of the individual, only the fecundity of the race.  In fact, intelligence and fertility seem to be inversely related:  as intelligence grows, so is lessened the desire to breed.  On average, scientists and philosophers are not known for their procreative abilities.  The more highly developed a group or an individual is, the less fertile the group or individual seems to be.  It is as if all of the energy normally devoted to procreation is channeled into the refinements of civilization.

Organisms adapt themselves to their environments by the processes of natural selection; those traits that help ensure the survival of the species are passed on, and those that contribute little or nothing are marginalized.  The individual organism has little or no say in this grand process.  The process is random, uncontrolled, and imperceptible.

Is there a role for the individual in this seemingly impersonal process?  Apparently not.  At least this has been the rule historically; but it appears that humans are approaching some sort of tipping point where they will finally be able to “influence” the process of evolution.  Nanotechnology, genetic engineering, and robotics are poised to change the very definition of what it means to be human.  We are creating our replacements.  They are right before our eyes.

And this is precisely the point.  Once we begin to control the natural process of evolution–by using these new technologies–we have taken an evolutionary detour from which there will be no return.  We will have taken, perhaps, the first steps towards the development of a new species:  homo mechanicus.

We are evolving ourselves right into oblivion.

Read More:  Samuel Griffith:  Warrior And Scholar