The clash between science and religion was partly because religion got something badly wrong. This was religious people claiming that the Bible is literally true as a source of knowledge about our natural origins. The Darwinian view easily saw off the creationists within conventional academia. So, how do you answer the question about your natural origin? Have the scientists got it completely right?
Prevailing scientific opinion
Much of how evolution works is now biologically clear. Genetic information is stored in the DNA. The genes in the population of offspring are a random sample of the genes present in the parental population. This sampling causes variability in adaptability. There are also tiny changes in genetic material caused by random mutations.
Natural selection is said to come about from the reproduction of those organisms best suited to their environment. This is the survival of the fittest. Mainly successful characteristics are passed on at each generation. The features of the offspring of the successful parents will differ in a tiny way from the characteristics of the previous generation. Over a long time, this results in the gradual evolution of plant and animal species.
Humans and animals
One historical difficulty with this account is that there is no fundamental difference between humans and animals, which differ only along a continuum. In other words human beings are not unique according to science.
Some scientists have tried to argue that chimpanzees for example have language. But it now seems that they have only such limited rudiments and that it is misleading to say that they have language.
Although difficult to prove, it also seems that self-consciousness is something that is distinctive to human beings. This self-reflection enables us to meditate and pray as well as worry and give ourselves insomnia. Animals do not have insomnia or commit suicide.
Likewise it is hard to see how evolution can give an account for the development of ethics. This is a multi-faceted phenomenon comprising moral insight, ideology, resistance to temptation, reactions to transgression, altruistic behaviour etc.
Furthermore, humans respond very differently to similar circumstances. This can be seen to be due to personal choices that sometimes transcend self-interest. Do you not feel you are free to choose to stop or continue reading this article? There seems to be no natural factors like environment or genes that can fully account for the way individuals make personal choices particularly those concerned with deeper matters.
Finally, I imagine you do not regard animals as having moral culpability: they are not responsible in law. They may behave badly but when you come to think about it would you blame them for this or say they are just following their nature?
There are too many discontinuities between animal and human characteristics for me to swallow. It is hard to see how adaptation from something like a single cell through natural selection can give a full account for the development of human self-reflection, courage, honesty, ethical insight, ideology, altruism, and resistance to temptation. To my mind, human consciousness derives from the human soul absent in other forms of life.
Randomness in evolutionary theory
Another troubling point, about the scientific account of our origins, is the way the notion of randomness keeps cropping up — random selection of genes in offspring, randomness of genetic mutation, and random changes in the environment conducive to survival.
Perhaps this is not surprising. All science tends to avoid any account of natural phenomena as having purpose. This is because whether such accounts are true or false is argued to be beyond the ability of science to judge empirically. There can be no room for design in any scientific view of your natural origin. Spiritual belief on the other hand gives something that scientists don’t claim to offer — ideas about meaning and purpose. Natural selection is assumed to have no end in view and cannot see the future. It merely accumulates variants that favour prevailing conditions.
And so life, according to science is basically an accident.
Emanuel Swedenborg offers us a way of thinking about random chance. He suggests that there is a higher power of Providence working flat out to give us the opportunity of freely choosing the divine way of living. According to this view, although the appearance of the senses may point to say the operation of random chance, he says actually this is an illusion that conceals a deeper truth which we can only discover using our higher mind. This illusion is said to preserve our freedom not to be compelled to believe one thing or another. And so it is claimed that Providence foresees and invisibly inflows not only into the general things of order in the universe but also the smallest details none of which occur by chance.
Swedenborg’s view does not deny the truth about the facts of nature that science can show but acknowledges the deeper side of human life revealed inwardly to those of a spiritual mind. Science is brilliant at describing how evolution and heredity occur. But ask yourself whether it should be expected to explain why — other than using natural ideas? Maybe you think there is room for the God of religion in the very laws of nature themselves?
Copyright 2013 Stephen Russell-Lacy