The Better Letter: The Needed Hypothesis

Creative ideas are causes, not consequences, therefore God. Really.

“There is much in Yuval Harari’s Sapiens that I find maddening and just plain wrong (more on that in a subsequent TBL, I hope)….

I wrote that in last week’s TBL. Because I know from conversations with many of you that Sapiens has wide admiration among my readers, I was surprised by the flood of email I got agreeing with me generally and expressing hope that I would write the promised epistle sooner rather than later. 

I have also been asked a surprising number of times in recent months a question that goes something like this: Do you really believe that stuff? The “that stuff” being inquired about is Christianity. In each instance, the question was asked seriously but at least a bit incredulously.

Yes. I’m a believer.

These matters – my being a Jesus-follower and my disagreements with Harari and Sapiens – are related. Today, I’ll try to live up to my promise to make faith a primary subject of this newsletter and explain how and why.

These sorts of discussions typically take on a certain expected form. The believer offers reasons for belief and the nonbeliever finds those reasons lacking. There are thousands of places to go to find that sort of approach. 

Instead, I’m going to turn that dance on its head and explain why I find the arguments for a godless universe less than compelling. As always, your mileage may vary.

Here’s a quick summary overview to whet your whistle.

  1. Yuval Noah Harari is a nihilist. We can take the nihilists.

  1. If we are going to thrive as a culture and as people, we must take the nihilists.

“No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.”

  1. God is a needed hypothesis for these things to happen.

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The Needed Hypothesis

The late Harvard evolutionary biologist, Stephen Jay Gould, loved The Far Side cartoon (shown above) about an amoeba couple in which one says to the other, as they watch television, “Stimulus, response! Stimulus, response! Don’t you ever think?” Gould wrote (in his Foreward to Gary Larson’s The Far Side, Gallery 3): “Most of us live like the amoebae, but Larson won’t let us. There is no more important intellectual lesson, however it be taught.”

The Invictus impulse is a vital and powerful one, to be sure. Overcoming “the fell clutch of circumstance” is much of what it means to be human, from Adam and Eve in the Garden through the present. Unfortunately, if the philosophy of Sapiens is accurate, that most important lesson is not just impossible, it is incoherent.

In Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari tells a speculative story of history featuring obscure East African hominids who came to dominate the world by telling stories. It is a wildly entertaining and erudite romp, confidently describing a world without God, meaning, human rights, or human dignity.

As Harari sees it, humans possess a self-deluding, “narrating self,” that recites obviously tendentious stories to justify what our programming has already determined and to help us cope. That we call ourselves homo sapiens (Latin: “wise man”) is an ironic conceit supporting the thesis. We are machines of a sort, unaware of our own programming. 

According to Harari, the “Sapiens regime on earth has so far produced little that we can be proud of.” Progress is an illusion, human rights are a delusion, the Agricultural Revolution was “history’s biggest fraud,” and liberal humanism is a religion; like all religions, it isn’t founded on reality.

Harari claims our brains are mechanistic and incapable of volition – the laws of cause and effect are relentless. Physics controls. Thus, he rejects the idea that there exists anything independent of the workings of matter and energy. We are, in the words of the University of Chicago’s Jerry Coyne, “biological automatons.” 

Evolutionary scientists have determined, Harari insists, that human behavior is fully explained “by hormones, genes, and synapses, rather than by free will.” This materialism implies a required determinism, the idea that everything which happens does so because it was directly caused to happen by something else. One way or another, Oedipus was going to marry his mother.

Daniel Kahneman particularly loved the chapter called, “The Discovery of Ignorance,” which asserts that science began when people discovered that there was ignorance, and that they could do something about it. In it, Harari wrongly claimed that Vespucci was the first to say “we don’t know.” Bishop John of Salisbury, more than three centuries earlier, rejected dogmatic claims to certainty and asserted instead that “probable truth” was the best for which we can strive, and which must keep being re-evaluated and revised. 

That error and others like it (there is a surprising number) are telling, but errors are a given when outlining such an enormous story over so many centuries. My primary objections to Sapiens are Harari’s unmitigated determinism and nihilism.

Harari’s biologically dystopian and determinist view is that humanity has no goals, no meaning, no inherent story, and that human love, trust, faith, and sacrifice are mere imaginative reflections of some biological fact. Human freedom is an illusion and human rights are just a story we tell ourselves.

As Harari concedes (assuming he is correct), the keys to historic liberalism, creativity and liberty, are falsehoods masquerading as truths because our “choices will be dictated by biochemical algorithms as ruthless as the Inquisition and the KGB.” Accordingly, there is “no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.”

“There is no way out of the imagined order. When we break down our prison walls and run towards freedom, we are in fact running into the more spacious yard of a bigger prison.”

Sapiens is utterly contemptuous of traditional human (and Christian) values. Harari dismisses or disparages every major religion, every claim of human rights, and even the existence of meaningful altruism.

“The Americans got the idea of equality from Christianity, which argues that every person has a divinely created soul and that all souls are equal before God. However, if we do not believe in the Christian myths about God, creation and souls, what does it mean that all people are ‘equal’? Evolution is based on difference, not on equality…. 

“Just as people were never created, neither, according to the science of biology, is there a ‘Creator’ who ‘endows’ them with anything. There is only a blind evolutionary process, devoid of any purpose, leading to the birth of individuals.”

Harari follows the likes of Spinoza, Darwin, Galton, Einstein, Nietzsche, Laplace, Skinner, Dawkins, and Hawking in his determinism. Cause and effect are relentless within a closed system. As Coyne said, “to someone who’s science-minded, determinism is the only game in town.” Some try to have it both ways by calling determinism “freedom” — so-called compatibilism. To the compatibilist, “freedom” doesn’t mean we could do otherwise, it merely means we weren’t forcibly coerced. Ironically, this view is remarkably like Calvin’s view of election and predestination. We’re free to choose God but will never do so if left to our own devices.

If determinism is true, of course, most of our societal structures are incoherent. Our theories of justice are predicated upon personal responsibility. Someone doing what s/he is hard-wired to do can hardly be deemed responsible in any meaningful way. In a deterministic universe, punishing humans for their actions makes as much sense as Fawlty Towers trashing his car for not starting. 

Similarly, the idea that we can earn anything or that we should be rewarded for special skills and accomplishments doesn’t make any sense. Science itself, dependent upon rigorous fact-finding and independent analysis rather than predetermined conclusions inexorably revealed is, at a minimum, highly suspect, even absurd. 

I think creative ideas are causes, not consequences.

We want our lives to have real (rather than pretend) meaning. We all want to matter and our existential longings, like unexpected tears, can tell us a surprising amount about who we are. Harari and his ilk disagree.

Philosopher Patricia Churchland argues that our “folk psychology” concepts, like love, ought to be eliminated in favor of neuroscientific concepts, like oxytocin levels. Duke’s Alex Rosenberg goes so far as to say that, on account of atheism, the existence of the self is “an illusion.” Indeed, “[t]here is no first-person point of view.” Harari’s world only offers us, in philosopher Saul Smilansky’s telling phrase, “an unfolding of the given.” 

Determinism is supported by physics and seemingly confirmed by the pioneering research of the late Benjamin Libet and later studies which showed that “our” brains make decisions for “us” before “we” are aware of them (the quotation marks reflect the perception we all share of our minds being separate from our brains, a perception that most scientists reject). Libet’s research showed that the brain region involved in coordinating motor activity fired a fraction of a second before test subjects “chose” to push a button. 

Later studies supported Libet’s theory that subconscious activity precedes conscious choice. In other words, we’re merely meat machines — albeit highly sophisticated meat machines — simply doing what we’re programmed to do. Nothing more. Nothing less. Whatever we do, we could not have done otherwise. We aren’t free.*

Allegedly.

I have an alternate interpretation of the facts. I think God opens up the universe’s closed system, providing the possibility of freedom, choice, creativity, will, justice, and love. And I think the evidence supports it. Further research from Libet concluded that participants could use conscious choice to veto their instinctive reactions as a sort-of “free won’t.”

Libet’s research and that following it is consistent with Kahneman’s view of two different “systems” operating in our brains, both of which are susceptible to behavioral and cognitive biases. Much of our thinking is fast and intuitive. We don’t have to think about flinching when somebody takes a swing at us. This type of thinking Kahneman labels as “System 1.” 

But we also use slow “System 2” thinking, thinking that involves deliberation and the monitoring of System 1. This thinking requires much more effort and practice and is much more likely to correspond to reality.

System 1 incorporates our personalities, training, experience, and inclinations. Much of it is entirely instinctual. But we can also make difficult tasks “natural” with sufficient practice. Like driving, for example. Much of what we perceive as decision-making is actually a consequence of System 1 and hardly deliberative at all. 

I grew up loving baseball with my Dad. That I now “choose” to watch Padres games is at least as much a function of that history as it is a specific decision to watch the Padres play the Dodgers at Petco Park on a Wednesday evening in early August. “Who we are” says an enormous amount about what we do. But I don’t think it has everything to say all the time.

Human freedom is rooted in System 2 and operates to check and sometimes override System 1 thinking. For example, through conscious effort and practice, I can check my tendency to offer an inappropriate snide riposte to a stupid remark, seek to eliminate my human prejudices, or improve my strongly held values. System 2 is more than a meaningless exercise in after-the-fact rationalization. 

Interestingly, this view is also consistent with the Christian view that much of what matters requires that we check our “natural” selves, reactions, and inclinations in order to do the right thing and that we can even train these “natural” inclinations. Libet confirmed as much.

In short, Kahneman and the Apostle Paul agree that we see as “through a glass darkly.”

We readily perceive that we have some measure of freedom. Indeed, we all live as if we have this freedom. I choose vanilla ice cream rather than chocolate, watching a baseball game rather than to a movie, voting for candidate A rather than candidate B. Indeed, the existence and conduct of our lives 24/7 is proof positive of our belief in freedom. Otherwise, it would be incoherent to try to convince another of anything. At least as a practical matter, we hold volitional freedom to be self-evident.

The burden of establishing that our minds and our wills, volition, and creative imagination are illusory (though perhaps a useful fiction) ought to lie with those who insist on presupposing their nonexistence, especially since there is good reason (via neo-Darwinian theory, not to mention Libet’s research) to think that our universal perceptions about them are true. In general, evolution should favor what is true and real as being more likely to promote survival.

I could understand the tenacious support materialistic determinism has if there were good evidence for it. However, there is none. It is supported merely by bare assumption – preconceived philosophical commitment. That commitment is even admitted occasionally, if not loudly, and typically tells more about the one testifying than anything else. For example, the Harvard zoologist (now retired) Richard Lewontin made that exact concession.

“We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. 

“It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counterintuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated.

“Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.”

Accordingly, “[t]he primary problem is not to provide the public with the knowledge of how far it is to the nearest star and what genes are made of. Rather, the problem is to get them to reject irrational and supernatural explanations of the world, the demons that exist only in their imaginations, and to accept a social and intellectual apparatus, Science, as the only begetter of truth.”

I think Truth is begotten, but not of science, much less “Science.”

Does it make sense to cling to the philosophical assumption of materialism as against our perceptions and actions without any evidence in its support? An unsupported assumption should never trump universal perception supported by scientific research. Moreover, the view that much of what we base our lives upon (that individuals can really “make a difference”) is inherently false and illusory is morally repugnant and demeans the achievements of those who have effected change in their lives through great struggle and volitional effort (think of those who are overcoming addictions, for example).

Philip K. Dick defined reality as “that which, when you stop believing in it, does not go away,” and I’ve never met a determinist who lives like it’s true. 

There is no evidence supporting materialistic determinism. But there is affirmative evidence pointing in the other direction beyond our perceptions and the “free won’t” experiments. Materialism asserts that mind and will are illusions and that “effort” has no real meaning. However, recent science suggests that what William James called “volitional effort” does in fact exist – that when doing something meaningful, one can focus attention and thus influence or even change the material aspects of our brains and certain outcomes. 

Despite denials at the philosophical level, where the rubber meets the road, at the human level, volition is real scientifically. Indeed, mental effort alone can result in physiological changes. The ability to alter brain states by way of thought alone shouldn’t be possible in a wholly material universe. It is direct evidence of free will and indirect evidence of God.

Can anything I do make any difference in what I become? I think so. If you agree, you cannot rationally be an atheist.

Before we conclude, I’ll note two important caveats. Firstly, if I’m right, we’ve only gotten to the first four words of Genesis (“In the beginning God…). No particular theistic construct is suggested to this point, much less evangelical Christianity. 

Secondly, because we all gravitate toward that which confirms our priors, I need to acknowledge that these ideas confirm my priors in a big way. In 1679, Samuel Pepys warned that we should “be most slow to believe that we most wish should be true.” You should consider my argument in light of my biases.

While my faith has significant differences from my parents’, my remaining faithful honors their memory and the sacrifices they made for me. Moreover, I am prone to support human rights and human dignity, culturally, socially, and politically. As Barack Obama wrote, American “values are rooted in a basic optimism about life and a faith in free will.” On the other hand, I concede that I find a world devoid of freedom and purpose beyond depressing.

Prospero buries his staff and drowns his book because a predetermined life isn’t worth living. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn recalled an older generation of Russians who remembered the days before Stalin, saying: “Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.” As Orwell recognized, “Faith vanishes, but the need for faith remains the same as before.”

Harari constantly begs the question, without evidence, presupposing that humanity is “nothing but” a herd of meat machines without purpose or will and that human consciousness is not (cannot be) a fundamentally damaged but real reflection of the image of God.

Where Lucifer fell for trying to be like God, Harari’s Sapiens will succeed: “our inheritors will be godlike…all the concepts that give meaning to our world — me, you, men, women, love, and hate — will become irrelevant.”

Harari acknowledges that “[t]olerance is not a Sapiens trademark.” Jesus promotes loving “the other,” caring for the alien and the stranger.

Science tells us that “the most powerful impact conscious volition has on our organism is cumulative. Hardly anything new can be worked out in any detail at any given moment.” Christianity calls that sanctification.

Nietzsche called free will “a theologians’ artifice.” I call it God’s gift.

We’re never going to be completely right. That’s clear from both Kahneman and the Bible. We never get anywhere without challenge and change. That means improvement always requires a journey. I think it’s a real and meaningful one.

Our pasts have their way with us, not exactly defining us, but setting the stage for what we become – shaping us, haunting us, motivating us, empowering us, and calling us home. Yet our pasts are not the whole story, and (thankfully, graciously) not the end of the story. As Flannery O’Connor put it, “something is going on here that counts.”

Life is either pregnant with meaning or utterly devoid of it. Some of us cannot seem to hear God speak. Some don’t care to hear Him speak. Others have trouble differentiating between God’s signal and human noise. Still others hear just fine, but insist on having the final word. Whatever our response to Him might be, that He is here is a necessary predicate to a meaningful life. Graciously, the evidence suggests He is.

_______________

* Determinism has an ugly underbelly. There is, for example, biological determinism, which Stephen Jay Gould defined as the view that “the social and economic differences between different groups — primarily races, classes, and sexes — arise from inherited, inborn distinctions and that society, in this sense, is an accurate reflection of biology.” James Watson, co-discoverer of the double helix, claimed that the problems of sub-Saharan Africa reflect blacks' innate inferiority. Moreover, “[b]elieving that free will is an illusion has been shown to make people less creative, more likely to conform, less willing to learn from their mistakes, and less grateful toward one another.”


Totally Worth It

There is a wonderful line in Joe Posnanski’s excellent piece about Babe Ruth in which he describes baseball as “the game that lets you pretend time can stand still.” Finally, baseball is back and, irrespective of the reasons why, my San Diego Padres are playing meaningful games in August for the first time in a decade. Here’s Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie with a terrific and appropriately subdued cover of a baseball classic from John Fogarty to commemorate Opening Day in Seattle. 

church everyone can support. America’s best wedding band. Frye Festival gear is available from the U.S. Marshalls Service. Why are Karens so angry? The craziest thing I saw this week. The sharpest. The most remarkable. The most inspiring, unless it’s this. The sweetest. The oddest. The most unsurprising. A $13 billion company whose only revenue so far is doing odd jobs around its founder’s house. Meowflix.


Benediction

On November 20, 1983, along with more than 100 million other Americans, I tuned in to ABC’s television movie, The Day After. It boasted a big-time cast and postulated a full-scale nuclear confrontation between NATO and the Warsaw Pact nations. It was a kind of God’s Not Dead for the no-nukes crowd, and equally heavy-handed. When the film ended – sadly and bleakly – I was astonished to hear the 1787 hymn, How Firm a Foundation, adapted for Virgil Thomson’s Symphony on a Hymn Tune, play over the credits. The irony wasn’t lost on me. This week’s benediction is a much newer, bluegrass version of that old hymn from Chelsea Moon with the Franz Brothers. 

“The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose | I will not, I will not desert to his foes | That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake | I’ll never, no, never, no, never forsake!”


Contact me via rpseawright [at] gmail [dot] com or on Twitter (@rpseawright). Don’t forget to subscribe and share.

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Issue 24 (August 7, 2020)