Out of Chaos

In his essay on "the Evolution of Life on Earth" in the special October 1994 issue of Scientific American, Harvard University biologist Stephen J. Gould continues to hammer away what seems to be his perennial pet peeve -- those who see "progress" or some grand design or another in evolution. His evidence is pretty convincing. After a fairly quick start within a billion years of the earth's formation, there follows a huge period of about three or so billion of years of stagnation, with primitive life-forms remaining more or less the same. Then there is a still largely unexplained "explosion" of new forms during a relatively short period of five million years about 530 million years ago during the Cambrian Age. After that, Gould says, we get only a lot of variations on the same basic forms, some of them highly successful, others much less so, but all of them rocked by five major periods of mass-extinction. The last of these catastrophes, probably triggered by a massive meteor impact, wiped out most of the dinosaurs and allowed mammals (which up to then were only small rat-like creatures) to finally develop along a number of new lines, among which are the primates, which includes us. From a purely "humanistic" point of view, I suppose this looks like "progress" or "success", but in Gould's eyes, humanity is purely an "accident." And even though he still adheres to the basic principles of "natural selection", in terms of the Darwinistic doctrine of "survival of the fittest", Gould's view is closer to being survival through pure luck. The next big meteor or comet crash could leave cockroaches as the dominant species on earth!

But recognizing this basic situation is one thing: interpreting what it means (for us) is something else. On the surface, the evidence seems to advance the claims that the universe is entirely a product of chance, of randomness, of chaos, and that there is no "purpose" or "meaning" behind it all. But there are others who look at precisely the same evidence, weighing the seemingly impossible odds that anything resembling ourselves ever came to be, and deduce from all this an "Anthropic Principle" -- which claims that the universe is custom-designed to produce intelligent creatures such as ourselves. So which is it -- design or mere chance?

It all rather reminds me of the story about the little boy who wanted a pony for Christmas. If his parents had a truck-load of manure dumped into the garage to try to impress him with what caring for a pony would mean for years to come, should we be surprised if the youngster's hopeful interpretation of the evidence (that "with all this c---, there's got to be a pony here someplace!") contradicts the lesson his folks wanted to drive home? It seems to me that those who see a grand design, or even a "divine plan" in all of this are simply affirming a the flip side of the same coin. How can this be?

For one, it may be because "purpose" or "meaning" is a mental quality -- something existing primarily within the psychological realm. A nut may be machined precisely to fit on a bolt, but to see this quality and to appreciate it requires something like a self-conscious awareness of purposeful action in one's own life. Chimpanzees may pick up rocks and use them for the purpose of cracking nuts, but I doubt if they speculate on the reason for their own existence. From this point of view, the philosopher Feuerbach was at least partly correct: the attribution of design or a designer of the universe is largely a projection of our own thinking. If we want chaos, we will only find chaos. Or if we want order, we will find that too. In this way we ourselves are apt to imitate what the ancients ascribed to God -- to discern what is good and evil, or decide for ourselves what is right or what is wrong. But on the other hand, do we have to be aware of purpose to say that purpose exists?

For reasons like this, I'm inclined to think that both sides of this debate are correct. As I see it, creation is almost entirely chaotic to begin with. Even the Book of Genesis says that in the beginning it was "tohu w'bahu" -- a trackless waste and void. But instead of imagining a "hands on" creator acting like a little boy in a sandbox (or a girl with her doll-house) it may be that the interplay of chance was entirely necessary for any meaningful order to emerge. Why? It is because, to my mind at least, the emergence of human freedom is what the "progress" of evolution is all about. In other words, out of the chaos of chance, human freedom has emerged.

Some may object and ask, are we truly "free"? Obviously, in some ways we are and in others we are not. I may want to go to the moon, but there is no way I can get there under my own power. An impossible conflict? Not really. Just like the sense of "meaning" or "purpose", freedom is first of all a mental thing. It is not so much a question of changing things, but of choosing that which already is -- only then can we move beyond that point to further creation (or destroy it) by our own choice. Still, if everything was predetermined, as it were "by chance", even if it all worked out with robot-like efficiency, how could freedom possibly exist? Or, even if we humans alone were free and undetermined, while everything else was not, how much would there be left to choose? It would seem that one way or another, it is the play of chance itself that allows us to be free creatures, or as Sartre paradoxically put it, we humans are in some sense "condemned to be free."

So is there a purpose or grand design to nature? I for one (but there are many others) think so. I look at the ninety-nine and 99/100ths of a percent of things that seem to be ruled by chance in this universe and think that there must be a reason for all this mess and that this reason must have something to do with free self-determining creatures like ourselves. In a certain sense, our freedom is "chance squared" -- much the same as (and without doubt closely connected to) the fact that our ability to reflectively "know" things has evolved out of the primitive sensitivity of plant-life and the ability of animals to be aware of their surroundings. Even if these have evolved out of happenstance, they are fundamental conditions for the appearance of humans as intelligent, free creatures on the face of the earth.

No doubt there will always be some, like the great Einstein, who will find it impossible to imagine that God "plays dice with the universe". For this reason Einstein totally rejected the "uncertainty principle" as playing a fundamental role in modern physics. Others may accept the principle and reject God instead. Instead, I side with those who believe that "God plays creatively with chance." As I see it, without chance there could never have been choice, and, at least to begin with, the more of it the better.

But of course, others can look at the same evidence and see no purpose or design. That's their choice. But if that is the case, how do they explain their ability to write articles about it? Or even more, why do they bother to do so? Is that mere chance as well? And if so, why should they get paid for it?

1/20/95


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