Oct. 25, 2006

Going Off-Line for a Bit

I'm going to a conference and will be off-line until Nov. 1 at the earliest, so there won't be any blog entries until then.

We Had Snow


And this guy didn't seem to like it very much. (It's all melted now; hopefully we won't have to deal with the durable kind for a few more weeks)

Evolution Considered

Richard Dawkins has come out with a new book, "The God Delusion" and he's popping up everywhere in interviews; for instance here, here and here. While a Buddhist wouldn't feel any particular need to defend the God Idea (see Nyanaponika's essay "Buddhism and the God Idea"), nor do we find ourselves in agreement with the mechanistic views espoused by Mr. Dawkins.

One of Dawkin's principle interests is evolution. I'd like to rehash some of the arguments against an overly mechanistic view of that process that I first aired on the old blog site. Forgive me if you've heard any or all of this before.

Buddhism doesn't subscribe to creationism. That is a philosophy that precludes the dependent origination; if we suppose the arbitrary will of an original first cause we are violating the deep principle of causality. (This is the old "then who made God?" argument)

However, mechanistic evolution as understood by Dawkins is also essentially arbitrary because it contains a random element. Randomness is as much an intellectual dodge as saying "God did it." In the end, it explains nothing. In the end it is a fall back on arbitrariness. Things happened that way "just because" without a reason or a cause.

The standard model of Darwinian evolution postulates that there is a constant competition between randomly arisen variations, and the fittest survive to leave offspring. The mechanism of selection through competition may explain some things, but other things are not very well accounted for.

I want to mention just two, both in the domain of mind (which modern science can't properly account for anyway)

1. Consciousness - by which I mean the simple fact of awareness; citta or vinnana to use the technical Pali terms. If organisms are simply lumbering robots "designed" by selection for the replication of their genes (as in Dawkins' "The Selfish Gene") then why and how did they ever become aware? Surely a simple stimulus-response mechanism would be far more efficient for the purposes of finding food and mates, and avoiding predators, without the totally superfluous extra layer of processing that consciousness implies. Robots would have a competitive edge of speed over the dithering of conscious entities every time. Hence, consciousness could never arise through natural selection.

2. Human Intelligence - This is quite another problem for the mechanists. The human brain is a grossly hypertrophied organ. It consumes an inordinate amount of the body's calories. The size of the human head creates additional dangers and difficulties for the female giving birth. What is more, the human baby remains helpless much longer than those of our primate cousins. If there is any selective advantage to high intelligence, it must be at least sufficient to overcome these grievous disadvantages.

It would seem to me that only so much intelligence is required to be able to catch a rabbit for dinner, and when that level had been reached, there was no strong selective edge to be had by future increase of the brain. As beautiful as the Cro-Magnon cave art is, it has no Darwinian advantage.

(One objection to this argument I have heard is that perhaps there was a sexual selection at work, as in the hypertrophied antlers of some ungulates. Maybe, but think back to high-school. Who got the dates, the jocks or the nerds?)

I would also suggest a somewhat more speculative third case; the arising of life itself in the still mysterious Cambrian explosion. Life seemed to blossom everywhere at once on the planet, in very rapid geologic time. The arising of complex life forms by random chance seems remote at best, unlikely in the extreme at the time scale it appeared to have done so.

Mechanists like Dawkins want to leave Mind out of the equation, but quantum mechanics makes it look less and less viable to do so. I would suggest that it is a gross error to assume that mind arises from matter at all. Rather, I think it is far more likely that form arises from mind (as in the sequence of the Dependent Origination) and that evolution is a process of consciousness seeking through trial and error to find an ever more refined vehicle for manifestation in the physical world.