Posted by: Dan | November 5, 2007

An Interesting Question, Based on a Flawed Premise

The NY Times has an interesting, if suspicious, Opinion piece titled Suffering, Evil and the Existence of God. The topic is the existence of suffering and evil in a world presided over by an all powerful and benevolent deity, and focuses on the intersection of a theist-turned-agnostic and a atheist-turned-theist relating to said topic. The latter is quoted as asking his former fellow atheists the following question:

What would have to occur or have occurred to constitute for you a reason to at least consider the existence of a superior Mind?

Probably about the same thing that would take to convince me that there really is a Santa Claus. Or, if you prefer, some inkling of data to suggest that a mind could exist non-corporeally. Both the question and any answer (given how it’s framed) involves a whole lot of superstition.

No thanks, I’ll pass on the superstition.

But the suffering, part of the human condition, is a very important question to ask. We all have our existential fears, either for ourselves, or for those people or perceptions that we hold dear. And nothing lasts forever – so how do we find meaning in the world? Or significance, purpose, or hope, as it has been mentioned to me.

My view is that if thinking critically about such tough questions is not high on your priority list, then sure, the superstitious route is all well and good. Attribute things to your god, or however you choose to describe it (See William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience).

But if you’re interested in something that more accurately reflects reality as we can best perceive it, as I am, then you must seek a different answer. Take biology for example. Frankly, most of us will bite the dust, and our descendants will fail to succeed indefinitely (the alternative is exponential reproduction, which is infeasible). Life is competition. I don’t know why life is here, or even if “why” is a valid question; a question without an answer is a waste of time to dwell on, if one is to get anywhere philosophically. But life is here, and the three components that defined how it progresses are, as Darwin enumerated:

  1. Variation
  2. Fecundity
  3. Differential success

What follows is necessarily that our fates depends on the success of our progeny. Our task, therefore, is to equip our relations and communities with the best tools to prosper as possible in a competitive world. This is humanism/species-ism. In today’s world, this means avoiding superstitious and blind attribution of our problems to perceived higher powers or agency, and addressing the issues that threaten us even in the face of political opposition.


  1. I don’t know why life is here, or even if “why” is a valid question; a question without an answer is a waste of time to dwell on, if one is to get anywhere philosophically.

    I agree with you here, but this is a point of divergence from the theists. “Why” is just a word; before there were hominids and language there was still life, but the question why did not exist.

    Many people (often religious) presuppose that this is an answerable question, though. I think a lot of them tend to get frightened/upset/confused by a worldview that asserts not that why is unanswerable but that the question itself is meaningless.

  2. Hi, Dan:
    Just thought I’d chime in with a slight modification. Evolution requires:

    1) variety
    2) heredity
    3) fecundity
    4) unequal survival and reproduction

    I get leery when people use the word “success.” Sounds way too teleological and progressive to me. Yes, I know evolutionary biologists are forever talking about “reproductive success” (indeed, it’s the other name for “fitness”), but still…

    Also, notice that #4 no longer requires unequal non-random survival and reproduction. That’s because non-adaptive evolution is still evolution, and so apparently random processes like genetic drift/draft and neutral mutation qualify just as much as selection does. Selection is, of course, non-random (that’s why we call it “selection”), but as Kimura pointed out, most of evolution at the genome level is neutral, or as Ohta pointed out, nearly so.

    Hope your new life is going well!

    P.S. Yes, I’m still working on the papers from this summer. Commentary forthcoming…

  3. Allen,
    Thanks for the suggestion with your number 4, and also for reminding me that heredity needed a mention as well.

    Good to hear about the papers! Looking forward to hearing your comments – and as you can see, I’ve been exploring such topics a little bit further, albeit just in my free time. :o)


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