Monday, October 17, 2011

Divine savages and “real” truth

[Did a shorter version of this for my Sunday Guardian books column]

There is no such thing as an “objective” reader or reviewer – our feelings about a book are shaped by many things working in conjunction: personal experiences, biases, genetic makeup, level of engagement with a subject, and so on. The best a reviewer can do is to admit the necessary subjectivity of his perspective and then tackle a book as honestly as possible. But even so, I had misgivings about writing on Georges Van Vrekhem’s Evolution, Religion and the Unknown God. Apart from being an atheist, I fall in that small minority of homosapiens who think Richard Dawkins’s and Christopher Hitchens’s critiques of religion are perfectly reasonable (and in Dawkins’s case at least, expressed with greater civility than I could have mustered if I had been a public figure contending daily with Young Earth Creationists and other unevolved simians). A quick look at the jacket text of Vrekhem's book told me that he feels very differently about the whole religion-vs-science shebang.

In the long tradition of attacks on Darwinism (or on evolutionary theory at a broader level), there has been a tendency to misrepresent arguments, make straw-man attacks and display ignorance about the workings of the scientific procedure. Which is why I was initially relieved to find that Vrekhem is an intelligent and well-read man, and that his book (whatever my overall reservations about it) is a probing, serious-minded work – something that can’t be said about the majority of the literature that tries to bolster religious faith by undermining science. But this also makes it harder to process some of his more whimsical ideas and his many literary detours.
Revisiting the complex history of evolutionary theory in his first few chapters, Vrekhem quotes liberally from other writers – so much so that the parade of inverted commas gets distracting and it isn’t always easy to separate his views from the ones he cites. One of the first times he uses strong and judgemental language of his own is when he says that “materialistic biologists” display “a kind of sick pleasure to demonstrate how much their science abases the human being”. Later, he employs words like “denigrating” for the idea that humans are “just animals among animals”, or “accidental and incidental products of the material development of the universe”.

But why is this denigrating? No Darwinist (least of all Dawkins or the other villains of this book) has denied the massive potential that humans have for the nobler emotions. If man has evolved from an animal state to a creature with a complex brain, capable of (among other things) creating and appreciating great art, reflecting on his own place in the universe, making efforts to expand his knowledge and capabilities – and yes, even mulling on the possible existence of Something higher than himself – aren’t these things to be proud of? Wouldn’t we as a species have more reason to be proud of ourselves if this were the case, rather than if we were pre-manufactured to be something special, made in the image of God and held to the highest possible standards from the outset (in which case, the continuing existence of humans of the order of Sarah Palin, for example, would cast serious aspersions on our Creator’s designing skills)?


Evolution, Religion and the Unknown God is filled with criticisms of both Darwin the man (who, Vrekhem feels, is unduly deified today) and the nebulous building blocks of “what is nowadays labelled as Darwinism”. Vrekhem takes pains to point out that the exalting of Darwin has been at the cost of at least two other men who deserved to be similarly reputed: the French evolutionary theorist Lamarck, and Alfred Russel Wallace, who came up with the theory of natural selection around the same time as Darwin did (and received co-credit for it) and who, more importantly in Vrekhem’s view of things, developed a belief in “spiritism”, or the validity of things that lay beyond the bounds of “scientific materialism”.

He also repeatedly accuses Darwin of guesswork without clarifying that never once did Darwin try to pass off guesswork as immutable fact (something that religious authorities, incidentally, have been doing for millennia). Living at a time when genes were still unknown, Darwin could naturally not have understood the precise workings of his own theory in the way that we understand it today. But like any scrupulous scientist, he expressed hope that future generations would debate over, expand on and modify his propositions in light of new discoveries (something that is in fact still happening).

As I read these meandering early chapters, I found myself wondering what Vrekhem was building up to. The answer is more complicated and fuzzy than can be dealt with in this space, but it involves the idea that man is a step along a chain of evolution from ape to superman and that he carries within himself the capacity to become a godlike being in his own right - presumably getting closer to God in the process. Anyone familiar with the writings of Sri Aurobindo (of whom Vrekhem has been a follower for decades) will recognise the influence of Aurobindo's "supramind" concept in these passages.

This leads Vrekhem to formulate vague-sounding sentences like “As long as what is real can only be approached from the outside, the reality cannot be known” and “Truth, to be known, has to be realised, lived, and as such is always an approach, conditioned by the earthly circumstances of the beings who dedicate their life to this kind of realisation.” And perhaps most tellingly: “If God is omniscient and omnipotent, the Divine Mind must be of a different order, it must be a supermind, which is a word, a label covering by definition something of which we can have no idea.”

Aha! Here at last we have that old sophism: God belongs to a different order of things, hence science cannot touch or understand him. “Real truth” can only be ascertained by “direct personal experience”. But what does this random prescription amount to exactly, and where might unquestioning faith in personal experience (as a foolproof universal formula for enlightenment) lead us? What if Sri Jabberwockee Singh were to sit in solitude for a period with his eyes closed, and by this process acquire the mystical realisation that the Flying Spaghetti Monster is the root of all things and that the only way to gratify Him is to consume endless quantities of chilled beer until Oneness is attained? Will Vrekhem respect the veracity of my “direct personal experience”, and will he join me for that eternal drink?

I don’t mean to sound flippant – there is food for thought in Vrekhem’s book, for those who have the patience to sift it out. As he says:
If science is materialistic, it is because to us, beings incarnated in matter, only matter is directly perceptible to our senses, and only experiments with material objects are communicable and repeatable… [But] at fault is the fact that this materialism has been declared the exclusive metaphysical basis of the understanding of anything whatsoever … Our knowledge is incomplete. The knowledge of our world and ourselves is incomplete.
There is little in the above passage that any thinking person would wish to argue with. But at risk of exposing myself as a “shallow materialist”, I think good science must shoulder most of the burden of revealing further, demonstrable truths about our existence. If God does after all exist, He (or She, or It, or whatever floats your ark) can be held responsible for the fact that “only matter is directly perceptible to our senses”. Being a darned good scientist Himself, I think He would approve of His biggest-brained creations using rigorous, testable methods (while of course simultaneously trying to lead an altruistic and productive life) rather than following an approach that can be used to believe in anything they want to believe.


  1. One question... is it correct to say Dawkins' or Dawkins's? I think if it doesn't refer to a plural, then probably s's is correct rather than s'. Could you please let know?

  2. In response to indisch's question, I think Dawkins' is the correct form? Though, since I am one of those people who think that what sounds correct must be so, words like these present a strange predicament.

    Coming back to the article, I must say that it has a very Dawkinsian tone to it :)

    I found the passages from the book to be very vague. I wonder if all spirituality must necessarily be so. But being a student of science, I must confess to being a lesser being.

    Does the idea of a supermind draw upon Nietzsche's Ubermensch? I must admit, my understanding of evolution in that particular direction is pretty juvenile.

    But what I do wish to bring to the table here is the notion of morality in a Godless world. Given the fact that most of our mores find their basis in religion (in some form or the other), what would things be like in a 'moral vacuum'?

    Would creationists triumph in their assumption that all Godless people are animals? Or are we genetically hardwired to be humane? Perhaps, Jabberwockee Singh can write something on the subject? A particular talk from Atheists Alliance International (AAI) conference of 2009 - - broaches this subject. But not to my satisfaction. Our morals simply do not just consist of maintaining a balance sheet of cost vs. returns. Or do they?

  3. I am sorry. The YouTube link I provided in the previous comment is to a talk by Laurence Krauss on the subject of cosmology.

    The talk I was referring to:

  4. Indisch: checking online, I see that "Dawkins's" is more widely used.

    Marvin: just came across this article - you might find it interesting. Thought this bit was particularly relevant: does God actually ground the values by which we live? Do we not, as Plato recognized 2500 years ago, already have to think of those values as good in order to ascribe them to God?

    Personally I don't derive my morals - dubious as they are - from religion (and I think there's something hugely sad about the idea of people forcing themselves to "be good" because they are scared of divine retribution), but you're right, this is a subject that needs to be addressed at some length.

  5. Marvin: Ethics/ Morality at its best comes from reason. If something causes harm, it usually is considered unethical/ immoral. And you have moral dilemmas when you have to determine course of action that causes less harm. Morality can exist very independently of religion, thank you. [I say this as someone who likes religion quite a bit and do associate myself with a religion:)].

  6. I think today, we can make the choice of not ascribing our morals to any religion because they already exist. We can choose to be moral without being religious. Being good is not the same as being good out of fear of divine retribution.

    But what if religion never had existed? What form would morality assume in such a scenario? Wouldn't the ideas of good and bad, as we know them now, themselves undergo an overhaul? Or as Nietzsche said, wouldn't we need a new class of men or ubermensch to lay down these morals for us?

  7. Arundhati: thanks - glad to see a comment like that from someone who associates with a religion.

    Marvin: To the question But what if religion never had existed?: I think religion, or the idea of a sentient higher power, was always inevitable in a species like ours. In that sense it's only retrospectively that we can talk about morality sans religion (having now reached a point in the evolution of our brains that we - some of us at least - can deal with the idea that there may not be a higher power; sorry if that sounds condescending!).

    No question that religion probably did play a big role in enabling early man to organise himself into communities and establish certain codes of conduct for himself - in addition of course to providing a justification for hating other groups of people.

  8. Isn't personal experience just that - personal? I think a lot of people shy away from it because they are concerned about what others would think.
    Were J. Singh to realize the ultimate in the Spaghetti Monster, through direct experience why would he feel the need to share his realization with others?
    If I were in such a position I would really not care much about the trivialities and beliefs of all the rest.
    That's why I always thought that though religion may be bogus - the espousal of direct religious experience never can be. It's personal, all gains or losses stemming from its pursuit are personal too.

  9. Isn't personal experience just that - personal? Were J. Singh to realize the ultimate in the Spaghetti Monster, through direct experience why would he feel the need to share his realization with others?

    Pareshaan: well, of course. But it's Mr Vrekhem who has written a book holding up the Aurobindo Personal Experience Formula as universally applicable, not me! I've merely reviewed the thing.

    It's personal, all gains or losses stemming from its pursuit are personal too.

    Again, fair enough - as long as it isn't thrust on others (which in my view is often the case).

  10. Wotcher Jai. There's been much hand-wringing about Dawkins's recent refusal to debate the deism/atheism biz with William Laine Craig, by all accounts the best armed and fiercest debater on the side of religion. Have you seen this, perhaps?

  11. Again, just because someone's name happens to end with an 's' doesn't mean you can conveniently make that part of the grammatical construction. It is (NAME) + 'S. That's it. Whatever letter the name happens to end with.

  12. Atheist Ethicist2:22 AM, March 07, 2013

    Religion is a way of marketing someone's personal morality and make it socially acceptable. So, yes religion would have played a part in making things good or bad. Though it can be argued that the same objective could've been met by non-religious movements like the caravaka movement of ancient India. But religion just made it easier for the masses to understand certain concepts. That's it.
    But morality is not absolute, like religion tries to make it. Evolution of morality is fundamental to the development of humanity. Religions do not allow that. They are WAY past their sell-by date.