If we are “merely” a bunch of chemicals . . .

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by Neil Godfrey

One still reads enlightened (or benighted) twenty-first century scholars asserting that there can be no purpose in life, no standard for morality, if we are “merely nothing more” than a set of chemicals and our minds the product of “nothing more than electro-chemical reactions”.

By couching the argument in the rhetoric of “merely” or “nothing more”, I am reminded of Douglas Adams’ famous quip:

If you try and take a cat apart to see how it works, the first thing you have on your hands is a non-working cat.

That our level of consciousness, aesthetics, ethics, and all that goes to make us the species we are, have evolved as the products of chemistry and physics is not something to be dismissed as a “merely” or a “nothing more”. It is a staggering, mind-blowing thing to grasp. What makes it so damn hard to get my mind around is my inability to comprehend the vastness of the time involved.

None of our abilities, apart perhaps from our language faculty, is a sudden or unique leap that stands in total isolation from everything else. Consciousness is not unique. We can see gradients of consciousness across various species. Social and personal rules of conduct, with punishments for breaches, are observed in many other species that live in social groups. There even seems to be some sort of aesthetic sense at work among bower birds who plant blue objects in a nest to impress a mate, and will notice if human vandalizes their efforts by relocating a blue peg in their nest, and will immediately restore the original layout.

I loved watching the magpies in my backyard in Australia. If a male found a particularly interesting grub or beetle, its female partner would only have to sing out and the male would bring it over for her to eat instead. A kookaburra agonized us all at the office one day by perching on our office window ledge and holding a struggling lizard in its beak. Why wouldn’t it eat the thing quickly and put it out of its misery? We waited some minutes till finally its partner flew up to stand beside him. We realized he had been waiting for her when he then gave her the lizard to eat.  Our agonies over the distress of the lizard turned to “Ohhs!” on seeing this act of affection or love in another species. An ill mouse that could not make it up the ladder to its bed of tissues was soon covered in those tissues to keep it warm — its partner had dragged the tissues down and covered its ill mate with them.

Are all such animals “merely bunches of chemicals”? If in one sense they are, it only magnifies the grandeur and mystery of it all. We can either attribute all this to an imaginary being wrapped up in a mystery itself, or we can attribute it to the laws and evidence we see in operation around us. To my mind, the latter attribution is cause for the greater sense of awe and wonder. Being able to explain it all eventually will not rob us of any of this feeling.

No-one loses any sense of wonder over the marvels of mountains and canyons just because they understand the forces of erosion and plate tectonics. Indeed, I suggest that moderns who do understand these forces can grasp an even a deeper sense of wonder at such natural phenomena than ancients who may have attributed them to warring deities.

Some people still seem to fear what would become of humanity if it lost its sense of a deity altogether. The answer, I think, is found in anthropology. Brown’s list of human universals (alphabetical list; resorted list) tells me that so long as we are human we will always have social and ethical rules and consciousness. We don’t need a god to give us these. They are part of our genetic makeup. Rape, incest and murder will always be proscribed. The family will never cease to exist. People will still value sharing and taking turns and fairness. Empathy and generosity will always be parts of our nature. So will music and dance. There will always be hope. And jokes. And people will always think and speak in metaphoric language.  And we can expect to always have with us some religious sense, too, and belief in the supernatural.

Dawkins has spoken of our moral evolution. His example is our coming to abhor and penalize rape. I wonder. Does not Brown’s list suggest it has always been proscribed. (Proscription implies it happens, I don’t deny that.) Did our ancestors really take rape for granted? Is it taken for granted among our near of kin species?

I’d like to think that we could as a species come to jettison our belief in the supernatural. But at the same time, especially since living among a predominantly Chinese (and Buddhist-Taoist) population in Singapore, I really have come to see another side of supernatural beliefs that was only a fringe phenomenon in Australia. Seeing people unselfconsciously offering prayers and prayer sticks at statues and shrines in the street and at temples opening out to public walkways, it all seems to me a pretty harmless display of devotion to deities or ancestors. There is a strong superstitious element, too, among many. I do find myself inwardly grimacing at that side of it sometimes.

But what is interesting is that this religious sense or belief in the supernatural, although it is tied up with expressions of ethics, is not the source of those ethics. Those are part of human nature wherever humans are. All the religious sense does is give them some sort of conscious validity, or mythical framework. But one finds the same values across all types of religious beliefs — and nonreligious beliefs. Atheists are no less by nature sharing, turn-taking, empathetic, generous, and all the other virtues in Brown’s list. Some of the most advanced social welfare and most compassionate societies, or political parties, have been built largely through the efforts of individuals devoted to secular nonreligious values.

On a personal note, a cluster of my friends in Australia could all be described as nonreligious, humanist types, and were at the same time dedicated to either supporting or setting up local programs and activities to support victims of ignorance, injustice, poverty, and such, and in promoting public awareness and social change for a more just and fair society.

What is the enemy is any belief — religious or nonreligious — that promotes some particular idea or value that is not a “human universal”, but that would seek to ostracize, penalize, persecute or even eradicate certain groups or individuals within society.

And we see a lot of that today, with public intellectuals even attempting to uphold the place of archaic books and arcane beliefs that openly boast of a certain holy intolerance and divisiveness. Of course these holy traits, and their accompanying suffering and bloodshed, are cloaked beneath Orwellian doublespeak terms like “righteousness” and “peace”.


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Neil Godfrey

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One thought on “If we are “merely” a bunch of chemicals . . .”

  1. It’s embarrassing to be the first to comment on my own post but Rich Griese’s blog post, Why Atheism, is too apropos to pass up.

    (And yes, if anyone reading this also happens to read a blog by a certain biblical scholar who seems to regularly go to great pains to distance himself from “atheism” and “secular humanism” — even to the extent of virtually declaring such positions as puerile, selfish, vain, populist, worthless and worse — yes, I am in part writing some of this in direct opposition to a position I consider to be sheer intellectual snobbery and an ivory tower elitism that has no first hand awareness of “real people”.)

    But Rich’s post surely hits the nail on the head. Human universals surely reflect a universal condition of less than ideal security. Who knows what the future of religion might be if we could build more secure and just societies?

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