September 2014‎ > ‎

05. Evolution: From Scientific to Religious Debate

Joseph Kirby, 33, is in his 5th year of the PhD program at ICS. Hailing originally from Ottawa, he graduated with a BA in Humanities from Carleton University and then went to Japan for two years to study Japanese history. After this, he returned to Canada to get his MA in philosophy at the University of Toronto – whereupon he discovered ICS, a school that left such a good impression on him that he decided to do his PhD there. When he completes his studies, he would like to become a philosophy professor.
In the final pages of the 1984 edition of Man’s Search for Meaning, holocaust survivor Victor Frankl describes life in the concentration camps in terms of two bifurcating spiritual possibilities:
Sigmund Freud once asserted, “Let one attempt to expose a number of the most diverse people uniformly to hunger. With the increase of the imperative urge of hunger all individual differences will blur, and in their stead will appear the uniform expression of the one unstilled urge.” Thank heaven, Sigmund Freud was spared knowing the concentration camps from the inside. His subjects lay on a couch designed in the plush style of Victorian culture, not in the filth of Auschwitz. There, the “individual differences” did not “blur” but, on the contrary, people became more different: people unmasked themselves, both the swine and the saints. And today you need no longer hesitate to use the word “saints”: think of Father Maximilian Kolbe who was starved and finally murdered by an injection of carbolic acid at Auschwitz and who in 1983 was canonized.
Freud and Frankl both agree that beyond the veil of civilization, law, abundance, human beings are forced to become what they “really” are. The two men differ, however, in what they see this “reality” as being. Freud asserts that when the veil of civilization is removed, human beings become amoral beasts concerned only with their own survival. Frankl, by contrast, asserts that at the limits of hardship, beyond the protection of law and custom, human beings are faced with a choice: they can either become the amoral beasts that Freud anticipates, or they can become like the saintly people Frankl remembers, those “who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread.” In fact, although human beings are always faced with this choice, the final stakes only become clear at the extreme edges of suffering. For those of us who live within the veil, the choice will manifest not as a direct and unbearable choice,
in the face of death, between swine and saint, but as a choice between which account of the edges we are generally going to place our bets on: Freud’s or Frankl’s. Religion, in this context, would be a mode of speech trying to help us choose the latter option, the divine path, Frankl’s understanding, to freely choose freedom over necessity.
"The theory of evolution does not prove the beast."
In Philosophical Fragments, Kierkegaard cites a passage from Plato’s Phaedrus to describe what he calls “The Absolute Paradox,” the frontier to which thinking cannot help but arrive but also cannot possibly solve: “Am I a beast more complicated and savage than Typhon [the king of monsters], or am I a tamer, simpler animal with a share in a divine and gentle nature” (Phaedrus, 230a). In the original context, Socrates posed the Paradox as part of an argument for why he has no time to waste trying to refute ancient stories in terms of the latest scientific discoveries. In my short essay, “Evolution and Emergence: Freedom and Paradox on a Saturated Beach,” on Ground Motive, I make a similar argument with regard to the theory of evolution and its relationship to religion: both sides of the contemporary debate tend to agree that the theory of evolution solves the Absolute Paradox in favour of the beast, that evolution proves Freud’s vision over Frankl’s. I argue that this point of agreement is a mistake. The theory of evolution does not prove the beast. Unfortunately, it has been hijacked by a culture that has made the wrong choice in the face of the Paradox, as a way of asserting that there was never a choice to be made, that freedom was always nothing more than a pious illusion. In my essay, I present a way to accept both the theory of evolution and the idea that humans remain as they have always been, free to choose how they will become no matter how terrible the circumstances.