Just about any science or nature documentary will express a kind of "Alice in Wonderland" amazement about nature. This often goes hand in hand with a “dogma”’ of meaninglessness. For some, all things MUST ultimately come from “nothing”, meaning nothing intelligent, and with no intended purpose, regardless of how brilliantly it is put together. The finely tuned universe, our planet and the first single celled life form just magically appear by themselves given enough time for matter & energy to jostle around. Once life creates itself, it evolves thoughtlessly into many things including us. It seems mindlessness can do things better than the human mind can. If fact, mindlessness can explain anything if we try hard enough.
This brings us to a discussion about phlogiston as mentioned in chapter five of the book in the context of evolution. Phlogiston is the Greek word for “burn” or to “set on fire”. In the 1600’s and 1700’s scientist believed that things that burned had phlogiston in them (like an element) that was released during burning. This explained why things were lighter after burning. It also explains why a candle would go out if placed under a glass globe. The released phlogiston would fill the globe and eventually snuff out the candle.
A French chemist named Antoine Lavoisier believed that phlogiston did not exist. He showed how burning pure mercury would make it heavier as it took on oxygen and became mercury oxide. Phlogistians explained this away by saying that sometimes phlogiston has negative weight. Lavoisier’s frustration comes through in this quote:
“Chemists have made phlogiston a vague principle, which is not strictly defined and which consequently fits all explanations demanded of it. Sometimes it has weight, sometimes it has not; sometimes it is free fire, sometimes it is fire combined with an earth; sometimes it passes though the pores of vessels, sometimes they are impenetrable to it. It explains at once causticity and non-causticity, transparency and opacity, color and the absence of colors. It is veritable Proteus that changes its form every instant!”– Quoted in Brock, Norton History, pp. 111-12.
Seems the phlogiston arguments were not only bad science, but also bad problem solving. First make a conclusion and then find the facts. Facts that do not fit are explained by pilling up assumptions until they do fit. In all fairness, this can relate to bad religion too. If your answer to every question is, “God did it”, you won’t be a good evangelist. If “God is good” only when He agrees with you, then your religion has become linked to our own selfishness.
In a similar way Darwinism is used as the do-anything and do-everything explanation of life. I remember a conversation about moral conscience given “survival of the fittest”. An example was given of someone who felt very guilty for forgetting to leave a tip at a restaurant after a good meal with good service. He felt so bad that he went all the way back to the restaurant from his home to find the server and give her the gratuity. Why? He almost never frequents that restaurant and is likely to never see the server again. Survival of the fittest can explain selfishness, but this? The answer given was that since humans live in communities, we evolved an instinct to take care of others in our tribe which increases the chance of our own survival. Sometimes natural selection explains selfishness, sometimes self-giving. Any situation can be explained with a wave of the evolutionary magic wand.
In another conversation, structured music was brought up as part of human culture which makes us fundamentally different than animals. Consider our closest animal relatives; about 96% of a chimps DNA is genetically similar to ours, but they share 0% of our music. I wouldn't necessarily expect a 96% match, but if all we essentially are is a surviving DNA code, I would expect greater than a 0% match. Whale songs and birds “singing” were given as the evolutionary origins that explain human music. I was left to wonder, “are those really songs or just the sounds that whales and birds make and it is we who call them songs”, but it’s hard to argue with a magic wand.An example was given in the book about finding a species of cheetah that could run 6000mph instead of 60mph. Natural section in and around chasing down food would not explain such speed. We would have to look elsewhere. Similarly, human intelligence is evolutionary overkill in terms of only surviving and reproducing. Monkeys survive just fine on this planet. There is no need for a species to be so much more intelligent than them, let alone a species capable of producing individuals like Newton, Einstein and Shakespeare while the rest of their kind marvel at not only their existence, but existence itself. If the universe is meaningless, we are the only species unfortunate enough to realize it.
“Some people will pretend to see things to suit their own purposes while missing the true signatures of design all around them, because to see the design and point it out would risk their position.”– A Meaningful World, p.40.