Evolutionary Progress

by Jan 14, 2016Worldview

Listening to C.S. Lewis on the bus this morning:

Mechanism, like all materialist systems, breaks down at the problem of knowledge. If thought is the undesigned and irrelevant product of cerebral motions, what reason have we to trust it? As for emergent evolution, if anyone insists on using the word God to mean “whatever the universe happens to be going to do next,” of course we cannot prevent him. But nobody would in fact so use it unless he had a secret belief that what is coming next will be an improvement. Such a belief, besides being unwarranted, presents peculiar difficulties to an emergent evolutionist. If things can improve, this means that there must be some absolute standard of good above and outside the cosmic process to which that process can approximate. There is no sense in talking of “becoming better” if better means simply “what we are becoming”—it is like congratulating yourself on reaching your destination and defining destination as “the place you have reached.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about what a long-time friend, a believer in naturalism, said to me in a discussion recently: if theists and non-theists agree in calling something “progress,” what need do we have of transcendent justification for it?

I’m glad, honestly, for agreement between me and my friend—and the worldviews we represent. Other things being equal, I prefer peace to strife. And yet I still say what I said to him: I’m not comfortable with “majority rules” morality, no one is when they find themselves in the minority, as we all must do on some level. If 93% of Americans called eugenics “progress,” I’d be part of the 7% that hasn’t bowed the knee, and continues to define “progress” according to my worldview. If 93% of people on the globe call homosexuality “immoral,” I’d guess my friend wouldn’t bow the knee either. But to do so, he has to acknowledge some standard of right and wrong that rises above the human level. Or he has to say that morality is useful as an adaptive strategy, and he has to wait it out: only future generations are fit to call acceptance or rejection of homosexuality, or eugenics, or the flat tax “progress.” We can never know right now; we can make only provisional judgments. The culture that wins the battle for natural selection is “right,” and the ones that lose are “wrong.”

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