Monday, April 8, 2013

The Non-Consolations of Biology

A scientific theory that says nothing about the meaning, purpose, or value of human life is not for that reason a denial that there is any meaning, purpose, or value in human life.

Kenneth R. Miller reports being asked, after giving a public lecture on evolution, the following question by a member of the audience: “How can you tell me that I’m just an animal? How can you say that I’m no better than the beasts? That the only things that matter in life are to struggle, survive, and mate? There’s just got to be more to life than that” (Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul (New York: Penguin Books, 2008), 135).

It seems to me that such questions rest on the fallacy of moving from the premise “Biology says nothing about the value, meaning, or purpose of human life” to the conclusion “Biology says that there is no value, meaning, or purpose to human life.” That this inference is fallacious I take to be obvious. Biology says nothing about these things because they are outside its bailiwick. They are not scientific matters at all. (In an earlier series of posts—“Stephen Jay Gould on Science and Religion,” “More on Gould on Science and Religion,” and “A Dilemma for NOMA”—I subjected Stephen Jay Gould’s conception of “non-overlapping magisteria” to extensive criticism; but on this particular point, I have had no disagreement with him.)

Of course, people do not commit this fallacy concerning chemistry, say, or physics, which also say nothing about the value, meaning, or purpose of human life. Perhaps that is because those sciences do not concern “life,” while biology does. And perhaps this is what made Miller’s questioner feel that he was being somehow diminished by the theory of evolution. But biology concerns “life” in the sense of what distinguishes organisms from the rest of nature and makes them all akin to one another, not in the specific sense of conscious human existence, with all its attendant aspirations.

This is presumably the very feature of biology that rubbed Miller’s questioner the wrong way: that biology regards human beings as just another species of living thing. But so does physics regard human beings as just so many physical things; chemistry, as so many chemical things. These sciences treat of “actions” and “reactions,” as biology treats of “life,” but they say nothing of what makes human actions and reactions, or human life, so much different from the merely physical, chemical, or biological sort, and so interesting to us. Questions of the value, meaning, or purpose of human life simply go unanswered in science. Why should anyone take that to imply that science, or one science in particular, gives a nihilistic answer to such questions?


  1. I don't think that this particular fallacy is being appealed to here. Rather, he's mixing in the religious belief that value, meaning, and so on can only come from origins.

    1. Concisely put. That would explain why you don't hear this sort of objection being raised against the findings of non-biological sciences.