Conway Morris says we need to ask why this is and whether this idea of a telos (a grand purpose) is redundant (p.313). As he points out, such things are now usually explained in the style of evolutionary psychology, by saying that religious habits cheer people up, so conferring a selective advantage by preventing despair. But these answers, even if there were adequate evidence for them, would still miss the point by a mile. The way in which they would miss it is perhaps best conveyed by a parallel .
Suppose that scientists from Alpha Centauri are studying human life and are wondering how to account for the practice of music, which they find pointless. Following prevalent doctrines, they decide that music cheers people up, perhaps by being bond-forming, and they cite research which seems to support this finding. In what sense have they now got an adequate explanation of music?
The trouble is that their analysis only provides an outside context – a causal framework inside which the puzzling phenomenon can occur – not an internal analysis. It does nothing to show just what music does in people’s lives. And if these researchers, encouraged by their success, go on to investigate other puzzling human activities, such as laughter, flower-arrangement or football, they are surely likely to give the same explanation. Thus, all these activities really have the same function – which means any one of them can always be substituted for any other. Has something gone wrong here?It has. When we ask about the point and meaning of an activity like music, we want to understand what makes it worth doing, what place it has in life. This is a question that arises from the inside. I use the example of music because its role really does puzzle people. It isn’t easy to spell out in clear terms just what music does for us. But nobody supposes this means that music doesn’t do anything, or that it is trivial and need not be taken seriously The trouble may be rather that it is too important – that it is so widely entangled in our lives that we can’t easily see it as a whole.
Tuesday, February 10, 2009
Triple play ...
... Purpose, Meaning & Darwinism. (Hat tip, Dave Lull.)
It is worth noting that Mary Midgley is not religious.