By Edward O. Wilson. Edward O. Wilson is a world authority on biodiversity and the evolution of social behavior. A research professor and honorary curator in entomology at Harvard University, he is the author and editor of twenty books, two of which received Pulitzer Prizes. This article is adapted from his acceptance speech for the 1999 Humanist of the Year Award, presented by the American Humanist Association.
Abstract: There are two main competing views on human meaning. Some believe that spirituality holds the key to human meaning, and others argue the empiricism or science holds the key. The fight between these two views will continue into the 21st century, but ultimately humans need to look to other humans for meaning.
Physics has very little to say about the conjunction of science and religion, beyond what it has already said: namely, that the entire material universe is ultimately obedient to a small number of physical laws. The origin of those laws remains an open and possibly unanswerable question: whether or not energy and law were designed by a heavenly creator–in other words, a cosmological god or god-equivalent force, as conceived in the world view of deism. This line of reasoning leads back to the problem that interested the Enlightenment philosophers and modern scientists like Einstein, who said that what interested him most is whether God must obey his own laws. This is a fundamental problem, but it is far removed from the ordinary concerns of theology and the practice of religion and our everyday lives. On the other hand, biology and the social sciences have everything to say about the relation of science and religion, because they address with growing clarity the origin of mind and the relation of mind to culture, and thence the origin and meaning of religious belief itself.
It seems to follow that the central question in the relation of science and religion is something else. It is as follows: are religious doctrines, spiritual enlightenment, and the fundamental ethical precepts that arise from religion and spirituality transcendental? In other words, do they exist apart from human contrivance awaiting discovery, in the way the laws of physics exist and await discovery?
There is no doubt that spirituality and religious behavior of some kind are extremely powerful and, it appears, necessary parts of the human condition. We have a compelling instinct for religion and spirituality in some form or other, even if they assume an atheistic or deistic rationale. The inability of secular humanist thinkers to satisfy this instinct, even when evidence and reason are on their side, is surely part of the reason that there are only 5,300 members of the American Humanist Association and sixteen million members of the Southern Baptist Convention.
But truth is not settled by a poll. Our attention is focused back on the important question: does the power and universality of the instinct necessarily mean that religious behavior and spirituality are transcendental–that is, exist outside of human contrivance, waiting to be discovered by human contemplation, grace, and revelation? Or, in contrast, does their strength merely mean that we cannot see the origins of religion and spirituality clearly and directly, just as we cannot understand the mind by introspection alone–that we have to rely on novel analytic methods to grasp how the whole system works? Of the study of mind, Charles Darwin said (and he could have been speaking most relevantly of the religious part of the mind) that the citadel cannot be taken by direct assault. We cannot know how the brain works, much less where it came from, by introspection and the sampling of our own emotions during visionary revelation.
I believe that the clear expression of the competition between the two hypotheses–transcendentalism and empiricism–will be the twenty-first century’s version of the struggle for human souls. I believe also that the winner of this struggle will be empiricism, with the recognition that, while throughout the genetic history of the human brain we evolved to believe one truth, in the end, with courage and intellect and luck, we have discovered another truth.
We can say to the transcendentalists that there is a thousand times more to the human condition–more history, more complexity, more nobility–than you thought. There is more to being human than dreamt in your philosophy. And having arrived at this position, humanity has opened the way to base spirituality and ethics on a more rational, benign foundation. As a biological species we got where we are alone, we will flourish or die as a species together alone, and our reverence is therefore better directed not to tribal gods and Iron Age mythologies–which were conceived in the brutal Darwinian past and still carry the stench of arrogance and oppression that made them possible–but to each other, our species, our intellect, our planet, and our future, together.
The Humanist, Sept 1999 v59 i5 p30