(Psychological Paradoxes & Puzzles — 10)
A Paradox from the Theory of Evolution
As I understand it, one goal of the Theory of Evolution is to explain why we see the species that exist in the world around us. Most species have disappeared from the earth, because they were not able to adapt to the environment. The species we see are the ones that have adapted to the current environment. These are the "successful" species. The "measure" of success is existence, survival.
Though this measure of success is, on one level, purely objective, at the same time it is easy to slip into taking it as a value: Survival is a good thing; Species that survive are better than the ones that couldn't make it. And the next step is to see survival as a goal, not only of individual creatures, but of whole species. The goal of life — or at least an important and primary goal of life — is survival. Finally, it is easy to begin to see a pattern in the history of the world. The pattern is that there is a movement towards species and creatures becoming better and better at adapting and surviving.
But here is a puzzle. From the point of view of pure survival, pure existence, which is more successful, a mountain or a lion, the sun or a human, a galaxy or the human species? From the point of view of survival, insects are superior to mammals, but, again from the point of view of survival, inanimate matter is more successful than the most persistent living species.
This leads to the idea that, if the goal of life is and should be to survive, to continue to exist, then the goal should be to become inanimate, more like a mountain than like even the greatest human being. And if the movement of history is towards survival and existence, then the movement is away from life.
The usual way of looking at things, from the point of view of science and of the Theory of Evolution, is that first there was inanimate matter, and that life has developed very late in the development of things. In the vast expanses of the inanimate universe, on this tiny planet (and possibly a few others), life came out of the inanimate mud and managed to survive. And, of course, after millions and millions of years of life, consciousness emerged. First there is matter, then life, and then consciousness. And that the urge to survive underlies and explains what life exists today and will exist tomorrow.
But, if it is really true that the goal of the development of the universe is towards more and more permanent existence, towards survival, then it might be better to think of the process as opposite of the one described in the last paragraph. If we are moving from the delicate and fleeting and insubstantial to the existing and substantial, then it should be that, in the beginning, there was consciousness, the most delicate flower of all, and consciousness "substantiated" itself into life, and life is in the process of getting rid of itself and "substantiating" itself into a more permanent form.
This last view, even if it seems far-fetched, seems to capture the view of religious thinkers who think of God, as pure consciousness, existing alone, until, at some point in time, He gets an urge to create. The idea here is that the world we see is one of the last stages of this God's work, an emanation of His consciousness, the results of the transformation of His thoughts and dreams into physical reality.
In this view, the physical world around us is a kind of fossil of an image in the soul of the living God, as it were. It is a visible reflection, frozen into existence, of something internal to Him. It is like a painting, a concrete object, that dimly reflects a transitory state that existed in the imagination of the artist. The ephemeral has a desire to become solid and physical.
This view also seems to give a twist to an idea found in Freud, amongst others, of a death instinct. Life is ever changing and impermanent and fleeting, and besides the urge for pleasure and life and power, there is a drive for peace and permanence that, some might think, come only when consciousness is gone (as in deep sleep) and life is gone, and we have "returned to dust."
A person could object that the goal of individuals isn't just to exist but to live. What is existence without life? Even more, the goal isn't just to live but to be conscious as well as alive. The goal isn't just to exist. A corpse exists. The goal isn't just to be alive. A man in a coma is alive. The goal is to exist and to be full of life and vigor and, at the same time, to be awake and alert and conscious.
But a person who says this is not speaking from the point of view of the Theory of Evolution which tries to explain why species and individuals of that species exist and not why they are alive or conscious.