Homo Naledi and the Excitement of New Discovery

The recent discovery of Homo Naledi by the Rising Star Expedition in South Africa[1] seems to have elicited quite some controversy — at least on social networks, like Facebook — between hardcore, atheistic evolutionists and “scientific creationists,” with agnostics and theistic evolutionists (religious or not) sanely caught somewhere in the middle, but practically muted by the cacophony of bitter accusations, speculations, name-calling, insults, and what-have-you. The discovery is fascinating, and it does not really change the theory of evolution, nor does it directly involve religious faith. This is a story of monumental, exciting discovery by scientists doing what they do: Researching, exploring, discovering and sharing with the rest of the world.

Of course, this has not stopped people from making asinine comments, such as: “They found old bones of a monkey, or disfigured man and call it a new human. This is nothing to get excited about. Thousands of years from now when they dig up Patrick Ewing, they will claim they found another species of human, too.” And, “Of course you’ll stick to your contemporary mythology Tom N. It’s too hard for some to overcome the fear of a vengeful, psychopathic deity.”[2] And one of my favorites: “You bible thumpers do realize god doesn’t exist, right?” To which I could not resist answering:

Umm … no. And “bible-thumpers” are by far not the only ones who believe in the existence of God (or the divine, supernatural, etc.) Besides this obvious fact, your question itself is quite bizarre: Why would “bible-thumpers,” as you refer to some, “realize god doesn’t exist?” If they realized this ~ which certainly is not the case ~ then, of course, they would not be “bible thumpers.” Very ill-thought and pedantic of you, Scott. Think before you write, please.

All of this is completely unnecessary, of course. As I tried to point out amid the raging controversy, there are plenty of scientists, who are women and men of faith. More than this, however, science is not about attempting to disprove the existence of God, divinity, the supernatural or numinous – yes, despite Dawkins and company – and religious faith is not, or need not be, about disproving science.

Yes, of course, there are naturalistic materialist who claim that all causation is completely naturalistic and materialistic, only an “interaction between material entities.” As philosopher Jennifer Trusted points out, for the materialist “consciousness has to be admitted but as a mere epiphenomenon … matter is the sole ultimate reality.”[3] One does not have to adhere to some sort of fideism to reasonably conclude that naturalistic materialism is ultimately untenable. But perhaps here we need to make one very important and sharp distinction: There is science (properly speaking) and then there is philosophy. Oftentimes in rancorous discussions, such as the one I’m here addressing, the two are terribly confused … or, really, not thought about at all! Thankfully, the former, very renowned atheistic philosopher-turned-theist, Anthony Flew, makes the distinction quite well:

You might ask how I, a philosopher, could speak to issues treated by scientists. The best way to answer this is with another question. Are we engaging in science or philosophy here? When you study the interaction of two physical bodies, for instance, two subatomic particles, you are engaged in science. When you ask how it is that those subatomic particles – or anything physical – could exist and why, you are engaged in philosophy. When you draw philosophical conclusions from scientific data, then you are thinking as a philosopher.[4]

As stated above, scientists properly do what they do when they research, explore, discover and share with the rest of the world what they have learned. They do not ask questions, as professional scientists, about the purpose and meaning of life; about the intrinsic value of the homo sapien or other creatures; about the existence of an unseen numinous sphere, etc. What am I saying? There are philosophers, ethicists, theologians and other professionals for a reason; science is not kingpin. By the way, one needs to know and understand the difference between “science” and “scientism.” Scientism is “an exaggerated trust in the efficacy of the methods of natural science applied to all areas of investigation, as in philosophy, the social sciences, and the humanities.” Just as “materialism” is “the theory that physical matter is the only or fundamental reality and that all being and processes and phenomena can be explained as manifestations or results of matter.” [5]

In contradistinction to this is the metaphysical, that is, “that which relates to the transcendent or to a reality beyond what is perceptible to the senses,” and this falls outside the purview of science, strictly speaking. Besides, what was actually discovered in South Africa by the Rising Star Expedition is astonishing beyond what can be precisely termed “science.” Researchers have concluded:

[B]esides shedding light on the origins and diversity of our genus, H. naledi also appears to have intentionally deposited bodies of its dead in a remote cave chamber, a behaviour previously thought limited to humans… the context of the find has led the researchers to conclude that this primitive-looking hominin may have practiced a form of behaviour previously thought to be unique to humans. The fossils — which consist of infants, children, adults and elderly individuals — were found in a room deep underground that the team named the Dinaledi Chamber, or “Chamber of Stars”.[6]

In other words, they intentionally practiced “sacramental” burial. Science cannot answer the question, “Why? This was evidently important, and an exact, consistent practice, but why?” This question, and the answer, simply lie outside the limits of science. I believe the late Oxford scientist, William H. Thorpe, “hit the nail on the head” when he wrote:

The materialist scientist of the last century (19th), looking downward into the basis of material things, thought that he had found material entities behaving according to mechanistic determinism in a lawful and invariable manner to constitute the material world. At the other end he had the curious illusion that his mentality was also determined by mechanistic-materialist laws. Now, as we have seen, materialism at the basic physical levels has been transformed into events involving entities which are certainly not ‘physical’ in any original sense but as ‘vectors’ to be described only in non-physical terms – as ‘mental,’ as ‘purposive,’ or as ‘spiritual.’[7]

Touché! And so, again, we have philosophers, anthropologists, historians, ethicists, theologians, etc., all working properly in their respective fields (ideally, at least.) It is only when some, like Richard Dawkins, attempt to cross over into another field in which he has no real expertise that we have problems – completely unnecessary problems! And, too, when avid atheists and fundamentalist, “scientific creationists” jump in the ring where neither belong – this causes unnecessary complications, too, and all so unnecessary, really. In the final analysis, Christoph Cardinal Schönborn offers, perhaps, the best advice where living out our collective lives in this stunningly beautiful and still very mysterious world is concerned:

One thing should be said at the start: the answer to (the fundamentally important questions) cannot be found by opposing faith and knowledge, religion and science, but only in a shared effort of thought, research, and also belief.[8]

And to this, may I say, “Amen and amen!”

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[1]Rising Star Expedition Reveals New Species: Homo Naledi as posted by the University of Witwatersrand, accessed on September 14, 2015

[2] Note: Grammatical and spelling errors corrected and names abbreviated by author of this article

[3] Jennifer Trusted, Inquiry and Understanding: An Introduction to Explanation in the Physical and Human Sciences, 88

[4] Antony Flew, “A Pilgrimage of Reason,” Francis S. Collins, ed., Belief: Readings on the Reason for Faith, 309-310

[5] Sources lost and forgotten, or (perhaps) written out from various sources by author; however, these definitions may certainly, easily be checked for accuracy

[6] Ibid

[7] William H. Thorpe, Purpose in a World of Chance: A Biologist’s View, 114-115

[8] Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, Chance or Purpose? Creation, Evolution, and a Rational Faith, 112-113; Note: parenthetical mine

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5 thoughts on “Homo Naledi and the Excitement of New Discovery

  1. Hello Noble. I followed you over from Bee’s house.

    I enjoy the energy of your thought here.

    One point. I’ll jump in with this from your post:

    “In other words, they intentionally practiced “sacramental” burial. Science cannot answer the question, “Why? This was evidently important, and an exact, consistent practice, but why?” This question, and the answer, simply lie outside the limits of science.”

    Why did they (Homo Naledi) “intentionally practice ‘sacramental’ burial”? Why do all peoples everywhere do likewise each in their own ways? Why do we pray, meditate, pound bibles, behead infidels, take communion, sit quietly, believe in God or some variation of God? Why do we ask why?

    Because we die. Because we are mortal. Because we are not immortal. Because we can not tolerate, and will never tolerate, the fact that we, thinking/sentient beings, will die and so quit thinking. It is an outrage. It is beyond all reason and logic and common kindness and good sense.

    Moral: If we did not die, we would not ask why. If we did not die, God would not exist.

    Again. I admire your love of thinking. My name is Will. all the best

    1. Thank you very much, Will! And thank you for your answer. It is one very good, possible answer, though not the one I would personally give, but an excellent, metaphysical answer nevertheless! Certainly, there are those who say that upon the advent of consciousness, or “the Awakening,” death made quite the impression. 😉 All the best to you!

    2. By and by, just out of curiosity, why would you say other sentient creatures (or life-forms, if you prefer) do not bury their dead? (Or, perhaps, I’m wrong and there are others who practice burial)? Just wondering what your thoughts might be on this seeming anomaly? Again, all the best!

  2. Very interesting post. I will have to reread a couple times. But I am in agreement with you. Some animals do bury their dead, I believe. Most animals that we can observe definitely grieve their death, some exhibit clear burial behavior, e.g. elephants. Even ants will drag all dead ants into some special chamber, no?

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