working hard, to what end?

I am surrounded by busy people; some are busy working, some are busy procrastinating, some are busy wondering where their lives are headed. I’m doing all three and as I graduate in a few days, marking I suppose a kind of milestone in the epic of busyness, here are some semi-inchoate thoughts. And a large ant hill.

Sometimes I wonder why we do this, why some of us are so driven, often to fairly ridiculous lengths.

Working hard is thought to lead to success, or to be correlated with it. But what is success anyway? The cynical molecular biologist in me wonders whether it’s, after all, just a different configuration of atoms out of the quadrillion zillion different possibilities offered us by chance and necessity.

Many people are working hard at least partially for the sake of their salvation – they aim to get to heaven, or some similar concept, by doing good works. In the midst of my own busyness, I’m glad I don’t bear that particular burden. In spite of my own culpable failure and laziness, that exam has been passed for me, with an unprecedented perfect score, by Jesus.

I have little idea what life will throw at me, the options are many, but whatever I do, there are some things I can’t earn and the most important two have been given to me for free – my life and a right relationship with the one who gives and sustains life. That’s a good basis from which to work out some solutions to the hectic draining busyness of life.

So, I’m convinced that the answer to the question of work isn’t either to do more or to do less, but to re-frame and reconsider it in light of the only one who offers any sense to the madness; the beginning and the end who works to make us, to save us, and to make us better. That’s something worth working towards.

HADD, adaptationism and the teleological naturalist

As human beings, we tend to want to know why things exist, and we assume that the purpose they serve is linked to the story of their origin. Human tools are created to function for a specific purpose and when we see functional things elsewhere (such as in biology), we tend to assume they exist in some sense because of their purpose as well.

This was highlighted for me in a recent walk in the Waitakeres, when a friend asked what the purpose of the barbs on a type of grass seed is (other than for vast quantities of them to get stuck in the leg hair of male human beings). It made perfect sense to assume that such a structure had a function and a purpose. Evolutionarily it makes sense to ask too – sometimes; in other cases, I think that on a naturalistic evolutionary account we should simply accept that stuff just happened to turn out that way, either through accident or through constraints imposed by pre-existing biological structures and processes.

This widespread search for purpose and preference for purposeful answers may itself be explained in part by reference to ‘HADD’, a hyper-sensitive agency detector device; a module (or set of modules) in the brain, which postulates agency on receipt of various kinds of input. An example of this is young children’s documented preference for teleological explanations of even natural features such as the pointyness of rocks – “so that animals can scratch themselves on them” is preferred as an explanation for this feature, over against “because stuff piled up over time to make them pointy” (or words to that effect). This kind of finding from psychological experiments is very well explained in Justin Barrett’s book “Born Believers”, that I’ve referred to before.

Now, it seems to me, that the ‘adaptationist programme’ which is quite popular in evolutionary biology – at least amongst popularisers such as Dawkins and Dennett, is a highly teleological one; albeit an attempt at a naturalised teleology. For the hard-core adaptationist, every (or virtually every) feature of organisms is an evolutionary adaptation and as such has an evolutionary purpose. The blossoming of evolutionary psychology or ‘evo-psych’ in recent decades is a great example of this penchant towards adaptationism amongst many scientists and pseudo-scientists.

If this suite of explanations are teleological and HADD turns out to be accepted as an explanation of other dispositions towards teleology (as in the case of religion), then much of the motivation for the adaptationist programme might well also be explicable by way of this ‘unreliable’ cognitive feature. But then, is adaptationism itself ripe for evolutionary debunking? (I may’ve said elsewhere, I think more fundamentally the underpinnings of scientific realism are themselves ripe for such debunking, but that’s a future project for me).

You may be wondering why I care about this. In short, simply because I find it interesting. Belief in God is unlikely to gain or lose much support whatever the relationship between HADD and adaptationism is – though, personally I can imagine (in a very loosely sketched out way) a teleological story working better or easier where adaptation is not the only driving force behind evolutionary innovation (by which I mean the creation of novelties, without necessarily implying any teleology in the immediate process of change) – but exploring this is perhaps another project for another time. I am intrigued by the idea of exaptation and evolutionary anticipation (heretical phrase though that is!) in any case.

P.S. as with a number of the philosophical or semi-philosophical posts I’ve made over the last couple of months, I think there is something, a small germ, in what I’ve said which is quite important and perhaps even novel here. So, please don’t steal my ideas and please do talk with me about them if they’re of interest. 🙂

blog post commenting

Now when I comment on wordpress blogs (something I do very rarely) it insists that I log in with my wordpress log in rather than my name or such.

This is annoying.

It could also be why you’re reading this blog, if you clicked on a link I inadvertently left. Oops. Feel free to delete any comments that weren’t properly labelled.

Don’t FRET?

Förster resonance-energy transfer is quite interesting, one of the methods for analysing protein-protein interactions that I’m familiarising and refamiliarising myself with for an essay – but it’s not actually the topic of this blog post.

The real topic is a question I’m asking myself fairly frequently: should I continue studying science (molecular biology)? Or, is FRET my future? I’m locked in until the end of the year, but then, technically, I am free to do whatever I like (disregarding my medium-sized student loan and limited – eclectic in any case – qualifications :S)

I’ll probably commit to a Master’s next year, if I am able to find a supervisor and ideally some kind of funding?! If that proves hard work, well, we’ll see. Fairly soon I hope to get some certainty on what I’m doing next year – but even all going well, the year after is wide wide open. The reason for doing the masters is as preparation for something else; perhaps a PhD, but more plausibly some other less sciencey endeavour.
If you happen to have lots of money you want to give away to a fantastically worthy student or any ideas on scholarships /programmes in, say, philosophical theology, bioethics or the philosophy of science, feel free to get in contact 🙂

Here’s a song I like, some of which seems relevant. Enjoy!

Why do we even care?

Thoughts on social justice

A lot of youth care about inequality and unfairness in the world and a few even go so far as to try to do something about it. Some kind of concern for the environment and people who are less privileged than us is pretty much taken for granted by most thinking young people, regardless of their religious belief or worldview. But why is this, is this the way it’s meant to be, and do we as Christians have anything in particular to say?

You’ll know that Christians don’t have a monopoly on caring for other people – we’re often not very good at it at all! However, the Church throughout history does have a record of service to some of the poorest and most vulnerable. From reforming the practices of ancient Rome to the modern hospice movement and many things in between, Christians have been active in service. More importantly, we have good reasons for this way of life. Jesus commands us to love both God and neighbour, God’s heart is clearly directed towards the poor throughout Scripture, and right at the beginning we are created as rational relational creatures in God’s image, which guarantees that we have a special kind of worth – and that other people do too! A Christian concept of justice is a serious contender in the world of ideas* and seems to me like the kind of thing that our society could desperately do with hearing.

This all has consequences. The gospel of God’s costly love for us in Jesus requires that we serve others, including I believe, working to overcome unjust structures in society. People will disagree on what counts as injustice and the standard to aim for, but if we look to Jesus, we can see a standard based in the most fundamental reality of all – the character of God – and we can be confident that it’s worth holding on to and acting on. If the universe were Godless, as some people tell us it is, it isn’t clear that justice would make sense, let alone be motivating. As such we shouldn’t, I think, either be scared to talk about Jesus in the context of social justice, or feel the need to create a purely abstract secular concept to work with. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus repeatedly points to himself rather than just impersonal ethical principles. Let’s not lose this as a church!

If your friends are interested in social justice, recognising the innate dignity of human beings, maybe chat with them about this. Discuss over coffee, perhaps, why they actually care (beyond it being endorsed by the celebrity of the month) and why you do, and how this fact changes the way we can live our individual lives as well as how we want to organise society. It’s such an important topic and one that Jesus still speaks into today!

*see, e.g. Nicholas Wolterstorff – Justice: Rights and Wrongs. 2010
(click picture for the blurb)


It just occurred to me – today I’ve been thinking about neural development at the molecular level and also the evolutionary origin of our cognitive faculties. That’s at least three levels of thinking.
Also, I can’t stop thinking about God – you could almost say I’ve HADD enough…

Here’s one of my favourite songs at the moment, mostly for the chorus (and the album can be downloaded free or for donation from bandcamp!):