Friday, November 29, 2013

The Riddle of the Universe by Ernst Haeckel

An essential read for freethinkers
It’s a shame Ernst Haeckel was a racist, because this is an excellent book. Haeckel was a biologist, naturalist, artist, and a vigorous proponent of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution who, like many European and American men of the 19th century, thought that the white race was more highly evolved than the other, “primitive” races. Thankfully, with the exception of two or three questionable sentences, that racial view is entirely absent from this book. In The Riddle of the Universe, published in 1901, this Renaissance man sums up his life’s work for the general reader. He provides an overview of the state of scientific knowledge at the close of the 19th century and applies that knowledge to such philosophical mysteries as the creation of the universe, the existence of God, the nature of human consciousness, and the question of free will.

Haeckel uses the “Law of Substance” (now called the law of conservation of matter and energy) as the foundation for a monistic conception of the universe. The idea of monism was best developed by the 17th century philosopher Baruch Spinoza. It is opposed to dualism, the prevailing world view of most religions, which envisions the universe as being constructed of two substances—matter and spirit. In monism, the universe is only composed of one substance—matter—and any intelligence or “soul” must be an inherent property of that sole substance. Only by combining into more and more complex structures does this property accumulate into what we recognize as intelligence, from the basic stimulus and response of protozoa to rational human consciousness. The mechanism that accomplishes this is Darwinian evolution. In fact, the entire universe, organic and inorganic alike, can be seen as being in a perpetual state of evolution, and the sharp categorical distinctions we make between living and inanimate things, intelligent and non-intelligent life, matter and space, etc., should be abandoned in favor of more fluid spectra. The religious view that coincides with this monistic cosmology is pantheism, another contribution of Spinoza. Pantheism sees the entire universe itself, the monistic substance, as God. Haeckel acknowledges that pantheism is essentially the same as atheism—the absence of belief in an anthropomorphic God—only looked at from a different perspective. By combining the thought of Spinoza and Darwin into a unified theory of the universe, with help from Schopenhauer and Goethe, Haeckel elucidates a secular cosmology for rational thinkers of the modern world.

Although the text is crammed with scientific and philosophical terminology, the translation by Joseph McCabe is surprisingly easy to read. 21st-century readers will find much of the science elementary. The history of science, on the other hand, is an area most of us could use an education in, and Haeckel provides a good overview, although a German-centric one. Like Darwin, Haeckel didn’t get everything right, but the book’s philosophical value redeems its scientific inaccuracies. The book gradually progresses from scientific matters to religious and ethical issues. There is some anti-Christian, anti-Catholic, and anti-Vatican rhetoric that’s probably unnecessary for today’s audience. Needless to say, readers of a religious persuasion will not like this book, but for freethinkers it’s a must-read. You won’t agree with everything Haeckel says, but you will find many of your own ideas confirmed and gain an understanding of how these ideas can be combined into a cohesive philosophy. After all, what could be more important than establishing your own personal belief system (or lack of belief system, as the case may be)? It is incredibly invigorating to encounter a book that takes on a subject no less than everything in existence and the very nature of existence itself. Perhaps the real riddle of the universe is, why aren’t there more books like this?

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