Purpose and the Meaning of Good
From at least the time of Aristotle, the Good was identified with purpose. Aristotle’s Nicomachaen Ethics opens with the assertion: “Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has been declared to be that at which all things aim.” The highest good is the end, telos, which is desired for its own sake. The task of ethics consists in understanding what this good is and how to attain it.
Aristotle’s notion of the Good as the final end or purpose came into Medieval Christian thought primarily through the work of St. Thomas Aquinas and his theory of natural law. St. Thomas defined natural law as an aspect of eternal law, the order by which all things are directed to their end.
Like Aristotle, St. Thomas thought of God as pure being, pure actuality, whereas creation consisted of a process of things becoming by actualizing their potential. Using a popular example, an acorn has the potential to become a mature oak tree. Inanimate things, plants, and non-rational animals achieve their actuality naturally. We humans, as rational beings, participate in the eternal law and must seek our end voluntarily using reason and free will. Reason and free will, in this view constitute the human faculties that enable us to know and love that which is good.
Goodness and being are co-extensive, meaning that all being is good. Evil is a lack of something that ought to be. To take an example of a physical evil, if a person loses his eyesight, we call that a physical evil, (more often we would say “misfortune,”) because we cherish sight as a good thing that ordinarily accompanies our human nature. Moral evil consists of a lack of virtue. As we humans grow from infancy to adulthood, we ought to learn to control our lives by reason.
The habits of rational governance constitute virtues such as temperance, courage, and justice. Anyone who fails to develop these qualities slips into intemperance, cowardice, and injustice. Since being is good, a good human being is one who is constantly becoming more human, which means a more highly developed rational animal. As we develop in this way we actualize our potential and move toward achieving our end, our telos.
Contemporary Evolutionary Materialism
Contemporary materialism provides a view that rejects all of the concepts that constitute traditional natural law theory. Materialists deny the reality of the soul, eternal law, teleology, and objective good. Francis Crick states the materialist position in explicit contrast to the notion of a soul, which his wife had learned in Catholic school:
The Astonishing Hypothesis is that “You,” your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.
If this thesis holds true, then we must understand conscious behavior of human organism as nothing but a product of physical and chemical events at the level of molecules.
For contemporary materialist thought, the term: “soul” does not refer to anything real. The activities that traditional philosophy attributed to the soul are now seen as nothing but “the behavior of nerve cells and other molecules.” So it is not you and I who experience joy and sorrow, remember things past, and strive for things future - the molecules are doing all of this.
Reason itself does not have the privileged place that it had in traditional thought, but we can choose to make it a supreme value. The materialist philosophers and scientists, to their credit, or to the credit of their molecules, give reason a place of pre-eminence. Materialist philosopher Daniel Dennett says in praise of scientific researchers and in response to those who argue that “trading mystery for mechanism” will impoverish our view of human potential:
"Look around at those who are participating in this quest for further scientific knowledge and eagerly digesting the new discoveries; they are manifestly not short on optimism, moral conviction, engagement in life, commitment to society."
Fortunately we can value such things as life, health, and virtue. But nature is indifferent, neither good nor bad apart from our judgments. For materialism, there can be no eternal law, and inanimate objects do not seek ends. The question for us is whether we can show that the principle of seeking ends still applies to us humans as understood in contemporary science.
To answer this question we must first look at what the materialists put in the place of the teleology of eternal law, namely, an interpretation of natural selection based on chance. In the materialist view, everything from the formation of molecules to the most complex human thought comes about by natural selection. Some molecules replicate themselves and therefore copies of them will survive. Of the replicating molecules, the ones that are best suited to the environment in which they find themselves and which are not self-destructive, will pass along copies of themselves. This process continues as some of the molecules happen to join with others to form more complex structures. The fittest of these survive and eventually evolve into living organisms, which by the same process of natural selection develop sensation, consciousness, and intelligence.
In the materialist view there is no need to posit a design or goal at any point in the process. At the lower levels there is no striving or wanting to survive. At the level of consciousness, the desire to survive might give an organism a competitive edge, allowing those organisms who happen to have a survival instinct to survive and reproduce. At the level of intelligence, planning and deliberately working toward long range goals may greatly enhance survival.
Daniel Dennett offers an explanation of free will based on non-biological survival structures called memes. (The term “meme” has taken on a more restricted meaning in social media.) Dennett describes Memes as “cultural replicators” parallel to genes, which are the biological replicators. Examples of memes would be anything that is part of what we call our culture, from the way we prepare food to the way we enjoy music. The memes are products of natural selection so that, for instance, an innovation in food or music may or may not be replicated depending on whether or not it is to the liking of the biological host.
Just as our genes have a natural tendency to replicate themselves, so do our cultural memes. Dennett quotes Richard Dawkins author of "The Selfish Gene” and coiner of the term "meme." Dawkins writes:
"We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth and if necessary the selfish memes of our indoctrination…We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines but we have the power to turn against our creators. We alone on earth can rebel against the power of the selfish replicators."
Who are “we?” We are sharers of information. With the sharing of memes we have the beginning of a community rather than just an aggregate of individuals. The question is how we rebel against the replicators as Dawkins affirms that we in fact do. Dawkins does not say how, and so Dennett himself attempts to answer this question. The answer is that the memes open up a world of imagination, which provides a variety of options to choose from.
Because of imagination we are not limited to only the option that best enhances our own individual survival, nor the survival of our genes. One person may forgo a family and children to live a life of service; another may do so to live a life of hedonistic delights. In both cases the genes’ metaphorical “desire” for perpetuation will not be met.
There does not seem to be any reason in the nature of thing to affirm that any choices are better than any others. And although scientific thinkers like Dennett and Dawkins stand poles apart from the classical existentialists who hold that reality is absurd, the ultimate outlook on what is good or bad is strangely similar. As Jean-Paul Sartre states after arguing that values have no reality apart from the choice of a free being that choose them:
"It follows that my freedom is the unique foundation of values and that nothing, absolutely nothing, justifies me in adopting this or that particular value, this or that particular scale of values."
Is anything good in reality or just a matter of taste?
It seems that those who pursue scientific knowledge, as well as other pursuits such as health care or social justice, do so with the assumption that they are on to something real. We need to ask whether our contemporary scientific world-view is compatible with the notion that science is really good and not just one of the myriad of memes, along with such things as astrology and sorcery, that people happen to adopt.