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William Provine, RIP: Noble in His Honesty


William B. Provine, the Charles A. Alexander Professor of Biological Sciences at Cornell University, has died of cancer at the age of 73. Notwithstanding obvious and profound differences of opinion with us about science and what the evidence suggests about the origins and meaning of life, Dr. Provine was a courageous and clear-sighted interlocutor.

We admired him because, first, he was an interlocutor, with the daring to stand up and debate leading proponents of the theory of intelligent design including Phillip Johnson and Stephen Meyer. That is a measure of character and it is unfortunately rare among defenders of orthodox evolutionary theory.

Second and no less important, unlike many evolutionary spokesmen, he was willing to forthrightly articulate the philosophical implications of Darwinian theory. He said that “belief in modern evolution makes atheists of people” and “one can have a religious view that is compatible with evolution only if the religious view is indistinguishable from atheism.”

If life really did arise through a brute, purposeless, undirected, unplanned, and purely material process, a series of accidents, that lends support to a nihilistic worldview. In Provine’s perspective, it positively demands it.

Yet there was a kind of jauntiness to his despair. He said in a 1994 debate with Phil Johnson at Stanford University:

When you die, you’re not going to be surprised, because you’re going to be completely dead. Now if I find myself aware after I’m dead, I’m going to be really surprised! But at least I’m going to go to hell, where I won’t have all of those grinning preachers from Sunday morning listening.

Let me summarize my views on what modern evolutionary biology tells us loud and clear — and these are basically Darwin’s views. There are no gods, no purposes, and no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death. When I die, I am absolutely certain that I am going to be dead. That’s the end of me. There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life, and no free will for humans, either. What an unintelligible idea.

Christian humanism has a great deal going for it. It’s warm and kindly in many ways. That’s the good part. The bad part is that you have to suspend your rational mind. That part is really nasty. Atheistic humanism has the advantage of fitting natural minds trying to understand the world, but the disadvantage of very little cultural heritage — and that’s a real problem.

So the question is, can atheistic humanism offer us very much? Sure. It can give you intellectual satisfaction. I’m a heck of a lot more intellectually satisfied now that I don’t have to cling to the fairy tale that I believed when I was a kid. Life may have no ultimate meaning, but I sure think it can have lots of proximate meaning. Free will is not hard to give up, because it’s a horribly destructive idea to our society. Free will is what we use as an excuse to treat people like pieces of crap when they do something wrong in our society. We say to the person, “you did something wrong out of your free will, and therefore we have the justification for revenge all over your behind.” We put people in prison, turning them into lousier individuals than they ever were. This horrible system is based upon this idea of free will.

Since we know that we are not going to live after we die, there is no reward for suffering in this world. You live and you die. I’ve seen bumper stickers (very sexist ones, actually) that say “Life’s a bitch, and then you die.” Well, whatever life is, you’re going to die. So if you’re going to make things better for yourself or for those you care about, you had better become an activist while you’re still alive.

Finally, there is no reason whatsoever that ethics can’t be robust, even if there is no ultimate foundations for ethics. If you’re an atheist and know you’re going to die, what really counts is friendship — and that’s why I value Phil’s friendship so much.

No God, no free will, no real foundation for ethics. That about nails it. Such truth-telling is a nightmare for apologists who sell evolution to the general populace by denying its ultimate significance for the picture of man and his place in the universe.

You can read many moving tributes at his Facebook page, including from his wife, Gail Provine, who evokes his sweetness and gentleness: “Will, my love, I cannot tell you how thankful I am for our little infinity. You gave me a forever within the numbered days, and for that I am eternally grateful.”

We respected Dr. Provine for his virtues. We too will miss him. We wish to convey our sympathies and condolences to Mrs. Provine, his friends, students, and colleagues.

H/t: Denyse O’Leary.

Image credit: Ragesoss (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons.