Author and commentator Robert Wright recently wrote a New York Times piece in which he singlehandedly attempts to arbitrate the boundaries between science and religion - “A Grand Bargain Over Evolution”. Oddly, I find Wright is generally doing more harm to the materialists, though I think he’s asking too much of both sides. It’s only a “grand bargain” if both sides agree.
I say Wright does more violence to the atheist point of view in part because religious apologists have been beaten so ferociously by others already. Since at least as early as the publication of A Brief History of Time in 1988, science has confined God’s role to the moment of the Big Bang. Wright too, seems to banish interventionism past the birth of the universe, or at least past the beginning of natural selection.
In his efforts to purge interventionism, Wright attempts to put some flesh on the bones of materialist morality. Materialists certainly have a respectable account of the development of moral sentiments, which Wright describes. I think most serious apologists would acknowledge this, though Wright unfairly confines apologists to the insufficient thinking of C.S. Lewis. The conceptual groundwork for the evolution of morality was around as early as the mid 1970s (see Mary Midgely’s 1978 book Beast and Man), and the mathematics had mostly caught up by the mid 1980s (Robert Axelrod’s The Evolution of Cooperation in 1984, and Michael Taylor’s The Possibility of Cooperation in 1987). I find it hard to believe that serious contemporary apologists are two or three decades behind in the literature.
Wright then goes on to posit an external morality independent from any concept of God. I find myself much less compatibilist than Wright on this issue. This is a topic deserving of much more attention than I’m giving it here, but Wright’s attempt to reconcile this problem with an analogy to sensory perception falls flat. There’s simply no reason to go beyond Nietzsche when discussing a materialist morality.
Where Wright really falls off the rails though, is his talk of a “higher purpose” to evolution. The introduction of teleology to evolution is a gross mistake in the understanding of evolutionary theory. The sooner one banishes teleological thinking from evolution the better one understands it. Wright talks about the “purpose” of an organ or organism without acknowledging the problematic thought process this sort of language promotes. What Wright calls the creative power of evolution is little more than a quirk of thermodynamics; Earth’s surface has experienced a localized decrease in entropy due to the energy provided by the sun and the core of the earth.
Tacking back to the religious, Wright then suggests that the teleological ends of evolution might be a peaceful global society. “Clearly, this evolutionary narrative could fit into a theology with some classic elements: a divinely imparted purpose that involves a struggle toward the good, a struggle that even leads to a kind of climax of history.” (I would suggest Wright’s own left-of-center politics has crept in to this grand historical vision.) This is juxtaposed against a materialistic “meta-natural-selection” in a multi-universal context. Some compromise!
Wright’s fundamental mistake is in telling each party that they must accept or acknowledge the intellectual kludges of the other party. His messages are largely cris-crossed to the wrong audiences. Deists may believe in a teleological evolution in order to stomach most of the science, but atheists need not accept this compromise. Atheists may imagine a set of quasi-Platonic moral facts in order to shield themselves from nihilism, but believers need not accept this.
In the opening paragraph, Wright observes, “Most scientists and most religious believers refuse to be drafted into the fight. Whether out of a live-and-let-live philosophy, or a belief that religion and science are actually compatible, or a heartfelt indifference to the question, they’re choosing to sit this one out.” In trying to sort out the vocal fight between the brash partisans on each side, Wright is needlessly stirring up philosophical hornets’ nests. If most people have reached a modus vivendi, then there’s no reason for Wright to butcher the philosophies of both sides.