Saturday, August 29, 2009

Wright wrong on Evolution Compromise

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.


Anonymous said...

Easterbrook (I sent you a link to something he wrote once regarding corporate compensation) mentioned how evolution and creationism are not necessarily mutually exclusive. It echoed what Vitale said that he accepts evolution as a theory...but that the whole "amino acids led to protein led to life" hypothesis strikes him as a little 'off'. Allowing for the beginning of life to come from God actually makes more sense in many (if not most) ways than spontaneous generation from amino acids.


and I'm oddly pleased that my kaptcha was 'conan'

JoeCollins said...

I don't necessarily disagree w/ Easterbrook (or your representation of him, since I haven't read it), but with how Wright was going about negotiating the compromise.

Generally speaking, I suspect there's a (poorly defined) cluster of people somewhere in the Easterbrook area, and Wright might possibly even be near that too. I just don't think you can push people into that area who don't want to go there, and to the extent they're basically there anyway, why bother stirring the pot?

Is somebody off the rails for believing in a little more divine intervention past the amino acid stage? Not really, they're in the ballpark, and they'd be giving up a lot to go not very far. Same going the other way... there's no need to impose teleology on evolution. In a way Wright is just ignoring the whole point about having differences.

Anonymous said...

I wasn't really thinking about Wright, but was more pondering the state of God within the scientific community. The creation of life seemed like a major fast-forward from the Big Bang, giving God much more sway within the science than what had been implied by your statement. However, Easterbrook is not a scientist, and giving credit for two discrete events doesn't exactly open anyone's mind to God having an expansive role in science beyond the Big Bang.

Shoot. Now I'm trying to remember which group it was that argued God was like a clockmaker who created everything then let it run on its own. I'm pretty sure it was early 19th century.


JoeCollins said...

To me, Wright seemed vague as to when exactly God's role was supposed to have ended (for sure). Here's the relevant part:

"The first step toward this more modern theology is for them to bite the bullet and accept that God did his work remotely — that his role in the creative process ended when he unleashed the algorithm of natural selection (whether by dropping it into the primordial ooze or writing its eventual emergence into the initial conditions of the universe or whatever)."

From what I recall of A Brief History of Time (I don't own a copy), God's role was (if anywhere) in the moment of the big bang.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone out there argue that God might be guiding evolution? Things adapt and change...according to God's will?


JoeCollins said...

I think a lot of people believe that. Sort of a deified version of the monolith in "2001". Wright wouldn't allow that. It's not a scientific/falsifiable thesis, so I don't think you'll see anybody with credibility out there promoting that idea forcefully.

But, since that wouldn't be a scientifically operative idea, I think it's hard to say that it's a particularly obnoxious belief with respect to performing real scientific inquiry.