Robert Wright is a journalist known for founding Bloggingheads.tv. He has written several books, notably The Evolution of God, which was published this year.
His schtick is the compatibility of science and religion. According to him, accommodation will be achieved once believers come to accept natural selection and convert to some form of deism, and once atheists learn to accept that this kind of wishy-washy (not his terminology) religion is compatible with science.
I recently linked to a blogging heads discussion between Wright and Daniel Dennett in which I criticized both of them for misunderstanding evolution. Wright seems to have bought into the Dennett idea of natural selection being the only mechanism of evolution. Wright also believes that natural selection will inevitably lead to sentient beings with a sense of moral purpose.
If this is true then science has to accept the fact that God could have cooked the books so that creatures would eventually evolve to the point where they were willing to worship him and offer sacrifices. And they would do so in spite of the absence of scientific evidence for the existence of such a non-interventionist, deistic, God. All the stories about an interventionist God must be wrong. If you're a deist, there was no deluge, no chosen people, and no divine Jesus.
Under such a scenario, I often wonder how believers would know what kind of God to worship. How do you distinguish between a Satan and Gitche Manitou if the deistic god has gone to such great lengths to be hands off during the evolution of sentient beings?
Robert Wright's latest foray into this debate comes as an op-ed piece in yesterday's New York Times: Direction and Purpose in Evolution. He reiterates the point that both sides of the war between science and religion are wrong. He is a confirmed accommodationist.
There are atheists who go beyond declaring personal disbelief in God and insist that any form of god-talk, any notion of higher purpose, is incompatible with a scientific worldview. And there are religious believers who insist that evolution can't fully account for the creation of human beings.I don't want to discuss that argument except to say, for the record, that I'm one of those who insist that's there's no evidence of purpose in the evolution of life. Any talk of there being a direction to evolution, where sentient beings are the ultimate goal, founders on a massive lack of evidence in support of such a notion.
However, I'm willing to accept that biological science is more or less compatible with the existence of a supernatural being who created life on Earth and then stepped back to let history play out according to the standard rules of physics and chemistry.
Where I differ from people like Wright and Dennett is that my version of evolution is not restricted to natural selection. In my view of evolution, accident and chance play important roles at both the macro- and micro levels. Mass extinctions are just one example at the macro- level and random genetic drift is the most important example at the micro- level.
Why is this important? It's important because it gets us away from "design" talk. Most believers are committed to talk of design and purpose because otherwise life has no meaning. If they accept evolution then they make science and religion compatible by evoking God as the cause of natural selection. In this accommodationist scenario, God achieves his purpose through the law of natural selection.
Some philosophers and evolutionary biologists also believe that evolution is an algorithmic process, relying (almost) exclusively on natural selection as the driving force. Some, like Daniel Dennett, use metaphors such as building skyscrapers in order to illustrate their view of purposeful evolution. By invoking purpose and design, these philosophers and evolutionary biologists lend support to those believers who also see evidence of design and purpose. Robert Wright is correct to point out that the two groups, atheistic adaptationists and deistic believers, are not that far apart.
I bring good news! These two warring groups have more in common than they realize. And, no, it isn't just that they're both wrong. It's that they're wrong for the same reason. Oddly, an underestimation of natural selection's creative power clouds the vision not just of the intensely religious but also of the militantly atheistic.This is a little confusing because many of the "militant atheists" he complains about are strong adaptationists who are only too willing to explain everything by natural selection. Those scientists clearly see design and purpose in evolution, but that doesn't make them accommodationists.
If both groups were to truly accept that power, the landscape might look different. Believers could scale back their conception of God's role in creation, and atheists could accept that some notions of "higher purpose" are compatible with scientific materialism. And the two might learn to get along.
Robert Wright evokes evolutionary psychology in defense of accommodationism. Using the "moral law" example, he points out that natural selection can explain morality and believers have to accept this "fact." However, those same believers can take comfort in the idea that God planned this when he created natural selection in the first place, so the evolution of a "moral law" is consistent with belief in a deistic God.
Indeed, this dynamic of reciprocal altruism, as mediated by natural selection, seems to have inclined us toward belief in some fairly abstract principles, notably the idea that good deeds should be rewarded and bad deeds should be punished. This may seem like jarring news for C. S. Lewis fans, who had hoped that God was the one who wrote moral laws into the charter of the universe, after which he directly inserted awareness of them in the human lineage.Wright is mostly directing his arguments at theists in order to convince them that they can accept evolution without abandoning the concepts of a God-given morality and a life with meaning and purpose. He spends less time trying to convince atheistic scientists because he believes that his interpretation of the science is correct. His blogging head conversation with philosopher Daniel Dennett has convinced him that most scientists think this way.
But they may not have to stray quite as far from that scenario as they fear. Maybe they can accept this evolutionary account, and be strict Darwinians, yet hang on to notions of divinely imparted moral purpose.
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).
Of course, to say that God trusted natural selection to do the creative work assumes that natural selection, once in motion, would do it; that evolution would yield a species that in essential respects — in spiritually relevant respects, you might say — was like the human species. But this claim, though inherently speculative, turns out to be scientifically plausible.
For starters, there are plenty of evolutionary biologists who believe that evolution, given long enough, was likely to create a smart, articulate species — not our species, complete with five fingers, armpits and all the rest — but some social species with roughly our level of intelligence and linguistic complexity.This is the part I dispute. I don't believe that the evolution of some sort of sentient species was inevitable. And I don't believe there's a universal moral law that evolved due to natural selection. My version of evolution, involving copious amounts of chance and accident, just happened to produce sentient beings on this planet. I suspect that if we looked at a thousand planets with life we wouldn't see another example.
And what about the chances of a species with a moral sense? Well, a moral sense seems to emerge when you take a smart, articulate species and throw in reciprocal altruism. And evolution has proved creative enough to harness the logic of reciprocal altruism again and again.
Furthermore, I think that our sense of proper morality is mostly cultural, not genetic. We didn't "evolve" a hard-wired guilty feeling whenever we treated people unfairly. After all, people in many cultures supported slavery and mistreatment of women for thousands of years without being consumed by the expression of their "guilt" genes. Most of what passes for morality is not due to genes (alleles) for reciprocal altruism. Instead, a great deal of "morality" is an epiphenomenon that follows naturally whenever you have intelligent beings living together in a society that has learned the advantages of co-operation.
Robert Wright's mistake is assuming that adaptationism is the general consensus in biology. His accommodationist argument fails if science doesn't recognize design and purpose as the key paradigms of evolution.