Monday, August 24, 2009

The Evolution of God

 
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.

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.
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.

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.

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.
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.
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.

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.
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.

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.


26 comments :

  1. I'm note sure whether this disagrees with you or not but: I think the basic capacity for moral behaviour (including enforcement mechanisms like internal guilt and shame) is psychologically hard-wired. Even non-human primates seem to exhibit the rudiments of morality. However, the details of *what* to approve or disapprove are culturally determined (at least partly by what serves the interests of the community as a whole, and/or of the elite).

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  2. I think biophilia is hard-wired into almost all organisms. Whether they have an awareness of this fact or not.

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  3. I don't know what to think about Wright. So if his name comes up, I just call him a weirdo and consider my views adequately stated.

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  5. Larry Moran said

    "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."

    What's up with this? I can't believe I'm reading this. I can't believe Larry Moran made this statement.

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  6. What's up with this? I can't believe I'm reading this. I can't believe Larry Moran made this statement.

    I'm not Larry, but I'll point out that it's compatible in the weak sense of not contradicting any scientifically well-established facts, and possibly non-falsifiable. You can always find some gap to hide a deity in, if you're not actually trying to use him to explain anything.

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  7. Even so, that's more concession to accommodationism than Larry has ever admitted before. Something must be in the Toronto water supply.

    He is also correct that the focus on adaptation is a symptom of design thinking. It's a holdover from natural theology, and one of the worst exemplars of this is Dawkins, who, I am convinced, is a natural atheologian.

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  8. quote mining time

    "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... according to the standard rules of physics and chemistry."

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  10. You guys are overreacting. Larry has consistently repeated on several occasions that he thought deism was "compatible" with science - not that he actually believes in it, or that you should. He's the same stubborn physicalist curmudgeon that he's always been.

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  11. And yet, when I make the same point, I am a Chamberlainist Weak-kneed Jellyfish Accommodationist.

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  12. "I suspect that if we looked at a thousand planets with life we wouldn't see another example. "

    -- and why not? i mean whats the basis

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  13. arvinsign said...
    -- and why not? i mean whats the basis

    Because it happened ~0 times here. Sum up the number of species that did not, and it is a insignificantly rare event.

    Most of life happily exists in it's absence. So why is it a necessary outcome? We as humans seem to be obsessed with it only because it is arguably the only trait left that makes us fee superior to the rest of life.

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  14. Because it happened ~0 times here. Sum up the number of species that did not, and it is a insignificantly rare event.

    We´re not talking species. We´re talking planets.
    Also, it doesn´t have to be a necessary outcome, just a plausible one. A fair number of complex organisms is a statistically plausible outcome if you have millions of species, even if complexity is not adaptive per se. Is it unlikely that some will be sentient and have morality?

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  15. "-- and why not? i mean whats the basis"
    It occurred only once in 4 billion years of life on Earth. Unless there is a pretty good chance that lots of other planets have conditions that would sustain life for as long or longer than Earths it makes it unlikely that the life they contain will have human level consciousness.
    We are in a rather stable part of the universe. If the conditions for life only lasted three billion years before a nearby supernova blew up or some other planet sterilizing thing occurred then no conscious life would have developed here.
    As for Larry's deistic statement its not the first time he's made it. He certainly said as much on the recent podcast interview he linked to here.

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  16. but do we really have to look for an exact duplicate of us? With vastness of the universe, isn't it that the statistical probability of an event that occurred here possibly happened elsewhere (or will happen) is very high?

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  17. I think the chances of life developing elsewhere are high - it seemed to start on Earth very soon after cooling had occurred which suggests that so long as your planet is in the right place relative to your average sun-like star then life will begin.
    What is not obvious is that conscious 'thinking' life is inevitable on the planets that do develop life. They might simply contain something akin to algae for billions of years before they are snuffed out by the death of their star.
    That is not to say that we are likely to be the only conscious beings, just that the vast majority of planets that do have life (I presume there are many) are very unlikely to go on to develop conscious life (the one in a thousand figure doesn't sound out of the question).
    There is one piece of evidence that this is the case in that if alien conscious life had the ability to develop interstellar travel then they would rapidly (even at todays theoretical speed limits) be able to visit and colonize the entire galaxy (even with robots). There is no evidence of such colonization so perhaps these superintelligent aliens dont exist in our galaxy.

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  19. There is one piece of evidence that this is the case in that if alien conscious life had the ability to develop interstellar travel then they would rapidly (even at todays theoretical speed limits) be able to visit and colonize the entire galaxy (even with robots). There is no evidence of such colonization so perhaps these superintelligent aliens dont exist in our galaxy.

    Or maybe it is the case that intelligent life has such a short-term evolutionary advantage over the rest of the species on its planet that it tends to self-destruct before it ever gets to the interstellar flight stage. Or shortly after that. The universe is not only very big, it is also very old, and to assume that because we see no colonization going on today, there has been none in the past and there will be none in the future. In other words, this is to think that all intelligent life in the universe/galaxy must evolve at the same time or, once it evolves, it will continue to exist indefinitely. Not likely IMO.

    Anyway, these are just speculations, we have zero reliable data on the subject.

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  20. I'm not sure I would agree with the idea that the universe is very old - in regards the production of intelligent life.
    I think we can agree that the evolution of intelligent life probably occurs through evolutionary processes acting on biochemical agents. In order to have sufficiently complicated biochemistry then you need sufficient elements. This wasn't the case in the first few billion years of the universe until enough supernovae had exploded and seeded the galaxy with heavier elements.
    Perhaps it is only in the past few billion years that life itself became possible anywhere in the universe rather than the full 14 billion years of history.

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  21. John Wilkins says,

    And yet, when I make the same point, I am a Chamberlainist Weak-kneed Jellyfish Accommodationist.

    So, what's your point? :-)

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  22. Dawkins is perhaps not as much of an adaptionist as we think he is. In his new book at one point he clearly says this.

    When you notice a characteristic of an animal and ask what its Darwinian survival value is, you may be asking the wrong question. It could be that the characteristic you have picked out is not the one that matters. It may have “come along for the ride”, dragged along in evolution by some other characteristic to which it is pleiotropically linked.

    http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/books/book_extracts/article6808173.ece

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  23. http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2009/08/autism_quackery_at_the_university_of_tor.php

    Just a heads up. There's going to be an anti-vaccine conference at the UoT on Oct. 31st. You should do something about it.

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  24. And yet, when I make the same point, I am a Chamberlainist Weak-kneed Jellyfish Accommodationist.

    You missed out 'spineless' in there, I think.

    This being opposed to the Churchillian straight-backed octopodean exclusivism of Larry and PZ.

    Churchill, of course, could never have written anything like:

    One may dislike Hitler's system and yet admire his patriotic achievement. If our country were defeated, I hope we should find a champion as indomitable to restore our courage and lead us back to our place among the nations.

    or:

    I have always said that if Great Britain were defeated in war I hoped we should find a Hitler to lead us back to our rightful position among the nations.

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  25. I think Wright and most of his critics may be missing an important point. Human history has a memory and human beings learn (fitfully) from the past and adventurers and reformers and politicians are always looking for what works for them. Religion is many things, but it is ALSO part of someone's attempt to grab power, organize society and win political battles. THAT function is what drives the prominence of evangelical Christianity and Jihadi Islam and Zionism and Hindu fascism. EVERYONE is not in on the scam, but very definitely there are people using it for their very concrete political ends and they dont give a damn about what philosophical position their theologians use...any position that works will do. It just so happens that a sort of interventionist, fundamentalist position works more effectively than the deist nonsense..on the other hand, maybe the deist nonsense is also being promoted for exactly the same reason: as a position which helps a different group of people with a different political agenda (more liberal, still political).

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  26. "You missed out 'spineless' in there, I think."

    I think "Jellyfish" has that covered.

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