Sunday, August 23, 2009

On Reconciling Evolution with God (or vice versa)

Robert Wright, who has just written a book entitled The Evolution of God, seems to be everywhere. Today, appropriately enough Sunday, he speaks to us from the op-ed pages of the New York Times.

I’m not fond of the more contentious atheists, either, but at least they aren’t shooting doctors in church. It’s religion that is currently running wild, not science, so I am more tolerant toward those contentious atheists than toward, say, Congressmen claiming to be living a more Christian life in a house on C Street. Not to mention the good Christians who are fine with 18,000 people dying every year because of deficiencies in our health insurance system.

So I picked through Wright’s op-ed and found many weaknesses. I think I’m getting less tolerant of such things in my old age; I suspect that back in the sixties, I might have liked this, or at least been less annoyed than I am today.

I won’t fisk the whole op-ed, line by line. That would take most of the rest of today, and perhaps some of tomorrow too. My bottom line, sorry to say, is that Wright makes his case only if you allow a bunch of sloppy thinking to penetrate your science, and probably your religion too.

We’ve gotten accustomed to thinking of religion in the United States as evangelical pentacostalism, an extreme and ecstatic form of religion. We’ve gotten accustomed to the claims that Genesis is a science text, rather than a collection of myths from more than one source, written down after they had long been transmitted by speech. We’ve gotten accustomed to overstretched interpretations of English words translated from the Greek translated from the Aramaic.

There are many other kinds of religion besides this, even within Christianity. In the 1950s and 1960s, there actually were some people thinking about what the Christian religion was in its many forms, from high-church Catholicism to snake-handling in the Appalachians. I happened to plonk down in the middle of some of that thinking and found it congenial.

But that all seems to be gone and a very long time ago indeed, replaced by megachurches and high dudgeon, but not much thinking. Wright tries to address today’s situation, but I suspect he was born long after the name of Paul Tillich had disappeared from the discourse of most churches. He is sort of reproducing some of the things that were said back then, but much less competently.

One thing I don’t recall from back then was having to give up any part of my science in favor of religion. I didn’t know as much evolution then as I do now, so it’s possible I simply fell for the kind of line that Wright is peddling.

According to Wright, believers need to accept what was once called the clockwork God, and atheists need to accept the watchmaker God. If I had time, I might try to go into the physics of that, but I’ll stick with evolution for this post.

The clockwork God set the world in motion according to his laws, which are now working themselves out. That would mean that God knew that those laws would produce the result he desired, so we have a fully deterministic universe, in which God no longer needs to intervene. I’m not sure that’s any different from a universe in which God constantly has to tinker, although it would allow God to, perhaps, mass-produce universes, so perhaps string theory is right with its multitudes.

Wright messes around with the idea of a “moral sense”, to which some, like C. S. Lewis, have applied the “God of the gaps” theory, which says that God has a place wherever science doesn’t yet have an explanation. Um, except the sociobiologists are coming up with evolutionary explanations for that moral sense, so Wright messes around some more and finds that Lewis was right anyway, that there must be an underlying moral sense in bats and chimpanzees and dolphins, so the universe, under God’s laws, of course, would have produced a thinking, talking being with a moral sense and, perhaps, membranous wings if it hadn’t produced us. And besides, Stephen Pinker thinks something like this, and he’s an atheist.

Wright doesn’t consider Samuel Bowles’s findings that altruism, an element of “moral sense,” as Wright seems to define it, may inevitably be accompanied by war against out-groups. Of course, this will fit right in with the beliefs of many American religious people, but it’s not, er, nice, and not consistent with the New Testament.

In return for believers settling for a clockwork God, scientists are to accept that such a God would be consistent with evolution. Since Wright hasn’t really worked this out, I don’t see that it’s a fair trade, since I remain attached to logic, but let’s just use the newspaperly principle of fairness to all sides.

Wright uses the argument that if you find a watch in a field, it’s obviously different from a rock. This argument has been referenced by both the Intelligent Design people and Richard Dawkins, so by that newspaperly principle, it must hold water. My problem is that I don’t see where Wright is going with it.

I’ve always found it fascinating that my eyes and brain together, with little input of thought, can range where I’m walking and immediately pick out a potsherd or fossil from the less-orderly. It’s one of the small miracles that the world presents to me, this one in my own body. I suspect that is why it seems so meaningful to so many.

But there are lots of occasions for awe, and not all have to mean anything. Much less do they have to mean that my eyeballs’ ability to pick out potsherds and fossils is evidence of a “higher-order creative process” in those potsherds and fossils. There is a human creative process evidenced by the potsherds, but what about those fossils?

Well, they’re there, just like clams and shrimp and dolphins and trees and hummingbirds are there. We can marvel at the luster of the hummingbirds’ wings or the cleverness of the dolphins, but to go from that to a designer requires a leap of faith. That’s something Soren Kirkegaard talked about, something we considered back in those far-away 1960s, but Wright just wants us to swallow it whole, something that Kirkegaard agonized over.

To whom is Wright talking? To the people who feel they (or others) need a God who will whack them if they get out of line? To scientists to whom logic and facts matter? For the first group, the clockmaker God will never be enough. The second group doesn’t see why they need to take Kirkegaard’s leap of faith, and, if you’ve read your Kirkegaard, that’s not subject to persuasion.

And, sorry, but if you’re going to discover new drugs, make a vaccine for the coming H1N1 season, send people to Mars, or figure out where cosmic rays are coming from, not to mention dealing with global warming or developing new sources of electrical power, none of those Gods are needed. The logic and facts, along with human creativity, will do just fine.

So Wright’s “solution” is nothing of the kind. Just a plea that we muddle things up, with equal time for all, the way the newspapers do.

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