Sunday, August 09, 2009

Robert Wright and the Evolution of God

Bryan Appleyard writes an appreciative review of Robert Wright's new book, The Evolution of God, in The Sunday Times, claiming that it constitutes "a scientifically based corrective to the absurd rhetoric of militant atheism."

However, the logic of Appleyard's review does little to substantiate this claim. Bryan firstly argues that "Even after 9/11, [the atheists] can’t prove [that religion is a bad thing] because, especially in the 20th century, non-religious nastiness was infinitely worse than religious." So, the argument here is as follows: non-religious nastiness in the 20th century was worse than religious nastiness in preceding centuries, hence religion isn't bad. That seems a rather perverse form of logic. One might conclude, instead, that religiously-inspired nastiness is a bad thing, and nastiness inspired in the 20th century by Marxism and fascism was also a bad thing.

Appleyard claims that "the persistence of religion in all human societies strongly suggests that, even in the most basic Darwinian terms, it has been good for us as a species." This is another logical error: the persistence of a behavioural characteristic in a reproducing species does not entail that it is beneficial to survival in itself, for it may simply be a by-product of other traits which do, in combination, make a net contribution to survival.

When Appleyard then turns to the heart of Wright's argument, we find what appears to be an attempt to equate the concept of God with some form of cosmic evolution:

What is clear, for Wright, is that there is an organising principle in the world and that this principle may well be materialistically explicable but it is, nonetheless, moral and progressive...Dawkins said Darwin [showed] how design arose through purely material means — evolution through natural selection is the 'blind watchmaker'. Wright says this misses the point. The point is not how the watch was designed but the fact that it is designed. Some process has led to its existence and it is that process that matters because the mechanism and purpose of the watch clearly make it different in kind from, say, rocks. Equally, humans also require a different type of explanation from rocks. It may be natural selection or it may be some innate force in the universe. Either way, it is reasonable to associate this force with morality and God.

On the basis of this, Wright's argument is simply the latest in a long line which attempt to define a pantheistic concept of God. In this case, God is equated with the physical process of cosmic evolution. Such a pantheistic concept of God is straighforwardly inconsistent with the notion of a transcendent, supernatural and personal God held by theistic religions such as Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Moreover, one also wonders how Wright manages to derive morality from the existence of evolution without committing the naturalistic fallacy, thereby deriving an 'ought' from an 'is'.

Even leaving aside the inconsistency with theistic religion, there are serious problems with any pantheistic proposal to equate God with cosmic evolution. The primary problem is that evolution by natural selection cannot meet the demand for irrevocable progress which such a variety of pantheism places upon it. In particular, the notion that evolution necessarily leads to ever-greater complexity is a myth. As Michel Le Page points out:

"Evolution often takes away rather than adding. For instance, cave fish lose their eyes, while parasites like tapeworms lose their guts. Such simplification might be much more widespread than realised. Some apparently primitive creatures are turning out to be the descendants of more complex creatures rather than their ancestors. For instance, it appears the ancestor of brainless starfish and sea urchins had a brain."

But most seriously for Wright's argument, in cosmic terms the growth of entropy will dominate, and as the universe tends towards thermodynamic equilibrium, the energy flows which presently permit the evolution of complexity and life, will subside and ultimately cease. The evolution of complexity and life is therefore, cosmically speaking, something of a transient phenomenon, and if atheists such as Dawkins have forced religious apologists to the point where God has to be equated with an ephemeral physical process, then it seems that the atheists really have won the argument convincingly.


Sean said...

Seems to me the universe is just too irrational for there to be a God.

The idea of God seem to me to imply some sort of "rules or Laws", its a tough life living on the shifting sands of spacetime.

As for evolution, the idea of the "progressive" ever more complete and better being is just plain junk, it seems to be evolution is a lot like particle physics, and wave like.

I am glad plp believe in god though, atheistic secular state to me would really would be like becoming like the Borg in star trek.

Gordon McCabe said...

I never watched the new Star Trek. What are the Borg? A race of people who string their wooden tennis rackets to very high tension?

Sean said...

Think of Marxism in space in a big cube, everyone behaving rationally to a codified plan...or take a wander down the halls of the social science depts...

..I wont name names but I took a walk thru Sheffield Uni a few months back and saw a certain political science (contradiction in terms) lecturers office and behind it was a poster of the borg cube, with the caption "we are Borg" well i suppose it makes a change from the bust of Lenin.

I am more off a babylon 5 man myself but NextGen was pretty good.

Bob said...

Do not take away their God from the people! They will fall into amoralic secular non-communal behaviour, they won't know what is right or wrong, they won't know where to turn to in times of trouble! They will do as they please, because they are not smart enough to define a morality of their own.

Religion was invented by some very clever people, who knew that their fellow men needed a beacon to cling to. Maybe we should leave it in its place and try to use in our own advantage. That's what it was made for, wasn't it?

Bob said...

Bryan Appleyard is at it again. He now officially declares himself an agnostic, and is calling names to all militant atheists. I guess it's good for his hitcounter.

For me 'agnostic' is the easy way out, the way of the weasel, to speak with Scott Adams. Bryan is more interested in literature and stories then in the truth. It is as if he is saying: sure, you are right, but therefore you have a lack of imagination and you are a non-intellectuel, I am smarter then you. It is really weird.

Sean said...

wrong Bob, religion means "to bind", its got nothing to do with morality, that it seems from pinker is instinctive.

People dont bind by mad made structures, such as the state can never bind us, but the nation can, it was spontaneously created, as too family and society and not forgetting yahweh the big gas himself.

Be these things material truth or not, they are very real to the vast majority of plp on earth and thats not going to change.

As for as I can see you choose not to believe in god, the default position is to believe, our minds just love those patterns too much.

Gordon McCabe said...

Bryan is one of the possible outcomes of an English public-school/Oxbridge, literary-ecclesiastical environment.

On one level, such individuals often recognise the irrationality of religious belief, yet on another level the affiliation with religion is so deeply inculcated that they construct ever more elaborate and contorted intellectual scaffolding to provide a post-hoc rationalisation or justification of religion.

Dawkins and co. are standing at the base of the scaffolding, and violently shaking it to and fro. Little wonder, then, that Bryan, clinging to one of the upper girders, should become fearful and angry, and begin hurling insults down upon the atheists below.

As ever, some people just can't take the truth.

Sean said...

Maybe so Gordon, everyone needs to self justify their position.

But it seems to me as impartial as I can be that the Theists are having a stab at justifying their position in relation to science, and the agnostics and agreeing with (bryan here, yes ive noted one of his below the belt accusations about you) the militant agnostics (myself and atheists included) are having a go at justifying their position in relation to philosophy.

both of the above seem to me to be wrong, surely the idea of god and religion is a social question, you cant falsify it so its not a scientific question, and you can come up with an off the shelf philosophical construction at will becasue philosophy is not a science either, which it does not claim to be anyway, or as Kant put it "structures of the mind bring forth the world (reality)"

My advice as a innocent bystander is scientists should stick to science, sure you will never be the heroes but you will matter the most in the end. the oxbridge types and the clerics are so over the show, they are bound by the law of averages to piss in your garden when they are drunk on themselves, dont worry about it, Darwin didnt.

Gordon McCabe said...

I did wonder what the noise was in the garden last night!

Gordon McCabe said...

Note that Bryan Appleyard went to grammar school, not public school, as I inaccurately implied.