atheism, christians, creationism, evolution, media, religion

False Compromise: The Purpose of Purpose

The New York Times Op-Ed page on Saturday posted a piece by Robert Wright, author of The Evolution of God, on the possibility of common ground between creationists and evolutionists, or, more basically, the religious and the atheists. Even more basically, I believe he has missed the point of human existence entirely, or at least that part of human existence that is explicitly social. Rather a strong indictment, I realize, but let me explain…

Before I begin in earnest, a caveat or two: First, Wright’s book, referenced above, seems by all appearances to be  an interesting exploration of the history of religion, for the most part, so I wouldn’t consider him an apologist or someone attempting to rationalize the validity of creationism.  Second, I appreciate his apparent attempt to reconcile or at least dial down the rhetoric between creationists and atheists – can’t fault the intent, but I sincerely differ with him on the method.

Which brings us to the crux of the matter. Wright, somewhat curiously, see the potential for detente in the acceptance by both parties of the idea that morality, or the ‘higher purpose’ reflected by the development of moral definitions of ‘good’ and ‘evil’, can be seen as universal constants that exist outside the normal course of evolution, or something that may have predated human society. In his own words, Wright describes a conversation with psychologist and atheist Steven Pinker:

As Mr. Pinker once put it in conversation with me: “There may be a sense in which some moral statements aren’t just … artifacts of a particular brain wiring but are part of the reality of the universe, even if you can’t touch them and weigh them.” Comparing these moral truths to mathematical truths, he said that perhaps “they’re really true independent of our existence. I mean, they’re out there and in some sense — it’s very difficult to grasp — but we discover them, we don’t hallucinate them.”

Mr. Pinker’s atheism shows that thinking in these cosmic terms doesn’t lead you inexorably to God. Indeed, the theo-biological scenario outlined above — God initiating natural selection with some confidence that it would lead to a morally rich and reflective species — has some pretty speculative links in its chain.

But the point is just that these speculations are compatible with the standard scientific theory of human creation. If believers accepted them, that would, among other things, end any conflict between religion and the teaching of evolutionary biology. And theology would have done what it’s done before: evolve — adapt its conception of God to advancing knowledge and to sheer logic.

Those of us who are interested can see the inherent flaw in this proposed compromise: introducing an invisible, unverifiable causal relationship to an accepted and observed phenomenon is unnecessary and constitutes an abrogation of the scientific method. One can hear Occam’s Razor plummeting toward us as we read.

The ultimate reasoning ere seems to be that Wright (and others) need an answer for why evolution (the example given) happens the way it does; what is wrong with the way the question is being asked is that the scientific ‘why’ is fundamentally different from the spiritual ‘why’. One seeks to explain cause-and-effect logically, while the other seeks to understand what the purpose of a phenomenon is – eminently comforting to those who cannot accept the idea of a random, disordered, chaotic universe.

To me, the essay echoes what I could call the “Von Daeniken Sydnrome”, after the author Erich von Daeniken, who postulated, very simply, that pyramid construction could only have been accomplished through the timely assistance of visitors from outer space. The basic premise of this is that humans lack the ingenuity and skill necessary to develop such an engineering marvel. Wright dismisses the possibility that phenomena like altruism could have developed independent of outside ‘cosmic’ influence, due to the fact that altruistic actions cause imbalances – if I give you my last apple because you are hungry, I gain nothing. Am I being influenced by the cosmic morality of the universe by making such a sacrifice?

Not at all. In fact, despite being deprived of a material benefit (the apple), I gain a social benefit (gratitude, positive assessment of my character by others) which may in fact far outweigh the short-term gain of keeping the apple to myself as you starve. Humans are social animals – their ways of interacting with one another have evolved just as they themselves have, but underlying all of the gradual changes to societal mores and values are certain constants that had to develop through interactive processes that involved the understanding of actions and consequences, positive and negative judgments by one’s ‘cultural peers’, and their gradual distillation into concepts of ‘good’ and ‘evil’. These are social constructs, not universal, cosmically-bestowed moral commandments.

Human beings by nature are compelled to impose order on perception, be it physical or social, so it is only natural that a lack of understanding of ever-changing societal dynamics could lead to the imposition of a ‘supernatural’ influence on human morality. The problem is, imposing a cosmic absolute or the fulfillment of some purpose larger than ourselves on the expression of cultural rituals and ideas runs counter to the basic tenets of science as a human endeavor in its most idealized form. This is not a compromise, this is an attempt to impose meaning that isn’t there on emotions and cultural rituals that, ironically, make no sense to religious believers. It is another attempt to paint humans and the rest of the world as ‘special’ and ‘tuned into the universe’.

It is a curious and basic mistake for someone with the apparent credibility of Wright to make, and an even more curious one for a psychologist to make. The Cosmic Game Theory just doesn’t work for me, I’m afraid. I, and many others, have more faith in the ingenuity, resilience and adaptability of humanity for that idea to become more than a curiosity, or a hastily constructed backdoor to divinity.

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