jump to navigation

No Grand Bargain Between Evolution and Theism August 23, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Animal Intelligence, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, religion, Science.
Tags: , ,

Robert Wright, author of The Moral Animal, has a useful article in the New York Times that does a good job of summarizing the contemporary debate between thoughtful theists and atheists regarding evolution.

Wright is an agnostic who thinks both sides in this debate are a bit stubborn.

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.

I have read countless unsuccessful attempts to reconcile theism and atheism. So I read the rest of his article anticipating some new insight.

But I think he is spinning his wheels.

Wright points out that even religious believers who accept some version of evolutionary theory nevertheless think that evolution cannot explain our capacity for morality. But Wright correctly points out that there is considerable evidence, which he summarizes in The Moral Animal, that  fundamental aspects of human morality are a product of evolution.

So, for example, feelings of guilt over betraying a friend are with us because during evolution sustaining friendships brought benefits through the non-zero-sum logic of one hand washing the other (“reciprocal altruism”). Friendless people tend not to thrive.

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.

But that ought not be an obstacle to accepting some notion of divine purpose, according to Wright.

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).

Given the evidence of moral behavior in a variety of animals, Wright argues that it is plausible to think that the logic of moral reasoning was written into the evolutionary process long before humans existed. This suggests that our moral  intuitions are picking out features of the world that were true even before we came along to express them.

If we accept the evolutionary account, however, we must admit that there are purposes, including moral purposes, within nature.

SO in a sense Paley was right not just in saying that organisms must come from a different creative process than rocks but also in saying that this creative process imparts a purpose (however mundane) to organisms.

So far so good. Nature is full of purpose as any Introductory Biology class makes clear. And evidence is mounting that morality is not something we just dreamed up but is part of the natural world.

But then he goes off the rails.

…it is indeed legitimate, and not at all unscientific, to do what Paley did: inspect a physical system for evidence that it was given some purpose by some higher-order creative process. If scientifically minded theologians want to apply that inspection to the entire system of evolution, they’re free to do so.

Well no. First of all, it doesn’t follow that because organisms in nature have purposes that nature as a whole too has a purpose. A whole needn’t have all the properties of its parts. Furthermore, scientifically-minded theologians, are not “free to do so”, i.e. posit a purpose for all of nature, without evidence. If they are accepting such hypotheses without evidence they are not scientifically minded. Wright continues:

William James said that religious belief is “the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto.” Science has its own version of the unseen order, the laws of nature. In principle, the two kinds of order can themselves be put into harmony — and in that adjustment, too, may lie a supreme good.

But the “harmony” is strained and dissonant. There is big difference between laws of nature that have been verified through experiment and speculation about divinely-inspired order.

Wright is correct that religion and evolution are logically compatible. It is logically possible that God created the evolutionary process. But we already knew that. That has been part of some versions of Christian theology for years.  In the end, Wright doesn’t move us much beyond the views of William James, the early 20th century pragmatist.

James argued we should hold religious beliefs because they are uniquely good for us—they provide hope for immortality. Wright has something similar in mind.

Clearly, this evolutionary narrative could fit into a theology with some classic elements: a divinely imparted purpose that involves a struggle toward the good, a struggle that even leads to a kind of climax of history. Such a theology could actually abet the good, increase the chances of a happy ending. A more evolved religion could do what religion has often done in the past: use an awe-inspiring story to foster social cohesion — except this time on a global scale.

Wright imagines a new religion based on a divinely inspired natural moral order that could help alleviate conflict. Apparently, we should hold religious beliefs because they encourage hope for human flourishing.

This, it seems to me, is the issue. Does religious belief encourage human flourishing or not? As we look at global conflict today it isn’t obvious that it does.

At any rate, confusing ordinary functional purposes with divinely-inspired Purpose and passing off metaphysical speculation as science doesn’t help.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com



1. michelle - August 25, 2009

The fatal flaw of a “divinley-inspired moral order” can be seen in the bloody persecutions by Christianity against those who differ at the content deemed “divinely-inspired” and hence absolute, and in the awful, bloody persecutions by Islamists against “infidels” and those Muslims who join them. The so-called ” divinely inspired moral-order” also violently suppresses women, sexually diverse people and obstructs advancements in learning about our world. Wright obfuscates and slides around definitions in his attempts to promote a popular and shallow accomodation to theism and science that misleads about both.

2. Dwight Furrow - August 25, 2009


You are right that religious violence and bigotry weigh against any claim that religion is good for us. But as an argument against Wright, you would have to show that the particular features of religion that give rise to violence and bigotry are present in a religion devoted to his rather vague and vacuous notion of God. Also, apparently, religion benefits many people. Otherwise it would be hard to explain why it is so pervasive. So the benefits have to be weighed against the harms.

I’m not sure I know how to do such weighing.

At any rate, I think these are the main issues, not the obfuscations that you rightly attribute to Wright.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: