My prophesy turned out to be correct: I didn't agree with the final chapters of Robert Wright's "The Evolution of God," just as I anticipated.
But there wasn't anything miraculous in my ability to see into the future, just as a transcendent divinity isn't needed to explain how religions change over the course of history -- embracing, by and large, a more inclusive, tolerant, and universal moral code.
Mostly, this is what Wright says in his book.
This book’s account of the moral direction of history has been a materialist account. We’ve explained the expansion of the moral imagination as an outgrowth of expanding social organization, which is itself an outgrowth of technological evolution, which itself grows naturally out of the human brain, which itself grew naturally out of the primordial ooze via biological evolution. There’s no mystical force that has to enter the system to explain this, and there’s no need to look for one.
However, in some final observations that seem to be designed to make the book more appealing to religious believers (since they conflict with what Wright says above), "God" comes across as an intelligent designer who fashioned evolution to arrive at a moral endpoint.
Maybe the growth of "God" signifies the existence of God. That is: if history naturally pushes people toward moral improvement, toward moral truth, and their God, as they conceive their God, grows accordingly, becoming morally richer, than maybe this growth is evidence of some higher purpose, and maybe--conceivably--the source of that purpose is worthy of the name divinity.
Jerry Coyne, a professor of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago, blasted all these "maybe's" in a largely critical review: "Creationism for Liberals."
Wright wants to give true believers a reason to keep on believing in God despite all the reasons not to. So he ends up arguing -- weakly -- that just as scientists haven't seen electrons, but know they exist by their effects, "God" can be viewed as the source of religions' moral evolution even though divinity isn't apparent.
Particle physics is extremely precise in its predictions. So is quantum mechanics. Yet physicists recognize that any sort of description of electrons in terms of everyday existence (such as "tiny planets orbiting the nucleus") is decidedly inaccurate.
Religions operate entirely oppositely.
Their dogmas are unable to form any reliable explanations of the natural world beyond those known to science, but the source of these supposed truths, God, is described in considerable detail.
Coyne, appropriately, bashes Wright on his attempt to equate electrons and God.
Does Wright really not grasp that science, unlike religion, posits testable explanations for the world, explanations that are discarded if they fail to comport with the facts? Is he unaware that, unlike religious explanations, scientific explanations are validated by public agreement among people from every faith and culture?
On one hand we have Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and the whole panoply of faiths with their irresolvably conflicting claims, and on the other hand we have science, and only one brand of science. Independent scientific observers can decide whether electrons are real, but there is no way to decide whether Jesus was the Son of God or Muhammad was the Prophet.
In a response to Coyne's criticisms on "The Evolution of God" website, Wright claims that when the supposed misrepresentations of his book are corrected, Coyne's critique collapses.
Well, not completely.
Wright does point out some passages that clarify his position on certain issues. But he still bears responsibility for leading the reader in the direction that Coyne criticizes. I also finished the final chapters feeling that Wright sees a directionality or design in human evolution that supports the notion of a monotheistic God.
I enjoyed "The Evolution of God," which -- on the whole -- is pleasingly churchless. However, Wright's puzzling change of tone in his final chapters left me with an unpleasant literary aftertaste.
I like Coyne's ending of his review more than Wright's conclusion to his book.
Except for his claim that theology is malleable to social forces, which is hardly novel but never mind, there is nothing in Wright's argument that withstands close inspection--nothing in his understanding of theology, of morality and its history, of evolution, of science. There is absolutely no evidence, beyond wishful thinking, that God, if there is a God, had anything to do with setting up biological evolution or directing its operation, much less driving history toward goodness.
There seem to be several reasonable arguements for a god of some sort, but what strikes me is how few of these are presented.
One is the incredible precision of certain universal laws and constants, which if they were to be slightly off, the universe would not exist.
Posted by: George | October 18, 2009 at 01:42 PM