Esoteric Dissertations from a One-Track Mind

September 14, 2009

The Strange Case of Robert Wright

Filed under: culture, religion — Tags: , — codesmithy @ 9:36 am

Robert Wright is a journalist and co-founder of Bloggingheads.tv Bloggingheads.tv is a site that hosts webcam discussions between public intellectuals. Recently, there has been a minor exodus of science luminaries (Sean Carroll, Carl Zimmer, P.Z. Myers, Phil Plait) because Bloggingheads.tv hosted discussions with Paul Nelson, a young earth creationist, and Michael Behe, a proponent of Intelligent Design, which led to a falling out.

On an appearance on the Colbert Report, Wright refused to call himself an atheist, but also stated he didn’t believe in the “Abrahamic” faiths, or any claims of special revelation. He stated that he thought that there could be a larger moral purpose unfolding on earth.

On the Report, Wright was pitching his new book “The Evolution of God.” Jerry Coyne has a lengthy review in “The New Republic.” Wright has also written a response to the Coyne’s critique.

After I read the review I thought the book was merely wrong. After reading the response, it appears to be something worse, clouded. As Coyne puts it in the end of his review:

It is remarkable that a book called The Evolution of God can be so pusillanimous, so dodgy, about the question of whether or not there is a God. Surely the question of God’s existence is the fulcrum upon which any discussion of God must rest. If the entity in his book’s title does not exist, then his book is much, much less than it purports to be. But Wright is content with waffling, and with guarded speculation. When he finally comes to the big question–is there in fact a God who is pulling humanity toward morality?–he suddenly becomes humble and retiring.

But the most damning is Wrights own admission near the end of his response:

Well, (1) I’m only talking about progress along one dimension—a growing circle of moral inclusion, even across ethnic and national bounds, that is visible in most places across millennia, though not necessarily across decades or even centuries. This is the progress that Peter Singer documented in his book The Expanding Circle, that Steven Pinker has noted and theorized about, and that many other thinkers acknowledge as well.

What falsifiable claim is Wright making here? I can’t find one. Singer and Pinker explain moral progress as expanding the realm of moral consideration. For example, the difference between vegetarians and non-vegetarians usually revolves around whether non-human animals are worthy of moral consideration. For the militantly omnivorous, the answering is an absolute “no” which usually manifests itself in the form of “animals are tasty.” But what is Wright’s claim? Nationalism and ethnic prejudice are in decline?

One of the things that makes this claim so meaningless is the timescale. Wright demands that we have to look at it in terms of millennia. But the topic under discussion is “Abrahamic” faiths. So for Christianity we’d have two data points, Islam, even less. Judaism may give us several but it is not missionary, there is little to no focus on conversion.

Wright is conflating an empirical fact teleological purpose. There has been moral progress. This moral progress is manifestly due to expanding spheres of moral consideration. However, it is also historically contingent. That is, early Christianity represented a giant leap backwards. Polytheistic religions lend themselves to pluralism more easily than monotheistic ones do.

Wright seems to admit as much. From his response:

An ethical decline in the transition from polytheism to monotheism is contrary to my view? I encourage Professor Coyne to dip into chapters 6 and 7, “From Polytheism to Monolatry” and “From Monolatry to Monotheism.” The core argument is that ancient Israel moved from a polytheism that reflected a tolerant cosmopolitanism (sponsored by kings with internationalist foreign policies) to a monotheism that was, at its birth during the Babylonian exile, belligerent and retributive (and whose emergence had been abetted by highly nationalist kings, notably the brutally authoritarian Josiah). I expressly dismiss (p. 173) the view that monotheism was “morally universalistic from its birth,” saying, “a candid reading of exilic texts leads to a less heartwarming conclusion—that the universalism present at monotheism’s birth may not deserve the qualifier ‘moral.’” I add, “If you look at the earliest biblical texts that plainly declare the arrival of monotheism and you ask which of their various sentiments seems to most directly motivate that declaration, the answer would seem closer to hatred than to love, closer to retribution than to compassion. To the extent that we can tell, the one true God—the God of Jews, then of Christians, and then of Muslims—was originally a god of vengeance.”

Doesn’t that directly undermine his thesis? I don’t hold out any hope of Wright admitting this since it obviously didn’t occur to him when he wrote it. The truth is his thesis appears to be so nebulous that it can’t be meaningfully contradicted. It is surprising that people can apparently write over 500 pages of this kind of drivel. Although, I guess it should be more surprising that more people buy it. To paraphrase Mark Twain, it seems that books should accomplish something and arrive somewhere. When they fail to do so, they commit a literary offence.

Which brings us to another point, is it mere coincidence that Wright presents such muddled thinking in his book and his promotion of creationist garbage on Bloggingheads.tv? When you are not clear-thinking, does that have a pernicious effect on your acceptance of other wafflers? I think a stronger case could be made for this than anything Wright proffers in “The Evolution of God.”

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January 26, 2009

Jerry Coyne and Secular Reasoning

Filed under: politics, religion, science — Tags: — codesmithy @ 8:34 am

Jerry Coyne has a new book out called “Why Evolution Is True.”  He also wrote a piece in The New Republic called “Seeing and Believing” where he examines the tensions between science and religion particularly around teaching evolution.  Mr. Coyne examines two books that try to reconcile the apparent incompatibility and thoroughly demolishes them.  In particular, he destroys the argument that science and religion are compatible because there are Christian scientists.  As he puts it:

True, there are religious scientists and Darwinian churchgoers. But this does not mean that faith and science are compatible, except in the trivial sense that both attitudes can be simultaneously embraced by a single human mind. (It is like saying that marriage and adultery are compatible because some married people are adulterers. ) 

Coyne does a good job pointing out the incompatibility of liberal theologians and various religious apologizers.  He defends Dawkins attacking mainstream religious belief in “The God Delusion” because that is what people actually believe. As Coyne points out in the following video, 63% of Americans believe in angels, only 40% believe in evolution.

It is hard to debate religion with believers because they are keen to attack science where it is weakest (like first cause, the various physical constants of the universe, or uncertainty in quantum mechanics).  That isn’t to say these are particularly convincing arguments for a deity, but they do represent biggest gaps in current scientific understanding and therefore finding a role for a god there seems most plausible. Such gaps rely on ignorance and usually become more implausible over time.  For example, a virgin birth resulting in a production a male offspring seems more plausible when one knows nothing about chromosomes and the role of sperm in contributing the Y chromosomes, however, with modern genetic understanding such a scenario becomes less believable.  

Likewise, the apologist is hard pressed to defend the weakest aspect of their position, which is the internal consistency of their scripture.  They will twist language, deny plain meaning and arbitrarily pick and choose those parts which they find convenient to defend.  It is this process of picking and choosing, and attacking the language that makes apologetics so detestable; at least the fundamentalist is consistent in principle.

Coyne also points out in the video that simply trying to teach evolution better won’t work.  It is not the strength of the case for the evolution that is the problem, it is that people reject it because it conflicts with their religious beliefs (I find it is dishonest to say that it doesn’t).  Therefore, in order to get people to accept evolution, religious influence has to be rolled back.  

Evolution is a litmus test for a secular society.  If people are rejecting evolution because it conflicts with their previously held superstition, then there is no reasoning with them and any hope for consensus is lost.  In addition, there is no telling what other issues they will dogmatically and stubbornly cling to in the face of contradictory evidence.  A person who is unwilling to change his/her beliefs, especially in the face of overwhelming physical evidence, is a person who does not truly believe in the freedom of belief.  If one is looking for the seed of totalitarianism, there it is and woe for those of us who want to use reason to build a better world.

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