Monday, August 24, 2009

Great News in "The Grand Bargain Over Evolution"

8/24/2009--Happy anniversary to Patt and me.

Yesterday, Robert Wright, the author of The Evolution of God, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times about possible common ground between religious believers and nonbelievers over evolution:

Wright's basic point is that many evolutionary biologists now believe that evolution, given sufficient time, will inevitably produces beings with moral intuitions and moral discourse along lines similar to those in human beings. Something like the golden rule. Certain moral truths are really true in a sense, therefore, independent of our existence.

This does not mean that God exists, of course. But it might mean that other things exist, like the higher law. Wright even believes that this understanding of evolution is a form of higher purpose. And this purpose is founded in the material.

Wright ends by quoting William James:

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.

Sounds very much like my pitch to netroots.


  1. I was surfing responses to Wright's op-ed and I either recognized or responded to your blog name. Is your book meant as a textbook? Publisher and cost seem to say yes. If so, good luck (it's quite a racket, isn't it?).

    Generally, the Pat and Sam story at the top of every post is very annoying. It's like you are putting your product on the lowest shelf and behind an aisle display. Why not just create a link to it (like an old post) under your picture? From the last paragraph, "self-announced" is gratuitous and frankly, silly. Who isn't self-announced about their views? I don't exactly agree with the rest of the paragraph either, but I'll comment on your previous post with some specifics.

    As to Wright, the basic point of his book is that cultural evolution is teleological - it is directed by a purpose that exists outside of itself. Because he only uses materialist causes in his descriptions of cultural evolution (none of that silly personal God stuff), and he wants to harness science in order to bring it closer to his beliefs (moral law exists and inevitably morality increases), he regularly talks about biological evolution by way of comparison to his thesis. However, evolutionary biologists have mostly rejected its application to Wright's theories of purposeful cultural evolution. Evolutionary psychologists might view them more favorably, but Wright wants to claim that hard science supports him. See Jerry Coyne's rebuttal to Wright's book and NYT op-ed for a biologist's view.

    Here's the difference between the orders of science and religion (even Wright's religion of the moral law):

    Science takes empirical facts and builds them up into nature's laws.

    Religion asserts a belief (something currently unprovable and/or unfalsifiable) and then works to justify it.

    Sometimes a belief becomes falsifiable (none have been provable so far), so one order prevails over the other, but they will never be put into harmony.

  2. Norwegian Shooter:

    I'll respond further, but no, the book is not a textbook and not meant to be a textbook. The publisher just priced it like one. I've been telling people to get their libraries to buy it.

  3. Your account of a wide gap between science and religion seems overstated on both sides. Science is certainly more theory driven than your simple empiricist model suggests. Einstein’s speculations were not experimentally confirmed until much later and his acceptance stemmed only in part from empirical dissatisfaction with the theory of ether. In part acceptance came from the elegance and simplicity of his model: almost an aesthetic value. And if I remember correctly, weren’t black holes predicted based on the math and only later actually observed?

    Conversely, who says religion is not empirical? The early Christians, for example, insisted that Jesus’ resurrected body was actually seen by many after his death and it was very important to this claim that his body was never recovered. (As N.T. Wright points out, the opponents of the new movement would have trumpeted the body if it could have been produced). I think you probably mean that such a claim could not be true—that is what I would mean—not that the Christian movement did not try to prove its authenticity.

  4. Your account of science is misstated. Theories are ideas (and that doesn't make them inherently unscientific). They are sooner or later tested by empirical facts. If the facts support the theory, the theory is accepted.*

    In the case of astronomical science, theory is often well ahead of the technical skill to test the theories. That doesn't make it any different from other sciences that can design and produce experiments easily. This is the same type of problem with evolutionary biology. It is a completely empirical science, but has very limited access to experiments.

    A lot people say religion is not empirical. Most scientists, for instance. Are you asking for believers who say this?

    Well, Jesus' resurrection is a terrible example for talking about empiricism, because there is no record of what happened at the time, and even if there was, it was a singular event (that's the whole point) and cannot be repeated.

    Specifically, the Christian movement probably did try to prove the resurrection's authenticity, but whatever they did was not empirical, as how do you find facts - not stories - proving the resurrection? In any case, what they did is lost, so we certainly can't debate it as empirical or not empirical.

    *Acceptance has absolutely nothing to do with aesthetics. Scientists know that simple theories explain more things under more circumstances than complex ones. So simple theories are favored. A theory might be "beautiful" but that characteristic is at all not related to its empirical truth. The Standard Model of particles is incredibly complex, but it is still accepted. That God created the whole world is elegant and simple, but obviously not accepted.

  5. What does repeating the resurrection have to do with anything? Many events happened only once. The point is, the original Christian community plainly claimed that this event actually happened. Their claim at the time was as empirical as that can be. They produced witnesses and nobody produced the body. What were they supposed to do to be more empirical than that. I was not making a point about whether you or I can prove it, but that they, despite being a religious community, tried to prove something empirically. (Your original point was that religion is not empirical). As for science, I was responding to the following: "Science takes empirical facts and builds them up into nature's laws." No, science starts with theory so as to know what to look for. I don't dispute that falsifiability is a part of science.

  6. There's plenty of reason to doubt that Jesus was ever a real person, let alone someone who came back from the dead.

  7. Whoa, let's back up. Nothing in the Gospels is empirical. Nothing is even close to an unedited, contemporaneous, first-hand account of anyone's observations or experience. Any use of the Gospels is thus not empirical.

    Things like Paul's story on the road to Damascus are empirical, but only if it is unedited (even translation weakens its empirical basis). That doesn't mean it's true, but at least it is someone's description of their observations. Everything currently extant about the Resurrection is not in the empirical category.

    No, new scientific inquiry does not start with a theory, in the scientific meaning of that term:

    A scientific theory or law represents an hypothesis, or a group of related hypotheses, which has been confirmed through repeated experimental tests.

    Some descriptions of the scientific method have more steps than others, so some start with "Ask a question and do background research" or something similar, but the basic starting point is essentially observation. Hypotheses come next, and theory only enters the picture much later.

  8. Norwegian, since Paul seems to admit that he participated in the execution of Stephen and since Stephen was killed only a short time after the execution of Jesus, and since Stephen must have either encountered the risen Christ (or thought he did) or must have spoken directly to those who did (or thought they did), it does seem as close to a fact as most things in history that the followers of Jesus claimed right away that Jesus was resurrected. Since that claim was evidently controversial, also right from the start, Jesus' body obviously could not be found and produced by the authorities. I'm not suggesting that the resurrection happened, but I don't know what you mean when you say there was no such claim, empirically speaking.

    As for theory and observation, I did not mean to use theory in the strict sense. I only meant that there is no such thing as mere observation. All observation comes out of dominant background assumptions. (I would have said paradigm but that would imply more than I am intending here). Some preexisting intellectual structure says where to look and what is interesting and worth a further look.

  9. Recall, I don't think there is any reason to doubt the existence of Jesus. Paul wrote his letters only in the 50's. Plenty of people who knew Jesus or lived where and when they should have known him had he existed, would have still be alive. It would have been a little difficulty to go around proclaiming Jesus, while others were saying no such person had ever lived. Furthermore, by the 50's communities of followers had developed all over the eastern Mediterranean. Same problem if no Jesus.