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A persuasive analysis of Robert Wright’s “Evolution of God”

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Robert Wright (journalist)
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I have said before that I have a lot of time for Robert Wright‘s views about religion, evolution, gaming and politics. So I naturally took the time to read this review of his latest book. Since the reviewer is a professor of philosophy it is not surprising that he has distilled an essence of Wright’s approach to explaining our attachment to the God principle.

For me the last three paragraphs of this review evoke that wise distillation of Wright’s thinking and my own:

If every amazing explanation needs to be explained, and God is sufficiently amazing to explain natural selection (which is amazing) — then what explains God? Clearly something has gone wrong: Indeed, this whole approach to thinking about explanation is completely wrongheaded. A successful explanation banishes one’s bewilderment by dissolving what was previously inexplicable. There is, in the case of a successful explanation, no residual bewilderment, nothing remaining to be explained. If an explanation has failed then one is justified in seeking a further or more complete explanation. But it makes no sense for one, having been offered a successful explanation, to shake his head and say: “How incredible! What an amazingly successful explanation! How could there even be such an amazingly successful explanation? What could possibly explain that?”The point of evolution via natural selection is that it needs very little to get going — even though it can have amazing results, and produces things that appear to have been deliberately designed, the nature of the process is that it does not involve conscious design, nor does it itself need to have been designed or deliberately set in motion. That is why it is a successful and powerful explanation. So to treat its amazing success as evidence for some sort of designer is exactly the wrong conclusion to draw from it. Ironically, what it shows is that one did not really grasp what made the explanation so amazingly successful in the first place.

Though they are profoundly philosophically confused (I resist the cynical impulse to write “Because they are profoundly philosophically confused …”), reconciliationist positions like Wright’s are increasingly popular these days. Perhaps this is, in part, a mark of progress: Even in so religious a country as the United States, fewer people now find it possible simply to write off science so as to preserve their religious views, and so more and more are perhaps searching for some kind of livable compromise. Moreover, supporters of reconciliation are correct, in a sense, to say that there is no in principle conflict between science and religion. The early modern scientists were, for the most part, religious men; they expected the results of their researches to help solidify and confirm their faith. As it turned out, though, they were wrong about what science would tell them, and us, about the world. It is not, then — as religious opponents of science sometimes claim — that an anti-religious bias is built into the very methods of science, and thus presupposed (as, it is often put with a sneer, a kind of faith). The anti-religious bias, rather, is built into the world itself; all that science has done is to discover and reveal it. Even assuming that it is worth achieving, the reconciliation of religion and science will not easily be achieved.

So my own sense of a personal anti-religion bias is the result of it being “built into the world itself”. Somehow that notion makes me feel more comfortable with my own views about religion and science.

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Written by BobG in Dalian & Vancouver

2009/07/15 at 09:06

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