May 21, 2013
Troy Jollimore on God’s Evolution
Posted on Jun 19, 2009
Similarly, Wright seems to suggest at some points, the word God is just the name for whatever it is that explains why, for instance, certain forms of behavior tend in the long run toward social cohesion while others tend toward social breakdown and chaos, or why many interactions are “non-zero-sum,” in the sense that participants gain more by cooperating than by becoming antagonists. (This sort of fact, and others like it, seems to be what Wright has in mind when he talks about “the manifest existence of a moral order.”) On the plausible assumption that such facts are explained, essentially, by human nature, which in turn is explained by evolution via natural selection, then natural selection turns out, essentially, to be God.
I doubt that anybody will be happy with this conclusion. Skeptics will complain that using the word God to denote natural selection—or any other ordinary scientific phenomenon—is misleading to the highest degree. As Wright observes, the scientists who discovered electrons got to choose the name; he fails to note, though, that there were extremely good reasons for them not to call those particles “fairies,” or “leprechauns,” or “gremlins.”
First, Wright suggests that the electron analogy shows something more than just that we might use the word God to refer to the (presumably naturalistic) occupant of some functionally defined black box—it shows, rather, that a lack of evidence for the existence of some entity need not oblige us to eschew belief in that entity:
“The believers [in electrons] believe there’s something out there—some ‘thing’ in some sense of the word ‘thing’—that corresponds to the word ‘electron’; and that, though the best we can do is conceive of this ‘thing’ imperfectly, even misleadingly, conceiving of it that way makes more sense than not conceiving of it at all. They believe in electrons while professing their inability to really ‘know’ what an electron is. You might say that they believe in electrons even while lacking proof that electrons per se exist. [...] Yet what exactly is the difference between the logic of their belief in electrons and the logic of a belief in God?”
But this argument is confused. It is at best misleading to claim that physicists do not “really” know what an electron is. An electron is—that is to say, it “really” is—a thing having the various properties assigned to it by a correct theory of physics. And physicists have very strong reason to believe that their current theories get electrons at least mostly right. What is true is that we cannot accurately picture an electron, and thus cannot conceive it in the way in which we conceive more ordinary sorts of things—things occupying the realm of what the philosopher J.L. Austin once called “middle-sized dry goods,” such as tables, chairs, socks, pencils, etc. So we cannot perfectly translate the language of physics into everyday layman’s terms. The electron case, then, shows at most that it is possible to rationally believe in something without being able to form a mental image of it, or being able to describe it in the way that we describe chairs, tables and so forth; but it does not show that it can make sense to believe in something that cannot be described at all, in any terms. Similarly, that we cannot mentally picture or describe electrons does not imply that there is no proof of their existence: Unlike God, the existence of electrons is supported by plenty of proof.
The remaining arguments claim that there is, if not proof, then evidence of God’s existence. One option, ever popular among believers, is to find that evidence in the existence of the moral order itself. “[A] physical system exhibiting moral order,” Wright claims, “demands a more exotic explanation than a physical system exhibiting a more mundane form of order.” To which we should reply: Really? Such things are commonly asserted by theists and other believers. Rarely is anything said to back up the claim, which on the face of it is far from obviously true—particularly given Wright’s fairly modest idea of what the “moral order” consists in.
In part, again, this “moral order” seems to consist in the fact that the world is perceived by humans as having some sort of moral dimension, some sort of “transcendent” purpose. More ambitiously, perhaps, the fact that in the long run certain human behaviors, but not others, tend toward general social cohesion and flourishing is supposed to be what provides evidence of God’s existence. But it is very difficult to see why such phenomena should be thought to provide evidence of “a transcendent source of meaning.” The problem is, of course, that standard scientific stories about how human beings got to be the way they are seem to have very little trouble accounting for such things as a sense of morality, or the fact that some behaviors, but not others, contribute to general happiness and well-being.
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