May 19, 2013
Troy Jollimore on God’s Evolution
Posted on Jun 19, 2009
Moreover, it is not often enough pointed out that, if the world in some sense failed to contain a moral dimension—whatever, precisely, this might mean—it is not at all clear how adding a God into the mix would help. If there isn’t already something wrong with hitting the innocent elderly lady at the ATM over the head with a club and taking her purse, how is the fact that God is watching (and, perhaps, disapproving) supposed to magically make it wrong?
Mugging the old lady is wrong, of course—and not because, as some theists will maintain, it will send you to hell; that, after all, only provides a self-interested reason for not doing it, not a moral one. It is wrong because, most centrally, it hurts people: The elderly lady is a sentient being and will suffer harm if you treat her thus. (I do not, let me be clear, take myself to be saying anything metaphysically extravagant in saying this.) The existence of sentient beings, then, is enough to usher morality into the world, because it matters to such beings what happens to them. They have hopes, fears and dreams. They care. So natural selection is enough to account for the existence of sentient beings, which in turn is enough to account for the existence, in Wright’s sense, of a moral order; no weighty metaphysics is required.
But Wright has one final trick up his sleeve. What if, he asks, God is precisely what is needed to explain natural selection? After all, natural selection is an amazing process—what could possibly explain it but an equally amazing explanation? “[N]atural selection is such a powerful mechanism as to demand a special explanation,” he writes. The skeptic will be heard emitting a sigh of frustration at this point, for it appears that she cannot win. If evolution via natural selection cannot account for the diversity and complexity of life, as Intelligent Design adherents claim, then we must posit God to fill in the gaps. If it turns out that evolution does succeed in explaining the appearance of design, then it is such an amazing process that it couldn’t possibly have just happened: Rather, we must posit God in order to explain such an amazing process!
The argument stems from a deep conceptual confusion—one that threatens us with an infinite regress. 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.
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