Sunday, August 23, 2009

False Equivalence As A Framing Strategy

I'd like to propose a new truth-in-labeling law for editorials: if you call an article "A Grand Bargain Over Evolution" it must actually describe a grand bargain. I'm tired of wasting valuable Sunday morning newspaper time on the journalistic equivalent of Diet Coke.

In his opening paragraph Robert Wright lays out what seems, at first glance, to be an interesting if controversial compromise:

I bring good news! These two warring groups have more in common than they realize. And, no, it isn’t just that they’re both wrong. It’s that they’re wrong for the same reason. Oddly, an underestimation of natural selection’s creative power clouds the vision not just of the intensely religious but also of the militantly atheistic.

If both groups were to truly accept that power, the landscape might look different. Believers could scale back their conception of God’s role in creation, and atheists could accept that some notions of "higher purpose" are compatible with scientific materialism. And the two might learn to get along.

That would be a grand bargain indeed; believers will be loath to give up on god and atheists are, in the very least, going to be highly skeptical about any notions of "higher purpose". So let's see where he's going to take this argument, shall we?

There follows discussion of reciprocal altruism and how it can plausibly have lead to the development of a moral sense. Mr. Wright seems to be of the opinion that the religious side of the argument doesn't have much of a leg to stand on these days from an empiric standpoint. He wants them to develop a more modern theology which is compatible with the current state-of-the-art in evolutionary theory:

The first step toward this more modern theology is for them to bite the bullet and accept that God did his work remotely - that his role in the creative process ended when he unleashed the algorithm of natural selection (whether by dropping it into the primordial ooze or writing its eventual emergence into the initial conditions of the universe or whatever).

This is the classic characterization of god as the "divine watchmaker"; a comparison which Mr. Wright makes explicitly a little further down the road. Someone who wasn't interested in writing an apology for religion might stop at this point and highlight that a divine watchmaker is hardly different from no god at all. We don't need em to explain anything, so why bother invoking em in the first place? But maybe Mr. Wright isn't interested in digging into the religious set just yet; he's setting them up for a bargain with the nasty, agressive atheists so there's no sense in unnecessarily undermining their position, right?

Then there's some more discussion about how the moral sense captures a fundamental reality that's "out there". While this is true it's not as portentious as Mr. Wright and Steven Pinker make it out to be:

As Mr. Pinker once put it in conversation with me: "There may be a sense in which some moral statements aren’t just ... artifacts of a particular brain wiring but are part of the reality of the universe, even if you can’t touch them and weigh them." Comparing these moral truths to mathematical truths, he said that perhaps "they’re really true independent of our existence. I mean, they’re out there and in some sense - it’s very difficult to grasp - but we discover them, we don’t hallucinate them."

Sure... there are universal patterns which transcend humanity's apprehension thereof. If I give you 1 widget and you give me 1 widget and, through the synergy of a particular set of environmental/behavioral/social factors we both end up with 1.5 widgets (essentially an example of the reciprocal altruism mentioned above), we're both better off in the long run. This is true whether we're humans or chimpanzees or horrendous cephalopods from beyond space and time. The point that both Wright and Pinker seem to be missing is that there's nothing particularly mysterious or "spiritual" about this; the existence of such a universal pattern can be easily explained through a fairly transparent chain of cause and effect. The fact that humans call such behaviors "altruistic" and ascribe to them particular virtue is the only contingent part of the equation; the aforementioned cephalopods might label such behaviors a vice, but that doesn't change their efficacy as a survival mechanism.

Anyway, Mr. Wright summarizes his pitch to the religious among us as follows:

But the point is just that these speculations are compatible with the standard scientific theory of human creation. If believers accepted them, that would, among other things, end any conflict between religion and the teaching of evolutionary biology. And theology would have done what it’s done before: evolve - adapt its conception of God to advancing knowledge and to sheer logic.

Wright wants them to give up any notion they may have of a personal and interventionist deity; I don't know that he's going to get many takers for that. Maybe he should throw in a set of steak knives too.

But in this grand bargain its also necessary for the atheists to give up something. They have to acknowledge that:

...any god whose creative role ends with the beginning of natural selection is, strictly speaking, logically compatible with Darwinism. (Darwin himself, though not a believer, said as much.) And they might even grant that natural selection’s intrinsic creative power - something they’ve been known to stress in other contexts - adds at least an iota of plausibility to this remotely creative god.

And, god-talk aside, these atheist biologists could try to appreciate something they still seem not to get: talk of "higher purpose" is not just compatible with science, but engrained in it.

Wright is going to find a mixed reception for those propositions. Sure, the conception of god which he's pushing is logically compatible with Darwinism, but that's because he's completely removed god from the material sphere. As I noted above, if you've a god which leaves no fingerprints anywhere why both invoking em in the first place? But the talk about "intrinsic creative power" and "higher purpose" is going to be a tough sell...

... If you use those words as they are typically understood. After his initial brave fuisillade he engages in some slight of hand:

As Mr. Dawkins pointed out, we can now explain the origin of organisms without positing a god. Yet Mr. Dawkins also conceded something to Paley that gets too little attention: The complex functionality of an organism does demand a special kind of explanation.

The reason is that, unlike a rock, an organism has things that look as if they were designed to do something. Digestive tracts seem to exist in order to digest food. The heart seems to exist in order to pump blood.

And, actually, even once you accept that natural selection, not God, is the "designer" - the blind watchmaker, as Mr. Dawkins put it - there is a sense in which these organs do have purposes, purposes that serve the organism’s larger purpose of surviving and spreading its genes. As Daniel Dennett, the Darwinian (and atheist) philosopher, has put it, an organism’s evolutionarily infused purpose is "as real as purpose could ever be."

SO in a sense Paley was right not just in saying that organisms must come from a different creative process than rocks but also in saying that this creative process imparts a purpose (however mundane) to organisms.

<sigh>... that's it? That's your great reveal? Fine... sure... if you want to redefine "higher purpose" as "successfully propagating the species" you'll get no objection from anyone in the atheist camp. The central tenant of natural selection is "survival of the fittest"... it's totally uncontroversial to claim that natural selection would lead to organs which are "designed" to "serve the organism’s larger purpose of surviving and spreading its genes".

So, in summary, here's the meat of the bargain: Religious folk... your god doesn't get to do anything that we can actually observe, but you're welcome to continue to claim that ey exists. Atheists... carry on.

Which, of course, leads to the meta-question of "Why did he bother?". If you look up his bio1 at the New American Foundation you find out that

His most recent book, The Evolution of God, touches on a number of contemporary issues, including how to foster interfaith tolerance amid globalization. Mr. Wright is now focusing on how to shape a foreign policy that reckons with such trends, paying particular attention to issues of global governance.

Right... ok... so that makes a lot of sense. Mr. Wright's schtick is getting people of different faiths to rub along nicely together. No one likes being told that their wrong; it gets their back up and makes them less likely to compromise. So, by going through this elaborate bit of wordplay and making it look like both sides have to give up something, he hopes to increase the likelyhood that the religious bits of the audience will be receptive to his message. Which is, of course, one of the big bones of contention in current discussions about how atheists should convey their position. I take it that Mr. Wright is squarely in the "sit down and shut up" camp; we should accommodate peoples' religious quirks and work quietly to try to mitigate the worst of the accompanying irrationality.

So I don't know, you tell me. Is the cause furthered by writing elaborate opinion pieces which need to disguise their fundamental point?

1 Which, incidentally, doesn't give me much cause to trust his opinion. His alleged areas of expertise are " Civil Liberties, Europe, Foreign Policy, National Security, Religion, Telecom & Technology, Terrorism, Trade & Globalization". If I saw that list on someone's resume that'd be a sign to toss it in the round file. Gee Mr. Wright, that's an awfully big portfolio... you must be a genius or something. Either than, or you've cleverly redefined "expert" as "someone who can spout soundbites".


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