Monday, May 24, 2010

David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779)

Robert Wright's discussion of intelligent design and a "designing process" in The Evolution of God (May 13, 2010 post) recalled a book on the bookshelf that I have been intending to read for a couple of years --- David Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Hume, I read once, had actually criticized William Paley's intelligent design "watchmaker" argument decades before Paley wrote about it, and the Dialogues, a carefully crafted discussion among three friends, representing three different 18th century views on the nature of a deity, includes a debate between an anthropocentric advocate of god as an intelligent designer (Cleanthes) and a skeptic (Philo) who, while willing to acknowledge that nature appears to be a purposeful creation, is unwilling to assume a parallel between the human mind (which does create works of art) and a divine mind.

A modern eye will recognize that this pamphlet, initially written in the 1750s, anticipates Darwin's theory of natural selection, which was not published until a century later, as well as Gregor Mendel and Crick and Watson. When the third friend, Demea, asks the skeptic, Philo, "How is it conceivable that the world could arise from anything similar to vegetation or generation?" Philo replies: "Very easily. In like manner as the tree sheds its seed into the neighboring fields, and produces other trees; sothe great vegetable, the world, or this planetary system, produces within itself certain seeds, which being scattered into the surrounding chaos, vegetate into new worlds. A comet, for instance, is the seed of a world; and after it has been fully ripened, by passing from sun to sun, and star to star, it is at last tossed into the unformed elements, which everywhere surround the universe, and immediately sprouts up into a new system. Or, if, for the sake of variety, we should suppose this world to be an animal; a comet is the egg of this animal; and in like manner as an ostrich may lay its egg in the sand, which, without any further care, hatches the egg and produces a new animal." Demea says he understands, but asks, "What data do you have for such extraordinary conclusions? And is the slight, imaginary resemblance of the world to an animal or a vegetable sufficient to satisfy the same inference with regard to both?" Right, says Philo, "we have no data to establish such a system of cosmogony. . . but if we must fix on some hypothesis . . . Is there any other rule other than the great similarity of the objects compared? . . . When I see an animal, I infer, that it sprang from generation; and that with as great as certainty as you conclude a house to have been reared from design."

I reprint this extensive quote, because, while it lends some support to Richard Dawkins' conclusion in The Blind Watchmaker that Hume did not have either Darwin's biological "data" or his theory of evolution in hand and failed to fully appreciate "biological design," the quote also reveals that Hume enjoyed a much greater insight into nature than Dawkins is willing to concede. Darwin too was unaware of Gregor Mendel's work on genetics and was a century ahead of the discovery of DNA, but nevertheless deduced that plants and animals sexually transmitted their traits generationally. And Hume does fully appreciate this (which Darwin, himself, appreciated a century later): we have more to learn about nature from vegetation and animals than we could possibly learn from how machines are built. And Hume appreciates what has been a central topic of this blog since the first post discussing Seth Lloyd's Programming The Universe (see August 17, 2009 post): life, as we know it (and do not know it) and its creation is reducible to units of information, the transmission of information, and adaptation to new or changed information.

There is, in the Dialogues, much the same debate that plays out now between theists advancing the proposition that all life reflects the work of an intelligent designer and atheists, such as Dawkins, who advance Darwin's theory of natural selection as a sufficient explanation for the creation of life. It is impressive, to say the least, that this discourse was published over two hundred years ago. Was Hume an atheist in the sense we think of atheists today? Skepticism is a term that is most often associated with Hume, as well as Hobbes and Spinoza, and the theologians and theological philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries tended to label any skeptic an atheist. Hume, Hobbes, and Spinoza all shared a strong objection to an anthropomorphic deity as nothing more than man projecting its image onto an imaginary creator. Spinoza, however, did not fully abandon the term "god." Spinoza was a pantheist who marveled at all of nature and called the totality of the universe "god." Hume does not reveal his views on the existence of god in the Dialogues: all three characters in the Dialogues accept the existence of a god, and they merely disagree about its nature, but it is by no means clear that Hume shares this view and commentators are uniform on this perspective. Hume is definitely not a theist, and he is hostile to organized religion, religious doctrine and ritual. But he never denies the existence of a nonanthropomorphic deity of some sort.

This is the sort of discussion that would have benefitted Robert Wright's historical survey on god and religion. Instead, as I mention in the May 13, 2010 post, Wright ends his survey in the 8th century. In The Evolution of God, Robert Wright does not seem to be able to part with the idea that because a belief in a deity has survived in our many human cultures for many thousands of years, there must be some "purpose" to its survival and "evolution" must have something to explain for its survival and purpose. In my view, Wright has a soft spot for intelligent design that he cannot shake. Wright's "designing process" is nothing more than an "apparent design" argument that appears to embrace Darwinian evolution. That is the same argument that some biologists (who reject intelligent design), including Kenneth Miller in Finding Darwin's God, embrace today, purporting to capture evolutionary biological processes as part of god's initial design.  Of course, evolutionary theory cannot deny or negate the existence of a creator, but neither can evolutionary theory negate the non-existence of a creator.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Robert Wright, The Evolution of God (2009)

This was an informative, but nevertheless disappointing book in several respects. The title, The Evolution of God , together with its opening pages suggest that the book is about a "meme" --- the idea of God and its manifestation as a transmittable unit of culture --- but quite a bit of this book reads as a history of Abrahamic religions, an investigation of who wrote The Bible and The Koran and when, and the historical search for Jesus. Other writers have delved into these subjects previously and Wright does not hide his reliance on them: Pascal Boyer's Religion Explained, Richard Friedman's The Bible with Sources Revealed, Karen Armstrong's A History of God, and E.P Sanders' The Historical Search for Jesus. But if Wright's thesis is about an evolving unit of culture capable of tranmission from one human mind to another, there is virtually no insight offered from the perspective of the major oriental religions, and the evolutionary story of the Abrahamic god stops with Mohammed --- there is nothing after the 9th century C.E. --- and so the meme in its deistic, pantheistic, and even atheistic manifestations that became a force in the next millenium --- the God of Spinoza, for example, that Einstein noted --- is missing from this evolutionary discussion.

Wright's account of what we know from modern science is weak. He equates the human mind's inability to physically see a god with the our inability to physically see an electron and suggests that religion and science have much in common. The existence of an unseen divine spirit is an article of faith --- Wright, sure to anger most theists when he correctly says that the divine spirit originated in the human mind as an act of self-deception, accepts as much. But the existence of an electron is not an article of faith: we can "see" an electron when we experimentally crash another electron into it. There is no self-deception in this knowledge.

Similarly, Wright's discussion of associating the "God meme" with a "higher purpose" vacillates on the border of accepting William Paley's teleological watchmaker perspective on god as an intelligent designer before backing away toward something based in Darwinian natural selection called a "designing process." But with a virtual nod to the intelligent design community, Wright says that the believer would be entitled to co-opt natural selection by answering with a question --- "where did the amazing algorithm of natural selection come from?" --- indicating that it must come from Paley's designing god. Wright cannot have it both ways. Wright misses the distinction between teleology and teleonomy.

Wright divines that in the meme we call God is a "higher purpose" that can be described in terms of moral progress. And it is "moral progress" that is evolving. The evolution of "god" is correlated with the "tendency to grow morally." I am not convinced that there is both a purpose and a tendency along these lines that conflate or move in parallel paths along an arrow of time. It is true that human society is evolving and because of technology our world is smaller and social units across the globe are more interdependent than they were previously. And with greater cultural and economic interdependence there is more opportunity for non zero-sum exchanges that might reduce conflict and promote social harmony --- arguably a form of "moral progress." But there is no reason to label social, technological, and economic evolution with a "purpose" and juxtapose "purpose" with "moral progress." Wright uses terms like "moral truth" and "moral order" as though they are or will be a historical event in human history, but nowhere are these terms defined so that we would know what they are if they were staring us in the face.

Wright's book would have benefitted from research like that covered in Marco Iacobonni's Mirroring People (see September 18, 2009 post) and Marc Hauser's Moral Minds. In these works we see evolutionary biology's and neuropsychology's explanations for non-zero sum exchanges and innate strategies for recognizing that another's gain is also our gain as well. We can understand that while the human mind is not necessarily genetically hardwired with the golden rule, the human mind and body is genetically hardwired so that the golden rule is intuitive. Wright dances around this subject, but does not develop it.

So what is informative about The Evolution of God despite these confusing distractions? Certainly the opening discussion of the birth and growth of divine spirits as human communities evolved from a hunter-gatherer community to a society dominated by shamans and chiefdoms, to the age of organized political units and states, along with the closing discussion of Pascal Boyer's multidisciplinary approach to understanding the evolutionary origin of religion based on anthropology, evolutionary psychology, and biology is informative. Wright's view that our beliefs in divine spirits are best understood by the "facts on the ground" rather than our imagination of what is in the sky is compelling: politics and economics, he says, gave us the "one true god" of the Abrahamic faiths. Separately, the history of the Abrahamic religions is informative although not new, and if one has not read anything on this subject previously Wright's story is well-told and researched.

Wright is aware of the fact that religions have a history of being social dividers with built-in mechanisms to keep outsiders (non-believers) isolated from insiders (believers). Yet this book is the work of an apparent optimist who believes it is possible for humanity to become morally unified. There are numerous examples in the history of religion where religions coexisted and cultures mutually benefitted from coexistence and tolerance. Wright optimistically believes we can identify the circumstances that are ripe for tolerance, love and coexistence, find our way to embrace them as part of a permanent social order and achieve moral progress along the way. But, according to Wright, this will require the religious to look themselves in the mirror and say, with respect to their religion and their god, "I am not special." That's a little like John Rawls' "veil of ignorance" in A Theory of Justice: an interesting thought expermiment to wipe away self-interest, social, cultural, sexual and ethnic preferences and prejudices to rationalize a "just" society. Good luck.