Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Evolution of God

Robert Wright (journalist)Image via Wikipedia

On Bill Moyers Journal last Friday he talked to Robert Wright, the author of The Evolution of God. It was a very interesting discussion about the book and the nature of God. I wanted to post the video but they had no embedding code so you’ll have to follow the link to watch it. They also have a written transcript, which is how I got these quotes from, so don’t blame any misspellings on me.
BILL MOYERS: So, here's my journalistic lede I would use if I were reviewing your book. "Robert Wright has made a convincing case that if circumstances change, god has changed, because the story of god is intrinsic to the human story. But what Wright has not done is to make a convincing case that god exists."

ROBERT WRIGHT: I would say it's hard for anyone to make a convincing case that god exists in the sense of pointing to evidence. And I don't really try to do that. I mean, I do argue that there is evidence of some sort of larger purpose unfolding through the workings of nature. But that doesn't tell you much about what might have infused the purpose.
Wright says that God was invented by humanity as stories meant to deal the things we could not control and has evolved in many ways, changing to fit the times and the needs of humanity. Personally, I think that is THE argument that tells us there is no god and never was, it was, and continues to be, a human invention. Pretty much ends all argument in my opinion, come back when you have evidence that supports a god as being something other than a made up story. But Wright falls just short of making that claim. He seems to want to walk a line that has him believing in some kind of transcendence but without having to explain what that is.
ROBERT WRIGHT: Because I don't-- what do I mean. I don't--I mean what. Transcendent is a very tricky word. And I get into trouble from hardcore materialists by using it because people think, "Oh, you mean spooky, mystical, ethereal stuff." I don't know exactly what I mean by transcendent.

I may mean beyond our comprehension. I may mean you know, I may mean prior to the creation of the universe or something. I don't know. But I do think that the system on Earth is such that humanity is repeatedly given the choice of either progressing morally in the sense of accepting more people into the moral circle or paying the price of social chaos. Okay?
I recommend watching the video because when you read the above he doesn’t sound very bright, but in the video it comes across very differently and he seems quite intelligent. He fudges the meaning of transcendent in order to give himself wriggle room for not claiming to actually believe anything but without claiming full disbelief. Kind of bizarre, actually. He spends the entire time with Moyers explaining how god is merely a human invention but then tries to deny that he is saying there is no god. Moyers himself is a big god-believer and keeps trying to steer Wright into saying there is a god but Wright just won’t do it.
BILL MOYERS: I don't find any traces of cynicism in the book. In fact, I want to ask you about something you say toward the end. You say that, "Human beings are organic machines that are built by natural selection to deal with other organic machines. They can visualize other organic beings, understand other organic beings, and bestow love and gratitude on other organic beings. Understanding the divine, visualizing the divine, loving the divine--that would be a tall order for a mere human being." But we've not given up trying, have we?

ROBERT WRIGHT: No. And I think, you know, in a way we shouldn't. I mean I think if there is you know, something out there called moral truth. And we should continue to try to relate to it in a way that brings us closer to it. And it--
BILL MOYERS: I don't understand what you mean. Out there?
BILL MOYERS: What did--
ROBERT WRIGHT: Did I say that?
BILL MOYERS: Yeah, you've said it several times. I mean--
ROBERT WRIGHT: I should be careful.
BILL MOYERS: --if you don't--
ROBERT WRIGHT: Because I don't-- what do I mean. I don't--I mean what. Transcendent is a very tricky word. And I get into trouble from hardcore materialists by using it because people think, "Oh, you mean spooky, mystical, ethereal stuff." I don't know exactly what I mean by transcendent.
Wright continues to say that trying to understand god is not a bad way of trying to align ourselves with some kind of transcendent morality. He uses the example that our morality has also evolved over the centuries, steadily getting better and better, in a sense of including more and more people within our tribe. He seems to be saying our morality keeps improving because we are continually moving closer to some kind of morally that exists out there in the universe.
Keep in mind that Wright wrote The Moral Animal which was all about how natural selection created our morality. He even explains how we can be moving along a pathway to better and better morality because to fail to do so leads to societal chaos. This means we evolve morally because it is in our self interest to do so and those that don’t are less likely to survive their own chaos. This is pretty much the same process of morality evolving through natural selection but Wright seems to not notice this, he keeps trying to attribute this evolution to higher morality as us somehow listening to transcendence, or god, and trying to understand it and get closer to it.
Definitely a blind spot on his part, but the video is worth watching for a very interesting discussion between 2 very interesting men. Maybe I’ll get the book, too.

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Doc said...

As an atheist, I find it odd that so many people keep searching for God and the so-called "transcendent." I want to grab them and shake them, and yell in their ears, "THERE IS NO SUCH THING! GROW UP AND FACE THE FACTS! IT'LL BE OK!"

KevinBBG said...

I know exactly what you mean, but at least Wright's ideas pretty much say that all current religions are man made and that the human mind can't really know God (if there was one). I think what causes the most trouble is people who seem to know exactly what god wants, to the point where they are willing to kill and die based on that certainty.

I could never understand that.

KevinBBG said...

Oddly enough, this morning I got a notice that Evolution of God was following me on Twitter.