Recently Robert Wright has come to my attention as a man with some interesting ideas. He has written what looks to be a fascinating book, The Evolution of God (which I anticipate reading). In his recent interview on the Colbert Report, Wright stated he was not an atheist (a not all too surprising view for someone whose area of focus is “God”). Just today, in a New York Times op-ed piece, he presents a way forward for the often heated Evolution/Creationism debate between the religiously-inspired thinker (creationist, accommodationist, what have you) and the atheist scientist (embodied in the likes of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne).
Reconciliation, or at least some common ground, is an admirable goal for a debate that has grown so contentious. Restrained debate seemingly has no place in America. Whether it be Republicans versus Democrats, Fox News versus MSNBC, or Miley Cyrus versus music, the lines have been drawn and they are thick. No one would argue against bringing down the level of vitriol and outright lies (“Death Panels”, anyone) in the public realm.
All that said, however, Wright’s op-ed seems rather weak. For starters, Wright’s argument in his piece is too reliant on a compromise of ideas for both sides of the Evolution/Creation debate. First, his definition of scientific inquiry includes vague speculations about purpose and intention. As well, his definition of “God” is his own personal definition of God: A natural force, perhaps an active intelligence, perhaps a representation of an “unseen order” in the largest and broadest sense. There is nothing inherently wrong with this view of God (it was Einstein’s view, more or less). My issue with Wright’s idea of God is that the people who share it are not the ones engaged in the Evolution/Creationism debate. Those people tend to be happy to leave the mystery of origins and purpose up to others while they bask in a (mostly banal) peace that comes from answering a question with yet another question.
Creationists or so-called “theological scientists” have a usually distinct definition of God: All powerful, all knowing, with a personal stake in human actions. They will not water down their deity. Meanwhile, scientific inquiry is not concerned with moral purposes or the “intentions” of nature. No scientist feels the need to think, “We understand how gravity works, but what I want to know is, What is the moral imperative of gravity.” Perhaps that is sufficient gristle for some philosopher to chew on. But it is not science.
In the Evolution/Creationism debate, confusion often arises when people attempt to blur the line between the beliefs of atheistic scientists and their research. To be fair, this may partly be the fault of overzealous atheists asserting their credentials to substantiate their personal beliefs. (I make that concession only because it seems feasible, not because I know of it happening.) In reality, this issue is mostly the fault of the Creationist opposition who falsely contend that insisting on a ‘godless’ scientific inquiry is the atheistic equivalent of proselytizing. It’s a case of claiming the egg came first, when really it was the chicken.
The great numbers of scientists who are atheists (and studies show a disproportionally high percentage of atheists in the field of science than is found in the normal population) are atheists because in the scientific pursuit, they must examine phenomenon as it occurs without the hand of a “higher power” and from their experience they understand that nature clearly works perfectly well without any Dues Ex Machina (my personal deconversion came as a result of understanding that God did not exist in all the places I was told to look for him; from there I extrapolated that he did not exist anywhere). Belief in God often is a result of a person having unanswered questions (of course, not always). When one is capable of answering those questions, God loses his footing.
When an atheist biologist insists on taking God out of science, he is not making a personal stance against religion or God. He is stating something that should be obvious: An untestable, unproveable, unseeable hypothesis is not science and should not be included in the discussion of natural phenomenon. One can be a scientist and believe in God, there is no question of that. But one cannot take God and use him (it) as an explanation for nature and call that science, no matter what the topic.
Wright is making this very mistake when he posits that morality may come from God (his version of God, not necessarily the traditionally understood view of God), because he is discounting knowledge that we may obtain in the future. Atheists are often accused of acting like we know everything, but we freely admit a dearth of knowledge about countless subjects. We do not assume that what we do not know can be simply answered by “There is no God”. Creationists, Theologians and, apparently, Wright, would claim on the other hand that “There is a God” is a suitable answer, not just for personal belief but for scientific inquiry.
This is why there can be no easy concessions between Creationists and Scientists. Creationists will never agree to the kind of amorphous, meaningless definition of God that Wright prescribes to (amazingly, making the intangible even more intangible), and true scientists will never allow “We do not know” to be amended by “God must have done it.”
Is there a purpose in this world? Does the force behind evolution have a purpose for us humans? If so, is that force God? These are fine questions for someone to ask, even a scientist, just don’t call it science.