Friday, September 4, 2009

A raw deal on Darwin in the NY Times

by Simon Maloy

The New York Times featured an op-ed yesterday by Robert Wright of the New America Foundation proposing "A Grand Bargain Over Evolution," whereby two warring groups -- the "intensely religious" and the "militantly atheistic" -- might find a scrap of common ground concerning Darwin's theories and "learn to get along." The proposal is wrapped in scientific jargon and relies heavily on intellectual history and high-minded philosophizing. There's just one problem.

The "bargain" stinks.

Here's how Wright sees things -- the atheists "insist that any form of god-talk, any notion of higher purpose, is incompatible with a scientific worldview," whereas the religious refuse to believe that natural selection is capable of producing creatures as complex and morally attuned as Homo sapiens, which means God "had to step in and provide special ingredients at some point." Both these viewpoints are "wrong," according to Wright, and are in need of some tweaking. For the religious, Wright proposes that they accept that God "initiat[ed] natural selection with some confidence that it would lead to a morally rich and reflective species." For the atheists, Wright prescribes that they accept that "any god whose creative role ends with the beginning of natural selection is, strictly speaking, logically compatible with Darwinism," and that "natural selection's intrinsic creative power ... adds at least an iota of plausibility to this remotely creative god." Voila -- amity achieved.

But this doesn't seem like much of a "bargain." He's asking believers in God to continue believing in God, but to also believe in natural selection as one of God's works. But for the atheists, he's essentially asking that they toss out their beliefs. Being an atheist in predicated upon one principle idea -- that there is no "higher power" at work in the universe. To ask an atheist to acknowledge, in Wright's words, "at least an iota of plausibility to this remotely creative god" is to ask that atheist to stop being an atheist. He's asking one group to merely alter their belief structure, and another group to completely undermine the basic tenet of theirs. Some "bargain" ...

And as you might expect, the "militant atheist" scientists are mightily unimpressed with Wright's teleological wheeling and dealing.

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