“Compatibility” is something for which there’s always a market but which never produces a good product. It’s the “can’t we all just get along” position for which would-be peacemakers constantly yearn. And it’s almost always put forward by people who get neither of the sides they are attempting to reconcile correct. Doing the math, you should notice that that means they get both sides wrong. Thus, there is little chance of of the compatibilist getting anything right at all. If there is some sort of substance to disagreements, and if you attempt to solve that problem by ignoring the substantial claims on both sides of the disagreement, then it is very hard for you to say anything of substance about the issue in question. For that reason, I do not know of a single compatibilist argument that has ever worked. Unsurprisingly, then, when Robert Wright decided to write his piece suggesting a compatibility in “[t]he ‘war’ between science and religion,” “A Grand Bargain Over Evolution,” (which is just a more concise version of his book, The Evolution of God) he got everything wrong.
In the blogosphere you need to move pretty quick if you do not want to be late to the ball. Though Wright’s piece came out Saturday, there have already been substantial replies to it, the best, in my opinion, being from Jerry Coyne. I strongly urge you read it. Even so, since opinions are like…well, you know, I’ll go ahead and say something about just how wrong Wright is, especially since there are a couple of things not noted in other posts.
Only eight sentences into the op-ed piece, Wright, sounding eerily like the angel in Luke 2:10, claims “I bring good news!” It turns out, according to Wright, that “militant” atheists and the “intensely” religious are both wrong when it comes to their lack of consensus. Even more, “they’re wrong for the same reason.” What is that reason? “[A]n underestimation of natural selection’s creative power…” It might strike someone as odd that Wright would suggest that those problematic “New Atheists,” again epitomized by Richard Dawkins, would so radically misunderstand the power of the primary mechanism of biological evolution. This is especially odd since Dawkins, who is referenced specifically in Wright’s article, is well-known for talking at length about that very thing. But the oddness does not stop there.
The core of Wright’s article revolves around his assertion that our moral sense is the result of evolutionary processes. He takes it as a given that science has come up with some pretty good explanations for how the intuitions we all tend to share can be accounted. In that case we have a purely materialistic explanation for the values we generally share. This is unproblematic for those on the side of science in Wright’s “war,” though it certainly is an issue for the true believer in one of the big monotheistic religions. The kicker, though, is that he moves an extra step and asks:
If evolution does tend to eventually “converge” on certain moral intuitions, does that mean there were moral rules “out there” from the beginning, before humans became aware of them — that natural selection didn’t “invent” human moral intuitions so much as “discover” them?
He suggests that the answer here is in the affirmative. The idea that our moral intuitions reflect something external to us, indeed, external to all life itself, that natural selection “discovered,” has no basis in evolutionary theory, moral theory, or even in any commonly held theology. And, here, Wright simply goes off the rails. It is at this point that Wright wants to suggest that it is not contrary to science to suppose that there is some possibility that God set up either natural selection itself or the laws of physics themselves to produce moral animals like humans. He writes, “But the point is just that these speculations are compatible with the standard scientific theory of human creation.”
There are a number of problems with this, and I want to highlight a few. First, such a view is not “compatible with the standard scientific theory of human creation.” In point of fact, there is no standard scientific theory of human “creation.” In science, humans were not created. There is a connotation to the word “create” that has no place in the standard scientific account of how our species came to be. That connotation has to do with some notion of a creator. For example, in general, we don’t talk about rocks being “created.” That’s because, even though we think we understand the process by which rocks came into existence, no force maneuvered or managed things in such a way that the stones underfoot were the result of such guidance (presuming we mean stones that are not explicitly the result of human artifice). Evolutionary theory does not have room for such guidance, either. As such, “created” is not a word that has any place in the “standard scientific theory” of how humans came to be.
Next, the idea that there is some end toward which natural selection is pointed, that it has some goal in mind, is antithetical to the actual idea of natural selection as presented in evolutionary theory. There is no “thing” out there to even have such a goal. It just turns out that some things are better at sticking around than others, and those are the things that stick around. That’s it. If some environment exists in such a way that being taller would result in a greater likelihood of survival, and if the random events involved in mutation produce some individual that is taller than others, and if being taller does not have some sort of negative effect on other traits also good for survival, and if that individual does not die by some other means, then that individual will survive and pass on the genes responsible for its taller height to its offspring. That’s it. There’s no direction or purpose in there. In fact, it is explicitly purposeless. To attempt to place purpose in the process is to misunderstand what the mechanism actually is.
At this time something needs to be said about the problem of the naturalistic fallacy in this schema of reconciliation between science and religion. Even if it turned out that there was some set of behaviors that worked best (“best” being remarkably loaded here), and that given enough time some intelligent species would inevitably adopt those behaviors, that would not make such behaviors moral. As has been pointed out several times on this blog, you cannot deduce and ought from an is. The move is simply illegitimate. It will never be the case that just because some behaviors work well that those behaviors are moral “shoulds.” For example, it might turn out that rape is a fantastic evolutionary strategy. Indeed, there are species where forced sexual congress is the rule and not the exception. But, even if some segment of the population took to rape as a means of ensuring that their genes were spread far and wide, and even if this worked out such that those individuals with those genes began to thrive and dominate within the population, that would not make rape a moral action. And that’s the point! No action is moral merely because it helped some individual or population to survive. Were that that case, all actions taken by all successful species, and that means all species that currently exist, would be moral actions as morality would just be that kind of activity that worked to ensure that population’s survival. And, of course, that is just wrong.
The idea that we can discover morality by looking at what behaviors are common to our species, even by looking at what behaviors are considered moral across groups, is fundamentally flawed. That just is not what morality is. Now, this might have some uncomfortable consequences for those hoping to discover what is moral, or those with a variety of meta-ethical concerns, but none of that changes the issue. This is where we are, and no amount of hand-waving or wishing is going to change it.
I want to point out that this kind of morality, the kind that is the result of natural selection, would be the kind that would apply to all species and not just our own. If it is the case that there is some over-arching direction to make things moral built into the process of natural selection, then all organism on the planet have a share in that morality. If that is where we are, then what actions are moral? Certainly, any action that I could dub as “immoral” can be found to be the rule for some existing species. But that suggests that there is no “moral law” whatsoever. Now, it might be the case that Wright would want to engage in more hand-waving here and attempt to make some argument about the specialness of our species. But there is nothing in evolutionary theory that suggests any such thing. Certainly, we are special to us, but not in the grand scheme of things. We are no more special than any other species that exists right now. And if we want to make our behavior out to be something that is unique, something that is truly moral whereas the forced sex, killing of live, healthy young, and whatever other actions in other species that we would abhor in our own, then it is difficult to make the case that morality is something that is discovered by the process of natural selection, something toward which there is a definite and unalterable tendency. Regardless of which way you cut it, Wright is just wrong in his suggestion that evolution can give us genuine morality.
It is only fair to point out here that, even if one could get morality in the manner envisioned by Wright, it would be nothing like what is wanted by most theists, especially Christians. Christians believe in an interventionist god by definition. They believe in a god that created the world for humans, and this is evidenced by Jesus Christ being sacrificed for the sins of humanity so that a genuine communion between God and human could be achieved. What Wright is suggesting is, at best, some kind of deism, and that is nothing like what Christians say God is. Indeed, it largely misses the point. And the reason deism has lost popularity is not due to a failing in a belief in some god. It is largely due to the recognition that a belief in a deistic god is just superfluous to what is needed to explain the facts of the world. “Prime mover” arguments are simply unnecessary in contemporary physics. The main people left to whom Wright can be speaking are believers in an interventionist god, and those people are not interested in hearing that morality might be salvaged if they give up the intervention part. So, the question here is this: whose religion is being salvaged here by supporting this supposed compatibility? Almost no one’s that I can see.
In the end, it is just weird that anyone would think that this kind of compatibilism will be satisfactory for anyone interested in the substance of this debate. The scientists are going to point out that Wright has screwed up the science, and the theists are going to point out that he has screwed up theology. Like most of the compatibilisms before it, this one attempts to find a “common ground” on which both sides agree, and, in the process, comes up with that very thing: they both agree that Wright is just wrong.