For decades, I’ve jawed in private and public about evolution, meditation, morality, the meaning of life and other stuff with media mogul Robert Wright. Even when we disagree, as we often do, I find Wright’s views immensely stimulating. His essay in yesterday’s New York Times, “Can Evolution Have a ‘Higher Purpose’?”, is a case in point. Wright touches on aliens, the simulated-universe hypothesis and biological and cultural evolution while answering his headline: “yes.” He insists that “discussion of higher purpose should be respectable even in a scientific age.” Wright’s perspective, regular readers of this blog will surely realize, is a splendid specimen of neo-geocentrism. Since Wright reached a similar conclusion in The Evolution of God--and since I’m too lazy to write something from scratch--I’m recycling a review (slightly revised) of that 2009 book. I originally wrote the review for the online forum Firedoglake. –John Horgan
In the early 1980s, I had the whole God thing figured out. Drugs were involved. I didn’t just meet God on my trip. I became God, Creator of Everything. It was fun until it wasn’t. I thought, what happens if I–not I, John Horgan, but I, God—die? I’ll take the whole cosmos with me! Holy smoke!
Eventually, reason prevailed. What was more likely? That while rolling around on a suburban lawn blasted out of my skull, I solved the riddle of existence? Or that I was just projecting my own fear of death onto the cosmos? Also, my belief wasn’t healthy. It alienated me from others around me. So I let it go and fell back into my usual befuddled agnosticism.
But I remain obsessed with the riddle, and open to others’ wacky ideas about how to solve it. Which brings me to the latest book by my old pal Robert Wright. Bob’s two great obsessions are evolution and God, so of course he had to write The Evolution of God. The book, which reviews the whole twisted history of religion, from the shamanism practiced by our hunter-gatherer ancestors up through polytheism and the monotheistic faiths, is very Bob-ish. That is, witty, profound, provocative, loaded with fun facts and clever philosophical riffs.
Bob’s analysis of the ascent of monotheism is devastating, as much so as recent assaults by religion-bashers like Dawkins and Hitchens. Forget the idea that God is revealing absolute moral truths to us through holy scriptures. Their all-too-human authors were spreading memes to boost the status of a particular chosen prophet or people. The message varied according to political expediency, or what Bob calls “facts on the ground.” Broadly speaking, when God’s chosen people are down, God tells them to be nice; when they have the upper hand, God says they can crush unbelievers.
Bob discerns a drift toward niceness both in our conceptions of God and in our morality. These trends, he proposes, are consistent with the existence of a divine “moral order.” I wrote “Huh?” in the margin when Bob first floated this idea, because it struck me as such a non sequitur, even contradiction. The bulk of Bob’s book demonstrates how reason has gradually, fitfully, overcome our enormous capacity for superstition, self-deception and self-righteousness. Why credit our hard-won moral progress to God?
Bob digs himself in deeper when he tries to explain what he means by “God.” Wary of anthropomorphizing divinity, he compares God to an electron, which according to quantum mechanics is neither particle nor wave but something beyond the ken of our puny minds. This is negative theology: Yes, God exists, but whatever you think about him is probably wrong. But as David Hume once wrote, “How do you mystics, who maintain the absolute incomprehensibility of the Deity, differ from skeptics or atheists who assert that the first cause of All is unknown and unintelligible?”
Good question. Realizing how unsatisfying negative theology is, Bob concludes that maybe we can have a personal God after all. “Though we can no more conceive of God than we can conceive of an electron, believers can ascribe properties to God, somewhat as physicists ascribe properties to electrons. One of the more plausible such properties is love.” Bob concedes that this attempt to salvage a traditional version of God from the wreckage of religion may seem like “a strained, even desperate intellectual maneuver.”
Yes, it does. Bob’s theology also poses the old conundrum: if God loves us, why is creation so crappy for so many people? After my drug trip I thought, briefly, that I’d discovered the answer: Reality is messed up because God is messed up. That answer is inadequate, as every answer is. The theologian Huston Smith calls the problem of evil “the shoal on which all theologies founder.”
Bob never grapples with the problem of evil. He seems concerned that, lacking faith in a transcendent moral truth, we will descend into nihilistic darkness. I’m more worried about the opposite problem. The Evolution of God offers many historical examples of how dangerous we become when we think we possess absolute truth.
We’re better off viewing morality as our humble invention, which we adjust to “facts on the ground.” After all, the phrase “moral truth” is an oxymoron. Truth decrees what is, morality what should be. Truth is universal, morality provisional. Even the golden rule is just a guideline. It doesn’t apply to hermits, and we certainly don’t want masochists living by it.
As Bob’s writings have made clear, natural selection embedded moral sympathies in us, as well as a capacity for reason, which helps us recognize the benefits of caring for others. These traits—not our childish yearning for supernatural guidance—have brought us far, and will take us farther. Where did this crazy, painful reality come from? What’s the point? Who the hell knows? No one. God may exist, but we’re better off assuming that he doesn’t–-and taking responsibility for our own destiny once and for all.