Criticism & Features

NBCC Reads

NBCC Featured Review: Troy Jollimore on Robert Wright

By Eric Banks

Critical Mass regularly features an exemplary review by a National Book Critics Circle member critic. Here, from Truthdig, Troy Jollimore reviews Robert Wright’s The Evolution of God.

The title of Robert Wright’s new book—The Evolution of God—will surely put some people off; indeed it seems designed to do so. So many religious believers in the U.S. have so much antipathy toward the idea that evolution might explain anything, it seems highly unlikely that many of them will pick up a book whose title suggests that God, of all things, might have evolved—let alone (dare I mention it?) a book containing a chapter titled “Survival of the Fittest Christianity.”

But being provocative is clearly not something Wright fears. His acclaimed 1994 book The Moral Animal remains one of the most widely read books on evolutionary psychology, a topic that tends to breed controversy wherever it goes. In the work that has followed (notably 2000’s Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny), the author has displayed an increasingly strong penchant for grand pronouncements and attempts to explain all human behavior, and perhaps all of human history, in terms of a combination of evolutionary psychology and rudimentary game theory.

The Evolution of God finds the author going over much of the same ground, this time with a specific focus on religion. The word evolution in the title refers most straightforwardly to the process by which humanity’s idea of God has changed over time—a process described at some length in Wright’s book. The human race begins as a bunch of parochial pluralists, separate tribes each with its own group of deities. These deities are conceived, to start with, more as superheroes—humanoid beings with human personalities endowed with special powers—than as genuine divinities. Over time a few of the deities gain more prominence and become more widely accepted, as pressures toward intertribal cooperation and, eventually, globalization (as manifested in the dynamics of “non-zero-sum situations,” a key concept in Wright’s thinking) push societies toward directing their energies at one comprehensive, universalistic, all-powerful god. This god—the God of Judaism, Christianity and Islam—eventually becomes perceived as a just and loving father figure and is associated with modern ethical ideas like universal rights and the equality of all persons.

This is, in its way, a story of competition under selective pressure: God attains his ultimate position by defeating all competitors, not through brute power but by winning over the electorate, so to speak. And it is by serving various human purposes, and appealing to certain elements in human nature, that a more all-encompassing vision of God comes to take precedence over less universalistic versions. But, lest some readers be confused by the baggage inevitably attached to the word evolution (a confusion which Wright, to a certain degree, encourages), it is important to emphasize that this is no more a process of Darwinian natural selection than is television’s American Idol. The process is a cultural one, and applies to a god that is clearly a cultural artifact in the strongest sense: an artifact that is the creation of human beings, the product of our beliefs, as Wright makes clear:

The god I’ve been describing is a god in quotation marks, a god that exists in people’s heads. When I said in chapter 5, for example, that Yahweh was strong yet compassionate, I just meant that his adherents thought of him as strong yet compassionate. There was no particular reason to believe that there was a god “out there” that matched this internal conception. Similarly, when I say God shows moral progress, what I’m really saying is that people’s conception of God moves in a morally progressive direction.

Passages like this will reinforce the believer’s sense that The Evolution of God is, at the end of the day, nothing more than yet another evolution book whose aim is to explain how humans have evolved into the sort of creatures that believe in God, and in doing so to explain away any vestige of God’s actual existence. But Wright, it turns out, wants to have it both ways. His point is not just to emphasize the usefulness if not the necessity of religious belief, and to “justify” religion in that attenuated sense (though that theme is certainly present, and sometimes pressed hard). Rather, he wants to go further:

In this book I’ve used the word “god” in two senses. First, there are the gods that […] exist in people’s heads and, presumably, nowhere else. But occasionally I’ve suggested that there might be a kind of god that is real. This prospect was raised by the manifest existence of a moral order—that is, by the stubborn, if erratic, expansion of humankind’s moral imagination over the millennia, and the fact that the ongoing maintenance of social order depends on the further expansion of the moral imagination, on movement toward moral truth.

Now at this point things get extremely vague, and while I’m going to try to deal with the vagueness as well as I can, I want to admit upfront that I really can’t tell just what sort of idea of God Wright has in mind. In fact, Wright seems to flip-flop between two ideas—and each, it turns out, faces a serious problem.

The first interpretation takes Wright’s realism about God to be metaphysically modest. God, Wright sometimes seems to think, might simply be the name for whatever turns out to play a certain causal role in explaining certain phenomena that we observe in the universe—and this might be a cause that is perfectly ordinary, in scientific terms. Wright likens it to our use of the word electron, which, as he says, is functionally defined. An electron is not really a tiny little particle, though that is how we picture it; in fact we do not and cannot have an accurate picture of what an electron is, because the level of reality at which electrons exist is too remote from our lived experience. So the word electron really just stands for whatever entity in the world corresponds to certain statements in physical theories, and in particular tends to play certain sorts of causal roles in making events happen.

Similarly, Wright seems to suggest at some points, the word God is just the name for whatever it is that explains why, for instance, certain forms of behavior tend in the long run toward social cohesion while others tend toward social breakdown and chaos, or why many interactions are “non-zero-sum,” in the sense that participants gain more by cooperating than by becoming antagonists. (This sort of fact, and others like it, seems to be what Wright has in mind when he talks about “the manifest existence of a moral order.”) On the plausible assumption that such facts are explained, essentially, by human nature, which in turn is explained by evolution via natural selection, then natural selection turns out, essentially, to be God.

I doubt that anybody will be happy with this conclusion. Skeptics will complain that using the word God to denote natural selection—or any other ordinary scientific phenomenon—is misleading to the highest degree. As Wright observes, the scientists who discovered electrons got to choose the name; he fails to note, though, that there were extremely good reasons for them not to call those particles “fairies,” or “leprechauns,” or “gremlins.”

It is the believer, however, that will have the deepest objection to this interpretation. For if this is what Wright means, then the believer will almost certainly feel that Wright has pulled a bait-and-switch. Rather than defending the existence of God, Wright has merely defended the existence of some natural, scientific phenomena—which we can refer to as God if it makes us happy to do so. At times, though, it is clear that Wright intends a stronger interpretation, which does not simply vindicate the believer’s right to relate to the cause of certain phenomena “as if it were a personal god,” but asserts there is ample evidence for something supernatural or quasi-divine. A number of arguments are offered that seem intended to support this contention, all of them unconvincing.

First, Wright suggests that the electron analogy shows something more than just that we might use the word God to refer to the (presumably naturalistic) occupant of some functionally defined black box—it shows, rather, that a lack of evidence for the existence of some entity need not oblige us to eschew belief in that entity:

The believers [in electrons] believe there’s something out there—some “thing” in some sense of the word “thing”—that corresponds to the word “electron”; and that, though the best we can do is conceive of this “thing” imperfectly, even misleadingly, conceiving of it that way makes more sense than not conceiving of it at all. They believe in electrons while professing their inability to really “know” what an electron is. You might say that they believe in electrons even while lacking proof that electrons per se exist. […] Yet what exactly is the difference between the logic of their belief in electrons and the logic of a belief in God?

But this argument is confused. It is at best misleading to claim that physicists do not “really” know what an electron is. An electron is—that is to say, it “really” is—a thing having the various properties assigned to it by a correct theory of physics. And physicists have very strong reason to believe that their current theories get electrons at least mostly right. What is true is that we cannot accurately picture an electron, and thus cannot conceive it in the way in which we conceive more ordinary sorts of things—things occupying the realm of what the philosopher J.L. Austin once called “middle-sized dry goods,” such as tables, chairs, socks, pencils, etc. So we cannot perfectly translate the language of physics into everyday layman’s terms. The electron case, then, shows at most that it is possible to rationally believe in something without being able to form a mental image of it, or being able to describe it in the way that we describe chairs, tables and so forth; but it does not show that it can make sense to believe in something that cannot be described at all, in any terms. Similarly, that we cannot mentally picture or describe electrons does not imply that there is no proof of their existence: Unlike God, the existence of electrons is supported by plenty of proof.

The remaining arguments claim that there is, if not proof, then evidence of God’s existence. One option, ever popular among believers, is to find that evidence in the existence of the moral order itself. “[A] physical system exhibiting moral order,” Wright claims, “demands a more exotic explanation than a physical system exhibiting a more mundane form of order.” To which we should reply: Really? Such things are commonly asserted by theists and other believers. Rarely is anything said to back up the claim, which on the face of it is far from obviously true—particularly given Wright’s fairly modest idea of what the “moral order” consists in.

In part, again, this “moral order” seems to consist in the fact that the world is perceived by humans as having some sort of moral dimension, some sort of “transcendent” purpose. More ambitiously, perhaps, the fact that in the long run certain human behaviors, but not others, tend toward general social cohesion and flourishing is supposed to be what provides evidence of God’s existence. But it is very difficult to see why such phenomena should be thought to provide evidence of “a transcendent source of meaning.” The problem is, of course, that standard scientific stories about how human beings got to be the way they are seem to have very little trouble accounting for such things as a sense of morality, or the fact that some behaviors, but not others, contribute to general happiness and well-being.

Moreover, it is not often enough pointed out that, if the world in some sense failed to contain a moral dimension—whatever, precisely, this might mean—it is not at all clear how adding a God into the mix would help. If there isn’t already something wrong with hitting the innocent elderly lady at the ATM over the head with a club and taking her purse, how is the fact that God is watching (and, perhaps, disapproving) supposed to magically make it wrong?

Mugging the old lady is wrong, of course—and not because, as some theists will maintain, it will send you to hell; that, after all, only provides a self-interested reason for not doing it, not a moral one. It is wrong because, most centrally, it hurts people: The elderly lady is a sentient being and will suffer harm if you treat her thus. (I do not, let me be clear, take myself to be saying anything metaphysically extravagant in saying this.) The existence of sentient beings, then, is enough to usher morality into the world, because it matters to such beings what happens to them. They have hopes, fears and dreams. They care. So natural selection is enough to account for the existence of sentient beings, which in turn is enough to account for the existence, in Wright’s sense, of a moral order; no weighty metaphysics is required.

But Wright has one final trick up his sleeve. What if, he asks, God is precisely what is needed to explain natural selection? After all, natural selection is an amazing process—what could possibly explain it but an equally amazing explanation? “[N]atural selection is such a powerful mechanism as to demand a special explanation,” he writes. The skeptic will be heard emitting a sigh of frustration at this point, for it appears that she cannot win. If evolution via natural selection cannot account for the diversity and complexity of life, as Intelligent Design adherents claim, then we must posit God to fill in the gaps. If it turns out that evolution does succeed in explaining the appearance of design, then it is such an amazing process that it couldn’t possibly have just happened: Rather, we must posit God in order to explain such an amazing process!

The argument stems from a deep conceptual confusion—one that threatens us with an infinite regress. If every amazing explanation needs to be explained, and God is sufficiently amazing to explain natural selection (which is amazing)—then what explains God? Clearly something has gone wrong: Indeed, this whole approach to thinking about explanation is completely wrongheaded. A successful explanation banishes one’s bewilderment by dissolving what was previously inexplicable. There is, in the case of a successful explanation, no residual bewilderment, nothing remaining to be explained. If an explanation has failed then one is justified in seeking a further or more complete explanation. But it makes no sense for one, having been offered a successful explanation, to shake his head and say: “How incredible! What an amazingly successful explanation! How could there even be such an amazingly successful explanation? What could possibly explain that?”

The point of evolution via natural selection is that it needs very little to get going—even though it can have amazing results, and produces things that appear to have been deliberately designed, the nature of the process is that it does not involve conscious design, nor does it itself need to have been designed or deliberately set in motion. That is why it is a successful and powerful explanation. So to treat its amazing success as evidence for some sort of designer is exactly the wrong conclusion to draw from it. Ironically, what it shows is that one did not really grasp what made the explanation so amazingly successful in the first place.

Though they are profoundly philosophically confused (I resist the cynical impulse to write “Because they are profoundly philosophically confused …”), reconciliationist positions like Wright’s are increasingly popular these days. Perhaps this is, in part, a mark of progress: Even in so religious a country as the United States, fewer people now find it possible simply to write off science so as to preserve their religious views, and so more and more are perhaps searching for some kind of livable compromise. Moreover, supporters of reconciliation are correct, in a sense, to say that there is no in principle conflict between science and religion. The early modern scientists were, for the most part, religious men; they expected the results of their researches to help solidify and confirm their faith. As it turned out, though, they were wrong about what science would tell them, and us, about the world. It is not, then—as religious opponents of science sometimes claim—that an anti-religious bias is built into the very methods of science, and thus presupposed (as, it is often put with a sneer, a kind of faith). The anti-religious bias, rather, is built into the world itself; all that science has done is to discover and reveal it. Even assuming that it is worth achieving, the reconciliation of religion and science will not easily be achieved.