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Saturday, August 04, 2007

EO Wilson interview

Just looking around the internet tonight, I saw a Salon interview from 2006 with two-time Pulitzer Prize winner E. O. Wilson on evolution and religion. He mentions Hans K√ľng :-), and also religion as being "tribalistic" - given the death-to-ecumenism behavior that's been evidenced lately between Catholicism and Protestantism, I find it difficult to disagree. I'm not sure what to make of his over-all view of the unmeeting twain of religion and science, but what he has to say is interesting.

First here's a little of what Wikipedia says of hum ...

Edward Osborne Wilson (born June 10, 1929) is an American biologist (Myrmecology, a branch of entomology), researcher (sociobiology, biodiversity), theorist (consilience, biophilia), and naturalist (conservationism). Wilson is known for his career as a scientist, his advocacy for environmentalism, and his scientific humanist ideas concerned with religious, moral, and ethical matters. As of 2007, he was the Pellegrino Research Professor in Entomology for the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University and a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. He is a Humanist Laureate of the International Academy of Humanism ....

And here below is a bit of the interview, which began with a discussion of Darwin ...

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Darwin's own transformation from devout Christian to non-believer obviously raises significant questions in our own time. It raises a very provocative question: If you fully accept the theory of evolution by natural selection, does that logically lead you to atheism?

Well, it does up to the origin of the mind and spirit. And one of the Vatican's scientific spokesmen, incidentally, just recently turned thumbs down on intelligent design. John Paul II took the position that evolution's been pretty well proved, and certainly was acceptable as God's way of creating the diversity of life. But the human soul was injected by God. So that's a kind of compromise position that a lot of devoutly religious people have taken.

But that begs the question, when did the soul enter? I mean, if you accept evolution, at some point humans evolved out of something that came before. So do all creatures have some kind of soul? Or do only humans have a soul?

Yeah, that's the dilemma. Of course, there is no reconciliation between the theory of evolution by natural selection and the traditional religious view of the origin of the human mind.

Are you saying we have to choose between science and religion?

Well, you have to choose between the scientific materialist view of the origin of the mind on the one side, and the traditional religious view that the spirit and the mind are independent of the process of evolution and eventually non-corporeal, capable of leaving the body and going elsewhere.

This is not a view that all scientists subscribe to. Stephen Jay Gould famously talked about how science and religion are two entirely separate spheres. And they really didn't have anything to do with each other.

Yeah, he threw in the towel.

He dodged the question.

He dodged the question, famously. That's no answer at all. That's evasion. I think most scientists who give thought to this with any depth -- who understand evolution -- take pretty much the position that I've taken. For example, in the National Academy of Sciences, which presumably includes many of the elite scientists in this country, a very large number would fully accept the scientific view. I know it's 80 percent or more who said, on the issue of the immortality of the soul, they don't care.

It would seem that religion and science have two entirely different ways of understanding the world. Science is founded on reason and deduction and empirical study. Religion, on the other hand, is grounded in faith -- often a leap of faith, in mystery, in living with the non-rational part of your mind. Are those two utterly alien ways of looking at the world? Or is there any common ground?

The only common ground that I see is the one that was approached by Darwin himself. Religious belief itself is an adaptation that has evolved because we're hard-wired to form tribalistic religions. Religion is intensely tribalistic. A devout Christian or Muslim doesn't say one religion is as good as another. It gives them faith in the particular group to which they belong and that set of beliefs and moral views.

What about the sense of awe, of wonder? That's something you hear about all the time among religious people. And you also hear about it from some scientists as well.

Well, you do. You hear about it from me. Awe is hard to put into words. But it certainly involves a sense of the mightiness and splendor and almost indecipherable intricacy of something greater than ourselves. A lot of religious mysticism arises directly from it. But it's equally experienced by the secularist whose mind opens to the splendor and intricacy of the material universe ....... that's the dilemma of the 21st century. Possibly the greatest philosophical question of the 21st century is the resolution of religious faith with the growing realization of the very different nature of the material world. You could say that we evolved to accept one truth -- the religious instinct -- but then discovered another. And having discovered another, what are we to do? You might say it's just best to go ahead and accept the two worldviews and let them live side by side. I see no other solution. I believe they can use their different worldviews to solve some of the great problems -- for example, the environment. But generally speaking, the difficulty in saying they can live side by side is a sectarianism in the world today, and traditional religions can be exclusionary and used to justify violence and war. You just can't deny that this is a major problem ........

Let me follow up on this because I've heard you call yourself a deist.

Yeah, I don't want to be called an atheist.

Why not?

You know, being a good scientist, and having been drawn up short so many times on my own theories and speculations -- as all honest scientists are -- I don't want to exclude the possibility of a creative force or deity. I think that would be a mistake to say there is no God or supernatural force. As the theologian Hans Kung once said, how are we to explain there is something and not nothing? Well, that's a question I'm happy to leave to the astrophysicist -- where the laws of the universe came from and what is the meaning of the origin of existence. But I do feel confident that there is no intervention of a deity in the origin of life and humanity ........

Suppose, miraculously, there was proof of a transcendental plane out there. Would you find that comforting?

Sure. Let me take this opportunity to dispel the notion, the canard, that scientists are against transcendentalism, that they want to block any talk of it, particularly intelligent design. If any positive evidence could be found of a supernatural guiding force, there would be a land rush of scientists into it. What scientist would not want to participate in what would be one of the greatest discoveries of all time? Scientists are simply saying -- particularly in reference to intelligent design -- that it's not science and it's garbage until some evidence or working theory is produced. And they are suspicious because they see it coming from people who have a religious agenda.

I guess I'm asking a slightly different question of you personally. Would you like there to be evidence of God? Forget about this as a great scientific discovery. Just personally, given your background, would that be thrilling? Would that be comforting?

Well, it would certainly give you a lot of material to study and think about the rest of your time. But you didn't ask me the right question.

What's the right question?

Would I be happy if I discovered that I could go to heaven forever? And the answer is no. Consider this argument. Think about what is forever. And think about the fact that the human mind, the entire human being, is built to last a certain period of time. Our programmed hormonal systems, the way we learn, the way we settle upon beliefs, and the way we love are all temporary. Because we go through a life's cycle. Now, if we were to be plucked out at the age of 12 or 56 or whenever, and taken up and told, now you will continue your existence as you are. We're not going to blot out your memories. We're not going to diminish your desires. You will exist in a state of bliss -- whatever that is -- forever. And those who didn't make it are going to be consigned to darkness or hell. Now think, a trillion times a trillion years. Enough time for universes like this one to be born, explode, form countless star systems and planets, then fade away to entropy. You will sit there watching this happen millions and millions of times and that will just be the beginning of the eternity that you've been consigned to bliss in this existence.

This heaven would be your hell.

Yes. If we were able to evolve into something else, then maybe not. But we are not something else.

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4 Comments:

Blogger Cura Animarum said...

An interesting perspective. I have to say that I'm more along side with John Paul II that Wilson's POV or that of most scientists today in that I really don't see much difficulty between religion and science, in fact I often find the two overlap in quite surprising ways. In my experience any difficulties in dialog are manufactured ones by two sides not wishing to understand the language of the other before trying to enter into a discussion.

Even in this interview, Wilson seems to suggest that either you accpte that the mind (which he correlates with the soul) evolved on it's own with no outside influence or you believe in a God who made it happen at some point. I think that's baloney. IO see no problem in believing in a God who a) Desired there to be something existing rather than nothing, b) set the process of creation into motion, and c)ordered that creation in such a way that a soul-filled life would be the logical end result.

I also think his perspective on eternity is off. He makes the common mistake (as we all tend to do) of speaking of it in terms of linear history or time. He gets a pass though in that, we really have no language or experience of time-lessness upon which to base a proper vocabulary or even real understanding.

And maybe that's the problem all around, science is bound only to the study of the universe within the scope of time and space, any existence or reality which may lie outside of that realm is so definitively alien that we lack the proper language to even begin the understanding. Thus we have the mystics who do not illustrate their experiences though facts and figures or the language of news or science, but through metaphor, art, song, and poetry which even as they use these, we are told only touches the surface of the kind of transcendental reality which they have come into contact with.

8:19 AM  
Blogger Paul said...

I've never understood the purported tension between evolution and the bible.

It seems to me it only exists if we suppose that the author of Genesis was a scientist and had done thorough "creation science" research prior to writing his account. But the idea of science didn't even exist.

However much and in whatever sense even the most literal minded believer wants to take the words of the bible as inspired, how can anyone expect the text to be informed about the theory of evolution any more than computer science??

So what if evolution gives us a more detailed look at God's methodology than was available at the time Genesis was written? It seems to me that would be my position even if I were a fundamentalist. Seems to me it's way too much to look to the bible to speak authorotatively either for or against scientific theories when it was written prior to science.

10:49 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Cura,

the whole part about the soul is interesting. He talks about God injecting the soul in humans at some point in time. In another place he mentions the sould and the mind as if they are one.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think there's a place in the Bible that alks of people being given souls ... I thought I read that the idea of a soul was interchangeable with the idea of a created being, that everything God created was a soul (as opposed to "had a soul"), including animals, etc.

I just watched a movie, Dark City, where aliens abduct humans and do research on their minds, looking for their souls. At the end, one of the humans tells the aliens that if they looking for the soul in the mind, they're looking in the wrong place.

1:46 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Paul,

maybe those who believe tha Bible has reliable information or that it's inspired, think that religion trumps science ... scince is only the study of (but not the creation of) what is through ivestigation, experimentation and deduction.

As I read what I wrote, I'm not sure that makes any sense, but I'm trying to say that the fact that the scientific method didn't exist back then doesn't change what could have been discovered through it. That probably doesn't make any sense either :-)

1:52 PM  

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