Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Reciprocal altruism.

I have had an e-mail starred in my inbox for 5 months now, intending to write a blog post about it.  It's about time that I actually do it.

The motivation is an article sent by my friend Rob: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/23/opinion/23wright.html

It concerns one of my favorite topics: science and religion, and whether they are reconcilable.  The author seems to think they are.  I, for the most part, think they are not.  At least, science is not compatible with religion as the institutions exist today.


As the article notes, religious apologists often argue that science cannot explain our moral instincts of right and wrong.  Wright points to the notion of "reciprocal altruism" (benefit through mutual cooperation), which may have played a part in the evolution of our moral senses.  I think this is right.

I would only add that this evolution occurred on a cultural scale.  I don't think that we are born with an innate sense of right and wrong, but are instead raised to learn right from wrong.  Through teaching, observation, and rational thought, we learn how this works.

Wright seems to imply that "convergence" on moral instincts due to reciprocal altruism is evidence that objective moral truths exist.  I happen to disagree with this idea, but I do not completely dismiss it (there are also non-theistic motivations for thinking they exist).  I do, however, think that the analogy to stereopsis and perception of three dimensions is a bad one.

The main point of the article is that science and religion are compatible.  Basically, you can use the scientific theory of evolution through natural selection (along with this notion of reciprocal altruism) in conjunction with belief in a creator that set it all in motion.  Note, however, that in order to use this approach, believers must still abandon the Judeo-Christian conception of an omnipotent, omniscient, benevolent God; but they can still keep a creator.  This is why science is not compatible with current theology, though it is possible that religion could evolve into some sort of deism that is compatible with this approach.

Wright argues that in order for peace to be achieved concessions must be made on the atheist side as well.  I will grant him that the idea of a creator is compatible with science, and I feel like most atheists (though not the really stubborn, belligerent ones) would do this as well.  However, that is not the argument that theists are making.  If/when religious discourse abandons irrationality, then real dialogue can begin.  It seems logical to observe complexity and wonder if that is evidence of a designer, or to observe "convergence" and wonder if there are objective truths.  Debating from that point of view would be more worthwhile than using beliefs based on blind acceptance of a book of myths.

1 comment:

  1. I too find the whole intersection of science and religion fascinating. I've never really thought of them as things that should be reconciled though. They are just different. Science is how we understand and explain observable reality (the physical universe). But to be honest, we don't even know if this reality truly exist, because we only observe it through our consciousnesses. It could be that our consciousnesses are the only things that "truly" exist. Woah.... Did I just blow your mind. Say yes.

    I'm not a big fan of traditional religion or literal interpretations of religious text. But I will say that there are some big questions science can't answer. Like why is the universe so finely tuned for the existence of life. Science tends to treat life as a happy side affect of the physical universe. I think this is probably wrong. I think the most logical possibility is that life is somehow a fundamental part of the universe, but that's weird and hard to process. I guess I see religion's role as helping us to process and deal with the unknown and weird aspects of existance.

    Either that or I really should just get some sleep.

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