The true and the good: Another failed marriage?

April 18, 2007 at 4:36 pm Leave a comment

The other day, I read a Salon interview with E.O. Wilson, the famed Harvard biologist, pioneer of the field of evolutionary psychology, and major intellectual figure in America today. The interview brought surprising insight into truth and its relationship to goodness in the atheist mind.

On the subject of religion, Wilson at one point in the interview claimed that belief in God is the product of evolution: “Religious belief itself,” he said, “is an adaptation that has evolved because we’re hard-wired to form tribalistic religions.”

A<church.jpg moment later, however, Wilson suggested that these beliefs are probably needed, even though they are not true:

Wilson: You have to understand how powerful the religious drive is – the instinct which I consider tribalist but probably necessary – in most societies for continuing day-to-day business.

Interviewer: That’s an interesting perspective. Basically, you’re saying it’s necessary but it’s wrong.

Wilson: Well, you see, 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.

In other words, traditional religious beliefs might be false, but they are still needed because they confer adaptive benefits.

The true and the good: Alienated?

This is not the first time I’ve run into this notion that materialism and religion should exist side by side.

True, some atheist evolutionists (such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the like) take the extreme position that religion ought to be completely expunged from human society. But many others recognize the contributions that religion has made to society, and they view religion as important—even necessary—in providing meaning, morality, and purpose in life.

What struck me in reading this interview, however, is the alienation between the true and the good in Wilson’s views. The fact is, truth and goodness are not allied for those who want to simultaneously hang on to both religion and materialist science.

In other words, what is true—i.e. that the world evolved through random chance without oversight from any deity—is not good (because this understanding fails to provide meaning and purpose). On the flip side, what is good (religious faith) is not true.

The true and the good are divorced from one another. It appears that another great marriage has bit the dust.

Fighting for a non-existent good

This point came home to me even more as a result of Google group discussion in which I participated recently. The subject was morality, and an atheist whom I will call Seth argued that right and wrong, justice and injustice, do not objectively exist.

tiger.jpgSeth acknowledged that unfair events like rape and murder occur in the natural world, but he maintained that these events don’t bear a connotation of being good or evil. It is not until humans come together in community and have to organize themselves to live together successfully as a society that certain actions become “right” and others become “wrong”:

Can we correctly say that there is either rape or murder in the animal kingdom? Not really, I imagine. Nature begat man, man begat society, and society begat morality, all in an extremely plausible progression. Only when a meta-entity like society gives birth to a meta-concept like morality does arbitrary procreation become “promiscuity” or unwilling death become “murder”.

In other words, injustice simply does not exist in the natural world. Seth boldly states as much: “There is no injustice in the natural world – there is only the perpetual cycle of birth, life, and death.”

So, does this mean we shouldn’t work towards a more fair and equal society? Well, no. According to Seth:people-chain.jpg

Yes, we need to keep improving ourselves; yes, we need to keep cultivating civilized societies; and yes, we need to keep promoting ever more peaceful, tolerant, and compassionate mindsets and mechanisms within our world.

Still the fact remains: “Injustice [does not exist] apart from our manufactured standards of social interaction, because such standards simply do not exist in the natural world.”

Reality check

Again, I’m struck by the fundamental divorce between the true and the good: It is not true that justice or injustice exist, but it is nevertheless good that we contradict biology and act with moral responsibility. Further, it is not true that right and wrong exist, but it is still good and necessary for us to employ these concepts to make our world a better place.

If Seth has his way, we’ll pursue a good and fight an injustice that are not actually real. As for Wilson, so for Seth: The good and the true point in opposite directions.

::

In his book The God Who Is There, Francis Schaeffer suggests that one of the requirements of a worldview should be that one be able to live consistently with its implications. I would add to this that one’s worldview ought to actually make sense of the world.

When the true and the good are alienated, however, it seems to me that the world is nothing less than absurd. As such, how does one possibly live consistently with the implications? With which do you be consistent—the true or the good?

Methinks a reality check is in order.

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Thomas Unreliable details suggest reliable truth

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profile.jpgI am working on my M.A. in Religion at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Besides having a big interest in theology, history, ethics, and the deep stuff of life, I am also very fond of Mediterranean food, snow, and the color red.

Email me: jamie.kiley@gmail.com

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