Evolution of God

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Evolution of God

Post  WhiteDigital on Thu Mar 11, 2010 1:37 pm

Robert Wright, known previously for this books and theories on evolutionary psychology and the non-zero sum game of morality (, Moral Animal and Non Zero, respectively) has recently published a new book titled The Evolution of God. He discusses the book and the concept with Krista Tippett on her weekly Speaking of Faith podcast (which is very good).

http://speakingoffaith.publicradio.org/programs/2010/evolution-of-god/

The conversation is very interesting as well as informative. Wright descents from several "Nu Atheists" such as Richard Dawkins on key issues surrounding the question of god, which is surprising considering the only individual cited more often than Dawkins in Moral Animal was Darwin himself (of course, that was a book about evolution, not religion). I won't give away the end and reveal whether or not Wright identifies himself as a "believer" or not, but I will say his system is very well thought out and not any more inline with blind religiosity than Dawkins'. The hour-long conversation took place in front of a live audience.

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Re: Evolution of God

Post  Lausten on Wed Mar 24, 2010 2:50 pm

Thanx for that. I have been looking for a book like that. I have cut back on my SOF podcast because of the low output they use, I can't hear it while I drive. I found everything he said reasonable and well measured, and he did not avoid the difficult questions. I would love to hear more on his perspective of the role of religion in politics. I think his thesis would fit as well today as would to the crusades. They touched on it during the Q & A.

Question: Is religion potentially dangerous?
Wright: “Human life is potentially dangerous and religion is an example, but an argument implicit in the book and sometimes explicit is that religious conflict is not fundamentally about religion.” He has had this argument with Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens. Dawkins for instance says that if it weren’t for religion there would be no Israel Palestine conflict. Wright makes the case that this is wrong historically, that it was started by secular forces, a classic zero-sum game about land that brings out the worst in people.

Quoting Wright again, “Now as you let these things fester and don’t resolve them, they can acquire a religious character, but religion is not the driver of that thing, and I think it’s dangerous to look at world affairs with that kind of emphasis on religion as a prime mover because what it leads you to do is to throw up your hands and say, well its in their scripture, there is no hope, it makes them hate. I think fundamentally, the so-called religious conflicts have their origin in political and economic factors and that is the place to intervene.”
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Evolution of God

Post  Apostecstatic on Thu Apr 01, 2010 1:14 am

I listened to the Wright's book in audiobook format, and it's dense enough that I wished I'd had the book on hand. Most of the book is a history lesson about the origins of religion, and that was fairly good. I don't know how historically accurate some of his sources are, he likes to throw a few of them out and say, "Well, no matter who's right, they all support me somehow," which sounds like a false dilemma.

The real problem I had with his book was his conclusion, and that seems to be that religion is building towards a final form, one that is completely universal without division. Just as previous forms of religion emerged in response to changing and broadening cultural horizons, he views this universal form as an inevitability of our globally connected world and our current religions. I just don't find his reasoning very persuasive. Also, his use of "God" was novel to me; he's very clear that the "God" he describes is a human construct, but he views it as still worthy of reverence, as it's a culmination of our morality and our aspirations.

In the end, I'm glad I "read" the book, it was a new perspective. But it was also very jumbled and bizarre, and the conclusion seems constructed from cherry-picked evidence.

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Re: Evolution of God

Post  WhiteDigital on Thu Apr 01, 2010 11:22 am

Apostecstatic wrote:I listened to the Wright's book in audiobook format, and it's dense enough that I wished I'd had the book on hand. Most of the book is a history lesson about the origins of religion, and that was fairly good. I don't know how historically accurate some of his sources are, he likes to throw a few of them out and say, "Well, no matter who's right, they all support me somehow," which sounds like a false dilemma.

The real problem I had with his book was his conclusion, and that seems to be that religion is building towards a final form, one that is completely universal without division. Just as previous forms of religion emerged in response to changing and broadening cultural horizons, he views this universal form as an inevitability of our globally connected world and our current religions. I just don't find his reasoning very persuasive. Also, his use of "God" was novel to me; he's very clear that the "God" he describes is a human construct, but he views it as still worthy of reverence, as it's a culmination of our morality and our aspirations.

In the end, I'm glad I "read" the book, it was a new perspective. But it was also very jumbled and bizarre, and the conclusion seems constructed from cherry-picked evidence.

I think it's always good to fact check anything that "sounds fishy", especially with sources less reliable than Wright (say, in the media). And while I haven't read the book, I got a similar impression of his view of God, which generally I like. To me, essentially what he's arguing is that, while "God", as most people perceive "him", probably does not exist, that does not mean it's a useless concept. In fact, the concept can be quite useful to the extent that it is used for good. It is a sort of "whatever floats your boat" kind of argument, which I find hard to disagree with, given the elusive nature of "God".

Some might say that "delusion is never a good thing", but I disagree. Because doesn't the final action (doing good) matter more than the intention or reason behind it (believing or not believing in God)? Is Mother Teresa's work less good, or less relevant, because she did it "for God" or with God in mind? Isn't it more important that we just have people doing good, for whatever reason? I think so.

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Re: Evolution of God

Post  Aught3 on Mon Apr 05, 2010 9:59 am

Some might say that "delusion is never a good thing", but I disagree. Because doesn't the final action (doing good) matter more than the intention or reason behind it (believing or not believing in God)? Is Mother Teresa's work less good, or less relevant, because she did it "for God" or with God in mind? Isn't it more important that we just have people doing good, for whatever reason? I think so.
Ironically, a lot of Mother Teresa's work was not actually 'good' in any meaningful sense. She though poverty was good for the soul and did her damn-best to promote it, rather than help prevent it. The only thing that stops people from seeing this is their belief that a god-person must be a good person. This is just one of the ways god-beliefs can be harmful.

I also don't agree that intentions matter much less than the final outcome. After all what would you say if I intended to do evil but the consequence turned out (accidentally) to be good? Presumably you would call me a moral person for taking an action that resulted in a good outcome, but we can see the problem with that kind of thinking. Intentions also have the advantage of being available at the time of action as opposed to outcomes which can only be predicted in advance. Both these points suggest to me that intentions should be at least as important as outcomes, if not more so.

However, I would agree that sometimes false beliefs can be beneficial to the individual. Placebo effect, comfort for the dying, proving will to get through tough situations. I'm just not sure they should be promoted to people who are capable of looking at things 'through a glass darkly'.
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Re: Evolution of God

Post  WhiteDigital on Wed Apr 07, 2010 8:44 pm

Aught3 wrote:

... what would you say if I intended to do evil but the consequence turned out (accidentally) to be good? Presumably you would call me a moral person for taking an action that resulted in a good outcome, but we can see the problem with that kind of thinking. Intentions also have the advantage of being available at the time of action as opposed to outcomes which can only be predicted in advance. Both these points suggest to me that intentions should be at least as important as outcomes, if not more so.

I have a sort of "hierarchy" for this sort of thing, whereby intending to do bad but turning out good is [i]better than[i] intending to do good but turning out bad. I've seen far too many circumstances where destructive behaviors are carried out all in the name of "good intentions". "But I was just trying to help" they always say afterward, as if that makes it all better. It could be argued that numerous atrocities and human rights violations throughout history have been conducted under the banner of "good intentions". To me, the final outcome trumps intention.

Now, this is not a way to prescribe morality to a person, but rather a bigger picture analysis. I would not say a person with bad intentions is moral, irregardless of outcome. However, I would rather live in a world with an "immoral person" who does good by me, even if they never intended to, than a person with grand intentions who, in practice, is a jerk.

Not my most articulate argument, but I think I made my point. I hope I haven't come across as confrontational, I realize this is not a view held by most people, so I appreciate the debate.

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Re: Evolution of God

Post  Aught3 on Thu Apr 08, 2010 1:24 am

So if I'm following you correctly then you are essentially saying that delusions are good for our society because they tend to promote better outcomes than the absence of delusions scratch I can't follow you there. I think that delusions should be opposed because, although you can't predict the outcomes, people engaged with reality are likely to make better decisions and take the good action than people with delusions. Unless you've got a way to predict which delusions will be beneficial and which will be harmful, surely it's better to oppose all in general. Plus, I have a preference for the truth anyway.
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Re: Evolution of God

Post  WhiteDigital on Thu Apr 08, 2010 7:00 pm

I referred to my "hierarchy" earlier, let me lay it out. In order of highest priority:

Good intentions with a positive outcome
Bad intentions with a positive outcome
Good intentions with a negative outcome
Negative intentions with a negative outcome

Of course, the right thing for the right reason is at the top of the list, it's the ideal. But, as they say, "the road to hell is paved with good intentions", meaning in general, outcomes trump intentions. It's not that intentions don't matter at all, or that delusions are good all the time either. I also prefer the "truth", as you do. I prefer that everyone is good all the time with pure motivations, but that's not reality. If someone requires a delusion, such as god or the devil, to motivate them to do good, I say that's fine. It's not the ideal, but it's better then being pure in motivation while being destructive in action.

My main point with this "theory" is that actions have more impact than thoughts or intentions, so they should be given higher credence. Poor behavior should not be excused because of intentions. I agree with your point that outcomes are not predictable, so in practice this becomes more complicated, because all we can do is ensure our intentions are good and "let the chips fall as they may". Outcomes are ultimately left up to chance. So we can't say someone who has good intentions but things always turn out bad for is a "bad person" or visa versa, but I think they're destructive actions do need to be labeled as such and stopped. So often we hear the excuse, "Well she was trying the best she could..." or "He didn't mean to..." and the behavior is aloud to continue as a result. Needless to say, I don't agree with this approach.

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Re: Evolution of God

Post  Aught3 on Thu Apr 08, 2010 8:43 pm

They also say that the ends don't justify the means especially when those means can be shown to be harmful to the person or their society in other ways. You say that you prefer truth but from my perspective you don't. It seems to be a secondary consideration for you. If two outcomes are equivalent then okay, you prefer truth but if a better outcome can be gotten by being untruthful then your preference for truth is secondary to other considerations.

Your comment on the theory placing more emphasis on actions rather than intentions reminded me of something I was going to hit in my last post but left out. I think in this discussion we need to separate action from outcome. Actions are much more closely tied to intentions than to outcomes. If I have an intention to donate to charity but my action is to buy a latte, I'm not certain I ever truly intended to donate the money. When I say 'intention' I'm usually referring to the action taken, with the result of this action (good or bad) being the outcome. Let me say that another way: I take an action intending to produce a certain outcome, if I decide not to take the action then I don't think the intention is particularly important. If this is not the way you are using these words perhaps we don't really disagree all that much.

Thanks for posting your hierarchy if you don't mind I'll use it to make my point in a slightly different way. I agree that positive outcomes are be preferred to negative outcomes so I'll keep the order the same. Incidentally, I don't understand why you would rate good intentions/positive outcome over bad intentions/positive outcome - they both produce the same outcome, right?

Anyway,
1. Good intentions with a positive outcome
2. Bad intentions with a positive outcome
3. Good intentions with a negative outcome
4. Bad intentions with a negative outcome

So under your preference system positive outcomes are to be preferred over all else, this leads you to accepting any kind of intention both good and bad to try and take advantage of situations 1&2. However, since you don't know what the outcome of the intentions will be this will result in a a mixture of all four possible situations. But because good intentions are more likely to lead to positive outcomes and bad intentions are more likely to lead to negative outcomes there is an emphasis on situations 1&4 (with some 2&3 resulting as plans go awry). This system would result in people like Mother Theresa being seen as righteous for taking other people's money and then not trying to alleviate poverty, instead building nunneries in her own name to help promote the 'positive' aspects of suffering.

Under my preference system good intentions are favoured over bad intentions. This results in situations 1&3 being predominant but again since good outcomes are more likely to lead to good intentions number 1 is by far the most common situation. In order to achieve this I have to sacrifice the benefits from situation 2 but I think it's made up for by the decrease in the prevalence of the worst situation namely, bad intentions/negative outcome. As I've alluded to my position is slightly more nuanced, if false beliefs (i.e., bad intentions) can be shown to lead to good outcomes (e.g., placebos) then I will accept them, but this won't increase the prevalence of situation 4, at least not by very much.

So, what do you think of that?
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Re: Evolution of God

Post  WhiteDigital on Sat Apr 10, 2010 11:47 am

I think we mostly agree. I should say that using Mother Theresa was probably a bad example, seeing as I really know nothing about her other than the little bit I've heard people say. It was just a prominent case where atheists would say delusion was at work to produce positive outcomes (which may not have been so positive, I can't speak to that. I was assuming her outcomes/actions were positive).

The hierarchy is as such because I do give value to intention, just not as much as some. And you make an important distinction between action and outcome. After giving it some more consideration, I think this theory really applies more to action and not so much to outcome, because of the unpredictable nature of it. That being said, good actions are favored over all else, yes, but intention does come into play, just with not as much weight as actions.

Anything beyond that and I feel like I'm talking in circles. I'm willing to admit that this philosophy may very well be flawed. Thanks for forcing me to think critically about it!

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Re: Evolution of God

Post  2buckchuck on Wed Sep 15, 2010 12:21 pm

The very same delusions that lead to works that appear to be morally good (helping the poor, etc.) also lead to works of great violence and destruction (crusades, jihads, pogroms, etc.). The bible and the qu'ran are laced with violence and it can only be papered over with apologetics by cherry-picking moderates, attempting to reconcile their irrational faith in a religion that embraces unspeakable violence.

All one has to do is peruse history to see that mass delusions (religion is only one of many) are typically associated with mostly bad stuff. Yes, religions are not unalloyed evil - many good things have been done in the name of various religions. But religion is a tool for demonizing an enemy, as is clearly at work in the Middle East and even during the Cold War (remember "Godless Communism"?). There may be non-religious elements in conflict (e.g., ideology of a non-religious nature), but religion is often employed to convince believers that the enemy is worthy only of being destroyed. God is always on "our" side, no matter which side one is on.
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