Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Wright stuff

Many years ago I wrote a Globe column debunking astrology. A letter to the editor took issue with my conclusion. The author wrote: "Raymo's argument against astrology is the usual one: astrology can be done away with by simply declaring it irrational. In other words, if we cannot understand why it works, it must not work. The same flawed argument could be used against electromagnetism, particle physics and the force of gravity, with equally senseless results."

It's true. I don't understand in any ultimate sense why electromagnetism, particle physics, or gravity works. No one does. But the point is this: Electromagnetism, particle physics, and gravity do work, in a way that astrology does not. Experiments of the most exquisite sensitivity can be devised to test the former theories, experiments that can be performed by believers and skeptics alike with identical results. Radio communication, nuclear power, and the space program are testaments to the fact that electromagnetism, particle physics, and gravity work. Astrologers can offer nothing but anecdotal and irreproducible evidence for the effectiveness of astrology.

I regret to say that Robert Wright uses something of the same flawed argument in the last chapter of The Evolution of God, in his sincere but ultimately fruitless attempt to salvage some shred of the traditional divine from his own demolition job.

Physicists have only the vaguest idea of what an electron really is, says Wright. A particle? A wave? A quantum quandary? They believe there is somethingthere, but conceive of it only imperfectly.
Yet what exactly is the difference between the logic of their belief in electrons and the logic of a belief in God? They perceive patterns in the physical world -- such as the behavior of electricity -- and posit a source of these patterns and call that source the "electron." A believer in God perceives patterns in the moral world (or, at least, moral patterns in the physical world) and calls the source "God."
Wright then goes on to flesh out the analogy, tying himself in knots as he does so.

Electrons, as we imperfectly conceive them, may or may not exist, but something makes a picture on our TV screens, something is flowing or not flowing through the silicon gates of our computers, and it's something that we (believers and skeptics alike) can repeatedly, reproducibly measure the mass and charge of to an impressive degree of precision. The moral order? Wright himself admits that natural selection might be enough to account for empathy and altruism (he wrote a book on the subject). Miracles? Answered prayers? Zippo evidence that a skeptic can observe, much less reproduce.

To Wright's credit (and this is a good book), he knows his argument is weak. In fact, he is his own best critic. His final sentences are these:
You might say that love and truth are the two primary manifestations of divinity in which we can partake, and that by partaking in them we become truer manifestations of the divine. Then again, you might not say that. The point is just that you wouldn't have to be crazy to say it,