Sunday, March 20, 2011

Recent Books

I thoroughly enjoyed "The Evolution of God" by Robert Wright. I recommend it to anyone interested in reading about the development of the three Abrahamic religions from the point of view of cultural evolution.

Rather than "reduce" religion to a byproduct of natural selection, the author suggests that its continual adjustment to the facts on the ground, its continual evolution, is a sign of its relevance - that it has historically been an important resource in mankind's gradual but steady trend towards alignment with a real, objective (transcendent?) morality. "Transcendent morality" meaning that there is a universal behavioral trend which gives more fitness to a culture. Anyone familiar with Wright's writing will know that his favorite term is "non-zero sum-ness", meaning that a culture, made up of individuals of course, which finds the most symbiosis, the most "non-zero sum" relationships, between its individual members and with other cultures tends to have greater fitness - a greater tendency towards self-preservation. Wright's idea is that this transcendent moral code MIGHT be evidence of some sort of design - and he is careful to specify design not as a competitor to natural selection, but rather as the source of natural selection. But Wright is no dogmatist on specific conclusions. He simply says that if one is inclined to believe in an underlying purpose to existence, then this moral code that man is continually discovering through cultural evolution (two steps forward, one step back) could be used to support that idea - if one is so inclined.

But it is a great book even if one is not inclined to make such leaps. His stories of the development of these religions are very insightful. While he describes different innovations in religious thought as the product of perceived self-benefit, he is also respectful of the religious impulse which is describes in the words of William James - "the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto." A specific religious innovator (a Josiah, Paul or Mohammed) might be a true believer, not just a self-promoter. But the greater question is not "why did this thinker introduce this idea", but rather "why did this particular idea resonate within the cultural context of the time and become successful?"

Now I am enjoying "Papal Sin" by Garry Wills - a Pulitzer Prize winning historian, a Greek and Latin scholar, a staunch critic of the Catholic church, and a practicing Catholic. One of my favorite authors, even when I disagree a bit. His book "What Paul Meant" completely reintroduced me to the first century apostle. His retranslations of Paul's writing are refreshing and enlightening, stripping common English words from the text because the connotations we bring to the table are so different than those of a first century reader. He replaces "church" with "gathering" (there were no churches back then!). "apostle" becomes "emissary". And so forth. His goal is to recreate the same effect in reading today that the words would have had back then.

But I digress. "Papal Sin" is very enjoyable so far!


  1. Hi, Steven- Thanks for the reviews.

    I wonder how reasonable the linear, progressive view of history is, however. Might it not be more circular in nature, where small cultures are galvanized by some ethic and animating idea, progress for a few centuries, and then die out? Isn't that a common cultural pattern, where success breeds its own pathologies and weaknesses, bringing on almost automatic decline and fall?

    This would indicate that the asymptotic approach to some "designed" end state of high morality, spiritual existence, etc. may be the way we typically feel/hope about things, but it doesn't completely account for the way cultures actually develop. Nor might it have much to do with objective truths or selective advantages. The human cultural system is perhaps a bit too new and complicated to expect much (biological - cosmological) coherence in that respect.

  2. Burk,

    I am agnostic as to whether morality corresponds to an empirically testable, "objective" truth. On the one hand, the source is our ethical intuitions. On the other hand however, it seems unlikely that any culture anywhere in the universe could thrive without some sort of rule like "thou shalt not murder" - whether the law is written or unwritten.

    Any system of knowledge requires some sort of starting axiom, so if we assume that morality is the pursuit of well-being for individuals and culture, then perhaps there is much that is legitimately objective about it. And perhaps there is a linear approach to our discovery of it, just as there is in our learning about the natural world.

    Even if we blow ourselves up tomorrow and lose all our knowledge, that would not change the existence of gravity (assuming the "outside" world is not wholly the product of our minds). So the same would be true with any sort of objective morality. Even if humans at large never successfully adopt it, perhaps we have enough evidence of certain successful trends that we can make some responsible assertions.

    But of course, these days a single outlier (terrorist) can destroy a civilization, so it's tough to weigh overall fitness perhaps. But how is this different than non-cultural natural selection?

    thanks, friend!