In Defense of Robert Wright against Jerry Coyne, Ctd

by Patrick Appel

A reader writes:

Manzi's claim is incorrect. Coyne does not claim “that evolution through natural selection demonstrates that there is no divine plan for the universe”. He actually says religious people see our world as part of an unfolding and divinely scripted plan” and “these Faithful… have tweaked the theory of evolution to bring it into line with their needs”. The author says there is plenty of room within the bounds of science to ponder questions of the beginning, the end, and our purpose, and Coyne does not say otherwise. There are not any religions (at least ones that require faith) that operate within the bounds of science, and those that have twisted evolution to fit their doctrine are causing real harm to science and society. This is of course not new, but should be condemned for what it is, propaganda, and intentionally misleading people for the benefit of a corrupt institution is wrong.

Another reader:

I think both Wright and Manzi have a weird tendency to get it exactly wrong when writing about natural selection, which is manifested in the insistence on labeling it as an "Algorithm" (especially with that insidious capital A).  I think the label reflects a considerable bias, since the algorithms we all know and love (in the computer age) are all *written*, and written with a purpose. But there's simply no evidence for a writer in the genetic processes of reproduction, despite the fact that those processes happily result in evolution described by natural selection, and the "purpose" of evolution (i.e., reproductive fitness) is simply a logical consequence of its existence in the first place.  And since religions have long used the majesty of life as a primary argument for a creator, I think we have to concede, by virtue of the logical principle of parsimony, that the complete plausibility of a godless model to account for it (thanks to the concepts introduced by Darwin), along with the lack of any evidence for a god-based model, counts as a significant stroke against god's apologists.

Another reader:

You appear to assert that ultimately, randomness, like other features of nature, could have been built into the programming of nature and that therefore, it is impossible for scientists, in this case, scientists working in the the biological science of evolutionary biology, to reach a consensus on indeterminacy that is empirically testable in a scientific sense.  But the problem with your argument, which you imply, and which maybe you did not intend to imply, is that where science cannot go, religion and philosophy are free to enter.  And that religion and philosophy must be given free reign to step in and assert as true without any corresponding need for evidence various assertions of what is undeniably true, likely true, or should be belived as true; and that whatever these assertions are, whether made by religion, based on faith, a received orthodoxy, tradition, spiritual practice or meditation, or whether made by philosophy, based on argument or moral or other intuition, they should, for some inexplicable or poorly explained reason, receive credence because it is impossible to accumulate testable empirical evidence on such subject matter.  To which I reply:  "The [gentleman] doth protest too much, methinks".

Another reader:

I wonder if you've heard of epicycles. Epicycles were invented by the faithful to account for astronomical observations not in keeping with geocentrism. The inventors "knew" the Earth was the center of the Universe. But more and more observations indicated otherwise. Instead of reevaluating their basic assumption, they invented epicycles to account for inconsistencies.

You're right: there's nothing about evolutionary science that disproves it was God's plan all along for humanity to come into existence through an evolutionary process. But to embrace that notion in the face of Evolution's credence over reevaluation of your initial assumption -- God exists and he willed us into existence -- is just epicycling. 

Another reader:

The "goals" of evolution are extremely local in space and in time. For it to serve an overarching purpose, either God created the universe with the specific intention that evolution would run its course exactly as it did, or God tinkered with the process constantly by adjusting the environment so that selective pressures would coincide with the purpose that He designed. Either way, you have the deity knowing exactly what the final product should be, and achieving it through evolution, not because evolution is a good way to fulfill this purpose (as the genetic algorithm is for improving the output of a chemical plant), but by rigging the system. Thus the whole point of evolution as an optimization process (which is specifically the possibility Manzi raised) is absurd.

Another reader:

The reason evolutionary science has ignored the problems of ultimate origin and ultimate purpose is because the first is a matter of physics and not biology and is furthermore unanswerable, and the second is elusive and ever-changing to the point that it becomes meaningless. An ultimate purpose suggests permanence, after all, and not the actual conditions of the fitness landscape: chaotic, shifting, and never-ending. "The field of philosophical speculation that does not contradict any valid scientific findings is much wider open to Wright than Coyne is willing to accept." If that's the case, then it would have to be larger than even Wright is willing to accept. Has he ever heard of the Flying Spaghetti Monster?

A final reader:

It seems to me that you have missed the point of Coyne's argument, which is a boilerplate, although tacit, application of Occam's Razor.  It goes like this.

1. Evolution explains biology in terms of purely physical phenomena.

2. Explanations involving God posit non-physical phenomena.

3. It is rationally compelling to prefer theories that posit as few fundamental kinds of things as possible. 
Therefore, it is rationally compelling to prefer evolutionary explanations that do not posit God.

Occam's razor is essential to evolution - the removal of purpose-driven biology because it is unnecessary is exactly its point.  If one has a general scientific outlook, one that includes Occam's razor, evolutionary theory without designers or master plans is pretty compelling. One might question the assumption of Occam's razor.  But, if one did, one would have a pretty hard time explaining why they should find evolutionary theory so compelling to begin with.  

To instead drive a teched out version of a cosmological argument involving ultimate beginnings or explanations completely misses the point.  That's another argument entirely that is more usefully discussed independently of evolution. 

If your position is merely that one can logically reconcile belief in God with belief in evolutionary theory then the answer is obviously, "yes".  But to believe that God is involved in evolutionary explanations - at any level - involves serious intellectual tension.