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About this episode:
Filmed in front of a live audience in London, Bret Weinstein and Alister McGrath address the relationship between religion, evolution, morality and culture. These two videos include the main conversation and subsequent audience Q&A.
Bret Weinstein is an evolutionary biologist and one of the leading voices in the ‘Intellectual Dark Web’. As a non-believer, he says religion is a product of evolution, but it has been good for humanity. As such it is ‘metaphorically true but literally false’.
Alister McGrath is Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford University. A leading British theologian with a background in biochemistry, he believes Christianity is not merely a ‘useful fiction’ but grounded in evidence and the ultimate truth of God.
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More from this season:
- Episode 1 | Part 1: Religion: Useful fiction or ultimate truth?
- Episode 2: The Universe: Where did it come from and why are we part of it?
- Episode 3: The story of Jesus: Can we trust the historical reliability of the Gospels?
- Episode 4 | Part 1: Is God Dead? A conversation on faith, culture and the modern world
- Episode 4 | Part 2: Is God Dead? A conversation on faith, culture and the modern world
- Episode 5: Did Christianity give us our human values?
- Episode 6: Morality: Can atheism deliver a better world?
Justin Brierley (JB), Alister Mcgrath (AM) & Bret Weinstein (BW)
So there is a lot of ground covered already in the discussion and lots of things to potentially pick up.
Q: I am actually Justin’s father so… (JB: There was some paternal bias, yes, in my choice of the first person) I have two questions: Bret, I listened with great interest to your debate with Dawkins in which you seem to be saying to him that you felt evolutionary science had stopped about 30 years ago and hadn’t made much progress. I wonder if you could just expand on that?
And my other question is for you, Alister; you seem, if I understand you correctly, to accept Bret’s materialistic concept of evolution. My question is, where do you feel that man is different from just an over evolved animal, just another member of the animal kingdom?
JB: Okay, so two questions there. Bret, maybe just expand a little bit first of all on why you said in that discussion with Richard Dawkins that you feel evolutionary theory hasn’t really moved much further since his own book, ‘The Selfish Gene’ in the 1970s and how that ties into what we’ve been talking about tonight?
BW: So in some sense I think this is just strictly an empirical question. If I ask my colleagues what scientific progress has been made on the study of evolution in the period since 1976 what I get back is a long list of empirical studies. And when I say, what is the last theoretical breakthrough on which we all agree? Silence.
So I have the sense that we just simply know that progress has stopped. And when I asked Dawkins why he thought that was his answer tells me that there’s actually something deep down that’s right (36:11?) What he told me is that he thought that more or less his generation had gotten all of the big stuff right and so that one would expect a kind of cessation of progress. And what I know from my own work is that that’s not true as there are a great many questions that we can’t yet answer. Big questions like about the nature of sexual selection, what we call ‘lekking’, about speciation. These big questions have simply moved into another phase where we’ve stopped asking them and embarrassing ourselves because we can’t answer the question. Why, for example, aren’t there more species more densely packed as one moves from the poles to the equator? That’s a question we should be able to answer. It’s repeated on every continent, in every ocean, at every depth. So why can’t we answer it? Because we’ve lost the thread of the conversation, not because we answered all the questions.
And so, in some sense, progress seems to have stopped. Why it’s stopped we can argue about but that we should do something to jump start it I think is almost beyond question.
JB: Okay. And the second question was, to what extent does your view mean that humanity is not simply another over-evolved animal because you go along with a great deal obviously of what Bret views as the evolutionary history of the earth?
AM: Yes, and as I made very clear it’s part of the picture. But I think there is more to it than that. I wouldn’t describe myself as a materialist or even a naturalist, I think I’d want to qualify both of those. But I think what you have to realise is that in this fascinating conversation we cannot cover everything. And certainly if I didn’t register disagreement with Bret on that maybe it’s because that didn’t really emerge as a conversation item. I think perhaps there are others which were higher up the food chain than that one.
JB: In a sense, though, I assume you obviously do have a belief that within humanity there’s something more than just the evolutionary process going on?
AM: I would say that. Bret made a very interesting comment; he used the word, ‘supernatural’. Many of you will know this but I am interested in intellectual history. The word ‘supernatural’ was first used in the year 1170. So if it wasn’t used before then, what does that say about the description we are using, for example, to refer to belief in God? Why suddenly does this become supernatural when it wasn’t before then? So I want to say, we need… we almost need a new vocabulary to get this right. I don’t think a natural verses supernatural does it very well.
What I would say is there seems to be me there is something about human nature which makes it perceptive to or attentive to something that is so easily missed. And if you want me to give you a lecture on this, I talk about the idea of the image of God but maybe that’s for another occasion.
BW: Can I try a one-word answer to your question about what makes human beings special and very different from every other animal? Language. That’s it. Everything follows from that. The big brain, everything else. It follows from what we can convey with language that no other animal can.
JB: Okay, thank you for the question.
Q: Great discussion and really respectful of each other’s views which is great to hear. And, actually, a lot of common ground. I think you well laid out your understanding of how knowledge comes about and the complexity of it and how it moves forward.
And yet, a question to both of you; you both seem to have reached both quite simple and – perhaps more important – completed conclusions. Bret’s, as I understand it, there is no deity. And Alister’s, that the ultimate revelation of reality – and I stress the ultimate bit – was completed in first century Palestine. And in some ways the complexity of what you laid out and your simple conclusions seem to be a bit at odds with each other and I wonder if you can comment on that?
JB: Okay. So complex ways of getting to simple solutions I think. Ultimately your truth rests in Jesus in some sense, Alister. Bret, there is this… bring us to this point of recognising what we need to do to get humanity through this next stage if you like. And is the question essentially, well, what is the question kind of behind it? Is it too simple? (Q: Can’t hear the response).
Okay, so have we arrived at our conclusions prematurely perhaps given the fact that we are obviously limited there is still so much we don’t know about the universe, about the nature or reality. Do you want to start this one off?
BW: Sure. I think the answer lies in the way complexity actually comes to exist and the way emergence comes to exist. So, if you think about what Darwin went through in order to figure out the theory of natural selection, it was a very long trajectory and if you look at his notes and his writings it’s a very elaborate argument that we can now sum up in a couple of sentences. Are those sentences perfectly accurate? They are accurate. They are not precise. But they are good enough to make progress up to some level at which point their lack of precision requires some new nuance that we don’t have.
So what I think you are hearing from me at least is those very simple ideas that I am expressing, I’m not of the belief that they are precise. I am of the belief that they are good enough for us to do the work that we have to do. And at the point that they peter out I don’t want us to forget that there was a lack of precision that then has to be picked up. But for the moment I think they are good enough and the questions are right in front of us on the basis of what we do understand pretty well.
JB: And in that sense when you look at the evolutionary paradigm yourself, Bret, you don’t think it’s going to be overthrown by anything it’s just going to be tweaked, moderated, complemented by other things? But what we’ve got, at its core, that’s going to be with us forever?
BW: Not the 1976 version. So you have to be more serious about Dawkin’s meme idea than Dawkins is. Once you realise what the implications are of memetic evolution and more importantly that memetic evolution has a very specific relationship to genetic evolution. Once you see that you begin to be able to understand how human beings function. Until you see it, or if you are vague about it, or agnostic about that relationship, it doesn’t work. But once you see it suddenly human beings become attractable evolutionary phenomenon and you see the rest of this puzzle with a great deal of clarity.
So I think that’s where we are is that we need that next little update on Dawkin’s theory of memes and from there we have a very solid grounding to deal with human beings. And then at some point it will not be good enough and we’ll have to add to it.
JB: I’d just be interested in your response to that idea that we need to adjust and take the focus off things…
AM: I think this is a very interesting question. If you’ve read someone like Thomas Kuhn’s, ‘Structure of Scientific Revolutions’, you have this feeling that there comes a point where a science reaches a point where either it’s going to get it right or it realises this isn’t going to work. And the question is, when does the scientific community say, we need to do some rethinking?
I’m not in any way qualified to comment on this. But, for me, a science that hasn’t progressed much in the last forty years, it makes me wonder is there a better paradigm waiting to be discovered? But you’re thinking that anyway so you don’t need me to tell you that.
BW: The problem of us becoming conservative within a science and not making further progress is a dire problem and is exactly where we are and so…
JB: Without wishing anything on anyone, are we waiting for an old guard as it were to pass away before a new paradigm is going to emerge?
BW: I’m embarrassed to say I can’t remember exactly who it was, it may have been Bohr who said, ‘science progresses funeral by funeral’. That’s where we are. And I’m not wishing anybody dead but I am wishing that we could move past some of the ideas that got us through the 70s and jump start the process of asking deep questions again.
JB: Okay, thank you very much.
AM: I haven’t answered this gentlemen’s question.
Basically, yes. I would say Jesus is great, wonderful. But there is this ongoing process of reflecting on who he is, why he matters so much, and how he impacts on us today. In other words, I can’t just reach into the past and say, look, in 1600 said this, that does it. It’s always an ongoing process of reflection. How does this challenge me, resource me, motivate me today with these issues? If you like it is a constant process of reflection on scripture and asking, how do I respond to these issues? So, yes, that’s where the focus is but the application is always in terms of trying to engage the present in light of this rich resource we have.
JB: Thank you, a really helpful question actually.
Q: Alister, at the beginning of your talk you mentioned that the history of philosophy of science elucidates the fact that scientific theories often change over time and this might give us reason to not want to hinge our worldview on the scientific method.
Considering that and the fact that your worldview hinges of Christianity my question is, are you not troubled with a God who is more concerned about mixed fabrics and consumption of shellfish than he is about humans owning other humans? Now I’m not particularly interested in the answer Jesus brought in the New Testament and this supersedes the Old because, to my understanding, Christians believe in objective morality. And if God changes his mind why should I have any confidence that what he’s told me that is true today won’t change in the near future?
AM: Christians read the Old Testament, as you will know, in the light of the idea that there is a new dispensation. And it’s not a question of God changing his mind. A writer like Irenaeus, for example, in the second century would say that what we see in the Old Testament is a morality, a cultic way of behaving which is appropriate to that dispensation. But the reason Irenaeus is so clear we have to move on is that we are in a New Testament, a New Covenant and that means that there are a new set of rules. And although, of course, he carries over the ten commandments he is very clear the Old Testament cultic laws don’t apply anymore.
So that would be absolutely characteristic of Christianity; that, in effect, we do not regard, for example, dietary laws or food regulations as being of any significance at all and indeed would see that is being validated by what Jesus himself said. So in terms of my personal dietary habits, you know, all foods are declared clean so I can eat what I like. But I then exercise additional judgements on what I personally think are appropriate given, for example, various ecological, environmental and economic issues which seem to me to be very important. So that’s how I’d respond to that particular point.
JB: Did you want to add anything, Bret?
BW: Well I would say, I think the dietary laws are a perfect example of why or how it is that we know that we need to update. Because to the extent that these are good enough to protect you from something at some point in the distant past, we also know that we have hazards now that we are incapable of protecting ourselves from. So, for example, pesticide residue on food should be of primary concern to the extent there is a new set of kosher laws. They would involve how we treat food so that we don’t end up ingesting these dangerous compounds for which we are not evolutionary prepared.
And the absence of that wisdom and the absence of a mechanism to introduce that wisdom tells me that we are in a phase where unfortunately we’re going to have to navigate this outside of the structures that would once have protected us from dangerous foods.
JB: But would you say, Alister, that your faith still has something to say to those very modern incarnations of dietary issues and that sort of thing?
AM: You read someone like Mary Douglas, I mean… (? 49:38) there’s a lot of sense in this. It’s just that the element of obligation has being removed. It’s now something which I may do or I may not do it. In effect, the responsibility has been shifted to me. But there is this idea that you moved away from these particular regulations are seen as specific to a particular period in cultic history and we are now in a different period.
But, nevertheless, that does not mean that we just eat what we want. There are these ethical decisions we have to make. So, if you like, there is nothing being ruled out but you and I have to make additional decisions about what we actually do.
JB: Okay. Let’s have some more questions.
Q: A question for you, Bret. I wondered what the adaptive benefits of being a follower of Jesus was in first century Roman ruled Jerusalem?
JB: That’s a great question and well put, I think.
So, given that in its time Christianity was, in a sense, a minority, a very strange religion in that culture for which people got persecuted and killed, what were the evolutionary benefits of becoming a Christian?
BW: This is a really good question. Obviously it was a long shot bet that worked out. And the question is, how many… well, if you want to know what these things look like I would recommend a book called, ‘The Kingdom of Mathias’, about a contemporary and de facto competitor of Joseph Smiths at the point when Mormonism was founded. This guy never had more than 30 followers and his sect died out completely. But in some sense if you had been there for these two guys jousting over acquiring followers you wouldn’t necessarily have known who to bet on.
So the problem for us is that we have the story of the remarkable success. The ideas that Jesus apparently was spreading have caught fire, they’ve taken over a large part of the globe and so looking backwards we know that that one worked out and we think how could it possibly have? But what you don’t have, due to what we would call survivor bias, is all the stories of things that looked equally promising that left no imprint that we can detect from this place in history. So, anyway, beware survivor bias, it is a very powerful force.
JB: So, to toss it to you, Alister, what do you think of this idea that Christianity survived because it was the one that got lucky and caught on?
AM: Well I think the early Christians thought, this is right. We have to do this. This is something that we feel morally impelled to do. And the survival rates weren’t very encouraging. And I think that we have to respect that. That actually it is a very important reminder that while I’ve no doubt that one factor that might encourage somebody to adopt a particular world view is the social benefits it brings, it’s actually quite difficult to identify social benefits for early Christianity apart from the sense of solidarity they felt with themselves and, as you will know, the sense of solidarity they felt with the suffering Christ.
If you go into the catacombs what you will see is one of the dominant images is of Christ as the Good Shepherd who is carrying these lambs. In other words, this is someone who is with you while you suffer. So I think that’s a very important question to help us refocus on a very important discussion.
JB: Thank you very much.
Q: Bret, my question is for you. How important do you think that specifically belief in God/gods/deity is to the usefulness of religio?. So, if you took God out of the picture, a belief in a deity, if it was just the principles, morals and values that have been passed down, would we have benefitted just as much?
JB: So what part does the deity part, the belief in God play as opposed to just the right moral framework and rules and so on?
Q: Yes, have we benefitted in spite of the belief in God? So, going forward, can we come up with a framework that doesn’t involve a deity of some kind? Will that be just as effective?
BW: A very insightful question.
So the problem is that the deity – you’re going to have to accept my terminology here which is going to be sacrilegious and I apologise for that – but the deity is a hack, right? It hacks a structure in a way that functions. So if one – let’s just take a trivial example, or a semi-trivial example – do you take the money out of the cash register if you’re pretty sure nobody is going to see you do it but you’re not entitled to it? Right? One could say, well, if there’s a 1 in 100 chance of my getting caught and the amount of money is sufficient in the cash register to change my state in the world for the next week maybe it’s worth it, right?
Well, if you make that decision each and every time the equivalent of the cash register is left open to you then you will eventually run foul of the odds. Somebody will catch you and you will experience a spectacular catastrophe for your reputation which will cost you way more than you ever got out of any open cash register. So that’s a bit of statistics that you need to understand and you need to understand what economists would call, ‘expected return’. So the expected return is very low on the cash register because of the spectacular cost of the one time you get caught in however many instances.
So how do you convey that efficiently so that people get the statistical lesson without having to take the statistics class? Well, you say, you can’t get away with taking it out of the cash register because there is somebody who cares and he is watching you and as you take it he sees it and boy is that going to come back to haunt you. So that metaphor correctly hacks your model for whether this is a good idea in a way that is actually in your interests. Now, can you, if you are aware – and again, this is my viewpoint – if you aware that there is nobody up there actually watching, write a code that is equally effective at getting people not to behave in this way, that’s going to be tough. On the other hand, I’m not sure we have a choice. I think we have to figure out how to pass on this kind of insight in a way that does not depend on unfalsifiable belief structures.
JB: I’m going to toss it to Alister as well in a moment but the question that occurred to me on hearing that which is a fascinating way of putting it, Bret; is what you’re then saying is that the reason we develop the belief that it’s wrong to take money from someone else in that way is because it’s ultimately not in our best interests in terms of our evolutionary future rather than it’s actually wrong to do that stuff?
BW: So those two things converge, right? So there is an absolute wrong about it and what one wants is for us to take on the responsibility for not doing it because it is wrong. But how does it become wrong? How do we learn that it is wrong? These things are induced in us through a mechanism. In Catholicism, the fact that you do wrong and that wrong counts against you in a way that you can relieve yourself of the debt but you have to confess it to somebody who is then in a position to give guidance to you and others, that, you know, again, it’s a hack. It correctly teaches you that this is wrong through some mechanism that has to be instantiated in the real world and it can be done through metaphor. It must be done now through insight and enlightenment and that’s not going to be easy.
JB: What’s your take on this idea that God is a sort of a hack to get us to the right answer but one that’s a useful fiction in that sense?
AM: I think I would say God is creator and that moves us in a very different direction. I think there are two things I’d want to say: one is that I think that one of the significant things about believing in a righteous God is this deep sense that when society goes very, very badly wrong there is something against which we are being judged. And if you look at, for example, Germany during the late 1930s you see a resurgence of the kind of approach you and I would probably call ‘natural law’. In other words, the law is being rigged to, in effect, do all these things. There has to be somebody above this whose able to say, this is not right.
And so there’s a very deep, I think, sense that we need something which is able to say to us, yes, we created these laws but actually they are flawed. But I think the more positive point I’d want to make is this; I think that there’s a lot of reason to think that we as human beings are trying to see how we fit in to a bigger picture – you might think of Crystal Park and others, Chicago, doing work on this – but what is interesting is this; if you articulate that in terms of God then, in effect, you are fitting into a bigger picture which actually gives you a sense of who you are, what the whole point of things is.
And actually if you’ve read Salman Rushdie’s Granta lecture at Cambridge called, ‘Is Nothing Sacred?’ – it’s very short – now, if you read that, he is not expressing total commitment to belief in God but he figures out that there is something… it’s saying two things: number one, that God is the repository for our sense of amazement and wonder which makes us realise that there’s something bigger and we are part of it. And then secondly and really importantly, he says that there’s something about human nature which means that a purely – he uses the word ‘secular’ – a purely secular worldview actually is not going to satisfy because there is something about us that is looking for something deeper. So I think that’s where I want to begin to answer the question but as you can see there is a lot more that needs to be said.
JB: Okay. Thank you very much for the question.
Q: Obviously as a humanist I find myself agreeing a lot with what Bret said. And, to me, the other thing that comes over from you is, in fact, this vast area of common ground in terms of shared values.
But I suppose my question really is to Alister which is about this issue of scripture. The difficulty I have with scripture is that it privileges the writings of thinkers 2000 years ago over the writings and thoughts of thinkers living today or in any time between now and then.
And the effect of that seems to be too often that what people feel obliged to do is to find ways past the mistakes. It seems – and I would imagine from what you’ve said you agree with this – that LGBT people should be treated with respect and equality and so on but the scripture doesn’t say that, it says that they are great sinners. So people then have to read the scripture and put a lot of energy into finding out a way past it.
So rather than a repository of wisdom, it seems from the outside as though it’s a repository of problems when there may be other sources of information, other writings, which are more helpful. So could you say in what way the scriptures actually benefit the wider conversation and get past these problematic areas?
AM: I think that’s a good question to try and answer. I think that every text does reflect its cultural environment to some extent and that effects basically the questions it raises and also, I suppose, partly the answers that were given. I mean, Richard Dawkins, ‘God Delusion’, it’s only, what, now 10, 15 years old but already it’s very much showing its age and its rather banal platitudes at the back really have not stood the test of time well.
So when we go back to scripture what I think we see there is this; this is, in effect, about how God revealed himself in this way at this time and which Christians see as being, in effect, (? 1.03:20) or normative or having some sort of authority for how we think about these things now. And there’s always this question; we read this text, how do we, in effect, bridge the gap between the text and where we are now? And, obviously, it is a problematic process in some ways as you’ve suggested. And the question really is; how do we, in effect, determine some basic principles, try and apply them in new situations? Very often situations that are changing very rapidly indeed.
And that’s why what I would want to say – you ask what other texts are there? For Christians there would always be this question of there being Christian writers – I mentioned C S Lewis, we can give a long list throughout Christian history – who are constantly saying, here is the Bible, here is where we are now, let’s try and ensure we are articulating this is a way that connects up with where we are today. And that seems to me to be the beginnings of an answer to your question. And, obviously, we are, anyone who writes a text – I’m not sure how Richard Dawkin’s, ‘God Delusion’ will be received in 100 years’ time because things are going to have changed even further – but I think it does give you this long tradition of wrestling with texts which actually enables you to bring them to bear on new translations, new situations.
Let me give an example; it is certainly true that Christian theologians take the Bible very, very seriously, but take John Calvin in Geneva during the 16th century. Reading the Old Testament which forbids usury as you will know and saying, well look, I’m sorry that really belonged to an early period in history. We are now 16th century Geneva and we can see what the problem of usury was and if we fix the rate of interest that actually addresses the concern that’s laid behind biblical text. So the methodology used by Calvin there is to say, I see what the underlying principle was therefore to maintain that I can actually apply it in a different way in this context.
So I think it’s very important to keep asking these questions and I think it’s very important to do that. But we also need to bear in mind that actually human moral conventions change massively over time and there’s always going to be this question of how we engage with a rapidly changing situation. And Bret has made the point – which I think is relevant to all of us – which is that it takes time to reflect on these developments and work out how best to respond to them. And very often the lag between reflection and where we are is actually moving so quickly that sometimes it’s difficult to actually quite keep catching up.
JB: This obviously keys in what you’ve been talking about, we need to update the old texts that can’t provide the wisdom we need now for our current situation. But, having said that, the Bible has been used and continues to inform people over a 2,000-year period.
I suppose one of my questions to you, Bret, is; is there a little bit of hubris in claiming that now is the time we won’t need it any longer? When we look 100 years in the future, even 1,000 years in the future, I suppose I’m wondering, well, maybe the Bible will still be there even if lots of other things have changed around it?
BW: So I hope people will hear in what I’m saying that I don’t think the path forward is clear. I think it’s very frightening. I think we’re damned if we do, and damned if we don’t. The reason to prioritise a 2,000-year-old text is that it’s lasted 2,000 years which tells us there’s something important in it. The reason to credit it less now than ever is that the rate of change is now changing at a rate that is unprecedented, right? That is frightening.
I would say, for all of the things that we see in human culture, there is an analogue in the genes that we can learn from; genes are not all the same in terms of how quickly they change. Some of our genes are placed in a location in the genome that causes them to evolve very slowly. Things on which much depends. Other things in the genome are placed in such a way that they evolve at an extremely rapid pace. What I would say is, that ability to shift things in the cultural context I would – you’ll have to accept a strange definition here – but I would say ‘sacred’ are things that we have placed such that they are very slow to change. That we are very reluctant to interfere with them. I would call ‘shamanistic’ the alternative.
So what we need to do is move towards the shamanistic where the mutation rate on the cultural traits that we are experimenting with goes up, not because that is a safe idea, it isn’t, but because staying as we are is absolutely going to be fatal. We are simply playing with tools that are too powerful with a population that’s far too big and in a global system that is far too networked for us to continue to gamble the way we are gambling. Which means we have to endure the risk of a high culture of mutation rate in order to have a chance of obtaining the kind of wisdom that might get us through the next 200 years.
JB: And are you hopeful or pessimistic that we will achieve this, what sounds like almost a miracle the way you are putting it?
BW: I believe there is still time but I believe we will probably blow it.
JB: What’s your view, Alister?
AM: I think one of the great privileges of living at a particular moment in time is you look back and they say, look, there’s how they got it wrong. And, of course, the difficulty is that someone might be looking back at us and saying, that’s what they got wrong. And what I find so frightening and difficult is that quite often it’s very difficult to know what the future judgement is going to be because we are in the midst of the situation.
And, I mean, my military friends use the phrase, ‘the fog of war’, and what they mean is there is simply so much information, some that’s confused, it’s very hard, actually, to get it right. I just feel, you know… well, overwhelmed, would that be a good word? That actually it is a very complex situation and…
JB: Do you feel like religion, Christianity specifically, is going to have a place in answering that huge question ultimately? I mean, for Bret, obviously, it needs to make way for something radically different. For you, I assume, the person of Jesus still stands at the centre of…
AM: I mean, you know, you are dealing with a God who… well, cares about the lilies of the field, the sparrows that fall, this world as a whole, us. So, in effect, I mean, the whole point of Christ’s ethic is that we matter to God and this creation matters to God. And we have responsibility for this creation. And that is a frightening thought, although I hope it energises rather than overwhelms us.
JB: Thank you very much.
Q: This question is for Bret. I’m interested in what your perspective is on free will and moral responsibility?
JB: Okay. So what is your perspective on free will and moral responsibility?
BW: I’m in favour of both.
JB: It’s a huge area but there are a number of people, Sam Harris who you’ve obviously dialogued with, don’t believe there is free will and that does have implications for whether we can even speak of moral blame or praiseworthiness to begin with. What’s your take?
BW: Well I should say it’s a conversation I’m itching to have with Sam. I think there’s a lot to be said.
I’m pretty sure that if evolution is a fact – and I certainly believe that it is – that it proves that there is at least the basis for free will to exist. And I also think we all can demonstrate this in our lives. We can run relatively trivial experiments that demonstrate we must have free will. And that when somebody like Sam says that we don’t, he’s really talking about something else. It’s a mis-definition of free will.
So I do believe that it exists. And then Sam and I would agree that we have an absolute obligation to pay very close attention to a moral decency and that we have to be vigilant about it. Now, what decency is made up of is something that we have to discuss. We have serious problems with an economic system that rewards rent seeking and externalising harm onto others and it results in us being, in effect, ruled by people who have become powerful through at least ignoring the destruction that they are doing. So that’s a question for us to morally confront together. I don’t think we’re doing a good job of it. But I do think it’s among the most important things that we can do and the fact of our free will comes with a very healthy dose of responsibility that it places on our shoulders.
JB: Anything to add to that, Alister?
AM: No, let’s take another question.
Q: My question is for Bret. I was wondering what’s your main reason for believing that religion is fiction? What are your main points?
JB: So the main point for why religion is essentially a fiction? Okay, so, again, it’s kind of encapsulating a lot of what we’ve covered already but is it simply that you see the evolutionary framework as being fully explanatory for why religion exists?
And, I suppose, my question that I’d add to that one is, could anything conceivably change your mind on that, that actually there is an actual reality, an ultimate truth in the God question or even in…?
BW: Oh sure. And I think every scientist is morally obligated to carry a list of things that would tell them they were wrong if they saw it. So I do maintain such a list. One thing, for example, if creatures stepped off the spaceship and were recognisably human, spoke an earth language. Were we to find biblical text encoded into a genome somewhere where there was no way somebody could have introduced it as a prank. Those kind of things would tell me I was wrong and I would be… actually, I would be thrilled to accept that I was wrong because that would mean that the situation might not be as dire as I think it is.
So there’s that. But I’m not claiming that religion is a fiction. And I think this is part of the problem. This is problem I have with the New Atheists is that by caricaturing religion as a fiction they prevent us from having the dialogue we have to have about what it’s strengths are likely to be and what it’s weaknesses are. And because I know that that conversation is not going to be an easy one I would like us to get there quickly, I would like us to get there with generosity in our hearts so that we can get to the other side of it and get to work.
JB: I’d just be interested in what you think of some of those examples Bret gave which might persuade him that there’s an objective truth in the God claim, Alister?
AM: I think, for me, I like the quote from Einstein, “the eternal mystery of the world is its explicability”. These are meta questions, they are really big questions about why our world works in certain ways, why we ask certain questions. And, actually, for me, the reason why I believe in God is not so much in the finer details, it’s the fact that I can stand back and there is a bigger picture which helps me to explain why we can explain. And that’s what…
JB: But obviously for Bret that big picture is the evolutionary paradigm. Why, for you, is that not satisfactory as a big picture?
AM: For me, that is, if I can put it like that, is a picture. One of Eugene Wigner’s very famous essays, ‘The unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics’, and he says, look, why does mathematics work so well here, here, here, here? There is no reason why it should. There has to be some bigger picture that explains that mystery. And I think that’s something that’s helpful. But I mean, you know, I’m very, very clear; we have, if you like, pictures or narratives that help us understand this aspect of life or that aspect of life, they are all to be welcomed. Sociologists, like Christian Smith was saying, we need multiple narratives to make sense of our world and evolutionary narrative helps us I’m sure in many ways but we need other narratives for other purposes. And so, for me, the question is, how do we weave these narratives together? And that, to me, is a very important question to explore.
BW: I agree with you that we have to weave these narratives together. And, in fact, the evolutionary explanation is… you could attempt to explain everything in terms of particle interactions, right? It’s all made of particles, they interact by rules we sort of understand. We could just come at it that way. It’s going to be a long time before you figure out how a brain thinks a thought by coming at it as particles though. You’ve got to step up to a higher level of emergence before you can make any progress.
So we do have to integrate it. But there is a principle that I think we have to adhere to and this one is going to be a problem especially between religions and materialist worldviews and between religions themselves which is all true stories must reconcile. Everything exists together in the universe. If you have two stories that don’t reconcile there is something wrong with at least one of them. So I’m up for seeing the narratives reconcile then leaning on this one because it’s more helpful than some other one but if they don’t reconcile in the end that’s a problem.
AM: And you’re right. But let me give you an example which I think complexifies this; we’ve just been admiring George Stephenson – well, he’s up there – and, you know, this is back in the Victorian age. If we’d asked George Stephenson, when did the universe begin? And being a gentleman scientist he would have said, well, it’s always been. Because that’s the scientific consensus of our day. You see, you and I don’t think that anymore and so the point you make is a good one – narratives may not reconcile. But what happens if the narrative that we have is historically conditioned and a later generation realises it’s wrong? It’s one of these awkward questions which I think… I mean, it doesn’t say we give this up it just says we’ve got to really be very alert to provisionality in some of these narratives.
BW: So, somehow I call it, ‘the agnostic box’. There are certain things that you have to place in the agnostic box so that you can go backwards. If you over instantiate your belief such that you believe that it is a fact and is therefore the equivalent of sacred, then you become condemned to whatever errors in your model existed. So you have to be able to go backwards in case you’ve got it wrong.
JB: It’s been a fantastic conversation. Can we give a round of applause…?