Monday, February 13, 2006

E.O. Wilson at (No) Meaning-of-Life TV

I highly recommend a recent feature at entitled thinkers on camera, where you can watch a series of interviews with prominent scientists, theologians, and philosophers (including a favorite of mine, J.C. Polkinghorne). These interviews address the "big questions of life" - the nature of God, consciousness, free will, evolution, religion, and reason - and they always leave me with plenty to chew on.

Today's feature interview is with E.O. Wilson, the renowned Harvard zoologist. He's a charming man and a brilliant scientist, but he advocates a form of scientific reductionism that I find incredibly wrong-headed and annoying. At one point in the interview, Wilson makes it clear that, from his point of view, science and religion are simply incompatible:
"I'm not going to be one of those scientists, you know, waffling, saying that 'science has its role and religion has its role, science has its own truth and religion has its own truth'... I don't believe that for a minute."

So much for the legendary open-mindedness of scientists. Later in the interview, when the subject turns to free will, Wilson grows impatient with the topic, saying that:

"[The free will debate] is an insoluble dilemma created by semantics and fuzzy thinking, you know, fuzzy subjective and metaphorical thinking... There are just certain problems that are not valid. They are so subject to sloppy thinking and the unknowns of the world, that they're just not worth thinking about."

In other words, if a problem cannot be addressed with objective science, it's simply not worth discussing, as science represents the beginning and end of our knowledge of reality. Philosophy and theology may make for interesting conversation on a Sunday afternoon, but it's all mere speculation compared to science. Presumably, Wilson thinks that the existence of God is another such "invalid" and "insoluble dilemma", which is best ignored because science cannot render a decisive verdict. When pushed on the matter, he concedes that a bare-bones deism is possible, but he goes on to say that:

"I believe that the evidence shows, now conclusively, that it's false reasoning to believe in a biological God; meaning, a God that oversaw and directed the evolution of life... Parsimony demands that we go with the assumption that life can originate on its own, because I think we'll do it in the lab before too long... and show the conditions in which this could occur autonomously."

Forgive me, Dr. Wilson, but when (and if) a team of highly-educated scientists "create" life in a laboratory setting, this will hardly be the result of an autonomous process, but will instead arise from a contrived experiment designed by intelligent beings. The fact that humans can "play god" does not eliminate the existence of the real God. Moreover, science is in no position to discredit the "biological God." Of course, science must assume that life originated on its own - it can do no other - but it's fundamentally wrong to suppose that science is capable of explaining the whole of reality with its methods. Yes, evolutionary biology has demonstrated that God is not necessary for natural selection to occur, but that's not the same as saying that science has eliminated the possibility of a biological God. Thankfully, this point is nicely made by others in the Slate series, such as Polkinghorne, John Haught, and Freeman Dyson.

Despite these complaints, I really enjoyed listening to Wilson. He deserves to be taken seriously, and he's a valuable sparring partner for those who like to contemplate theology. I'll have more to say about this later.

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