Chris Wood
Wednesday October 12th, 2011

Evolution and Religion

I post this now, although I wrote it originally as a comment.
On 20.07.11, about 150 of us were privileged to get free food and drinks at Interface, and to hear a talk by Prof. Gerhard Haszprunar, a nice “practising Catholic” Austrian biologist, entitled “An attempt to reconcile Evolution and Creation”. His name is Hungarianised German, and he has a very good job, (C4), in Munich. His motivation seemed to be a wish to share his love of science and of his religion. I think he would understand this subject better if he studied Dawkins’ books more. But perhaps he gave this impression because he did not want to demand too much of his audience. He did not claim to be a believing catholic, and he later quoted somebody who said that one cannot be Catholic and clever and honest)! He looks a little older than the picture in IF-blog, and speaks with energy, wit and charm.


He started with an introduction to evolution and modern physics, stating that things come about through a mixture of some determinacy and some (quantum) randomness. This is the orthodox view, but there is still considerable debate whether randomness can be eliminated from the theory by giving up some normal scientific belief, (see http://arxiv.org/abs/1104.1963, or http://physicsworld.com/cws/article/news/27640, or http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/qt-epr).
He explained how complexity can arise in this way, and stated that what arises need not be meaningless. He did not say what he means by “meaning”. In http://if-blog.de/en/cw/a-sequel-to-ethics-beyond-humanism/#more-3423, I wrote “any writing has meaning if somebody can read it and partly understand”. Some people get into difficulties through confused thinking about the “meaning of life”, and confusing “meaning” with “purpose”.
Evolution is more or less common knowledge among Europeans, but a majority of Americans and Turks reject it!

He then described three (?) levels of anti-evolution creationism, rife in USA, and (rightly) quickly dismissed them.

Prof. Haszprunar went on to describe three (!) creation theories in the Bible. (I remember all three from my childhood, but had never wondered at their apparent incompatibility).
• Genesis 1 “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth………:” written in Babylon about 400 BC. It took 7 days, including the weekend, (but originally 9 days).
• Genesis 2 “These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth…. “, written 500 years earlier, more local and down-to-earth.
• John “In the beginning was the Word….” written in Greek some 500 years later, very philosophical.

Then he described his own (heretical) theory, that God set things up for the big bang, and then left things to run their course, without His interference. After this, things got difficult for him.
• He considered religions other than Christianity to be wrong, particularly if not monotheistic. But he conceded that people have the right to decide for themselves. He partly justified monotheism by reference to the three forces that hold atoms together and that seem to have developed from one original force. The fourth force, gravity, presents problems, but he hopes that physicists will eventually fit this into the scheme. (I commented that perhaps instead he should have two Gods).
Incidentally, he did not mention quarks. Perhaps they need a force to hold a proton or neutron together, so that makes three original forces and we get confirmation of the Holy Trinity! Did he not understand the sarcasm in my comment, or did he just ignore it? Could he really have been serious about this nonsense?
• He considered free-will to arise from the random element in quantum theory. But as I have written, few people would want to base their view of their free-will on random aspects of their behaviour!
(See http://if-blog.de/en/cw/ethik-nach-dem-humanismus/#more-215).
This is also a problem for his view of good and evil. How can one abstractly condemn or approve actions which arise from random free-will? Does God watch and think “yes, I like that” or “no, that is bad”? This creation theory makes it impossible for us to know what He is thinking. Perhaps He prefers the bacteria to the humans, and is hoping the humans will quickly disappear!
• Prof. Haszprunar said that animals are cleverer than we used to think, but that transcendental thought is “reserved for humans”. Some people doubted this. I tried to make the point that “reserved” was a Freudian slip showing that he still thinks in terms of an active God. But nobody seemed to understand me! Later Roland told me that “reserved” (vorbehalten) in German has nothing to do with “reserve”; it only means “only occurs in”. No Roland, I understood the German, but when I have difficulty explaining my thoughts (in German) people sometimes assume I have not understood.
Of course there is a great difficulty here for an orthodox Catholic. Any “soul” that separates humans from other animals either came gradually with the development of the brain; including slipping backwards sometimes, or was arbitrarily donated by God.
• The status of Christ is also a problem for Prof. Haszprunar. Did Christ also come into being due to a mixture of random and determined? Or did God suddenly get active? Prof. Haszprunar with his acceptance of evolution denies that mankind is as special as his religion demands. Mankind has only existed for a very small fraction of the time that there has been life. And surely his remaining time on Earth will be even much shorter.
• Of course true Catholics must believe in constant interference by God. Every Saint has performed some miracle with help from God.

Edwin Ederle summed up the matter by pointing out that if God has done nothing since the big bang, His existence makes no difference to us. Maybe He has forgotten us completely.
Other comments and questions also showed great scepticism.

Even the Templeton Foundation seems to have given up trying to reconcile evolution with creation. Initially it looked as if the Foundation would be taken over by Creationists. They set up two schools in England that taught that evolution was wrong. Now the money is better used. They research the psychology and sociology of spirituality.

I would say that the attempt of Prof. Haszprunar was doomed to failure. But he may be happy if he gets religious people to accept evolution, without losing their religion. I think he will not convert atheists. There are statistics showing that within a community, religious people are often slightly happier and more successful than the rest. But probably people in religious countries (e.g. Iran) are less happy than those in secular countries (e.g. UK). For 40 years, I thought religion might be good for people even if wrong. Then Richard Dawkins tipped the balance for me, and I decided that religion these days is bad for the world. Of course neither of us can be sure about this, even if we can decide what we mean by “bad”! In this state of doubt, I have decided to search for truth, while trying to be cheerful.

People who read as far as this, if any, should also look at
http://if-blog.de/cw/english-book-review-the-greatest-show-on-earth-by-richard-dawkins/#more-15286
But Dawkins’ books are easier to read.

cw

Notice:
You can see the videos of Vortrag und Diskussion on youtube.

9 Kommentare zu “Evolution and Religion”

  1. rd (Thursday October 13th, 2011)

    Lieber Chris,

    wenn ich mich richtig erinnere, habe ich im Kommentar ein paar der schlimmsten Fehler beseitigt. Ob ich das im Post auch tun soll, weiß ich nicht (ein bisschen habe ich es schon gemacht, “geleert” anstelle von “gelehrt” konnte ich dann doch nicht ertragen.

    Eine Überarbeitung der stark verbesserungswürdigen Formatierung des Artikels wäre auch wünschenswert.

  2. six (Thursday October 13th, 2011)

    Lieber Chris, immerhin haben Haszprunar und Dawkins etwas gemeinsam, sie sind keine “Helden der Struktur”. Während bei Dawkins Schreiben sein Tool, die evolutionstheoretische Denkweise, deutlich durchkommt (Mutation und Selektion, leider mit einem Übermaß an Mutation und einem Mangel an Selektion) vermittelt sich mir der methodische Background von Herrn Haszprunar nicht so richtig – ausser ich lege die volksmäulische Berliner Erkenntnis zugrunde: ein Teller bunter Knete.

  3. Chris Wood (Friday October 14th, 2011)

    Dear Six, I suspect you mean that Dawkins writes too much and often changes his opinion. If not, please clarify.
    I cannot agree with either of these. I find that he writes entertainingly and informatively and gets it right almost all the time. He has a right to modify his views a bit, in the face of new evidence. The main such case concerns the “selfish gene”. But I think everything in his so-named book is right. Only since then it has become accepted that despite each individual gene acting selfishly, the whole collection can act cooperatively. The same paradox operates in societies such as ants and humans.

  4. six (Friday October 14th, 2011)

    Nein, Chris, das meine ich nicht. Jeder hat das Recht, seine Meinung aufgrund neuer Erkenntnisse zu ändern. Mein Urteil bezieht sich auf seine spezifische Schreibweise, die ich auch nur nur durch seine beiden Bücher ” Das egoistische Gen” und den “Gotteswahn” kenne. Beide Bücher quellen über von Informationen, welche die Begründung seiner Thesen nur sehr gering vorwärts treiben (das meinte ich mit meiner Schreib – Analogie der Mutation). Auf schlicht deutsch, er müßte wesentlich ausmisten. Dazu aber sollte er sich entscheiden, ob er wissenschaftlicher Autor oder Massenautor sein will. Denn, wie wir ja wissen, erst die Selektionsumgebung entscheidet über das Leben oder Sterben der nützlichen und der unnützen Mutationen (auf meine Analogie bezogen: der Informationen). Dawkins kann sich aber von nichts trennen, bleibt zwischen den beiden Autoren hängen und verschenkt gute Inhalte durch eine endlos mäandernde (und dadurch zwangsläufig schwach strukturierte) Darstellung.

  5. Chris Wood (Friday October 14th, 2011)

    Six, I still find your analogies difficult. I suppose Dawkins’ sentences can be seen as little mutations to the whole body of scientific literature, but they are neither random nor unconnected. And his books would not be very readable if he eliminated almost all sentences, to the extent that evolution eliminates almost all mutations.
    Anyway, your judgement of his style is certainly not shared by the English scientific community. They were so impressed, that a new chair (Professor of Scientific Popularisation) was set up especially for him at Oxford. (In England, Oxford is rated second only to the World’s top University).

  6. Detlev Six (Saturday October 15th, 2011)

    Chris, meine Analogien sind nicht nur schwierig, sondern verboten. Erkenntnistheoretiker würden wir nicht nur einen einfachen kategoriellen Fehlschluss, sondern sogar einen schweren vorwerfen, weil ich bei der Übertragung der evolutionstheoretischen Methode auf Dawkins Schreibstil bei der Selektion einen teleologischen Gedanken eingefügt habe, der natürlich krass gegen die evolutionstheoretische Denkmethode verstößt. Aber wie es auch sei, beim Lesen von Dawkins kann ich mich nicht dagegen wehren, dass ich seinen Text ständig so empfinde, wie ich es beschrieben habe.

    Was die englische Wissenschaftscommunity betrifft, da habe ich eine abweichende Meinung, wenn ich Dawkins Darstellungsmöglichkeiten beispielsweise mit der Schreibkraft eines naturwissenschaftsnahen Schreibers wie Bertrand Russell vergleiche – um nur einen großartigen (Be)Schreiber komplexer Sachverhalte zu erwähnen.

  7. rd (Saturday October 15th, 2011)

    Was den Vergleich eines Bertrand Russell mit Dawkin angeht, da bin ich eindeutig auf Detlevs Seite.

    Neben Russell’s von Aufklärung geprägter Toleranz erscheint mir Dawkin wie ein “Troll” (im Sinne des Begriffs aus dem Internet), der mit fanatischer Penetranz immer wieder dieselbe Theorie runterbetet und einen völlig sinnlosen, fast schon religösen Kampf gegen die gute Wahrscheinlichkeit führt, dass wir halt immer noch nicht alles wissen und wahrscheinlich nie alles wissen werden.

    Fast neige ich auch schon dazu, dass es ziemlich sinnlos ist, über die angesprochenen Themen zu diskutieren.

  8. Chris Wood (Wednesday January 11th, 2012)

    I disagree with Roland’s last comment:-

    “The Blind Watchmaker” explained how mutation and selection can bring about systems that look as if they are carefully designed. This was needed because people including http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fred_Hoyle did not understand it.

    “The Selfish Gene” explained that genes are not necessarily “selected” because they are somehow “good for the species”. Each one effectively fights for itself. Some can prosper for ages, despite being bad for the species. Many people who accept evolution do not understand about this. (Many people think that Dawkins wrote that evolution cannot produce altruism, which is a very different topic).

    “The God Delusion” explained why Dawkins is a fairly convinced atheist. Most of the World’s population need to have this explained to them; most Americans included.

    “The Greatest Show on Earth” went back to basics, explaining about the huge amount of evidence for evolution. Most of the World’s population need to have this explained to them; most Americans included.

    Would it really have been better to write just one chapter about each of these subjects? Remember that the books are not meant for people struggling to understand English. And perhaps they have not been well translated. Russell wrote well, but so does Dawkins.

  9. Chris Wood (Tuesday December 13th, 2016)

    Looking at this years later, I have the following thoughts.
    I seem to have then understood Detlev better than I do now.
    I am surprised at the complexity and density of what I wrote.
    Being pragmatic, I thought then that Haszprunar with his “practicing Catholic” meant more than “believing”. Later, I realised that he could well have been admitting that he went to Church, but did not believe.
    I do not well understand the admiration for Bertrand Russell. Yes, he wrote nice aristocratic Cambridge English. Yes, he used his reputation, still as an old man, to fight (unsuccessfully) against nuclear weapons. (They could have caused a Worldwide disaster, but perhaps they helped avoid World War 3). Yes, he wrote a nice clever little book about the problems of philosophy.
    But his main mathematical work resulted in “almost solving” the problem of automatic theorem proving. Soon afterwards, two young men, Gödel and Turing, proved independently that this cannot be solved. Why didn’t Russell realise this?
    Why do so many people criticise Dawkins for campaigning against belief in God, (intolerance), but they are happy about Russell’s intolerance of nuclear weapons? Currently religion and nuclear weapons seem equally dangerous, particularly in combination. (Religions mostly try to overpopulate the World). Both men have largely failed, but have perhaps had some success. Recently, at least in Germany, there is realisation that the leadership should not accept every “religious” behaviour.
    I found Dawkins books very readable.

Kommentar verfassen

*