Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Wilson on Provisional Deism

Materialists don't come much stricter than E.O. Wilson, and he's interviewed on Salon today about science and religion. You have to have a subscription to read the whole thing, which is here. If you don't, here are the two passages I found most relevant to my recent ramblings:
That's an interesting perspective. Basically, you're saying (religion is) necessary but it's wrong.

Well, you see, that's the dilemma of the 21st century. Possibly the greatest philosophical question of the 21st century is the resolution of religious faith with the growing realization of the very different nature of the material world. You could say that we evolved to accept one truth -- the religious instinct -- but then discovered another. And having discovered another, what are we to do? You might say it's just best to go ahead and accept the two worldviews and let them live side by side. I see no other solution. I believe they can use their different worldviews to solve some of the great problems -- for example, the environment. But generally speaking, the difficulty in saying they can live side by side is a sectarianism in the world today, and traditional religions can be exclusionary and used to justify violence and war. You just can't deny that this is a major problem.

* * * * * * *

Let me follow up on this because I've heard you call yourself a deist.

Yeah, I don't want to be called an atheist.

Why not?

You know, being a good scientist, and having been drawn up short so many times on my own theories and speculations -- as all honest scientists are -- I don't want to exclude the possibility of a creative force or deity. I think that would be a mistake to say there is no God or supernatural force. As the theologian Hans Kung once said, how are we to explain there is something and not nothing? Well, that's a question I'm happy to leave to the astrophysicist -- where the laws of the universe came from and what is the meaning of the origin of existence. But I do feel confident that there is no intervention of a deity in the origin of life and humanity.

That is the distinction between theism and deism.

That is the distinction. So I am not a theist, but I'll be a provisional deist.

To be a deist, you're saying maybe there was some creator, some presence, that set in motion the laws of the universe.

Maybe. That has not yet been discounted as a hypothesis. That's why I use the word provisional.

It's fascinating because everything you've said up until now suggests that you should be an atheist. Why hold out the specter that maybe there was some divine presence that got the whole thing going?

Well, because there's a possibility that a god or gods -- I don't think it would resemble anything of the Judeo-Christian variety -- or a super-intelligent force came along and started the universe with a big bang and moved on to the next universe. I can't discount that.

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