Robert Wright and “The Rose Mary Woods Stretch”

By | May 10, 2010

Much of Robert Wright’s thesis in his latest book, The Evolution of God, invites comparison to a famous case of stretching to make a weak case seem credible. This is the famous “Rose Mary Woods Stretch.”

Some of you might remember this from Watergate fame. But for those unfamiliar with it: Rose Mary Woods was President Richard Nixon’s personal secretary during the Watergate scandal of the 1970s. Apparently Nixon and his aids (Haldeman, Erlichmann, Mitchell) decided to place the blame on Rose Mary for some of the 18.5 minutes blanked out of the crucial, taped conversation between Nixon and his staff, which likely incriminated Nixon himself. Poor Rose Mary, ever loyal to her masters, agreed to take the blame for erasing five minutes of that tape. But in order to demonstrate to reporters how she accidentally erased the tape, she had to show how — while sitting at her desk and having to answer the telephone — she could have stretched and twisted so that her foot still reached the controls of the dictating machine several feet away. Poor Rose Mary had to stretch and twist herself in ways seldom seen outside of circus acrobatics. Of course, the people of the press were very skeptical that she really could have accidentally erased the tape. (Later investigations identified five to nine separate erasures.)

I see Wright as performing the equivalent to the “Rose Mary Woods Stretch” in trying to show that “God evolved,” that history really discloses a moral order in the universe, and that this objective moral order is evidence for some kind of divinity.

But first let us look at a tactic that Wright uses in the closing pages of his book in an effort to bolster his claim for a “scientific” argument for the reality of a transcendent deity.

Would you be impressed by an argument for the reasonableness of belief in God based on an analogy between the reality of electrons and that of God? The argument simply stated is that if we believe in the reality of electrons, which presumably we do, then we have as much reason for believing in the existence of God. This is precisely what Robert Wright argues in the AFTERWORD of his book The Evolution of God. Obviously, the analogy is weak and does very little to justify belief in God; but Wright and others think otherwise. So let us take a close look at this analogical argument.

In the “Afterword,” on pages 446-448, Wright lays out his analogy between subatomic physics and theology, which rests on the thesis (evolution of morality and God) which he has argued in the main body of his book. [Please excuse the extended quote; but I want to show the full effect of Wright’s way of proceeding.]

“It’s a bedrock idea of modern physics that, even if you define “ultimate reality” as the ultimate scientific reality — the most fundamental truths of physics — ultimate reality isn’t something you can clearly conceive.” (Electrons as particles? Electrons as waves?) “Sometimes it’s more useful to think of them as particles; sometimes it’s more useful to think of them as waves. Conceiving of them as either is incomplete, yet conceiving of them as both is … well, inconceivable. (446)
“(If we can’t conceive of an electron accurately, what are our chances of getting God right?) The good news is that the hopelessness of figuring out exactly what something is doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Apparently some things are just inconceivable — and yet are things nonetheless.” (447)

“At least, some physicists believe electrons are things. The fact that nobody’s actually seen an electron, and that trying to imagine one ties our minds in knots, has led some physicists and philosophers of science to wonder whether it’s even accurate to say that electrons do exist. You could say that with electrons, as with God, there are believers and there are skeptics. (447)

“The believers believe there’s something out there — some “thing” in some sense of the word “thing” – that corresponds to the word “electron”; and that, though the best we can do is conceive of this “thing” imperfectly, even misleadingly, conceiving of it that way makes more sense than not conceiving of it at all. They believe in electrons while professing their inability to really “know” what an electron is. You might say they believe in electrons even while lacking proof that electrons exist.

“Many of these physicists, while holding that imperfectly conceiving subatomic reality is a valid form of knowledge, wouldn’t approve if you tried to perform a similar maneuver in a theological context. If you said you believe in God, even while acknowledging that you have no clear idea what God is —and that you can’t even really prove God per se exists — they would say your belief has no foundation.

“Yet what exactly is the difference between the logic of their belief in electrons and the logic of a belief in God? The perceive patterns in the physical world — such as the behavior of electricity — and posit a source of these patterns and call that source the “electron.” A believer in God perceives patterns in the moral world (or, at least, moral patterns in the physical world) and posits a source of these patterns and calls the source “God.” (447) “God is that unknown thing that is the source of the moral order, the reason there is a moral dimension to life on Earth and a moral direction to time on Earth; “God” is responsible for the fact that life is sentient, capable of good and bad feelings, and hence morally significant; “God” is responsible for the evolutionary system that placed highly sentient life on a trajectory toward the good, or at least toward tests that offered the opportunity and incentive to realize the good; in the process “God” gave each of us a moral axis around which to organize our lives, should we choose to (447-48) Being human, we will always conceive of the source of this moral order in misleadingly crude ways, but then again you could say the same thing about conceiving electrons. So you’ll do with the source of moral order what physicists do with a subatomic source of the physical order, such as an electron — try to think about it the best you can, and fail. This, at least, is one modern, scientifically informed argument that could be deployed by the believer in God.


Here we have Wright’s use of an analogy between the idea of an electron in sub-atomic physics and the idea of “God” in theology to argue for God’s existence. It is true that he attempts to “weasel out” with the final sentence by stating this as an argument “that could be deployed by the believer…” Whether Wright subscribes completely to this argument or not, he clearly claims that scientists’ acceptance of the reality of electrons is analogous to believers’ acceptance of the reality of God. In short, despite his puzzling qualification, Wright endorses this analogical argument.

There are a number of specific points in Wright’s analogy that simply cry out for criticism. Exposing all these would require a complete paper. Presently, we can note that an electron, like a photon, in subatomic physics serves a specific function. There are many phenomena which we could not explain without reference to electrons; and quantum physicists can measure the energy levels of electrons and photons to incredible degrees of accuracy. Electrons and photons are not mere hypothetical entities; but represent scientific conceptualizing of sub-atomic physical forces and dynamics, which nobody questions. It is true our ordinary intuitions and terms (e.g. object, continuous motion) result in paradoxes when we try to apply them to this sub-atomic realm. But entire sciences and technologies are based on the reality of electrons and photons. By contrast, none of this applies to the concept of a deity, even in a loose analogy.

In what follows, I shall mention a small, unscientific survey which I conducted and then try to show that Wright’s general thesis in The Evolution of God, in much a case of Wright engaging in his own version of the “Rosemary Woods Stretch.”

At weekly Friday lunch meeting of retired college instructors, an engineer, and an artist, I posed this question: What you think of an analogy that Robert Wright uses to try to show that, if we believe in the reality of electrons, we should also accept the reality of God?

The group — which included two college science instructors (physical sciences, life sciences), one anthropology instructor, a retired philosophy instructor, an engineer, and a professional artist — were unanimous in rejecting the analogy as remotely close to a reasonable argument for belief in God. “Phony-baloney,” seemed to be the consensus. The retired philosophy instructor was particularly critical, submitting this email reply to my question:

“The analogy is so poor it shows that those who bring it up are either ignorant if how analogies operate as inductive proofs, or know nothing about the history of science which deals directly with electrons. What do they think moves along electrical circuits, lights up televisions, etc.? Where is the physical evidence for God, comparatively speaking?”

According to Wright, the physical evidence for God lies in that objective moral order in history which he claims to have found. The analogy works if you agree with Wright that it is only on the basis of transcendent order – hence, a transcendent designer of that order — that moral phenomena in the world can be explained. But, he never makes a good case for saying that morality can only be explained this way; and he does not even come close to making good a persuasive case for an objective moral order disclosed in history. We could allow, as some have noted, that if we look at some aspects of history (but only some aspects) like the advance of women’s rights or the general recognition that humans have a right not to be enslaved, then we could grant that some parts of history suggest limited moral progress. But there are many other aspects of history which suggest the contrary (history of warfare, the horrendous technology of war, genocides of the twentieth century, continued poverty, suffering, and oppression in large parts of the world while people in other parts enjoy luxury and physical comfort, etc.). But even if you ignore these discouraging aspects of history (as Wright does in his book), you shall be hard pressed to find that Wright provides a good case for his conclusion that morality can only be explained by positing a God, i.e, a real, objective supernatural “Logos.” Hence, his analogy between electrons and God does not even come close to supporting belief in God.

Having closely read Wright’s book, I’m impressed by the tactics that he employs: the stretching and twisting of concepts and terminology, the repeated equivocation on “God” and God (Daniel Dennett remarked that Wright constantly commits the use-mention fallacy throughout his book), the selective reading of early periods of religious history, emphasizing those aspects which served his purpose and ignoring everything else.

Because of such considerations, I find that Wright performs his version of the “Rose Mary Woods Stretch” as he tries to show that the same God has evolved through history, that history really discloses a moral order in the universe, and that this objective moral order is evidence for some kind of divinity. Then, not content with this bizarre twisting and stretching, he throws in that really weak and mostly irrelevant analogy between electrons and God. Like the press said about Rose Mary’s stretch, I say about Wright’s twisting and stretching: It is not very believable! I say this even if we concede that by arguing for his peculiar brand of theism Wright has not shown himself to be crazy.

“You might say that love and truth are the two primary manifestations of divinity in which we can partake, and that partaking in them we become truer manifestations of the divine. Then again, you might not say that. The point is just that you wouldn’t have to be crazy to say it.”


But that is faint praise, to say the least.

Ah, Mr. Robert Wright! He wants so badly to say he believes; but seems embarrassed by it. So in the end all he can say is that you don’t have to be crazy to believe.

My reply: No you don’t have to be crazy, but it helps if you let your intellectual conscience fall asleep and buy into sloppy, somewhat primitive, philosophical thinking.

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