Note: This transcript has not been proofread, and therefore its accuracy is not guaranteed.
Wright: Robert Pollack is a professor of biological sciences at Columbia University and director of the Centre for the Study of Science and Religion. He's the author of "The Missing Moment," "Signs of Life" and "The Faith of Biology and the Biology of Faith." I interviewed him at Columbia University. Well first of all thanks for taking the time to talk to me.
Robert Pollack: Pleasure.
Wright: I've been reading your latest book, "The Faith of Biology and the Biology of Faith," and early on in it you elude to a kind of transformation that you underwent. You you say that at one point you held the view that that many of your scientific colleagues hold basically of the world which is that as you put it "...the world has no intrinsic meaning or purpose. We are mortal. We wish it were not so. It is." Kind of a bleak view. You've since changed your mind I gather. How would you describe your current view of the world?
Robert Pollack: No I don't think I change my mind about the world I think I changed my mind about how I want to live in the world. I think in fact my choice to become active in the rituals and in the community of my ancestral religion which is Judaism was a choice driven by a closer appreciation of the fact of the world as I understood them through the data on natural selection in particular. It is the meaninglessness and purposelessness and absence of directionality and absence of perfectibility in the mechanism of natural selection which I find frankly unbearable on the fact of it and so I felt freed by my free will choice to behave irrationally and to accept the religion of my ancestors in addition to the data, not in place of it but rather because of it.
Wright: Ok so now you believe in as you put it a caring God.
Robert Pollack: Yes.
Wright: Ok. Now what what's interesting to me one thing that's interesting to me is that you're a scientist...
Robert Pollack: Yes.
Wright: I've talked to a number of scientists who believe in God. Usually, although I haven't found any who believe you can prove the existence of God with reference to the physical universe, usually they first of all want to stress that the physical universe is consistent with the idea of God and more than that most of them look for at least some corroborating evidence for the thesis that God exists. You are almost defiant in your insistence that that search is in vain. You know I've got some some you know "...we must accept the meaningingless..." this is the way you put it "...we must accept the meaninglessness and purposelessness of our presence on Earth as the verdict of testable science ... natural selection seems quite free of design, purpose or direction..." and so on. It is unusual, right? And it seems I mean most most scientists are almost obsessed with the idea of evidence and the idea that all their beliefs are consistent with the evidence. You almost like to have it the opposite way...
Robert Pollack: Well let's see Robert that's a stack of question which can be entered at any point so let me enter it at the last question. To be obsessed with or to validate evidence of experimentation above all opinion is the presumption of science. It is the motivating drive that generates this great machine for understanding nature. And to carry it forward properly one must accept boundaries on it. The major boundary on it is the presumptive existence of questions which cannot be answered by this machine because they do not form testable hypotheses. It's my understanding as a scientist that your question has no testable form.
Wright: My question being?
Robert Pollack: Whether or not the universe is compatible in data with the existence of a caring God. It's not a testable question. It's an affirmable belief which I share but it is not a belief driven by data. Unless one says that the feelings one has inside one's self are data that is what I believe to be the case but those kinds of data are not testable by examination of the universe. Those kind of data are if they're testable at all, testable by examination of mental states.
Wright: Ok. The the belief in in God I'd agree is very rarely driven by data but that's quite different from saying that one can't look in the physical world for evidence cooperating...
Robert Pollack: Oh of course you can look...
Wright: But well but you insist further but you insist it's in some sense pointless, or you'll find you'll find you find only you find no evidence of meaning or purpose in the physical world.
Robert Pollack: Now wait I didn't say that. What I said was in that part of the physical world in which we're made ...
Robert Pollack: In that part of the mechanism that drives the creation of new forms of life over time...
Wright: Natural selection.
Robert Pollack: ...natural selection. It is to the best of my ability driven by the selectable level of error production in the replication of DNA molecules driving variations from individual to individual within a breeding population. There is no prior understanding necessary of which variant will survive for some variants to survive. I no more can see how our presence for instance drives the argument that we were designed to be and that I could understand an antibiotic-resistant bacterium is driven by the intelligent wish that some caring God created. Natural selection is creative but it is not designed. In that difference lies my inability to understand how data can possibly provide me with a purpose or a meaning or a hope for the future in the largest sense.
Wright: Well you're saying that natural selection is not the product of design, it was not designed?
Robert Pollack: Correct. Well I'm saying...
Robert Pollack: The data of it is consistent with the absence of design.
Wright: Well that's... are they equally consistent with the thesis of design?
Robert Pollack: Not to my understanding.
Wright: Ok well wait you believe in a creator God right? The God of Judaism is a creator God.
Robert Pollack: Yes.
Wright: Now we know that the immediate mechanism in the creation of the human species was natural selection.
Robert Pollack: Yes.
Wright: Now if we are a product of a creative God and natural selection is the immediate mechanism of our creation it seems to me hard to imagine how natural selection could be anything other than the instrument of divine creation. Where am I where am I confused here?
Robert Pollack: As you're reading to me from my book and you have it and I don't I'm at a slight disadvantage.
Wright: Well you did write it I guess...
Robert Pollack: I will try and quote from myself. This is a good question. A troublesome question. And I went to one of my teachers, Rabbi Dean Steinsaltz with this question as I went with many of the questions in this book. And his answer which was in his typical way very gnomic was to say well God says to the angels, "Make me a species that can chose to say 'Thanks' I don't care how." And then, over a period in time of 15 billions years of which four billion or five are available for natural selection on this planet we merge with the capacity to chose whether or not to say "Thanks" for our existence. And what is asked for by the creator God in the caring way of that God's expectations is that we choose to say "Thanks." But to have the choice requires a brain capable of consciousness, memory, repression, all those things our brains are capable of. To say that that that the system was set up intentionally is a data free hypothesis. To say that we come out of it with the capacity to say thanks or not is a provable hypothesis.
Wright: But wait but first of all to say that the system is set up to create is part of a scenario you just laid out...
Robert Pollack: No I said I said that is a matter of my belief...
Robert Pollack: ...it's not testable.
Wright: Ok well but but but let's talk about that a little I mean if if you assert that I mean if one person asserts that natural selection was not designed to create intelligent reflective life and another person asserts that natural selection was designed to create intelligent life I can imagine data that that would would not that would prove either point of view but that would favor one point of view or the other and here's an example here's an example people can argue about if natural selection on the one hand seems as if it was very likely to create intelligent life eventually which is the view of some people like Edward O. Wilson or on the other hand if if it if it and this is the view of Stephen J. Gould is that it was really a fluke that natural selection was was very unlikely to create intelligent life I mean that argument is relevant to the question of whether it's a product of design. If it's a product of design presumably it is a process that's like to create intelligent life.
Robert Pollack: What you said maybe so but it has nothing to do with experimental science. The opinion of Wilson, the opinion of Gould, the opinion of Pollack and your opinion are irrelevant. What is necessary is the conversion of an opinion to a disprovable hypothesis.
Wright: Ok fine but there are data that are more consistent with one of these...
Robert Pollack: No no data more or less consistent is not experimental test. It's not. To say for instance that evolution is improbable requires the question of improbably compared to what?
Wright: Well no wait first of all evolutionary biology, Darwinism, by virtue of being a historical science is simply not a a a laboratory science only. Not all of the hypotheses not all of Darwin's falsifiable hypotheses come in the form of things you can do in a laboratory. But still there there are there's evidence for and there's evidence against and some sciences are like that and let me give you an example I mean the question of of how likely was was the evolution of intelligent life ok...
Robert Pollack: It's an irrelevant question...
Wright: Well wait wait wait.
Robert Pollack: Which question do you want to discuss?
Wright: Wait no wait I thought you agreed it's a relevant question and your view is just that there's no data bearing on it.
Robert Pollack: No... I'll state... just because I am not clear any longer where we are let me try and state where I think I am. I am not able to wait to stake my beliefs on data. Nor do I see any need to do so. Therefore the question of data is interesting to me only in an intellectual sense but my religious beliefs are important to me in an emotional as well as intellectual sense and those emotional beliefs don't wait for data so I don't understand the harping on data.
Wright: Well that's all fine if if you're view is just I don't want to look at the data. But if you're...
Robert Pollack: No it's not I don't need to look at the data...
Wright: If your view is I personally don't need to look at the data that's fine too but but the the there's the further question of whether data are or are not logically germane to the question and what what is your view on that?
Robert Pollack: Fine. My view on that is that to the extent I am capable of understanding the data as I read them the data that say the only structure carrying information which persists through time longer than the life of an individual is the information contained in the sequence of bases in DNA that data the data that flow from are consistent in my mind with the simplest model being that errors in the replication of that information draw variation of phenotype, variation of phenotype is selectable for survival of progeny out of that come everything alive without design or purpose.
Wright: Well everyone agrees on that. Well I mean not everyone but but but...
Robert Pollack: I would say most people...
Wright: ...biologists would agree on that...
Robert Pollack: I would say therefore most biologists have no religious conviction. Having seen that to be the case. Or if they do they like me dissociate their religious convictions from the data because those data for instance preclude to my mind any simple way this species perfects itself or any simply way any individual in it is the paradigm of perfectability or perfection. These are serious religious problems.
Robert Pollack: If one waits for the data to be firm...
Wright: Well now you're talking about a very specific conception of God where I guess perfection or perfectability would have to would have to figure in but if we're talking about the more generic question of whether or not natural selection could be the process of design then it seems to me that you know one relevant question is well how likely was the process to create intelligent life in the first place in which case there are relevant data for example you can ask the question "How many times did multicellular life evolve independently?" The more times it evolved the more likely you were to get multicellular life eventually one way or the other. As it happens multicellular life evolved independently a number of times. Those kinds of data it seems to me are relevant to the question of direction in evolution which itself is relevant to the question whether evolution is possibly the product of design whether it was set in motion to do something.
Robert Pollack: I'm not sure why you're asking me this question but since you're asking me this question I will say that to the best of my professional judgement the the data you quote are irrelevant to your question or I'm missing something. I cannot see the connection.
Wright: Ok I guess if you ask why I seem to be harping on this it's it's quotes like this from your book "...our species is not the creation of design but the result of accumulated errors..." As if those two are logically incompatible and they're just not. It could be that the immediate mechanism of design involves the accumulation of errors but that the process is likely to lead to certain kinds of outcomes therefore has direction and maybe the product of design.
Robert Pollack: You're making the following presumptions which I would consider presumptions of faith and not of science. Ok? You're making an if then statement. You're saying if creator God initiates the universe as would be consistent with any model of an initial point in time and space out of which the universe emerges. Then the really interesting religious questions all obtain about a place which is neither in physical space nor physical time and precedes both and follows both in which the historical reality in which life is embedded the 4 dimensional web of space and time in which life evolved is itself the middle piece of a sandwich, separated on both sides by a timeless spaceless universal meaningless in the language place of God and that my religion says and may other religions say in one or another way, this physical reality sits between a a timeless state before during and afterward during which a creator God works. But the creator God's work plays out in a fabric of space and time which is the creation not the creator. In that context, it does not follow to me as it follows to you that if that were so then we would find evidence of it in this 4-dimensional world. The evidence you're looking for is evidence outside of space and time. I don't look for it. I accept as my faith that that creator God existed before the creation hence the beginning of the five books of Moses and I accept as a totally data free belief that there will be a time when this experiment is over and some aspect of myself and of you will survive in a timeless state.
Wright: Ok. But ...
Robert Pollack: That's a religious statement. I don't believe anything I've said of my faith converts to data in this physical world. At all. So strong disagreement with you.
Wright: Yes. I certainly don't believe that you can get to firm religious belief through the data...
Robert Pollack: Ok.
Wright: ... I certainly don't thing you can ...
Robert Pollack: So we agree.
Wright: No but I think I think you can get closer of further away.
Robert Pollack: Fine. Fair enough. Fair enough.
Robert Pollack: I guess you may be right. I'm not interested in that.
Wright: Yes. Oh ok well I'll take that as the closest thing I've ever had to a concession and move on.
Robert Pollack: Right.
Wright: You in describing this religious experience which is your own religious insight which is what you're basing you're your this whole set of beliefs on you describe it as an unbidden spontaneous strong inward feeling and and and you describe it as frankly irrational. Can you say any more about what I mean you've had the feeling apparent what is it like for those of us that are forced to just sit there and ponder the data?
Robert Pollack: I I I I am at risk at elevating something small to something big. It's not a ...how can I say this... let's say nothing I'm about to say requires more than that I am a person susceptible to wide emotion swings and my interpretation of these emotion swings I take to be something I can be grateful for. That's it so that I may find myself going from a sense of hopelessness to a sense of reassurance. I choose to say that I am apprehending what is intended for me if only at those moments. I cannot prove to you that it is so but that comfort that comes from that sense of being able to apprehend an intention is the experience, it's the comfort, it's the relief at ... I will say that in a Godless way... the burden of a scientist is to think that he or she may have the ability to understand everything. I cannot carry the burden of understanding everything any longer. The burden of claiming to understand everything requires minimum to meet the claim that one can understand one's own end and it seems to me an intrinsic incomprehensibility as intrinsically incomprehensibility to contemplate my end as it is to contemplate a creator God existing before time and space. The words form sentences but the underlying meaning retreats in both cases. Now therefore I must talk in terms that sound rational about what I acknowledge up front cannot be encompassed by rationality in that I'm not sure I could ever show you what I mean. It doesn't transfer to pre-existent experience in either case.
Robert Pollack: That's the best I can do. In other words, I experience things which I do not have vocabulary for but I have physical and emotional sensation of.
Robert Pollack: And I choose not to say of them that they are passing fancies which I best be done with because I can't work under those circumstances as a scientist.
Robert Pollack: I choose rather to say that they're also a form a data that I best pay attention to.
Wright: Ok. I I assume you would consider it a hopelessly crude over simplification to say that you believe in God because it feels good.
Robert Pollack: I would presume that that would be a hopelessly simpleminded simplification because I believe in God whether it feels good or not that's the burden.
Wright: Is that right?
Robert Pollack: Yes.
Wright: But don't I mean don't you talk about a kind of I mean let me let me quote from you're your your own work you've found the vision of the world implied by the theory of natural selection as you view it at least "...too terrifying and depressing to me to be born without the emotional buffer of my own religion..."
Robert Pollack: Which is that these data though on the face of it are the ones we spoke about never the less are there as the result of the intentions of our God which which is a notion of being cared for despite the data so ... what do you make of that? What do you make of that?
Wright: I don't know.
Robert Pollack: It's not science but it's not fake so it's data. It's data of me. I'm confronted with the data of me and I don't know what else to do about it but first to describe and second to try and understand it.
Wright: Ok. The in in your in your earlier book "The Missing Moment" you made some comparisons between the religious experience the the experience of religious insight and the experience of scientific insight. What are some of the similarities?
Robert Pollack: Well the main experience of scientific insight and religious insight as I have experienced them and God knows -- interesting phrase in this context -- I claim no generality of knowledge here, I work from a data set of me. I have had the luck, the gift, the circumstance of seeing things in nature a couple of times... and many more times of being present when something is seen. By seen I mean at once a fog lifts and things are clear and it is extremely difficult to recreate the sense of the fog once the clarity sets in. The most spectacular example of this I saw was a meeting at Cold Spring Harbors some 30 years ago at which David Baltimore, Howard Temin and others came and spoke about work on viruses that seem to go through a DNA intermediate state even though their genomes are RNA and the paradox was lifted by Baltimore and Temin in showing that there was an enzyme made by this virus that can converted RNA to DNA. Instantaneously a room of 400 understood that messengers from genes could now be made into genes and that therefore in principle one could direct evolution, that one could experiment with germ lines, that one could play with DNA through what it expresses, that one could do all sorts of things otherwise not thought about because the dogma of the time was that DNA was an archival body of information that could be read out but never read in...
Robert Pollack: ... and here was an enzyme that read into DNA. A room of 400 people underwent a totally discontinuous transformation of understanding of the natural world in their profession. Discontinuously. I consider that discontinuity of insight to be like the discontinuity of insight that I have read about not experienced but read about ... one reads about it in in in in in the Bible the classic case I would say is Moses walks along and there is a bush burning and he says to himself "I must stop and look at that bush." Well, why must he stop and look at that bush? That that sense of looking and then noticing the bush is burning and not being consumed is to me a statement of timelessness. How is a bush burning and not being consumed? Because time has stopped.
Wright: Isn't there also the similarity between religious and scientific insight that scientific insight actually is not necessarily in a very precise way data driven I mean people leap to hypotheses that seem consistent with the data but but but may develop a conviction in the hypothesis that in effect is irrational and they have a lot of trouble letting go of it...
Robert Pollack: Let's let's turn the thing on it's head... I... I would say there are 3 different current ways of understanding experimental science. The classic way is that a person accumulates information about nature, sufficient to build a hypothesis and then creates a test of the hypothesis. The second is that a person accumulates out of imagination a hypothesis and then goes about a way to test it. And the third is that a person accumulates in their head out of curiosity a hypothesis that is untestable but calls it science. John Horgan calls the latter most ironic science. String theory which can't be tested without a a supercollider the size of the planet is ironic because it's it's it the people creating the theory know it can't be tested. So I would consider that real science lies in that middle that middle place. My experience of real science is you're bother by a question you have. The question you have is not "How do I arrange this data?" But "Is this insight of mine really so? Or am I just being clever?" The beginning of a loop of science can be entered at any point. It can be entered at the data gathering point or at the testing point or at the rearrangement of the hypothesis based on the data point. My experience is new science begins with the idea and the moment of the idea is revelatory, it's a discontinuity. Look at what you know, you've lived with it for 6 or 10 years and say "Wait a minute! If I think of it this way it all comes out different." That "wait a minute!" is as discontinuous as religious revelation...
Wright: And it's a kind of epiphany...
Robert Pollack: It's completely the same in my experience...
Wright: And and and in your experience literally I mean the kind of religious kind of conversion you could say was in a sense a kind of epiphany...
Robert Pollack: Yes yes yes.
Wright: ...that this makes sense of the world not in an empirical sense...
Robert Pollack: Correct. And then and then you say to yourself well let's go back and see how this works. Ok. Now in science you back and see how this works by designing testable models, testable experiments, seeking the best model for the test...
Robert Pollack: ..and that's where scientific aesthetics and scientific pace calm in finding the simplest cleanest way to test something bravely so that if you're wrong you know it fast instead of going through the motions of experimentation but never really pushing yourself. In the case of a religious experience a similar bravery is just the opposite, it's to give up the need for proving it and see how it feels to live inside the experience of not understanding which for a scientist is very radical. But I accept the burden of not understanding something.
Wright: Yes, you talk about this the the the distinction between the knowable and the unknowable. I mean in science as... I gather as a scientist you used to think about the distinction between the known and the unknown and you pushed the frontier and then more is known and less is unknown. At some point you you came to realize that that you could also think about the unknowable... a place where the frontier would never be pushed kind of into...
Robert Pollack: Right. And and I think I said in the book I hoped I said in the book very clearly that by definition the notion of unknowable is untestable so that you can either accept as a matter of scientific faith that there is nothing unknowable or you accept as a matter of other faith that there is something unknowable but in neither case will you prove it. Now excuse me before you say or ask me another question about it, colleagues here and in particular in the philosophy department have been very strict with me on the illogic of this position because it is easy to demonstrate unknowablility in a trivial way. You don't know the path of every molecule of oxygen in this room...
Robert Pollack: God may know in some in some algorithmic way based on on quantum mechanics and thermodynamics but you don't know and never will know the smoke trail that will be made if you light a match. So what? My argument is precisely that the things that you don't know that matter to you are important despite the fact that there are many thing that you don't know don't matter to you.
Wright: Can you even say what kinds of things we'll never know or or is even that unknown?
Robert Pollack: No that's a fair question I I I can say that's a very good question. An iron rule of science is that people who make predictions about what will happen are always too conservative. I mean if you if you really want to laugh look at a 1950 movie about what would be so in 2000 and it looks like 1955 not 2000 so I would I'm on perilous grounds to say what won't be know but I think I'm comfortable to say that what won't be know from data is why it is necessary to act altruistically in a way that does not preserve one's genes. I don't think it will be known in in in DNA driven biological causative causative terms why people act against their self interest. That would be an answer. In other words I don't think I don't think real love will be reduced to data. I don't think so.
Wright: Do you think we actually I mean I think we have an explanation of why people are capable of love and why how...
Robert Pollack: Oh yes...
Wright: ...how love entered our lineage...
Robert Pollack: 100% I mean any any any species that that follows the selective the natural selective path of a small number of progeny carried for has to have built in the capacity for caring otherwise that species crashes. One presumes that may flies do not love their offspring. But one presumes that gorillas as people love their offspring. However, as the Greeks pointed out, love has many meanings. Agape is not eros is not philia...
Robert Pollack: And and I'm talking about agape. I'm talking about selfless love that does not benefit the self that puts the self at risk and does not benefit the germ line by it...
Wright: Well right.
Robert Pollack: And let me give you a concrete example of it ok? I think the origins of medicine are agape. The idea that you must care for a strangers health is a religious idea in all cultures initially. The tragedy of this country is that it's become a business and and a great piece of good medicine is lost intrinsically as as charity goes out the window and is replaced by business considerations but the origins of hospital hospice and hotel are all the same. They are places inside a church ground.
Wright: It seems to me, on the question of love, we know how the love entered the lineage as for people applying it to to people other than their immediate offspring and kin and so on well you know the world is very complex very different from the world we evolved in the the the you know the bonding mechanism that that attach you to your own offspring or themselves is not entirely known and so on... it seems to me that that you know it's reasonable to believe that this is what you're talking about is what in Darwinian terms you might call a misdirection of love in a functional Darwinian sense although it's a very laudable in a moral sense very laudable direction...
Robert Pollack: Laudable by whom?
Wright: Well laudable by people who probably share the same values that we have...
Robert Pollack: Ok so what's the point of laudability.
Wright: I don't know but it's a word I just thought I'd use it.
Robert Pollack: The point of laudability like the point of doing the right thing is that it's not subject to experimental verification or validation. It's something you feel.
Wright: Right. It's a value.
Robert Pollack: Well ok so you have just popped out with an example of having an irrational indefensible undefinable unjustifiable feeling that something is right.
Wright: Well we already know whether it's justifiable I mean some philosophers believe you can justify moral values some don't and that's probably beyond the scope but but of this conversation except that I was asking for example of what's unknowable in a scientific sense. Is that an example?
Robert Pollack: I would say an example would be yes ... the the the impulse of loving something that you cannot know is the impulse of loving I'm stuck for words... I actually relearned the world agape from a small book by Sir John Templeton no no no other in which he attempt to find the agape structure inside the formal theologies of many religions and does so and argues that this is a universal sub-strain of religious experience an insight I think worth actually pursing although he doesn't actually say it as such I would say that what's interesting about his discovery of it's generalities is my presumption of it's non-demonstrability from data. It's anti-selective so the appearance universally of an anti-natural selective behavior is an argument for an emergent use of free will against biology.
Wright: But it could be selective in cultural revolution... that is to say with Christians loving each other or at least behaving somewhat charitably toward each other sustained the body of Christianity as as a body of you know means you might say in cultural evolution...
Robert Pollack: No worse horror of meaninglessness than the trap of meanings.
Wright: Yes I wanted to ask you about that. Now means is a word Richard Dawkins coined it it refers to viewing as ideas as in a sense active agents that infiltrate your brain and the ones that are most conducive to their own replication by definition by definition replicate the best and it's a view of the brain as a kind of more passive agent than we commonly then we commonly think of ... go ahead...
Robert Pollack: It is it is it is a rhetoriticians argument to have gotten meaning from language. It is a self-reflective argument that assures that whatever you feel most strongly about is demonstration of it's meaninglessness. And and I have no way through this trap except to reject it irrationally.
Wright: I mean specifically the one context for this discussion is that ...
Robert Pollack: Let me say that I think Dawkins Dawkins is not only brilliant in this but he provides any thinking person with the opportunity to have a religious crisis if they take him seriously. A serious person following Dawkins' logic to completion is left with no meaning to anything important. The importance to that person of the idea is a demonstration of it's mean-like parasitic qualities.
Wright: Right I mean specifically Richard Dawkins has suggested that belief in God can be thought of as a virus...
Robert Pollack: Yes. Yes.
Wright: ... as a parasite upon your brain. It's not a true belief it's just a belief that's good at replicating itself. It may even be bad for you which is what the word virus implies which is why I think the word virus is actually wrong because religious belief is very often good for the individuals who who hold it I think demonstrably... not always but but often but how do you handle this idea that religion may be a mere pathology? You take it seriously clearly.
Robert Pollack: Absolutely.
Wright: It's not you don't think it's faceless so much right as as depressing?
Robert Pollack: I think it is what happens it is what happens when you make your filter for discussion so monochromatic to allow in only the argument and not the feelings that are pinned to it. If you allow in the feelings that are pinned to it you see how Dawkins is enjoying the cruelty of his argument and you allow yourself the visceral reaction that such a cruel person need not be attended to.
Wright: Well but surely you don't think that the cruelty of a person has direct bearing on whether what they're saying is right or wrong.
Robert Pollack: I think I am free...
Wright: You know, we now know that Albert Einstein was mean to his wife you know.
Robert Pollack: I don't believe in a world devoid of meaning. I suspect Richard Dawkins does not believe either in a world devoid of meaning. He cares too much about his own reputation for that to be the case...
Wright: Well he claims that the universe is purposeless.
Robert Pollack: That's different from what I'm saying.
Robert Pollack: I don't think he'd claim his writings are purposeless. But you could claim that Dawkins' books are good examples of very powerful means and that Dawkins is taken over by the virus called the mean and it has taken him over taken over his reputation made of him it and he has disappeared into it by this discussion. We're not talking about Dawkins we're talking about a thing that emerged from Dawkins which is occupying us right now. I think it is a religious statement that the Rabbi said to me in the beginning which I quoted which says that the creator God creator God wishes to be thanked by choice no choice no thanks no purpose. I accept as a basic tenant of my faith I must be free to make a choice in order to have a purpose in order to in order to be inside my religion. The world of means deprives me of that choice and makes me the passive carrier of things that have their own Darwinian purposes. It is it is the profound triumph of Darwinian natural selection the world of ideas that ends the possibility of real irrational free will choice against Darwinian purpose. And the Darwinian purpose is simply meaningless, it's survival of something. I'm not interested in being part of a mechanism in which something survives but we don't but but toward no end but it's own survival. Dawkins in other words is to my mind very powerfully disturbing. He is the creator of what I think to be a serious new religion of science. It is a religion of science in that it diminished human being to to to carriers. It is a triumph of Darwin over people.
Wright: And you reject his world view in some sense because it is disturbing and because by rejecting it you affirm your own free will...
Robert Pollack: Free will to do so. Exactly right. The one thing left to me is to ignore that. Now it is it is not smart to do that...
Wright: No I don't know...
Robert Pollack: It is not intellectual grounded...
Wright: Look you said yourself it feels better to reject the mean world view than to accept you, you find accepting it very disturbing so why can't I say the rejection of the (()) world view is itself just a mean that's that's very good at replicating itself because it makes you feel good?
Robert Pollack: You can't and at the end of this, there's no God.
Wright: So don't go that route.
Robert Pollack: No but no but that this is what makes religion so difficult to talk about as a scientist. These things are valuable conversations but they will not stop me from praying tomorrow and when I pray I will not I will not have proof that I'm I'm not wasting my time but I will bet that way and in so doing if Dawkins says I'm following another kind of (()) trap so be it. I don't feel that way. I accept the threat that the failure to feel that way is the victory of that mean but I'll bet this way and I'll bet this way partly because I want to and partly because as a mortal being I have a certain irreducible regard and respect for my ancestors and for other people's ancestors who have held to these irrational beliefs. I feel some obligation not to drop that ball.
Wright: So it's it's to some extent an act of cultural fidelity.
Robert Pollack: Correct.
Robert Pollack: I think I think it has to be Robert because because a religion of one is not a religion. I think all religions grow as social... they are if they emerge nomadically the emerge from societies they don't they are stimulated by individual revelation but religious structures that last through time are cultural artifacts that last by shared teaching parent-teacher by vertical transmission as well as horizontal transmission and and so I'm the recipient of all of those. Look I guess another way to put it is as we are all in our genomes the carriers of thousands of dead sequences that get into the germ line and therefore must be replicated in our species so also probably culturally where the transmitters are thousands of dead ideas that we're stuck with and it's my bet that this ideas not dead. That's the only difference I have with Dawkins.
Wright: The idea of religion?
Robert Pollack: Yes the mechanism of transmission I'll accept as I accept the mechanism of transmission through natural selection of DNA gets me here. I accept that mechanism of transmission of ideas gets my religion here. In both cases what I reject is the meaninglessness implied by the mechanism being the sufficient explanation of this purpose. Mechanism is not purpose is my faith.
Wright: No I I I think I agree with you but I would say that mechanism well anyway we had that argument we had it for a long time too... you talk about you kind of get at the problem of evil a little in your book when you talk about in your view this is in your view the unavoidability of randomness accidents and for that matter evil I mean you have a way of thinking about that what what is it?
Robert Pollack: Well first it is to say and affirm that evil exists. There is a kind of religious position which says that evil is a matter of opinion but I I I believe that one cannot stake an asymmetric position of belief in intended in a caring God confront the theodyssey problem of evil in such a universe and walk away from it. It's a big problem if this creator God is capable of carrying out this God's wishes why would those wishes include evil? That is that is the problem of theodyssey. And I'm not about to stake out an answer that has pre-occupied thinkers from East to West for millenia but my my my current way of dealing with it is to say that at least part of an explanation for the persistence of evil is that it is the necessary it's the toxic waste of free will. If you have the freedom to choose correctly and well then you have the freedom to choose incorrectly or poorly and in that freedom to choose poorly runs into a freedom to choose evilly to choose gratutiously to cause pain hurt and death and it is in fact inside this notion of of of purpose in creation to say that without that risk there is only the the boring reality of angels that is individuals who are extensions of God's will in linear and trivial way and can only be good. Such a world may be present outside of time and space in some notion of heaven but it is not here on earth.
Wright: Speaking of heaven ...
Robert Pollack: Yes.
Wright: ... is an afterlife part of Judaic belief on not? It's it's ...
Robert Pollack: Well yes and no for a straight answer. My collegue at Jewish theological seminary the American Neil Gillman has written a book recently called "The Death of Death" ...Jewisih theology of an afterlife and this religion is a religion of actions as much or more than it is a religion of stated and required beliefs and so I think a fair position which I crudely represent of having learned from the great physician (()) 800 years ago would be that as we can't know we cannot therefore make blanket statements about it. But I think it is a tenent of Jewish faith that there will be a time after time when some aspect of each individual will be restored to a timeless state with God as those states were before creation. There is in other words if you like a very heavy religious idea, that before creation Torah existed. Laws, texts, expectations, right and wrong, obligations, all existed and will exist after and in this time and space to learn to follow them is an obligation to place what is left of us after death in a state capable of coexisting once again. Otherwise we fall out the experiment...
Robert Pollack: Now that's not the Christian heaven in which you you you it is not a place of saints and of angels and of immediate accessibility. This end of days follow a perfection of the universe, a perfection of the planet, a perfection of the species which as I said to you is incompatable with everything I understand about the data. So speaking now as a Jew and not as a scientist, my biggest religious problem is this coming this bringing together the religious hope and expectation of perfectability of everything real so that the end of days may come but the impossibility of doing that by any natural means given the origins of natural selection. That's a problem for me as a Jew. But I live inside the faith that that problem is not understable to me but will be understood one day.
Wright: Ok. Now ...
Robert Pollack: Tough question tough question.
Wright: Now heaven in in certainly the Christian heaven I think is thought of as among other things a very powerful incentive I mean you're supposed to act good to get there. What is your view on the extent to which religious belief is a prerequisite for good behavior...
Robert Pollack: That's a great question. It is a way to become a good person. It is not the way and certainly to say that there is a religion which is better than another is as data free as to say there is one language which is better than the other. There are more or less complicated and more or less sibilant languages and there are more or less complicated and sibilant religions but I do not I'm not bothered by the existence of a multiplicity of religions. And I believe that it the obligation of a serious religious person to having accepted the mystery of his or her own religion to seek to understand what is the mystery of another religion, to seek to find the commonality in what is irrationally held to and to respect it for the burden of irrationality as is felt by someone of another religion and their beliefs...
Wright: And do you and do you think religious belief of some kind at least is a prerequisite for living a life of true meaning?
Robert Pollack: That's a great question. I have found it so for me. I have found it so for me but I cannot claim it to be so for anyone else. I have seen however that what it has served for me is to protect me from the temptation of placing myself, as Rabbi Steinsaltz says, on the throne of God. If if and I do know some people for whom there is no throne of God and no one on it and those people are good people but I know many people claiming there is no one on the throne of God who place themselves on it and that's a disaster. So if nothing else this religious conviction has given me some modesty and some awe and some capacity not to claim powers I don't actually have.
Wright: Ok. Well I guess we'll leave it there.
Robert Pollack: Good.
Wright: Thanks very much.
Robert Pollack: Well that you for this opportunity to be slightly concerned and confused and disturbed by your question.
Wright: Oh I take that as the highest compliment.
Robert Pollack: I hope so. Thanks.