via Jerry Coyne come remarks from Oxford’s Lord Robert May, president of the British Science Festival and former chief scientific adviser to the British government, expressing views which I think are in keeping with (while further developing) the broader philosophical pictures that I lay out here, here, here, here, here, and, most of all, here.
Lord May, a mathematical biologist, said in his presidential address to the conference, that co-operation between people globally will be needed more than ever in the coming decades but added he feared that to make sure it worked there had to be some kind of mechanism that punished those who cheated others. In the past, the ultimate punisher was God.
He said that punishment was much more effective if it came from “some all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful deity that controls the world”, rather than from an individual person.
“In such systems, there is unquestioning respect for authority. Faith trumps evidence. But if indeed this is broadly the explanation for how co-operative behavior has evolved and been maintained in human societies, it could be very bad news. Because although such authoritarian systems seem to be good at preserving social coherence and an orderly society, they are, by the same token, not good at adapting to change.”
The rise of fundamentalism, not just in the Muslim world but in the United States, and within the Catholic church, could actually make global co-operation more difficult at a time when an unprecedented level of teamwork was needed, Lord May said. “If you take the view that in times of stress, authoritarian hierarchies tend to resist change, what the history of religion has been has been towards a softening, less dogmatic values, but under stress you simplify complex problems to simple mantras,” he said.