Saturday, January 25, 2014

God and Morality

Bad arguments attract bad arguments, with whom they like to mate and proliferate.  The places where Intelligent Design (ID) meets its critics appear to be especially fertile spawning grounds.  At the general level, this is because bad arguments, even when they are made from diametrically opposed points of view, tend to share a frame of reference.  They both make their waves in the shallow end of the pool.  It is more particularly the case with respect to ID and its foes, because both refuse to accept the fundamentally subjective nature of their claims.  Each points out easily that its opponent does not have an ultimate foundation to stand on-- but (to mix my metaphors pretty shamelessly), each fails to see that it has pulled the rug out from under its own feet in the process.

I am moved to make the point by a recent article in the New Republic about ID which both refutes, and makes, plenty of bad arguments.  The article concerns a recent book by an ID-er, which makes a form of what the author calls the "moral design argument" for God's existence.  The ID-er in question, Francis Collins, argues that evolution cannot properly account for our higher moral impulses, such as altruism.  Therefore, scientific naturalism leaves an explanatory lacuna around certain observable features of human behavior, so it is insufficient, on its own, as a theory.

Collins is not, or is not necessarily, arguing that none of our moral behavior could be accounted for by natural selection.  I suspect he would agree that a good deal of our ordinary ethical life is conducted out of an impulse we half-recognize as enlightened self-interest, arising out of some form of reciprocity.  The ability to make and keep promises, we might say, furnishes us with a more sophisticated and lasting adaptive advantage than clubbing people over the head and absconding with their mates would do.  Nor do I think it’s the case, as some theistic writers imply, that it diminishes these impulses’ value, simply if they can be shown to be self-directed in a very broad and abstract way.  People of all meta-ethical persuasions, after all, tend to agree that one of the reasons to be moral is that it conduces to a flourishing life for oneself—even if they don’t think this reason is binding in the right way or essential to proving the value of morality.  Simply having an evolutionary account of morality wouldn’t alter the value of morality, therefore—but it wouldn’t establish that value, on its own, either.  It would not justify morality, even if it succeeded in explaining it.  That is the crucial point, which both Collins and Paul Bloom, the author of the New Republic piece, seem not to take up.

The problem with the evolutionary account from Collins’ perspective is therefore not that it fails to explain any feature of our moral life—it is that it cannot explain all of it.  Collins provides us with examples of deeds of heroic self-sacrifice-- cases, he claims, which are inexplicable on an evolutionary basis-- such as Wesley Autrey’s famous dive under a Subway train in order to save the life of a man experiencing seizure.  This is a genuinely altruistic act which can be accounted for neither by Autry’s interest in his individual survival, nor by his stake in his genetic survival.  It was not his own offspring who fell under the train, and by saving the other man, Autrey was risking his own future reproductive success, to put this in the clichés of biological reductionism.  

We could provide other cases of human moral action which don't seem to make selective sense.  Schopenhauer was fond of examples of humans risking themselves for animals and vice versa, because such cases, he thought, indicated a universal protective instinct toward the "will to life" itself.  They do indeed seem hard to explain on any basis short of this, since the reductionist cannot even invoke such a nebulous and scientifically dubious notion as an evolutionary "species-interest" when confronted with them.  Schopenhauer told a story of a man facing a firing squad, moments away from death, who furiously waved away a loyal dog who was bounding up to him in joy because he feared the dog would be caught accidentally in the fire.  From an individual and genetic and species perspective, he surely had nothing to gain by doing so, seeing as his own life was about to be extinguished. 

Collins apparently concludes from such genuine altruism that A.) evolutionary theory is insufficient to account for it; B.) therefore, some other force is at work in cases of supreme self-sacrifice; C.) the most likely candidate for this other force is the Judeo-Christian God.  (I warned you that we had stumbled into bad argument mating grounds here.)

Whether C follows from B is a question for a different stage of the argument.  The question here is whether A has even been established.   Paul Bloom makes the case convincingly that it has not been.  His argument is that we are driven to perform a whole slew of evolutionarily maladaptive, irrational, or neutral (from the perspective of reproductive success) activities—but the impulse to engage in these activities ultimately originates from aspects of our brains which are the products of evolution.  Bloom gives among other examples our onanistic tendencies as a species, which do not lead directly to reproduction—but which clearly originate in a sex drive that, of all things, can be easily explained by Darwinian theory.  Masturbation is adaptively neutral, but still explicable within the framework of natural selection.

Bloom’s argument with respect to morality is similar: evolution has implanted in our brains certain basic moral impulses, which offer an adaptive advantage.  Human culture can play on these impulses, however, and can trigger them -- even when the adaptive strategies which created the impulses in the first place are irrelevant to a given scenario.  Thus, human culture makes us more altruistic than we would be “naturally”—but it does so by playing on drives which we had more or less from birth, and which were bequeathed to us by our evolutionary heritage.  Thus, altruism can be explained within a broad framework of scientific naturalism, without taking Spirit off the bench—yet altruism is not itself an adaptive strategy—it is a “cultural accomplishment” (says Bloom).

So far as Collins’ argument goes, as presented, Bloom’s points are quite sufficient to refute it, and we can all go home.  Acts of altruism do not constitute “miracles” inexplicable to modern science and requiring the intervention of some supernatural force.

But there is a deeper problem, which I suspect Collins was gesturing toward, if ham-handedly.  This problem was already alluded to above:  Basically, evolutionary theory can provide some account of why, with human beings as they are, we tend to exhibit both the lower-order ethic of reciprocity mentioned above and the higher-order ethic of altruism.  But it cannot provide us with any reason to practice either ethic.  It has not furnished us with any reason for viewing morality as an “accomplishment,” in Bloom’s phrasing, rather than a fluke—or worse, a maladaptation that is in fact deadly to our future genetic success. 

It is entirely possible, after all, on Bloom’s theory, that our evolutionary drives could be manipulated in such a way as to actually do us harm.  How, short of a more fundamental justification for morality, can we be sure this is not what is being done in the case of the ethic of self-sacrifice?  By way of example, consider a story from the childhood of Kenzaburo Oe.  Oe grew up in Japan during the Second World War, and was indoctrinated with what he later came to decry as an ideology of “emperor-worship.”  He recalls being asked repeatedly by his teachers in school whether he would willingly die, if the emperor desired it.  Oe and the other boys assured them that yes, if the emperor told them to, they would rip open their own guts and expire on the spot.  Part of Oe’s confusion as a boy, he tells us, was that he knew he wouldn’t really do it—but we must assume that at least some of those children really meant it—or at least, like Oe, they felt strongly that they ought to mean it.  

Today, of course, we would recognize that Oe was being manipulated.  No one beyond a few right-wing cliques in Japan would wish to claim the "self-sacrificing" behavior being urged on the young Oe was a "miracle"—accounted for only by an act of God.  Rather, it is clear that what was happening here was that the boys’ instinctual urge to belong, to seek the protection of a group, was being used against them.  Something natural to their minds, and evolutionarily explicable, was being distorted and put to maladaptive uses.

Why should we recognize this as wrong, however, but not regard someone who sacrifices her own life for a stranger as suffering under a similar form of manipulation?  Why should we regard the first as a profound violation and the second as a “cultural accomplishment”?  

The answer can only be that sacrificing yourself to save someone’s life has some intrinsic value that killing yourself on the whim of an overlord does not possess.  But this notion of "intrinsic value" is simply impossible to derive from evolutionary theory on its own.  This is the point which most theists usually take to cinch their own case for God. 

The problem, however, is that God has not been established by this argument.  All that has been established is that morality has no demonstrable foundation.  We have, in fact, worked our way down to an entirely possible naturalistic scenario: we, as a species, are a product of evolution, which has equipped us with certain drives, valueless in themselves, but which tend to motivate us toward reproductive success.  These drives can be manipulated to convince us to behave in altruistic ways, but doing so—and not doing so—are quite as valueless as the drives.  There is nothing internally inconsistent about this account.

We know, however, that none of us is going to accept this naturalistic scenario.  The psychological costs of doing so—of really doing so-- are too high.  And once we have made our choice not to accept it, there is an infinite number of subjective world-views we might adopt in its place—only one of which is an Abrahamic, monotheistic account.  Another, for instance, is a naturalistic view which places a question mark over the origin of the distinctive value of morality and simply acknowledges the presence of an unknown.  The idea of "intrinsic value" is intuitively convincing, but it is virtually impossible to conceive of how such value might be initially created or implanted in the world.  This inconceivability could be labeled "God," but there is no reason to believe that such an inconceivability would have any of the traits we usually ascribe to God.

Ok, but why not accept the purely naturalistic scenario again?  I have mentioned its psychological cost, but we have to remember that no degree of emotional discomfort can possibly be high enough to constitute a reason, in itself, for not believing in something.  My aversion to a claim, no matter how profound, is not itself a reason to reject it.  So we have no reason to believe in the intrinsic value of morality.  If we are to believe in it—and I do—we must do so without reason.

I am straying I suppose into the territory of the old Barthian quip: "Belief cannot argue with unbelief; it can only preach to it."  Antony Flew once argued, however, that this sort of talk is pure nonsense.  You can’t say that you “believe” something if you acknowledge at the same time that you have no sharable reason to believe it.  In other words, if you have already stated that you hold your own belief to be arbitrary, then you do not really hold it to be true—in the universal sense implicit in the concept of “truth.” 

This is apparently convincing—yet if it holds, then it must also be granted that no one believes anything, since all our “beliefs” about the world rest on philosophical foundations which are either non-existent or at least, to be a bit more charitable, rather difficult to come by.  If this in turn is the case, then there is no such thing as “belief.”  But since “belief” is just a word in our language, which we clearly do use with a certain meaning to refer to a certain thing, then Flew must have been working with the wrong definition of “belief" if this is the result of his reasoning.  

It seems that our ordinary way of thinking allows for some distinction between a belief that we arrive at “subjectively” and one we arrive at “arbitrarily”—even if both means of ingress are equally suspect from the perspective of the pure philosopher.  I have a subjective belief in free will—countermanded, in fact, by a great deal of objective reasoning from both the atheistic and theistic traditions.  But I don’t think a belief in free will, or in the existence of other minds, or in the reality of the external world, can quite be described as “arbitrary”--  or at the very least, it is not something I am able to recognize in my own psyche as “arbitrary,” which was the type of situation Flew had in mind.  The key distinction would seem to be that a subjective belief is one you hold in the absence of objective reasons, but which you continue to regard as true, really true, true universally.  A belief which you know to be arbitrary is already, by definition, a relative truth—hence not actually true at all.  The existence of such subjective truths defies our reasoning, but again—they must exist—otherwise we have no beliefs at all. 

I suspect most of our beliefs about God and morality are subjective in this way.  It must, again, seem paradoxical that I could acknowledge my atheism to be a subjective belief, but nevertheless hold it to be true universally.  But if paradox it is, then it is a universal paradox, implicit in any worldview which is capable of being honest with itself.  It is an uneasy logical position to be in, but one which James Fowler once described as essential to any mature faith—even a secular one.

Some might argue that it is still possible to distinguish objectively between subjectively-derived world-pictures.  They might insist, for instance, that even if one’s Christian monotheism lacks ultimate, objective foundations, it can nonetheless be distinguished as the only possible truth by pointing to the logical flaws and internal consistencies that mar all its rivals. 

Given that the number of rivals will always be infinite, however, this is a fool’s errand.  Besides, if internal consistency is the only and final standard of judgment, I don’t think the ribbon will go to the worldview which includes a three-part God who is fully human and fully divine and who is morally perfect, yet created this monstrously imperfect world.  Just saying.  It could still be the correct worldview, but if we find all subjective reasons for preferring it inadmissible, then I don’t think the metric of consistency alone will serve it well.

You could say further that there seems to be something wrong with a scientific naturalism which acknowledges the existence of something—the intrinsic value of morality—which can’t plausibly be derived by scientific means.  I would agree, if by "wrong" you mean psychologically unsatisfactory.  But simply confessing ignorance about a question cannot possibly be a “wrong” answer in the sense of being “incorrect.”  If anything, positing an answer to the question opens itself to the risk of being wrong in a way the confession of ignorance cannot.  To borrow an example from Paul Draper, suppose I am standing in front of a door and am asked what’s behind it.  The most honest answer, and the one that’s least likely to be wrong, is simply to say “I see that there’s a door there, but I don’t know what’s behind it.”  Positing that there is, say, a dog behind it, is less intrinsically plausible.  Positing that there is a particular kind of dog wearing a particular kind of collar behind the door is less plausible still, and so on. 

But the point is that these arguments about consistency or Occam’s Razor, employed in the last two paragraphs, don’t actually constitute my reason for being an atheist.  There is no philosophical argument that alone made me an atheist, and I suspect that there is no argument, no matter how apparently unanswerable, that would turn me into a believer.  The wholly subjective grounds of my unbelief are too firmly rooted in my personality and outlook to be altered by such means alone.  

What I mean by this is that I lack fundamental reasons to think that that the universe had no thinking, willing creator, that no God came down to Earth and was killed and resurrected, that there is no afterlife.  Yet I find the alternatives to these beliefs to be fundamentally incomprehensible-- and again, without reasons I can fully share.  I suppose I can grant, in that case, that there are theists who believe in their own theological system in much the same way I believe in mine, and who would find atheism to be senseless in the same inescapable way.

This sort of subjectivism would once have been the stock-in-trade of religious polemics, but it has become scarce in recent debates between atheists and believers.  Noah Millman, in a post with which I am in almost total sympathy and agreement, attributes this to a certain bullying "masculinism" which both the New Atheists and the New Apologists incline to exude.  Indeed, it is hard not to look at a screed from one or the other of the two sides without detecting symptoms of severe testosterone poisoning.  

Millman exhorts the participants in the tussle to let the logic-chopping go, and to be willing to speak a little poetically, a little subjectively, about their own religious experiences-- and why their deepest beliefs matter to them at a non-rational level.

In that spirit, I can say that I am a non-believer not only because I believe that the Christian God doesn't exist for intellectual reasons.  Rather more crucially, I believe for emotional reasons that if such a Being did exist as commonly described, I would hate that Being and devote whatever energy I had to resisting it, provided I didn't succumb to craven submission first.  I would hate it for its power, and for its selfishness in creating a world that so manifestly could be better than it is.  

This, of course, is precisely what believers have been arguing for centuries-- that atheists are mostly lying when they say they oppose belief on philosophical grounds, and that they are really just souls in rebellion against the very idea of Divine Lordship.  In my case, at least, they are entirely correct.  At an emotional level, I would not be capable of worshipping-- still less of loving with all my heart, soul, and mind-- an omnipotent creator deity.  

Of course, there are other gods, which don't seem much more plausible to me, but to which I could imagine bending a knee.  Robert Bellah, in Religion in Human Evolution, includes the example of a Balinese deity, described (if I remember correctly) from the ethnographic reports of Clifford Geertz.  The god is a dragon, according to local lore, but Bellah describes it as fulfilling a sort of "sheepdog" role in the community.  It contends on behalf of the people against the dark and indifferent forces of the universe, and it is frequently unsuccessful in the process.  Sometimes people are carried off by those other forces.  But the sheepdog keeps on trying, perennially risking its own hide for the human race.  This is a god I could worship-- a god that loses and suffers and fails and strives on behalf of the miserable.  

But now that's starting to sound an awful lot like Christ isn't it?-- Eliot's "infinitely gentle/ infinitely suffering thing."  There is a moment in Updike's novel Roger's Version when Dale, the true believer, suggests that anger about the universe and its cruelties --anger against God-- is one of the ways God speaks to us. 

If there is room for dialogue at this subjective, emotional level, here is where it might start-- but I am too tired to go much further with the thought, and would need a theist to weigh in from the other side of the conversation.  

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