Archive for March 2007

Morality and Evolution

March 24, 2007

A couple of recent articles in the Times (one in the Science section) have again raised the question of the origins of morality. One discusses a study of Chimpanzees that demonstrated their ability to empathize with one another. (“Sympathize” is something else again; the difference should be considered.) They would sense that an individal needed help and would go to its assistance. “Lower” monkeys were unable to do this as reliably. Parallel to this, a study of brain injured persons showed that injury to a a particular part of the brain changed the moral calculus of individuals. When faced with a decision to kill a baby to make possible the survival of the group, the brain damaged individuals showed little compunction about killing the baby. “Normal” people found this much harder to do. The conclusion was that there was something in the normal human makeup that made certain actions almost unthinkable, whereas these controls had been removed when a certain part of the brain was damaged.

This research strengthens my feeling that moral behavior probably has a distinct evolutionary basis. The people who survived and reproduced generation after generation were those able to identify their interests with those of the group, and to establish emotional as well as intellectual limits on their behavior. (This is evolutionary selection on a group basis, a case doubted by many evolutionists, but I do not see why.) As one researcher suggested, human beings evolved before the Ten Commandments. What we have developed culturally as codes of behavior are intellectual selections and extrapolations from this biological base. The greatest difference between the ancient, emotive morality and the intellectualized moralities of civilization, is that some of the latter have been able to transcend the in-group and extend moral rules to all human beings — or even all beings. This extension frequently fails to work; it is more talked about than employed. But even the effort is quite an accomplishment. It is doubtful that Chimpanzees would have any concept of Chimpanzee rights, while they do have a strong moral sense governing their interactions within their in-group.

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Spirituality Misdefined

March 15, 2007

Consideration of the Templeton Prize offers an opening to understanding what the demand for greater spirituality in American life seems to come down to.

The most recent Templeton prize has been to Charles Taylor, a professor at Northwestern University. The Templeton Foundation was set up to study the “Big Questions”, ranging from questions about the laws of nature to the nature of creativity and consciousness. Yet in practice the Foundation has seemed intent primarily on proving that religion has a significant part to play in understanding the human condition, or that religion is an important alternative to science in investigations of “reality”. The person presently in charge describes himself as an evangelical Christian.

The Prize is given every year to a person who has made a significant contribution to “Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities”, or, in other words, makes the best attempt to “expand human perceptions of divinity and to help in the acceleration of divine creativity”. Its monetary value is always set a bit above that of the Nobel prize to accentuated the Foundation’s belief that its goals are of greater significance.

After looking at several of the writings of Charles Taylor on the internet, he seems to have served Foundation purposes quite well. From his position as a philosophy professor, he attacks modernist thinking or “overcoming epistemology”. What this seems to mean, for example, in a discussion of religion and violence is that the scientific method does not make possible the construction of platforms from which to apprehend what is better and what worse in human behavior or human arrangements. Thus, while religion has led to violence on many occasions, so have anti-religious movements such as communism and fascism. The conclusion of all this is that societies exist and must exist on a foundation of belief that continues over time and expresses the judgment of the community in preference to that of rational argument.

What this comes down to is an argument that we should cling to religious beliefs because science is unable to provide answers either behaviorally or rationally to the existential or social questions that face succeeding generations. Since science either cannot address such questions convincingly or does not, then we must all as a society accept the religious beliefs that have guided the past. This will hold us together more firmly into moral communities and will offer the greater happiness to all.

This seems to me a ridiculous way to approach knowledge. Let me quote from a letter I published in the New York Times Science section on March 7, 2006.

In his essay ‘The Oracle Suggests a Truce Between Science and Religion’ (Feb. 28), William J. Broad argues that a truce should be declared in the ”war between science and religion” because neither answers all the questions that humanity confronts. He criticizes the arrogance of Daniel Dennett and Edward O. Wilson for appearing to claim that science will ultimately be able to solve the problems that religion has traditionally addressed.

While no one wants a ”war,” Mr. Broad does not seem to understand that it is the continued unwillingness of most scientists to confront irrational religious claims that threatens both political and educational progress, particularly in the United States.

Science may never be able to answer all questions, but it is healthier to leave some questions unanswered than to fill the voids with nonsense.”

The Templeton Prize is awarded, then, to persons, often scientists, who are interested in instilling character as well as knowledge into their students (and readers). By “character”, what seems to be meant is belief in the precepts and fundamentals of religious traditions. The facts that numerous studies have failed to show behavioral advantages for true believers over nonbelievers within our society or to show that there is any correlation between social behavior and the extent of religious beliefs in societies, perhaps rather the reverse, are simply ignored. We are then being urged by the Templeton Foundation and all right-minded folk to believe in two mysteries — the mystery of how apparently nonrational dogmas can be “true” and the mystery of why the advantages of believing in these dogmas fail to show up in behavioral studies.

There is quite a different meaning of spirituality that even the most irreligious can subscribe to.  Michael Shirmer has pointed out the scientific side of spirituality in the following passage: 

Spirituality is a way of being in the world, a sense of one’s place in the cosmos, a relationship to that which extends beyond ourselves. There are many sources of spirituality; religion may be the most common, but it is by no means the only. Anything that generates a sense of awe may be a source of spirituality-art, for example. Consider the 1889 post-Impressionist painting ‘The Starry Night’ by Vincent van Gogh. It is a magnificent swirl of dark and light, punctuated by stars, with the sky and land delineated by horizon, and the infinite vastness of space hovering over humanity’s tiny abode.”

Van Gogh painted the conflict between body and soul, between objective and subjective, and between outer and inner experiences. As he told his brother, Theo: “I retain from nature a certain sequence and a certain correctness in placing the tones. I study nature so as not to do foolish things, to remain reasonable-however, I don’t mind so much whether my color corresponds exactly, as long as it looks beautiful on my canvas.” In fact, van Gogh described ‘The Starry Night’ to his brother as “an attempt to reach a religious viewpoint without God.” Read “spiritual” for “religious.”

Religion and Evolution

March 6, 2007

There has been another rash of religious discussions of religion-nonreligion controversies in the New York Times. One, by its religion editor, summarized some harsh criticisms of scientific god-bashers that have recently been issued by other scientists. Essentially, the criticism of the god-bashers is that their learning is not grounded sufficiently in theology to mount an effective and convincing case against the religionists. In fact, some of the critics have studied a good deal of theology. But the essential point is that the study of theology is hardly a necessary prelude to a criticism of many aspects of religion. It is as though one said that astrology could not be criticized without a thorough grounding in the arcana of astrology, or that Voodoo can only be dismissed by those thoroughly indoctrinated in its rituals and beliefs.

In the most general terms two levels of the discussion should be distinguished. One level addresses the question of whether there is a god who intervenes directly in human affairs, or, in other words, a god who can be prayed to with an assumption that prayers will move him (or her) to a particular action. The atheist says that this assumption fails on three grounds. First, there is little or no evidence of the effectiveness of prayers to such a god. Second, there is no conceivable mechanism by which such a god would intervene. Third, there is no conceivable reason why such a god, if he or she existed, would want to intervene in human affairs. It doesn’t take much theology to make these arguments. On the second level, we can understand god to be an indescribable entity or force existing outside of time and the events of our lives. This God may be a prime mover or the creator, the being responsible for it all. This God cannot be disproved by science. However, since it is a scientific principle that what cannot be disproved, cannot be proven, the existence of God, and of belief in such a God, lies beyond the concern of scientists who attack religion.

The question of how evolution might have brought about religious belief, or specifically belief in God is more interesting. This Sunday’s NY Times magazine has a somewhat confusing account of the ways in which anthropologists have approached this issue. We need not consider the bulk of their evidence. But the discussion led me to raise two points. First, Human beings are probably the only creatures with an existential consciousness. Specifically, they are the only creatures who are conscious of the fact that they and those dear to them will die, will apparently cease to exist, bringing to an end all that their existence has meant. It does seem likely that much of religion has been created as a psychological defense against the acknowledgement of this fact. This defense would obviously have survival value, for it would make possible more confidence in a variety of situations, including mortal combat and resistance to disease, and those with more confidence would have more progeny etc. Secondly, religious beliefs and symbols when shared by the members of a community have a survival value for that community, for it gives the individuals in it something of value beyond the values specific to the individuals in it. To believe in a group’s religion is actually to believe in the group and its values, to share in its existence. It might appear that it would not make a great deal of difference what these beliefs were. But it may also make a difference in that the more irrational the beliefs, the more they go against normal ways of thinking, the greater the sacrifice of the members in adhering and adhering openly and repeatedly to these beliefs. I have often noticed that groups that appear to have particularly unlikely beliefs, such as the Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses are also those most likely to sacrifice for their group. The strength of their group is enhanced by their flagrant willingness to set aside the natural for the supernatural. Fundamentalisms thrive on this fact; at the extreme violent cults thrive even more on this willingness. Incidentally, to make this last point is to accept the position that evolution is based as much on the ability of groups to survive and procreate as that of individuals. Although many biologists appear to reject this position, I simply do not understand their rejection.