Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Very Briefly: God, Science, and Morality

The Catholic priest Robert Barron informs us that "the sciences will never disprove the existence of God," which, for starters, gets things backward: religion has not been able to prove that God does exist, and that's the proof required.  Absent actual evidence, theologians and philosophers have for centuries been reduced to arguing that God must exist, but science increasingly tells us why that isn't so.

It is not my intention to grapple here with the contingency issue central to Barron's very short commentary.  I do wish to briefly note a related mistake.  Theologians commonly relegate science and religion to separate and disjoint knowledge domains, and  Barron does so as well:

Though the sciences might be able to explain the chemical make-up of pages and ink, they will never be able to reveal the meaning of a book; and though they might make sense of the biology of the human body, they will never tell us why a human act is moral or immoral; and though they might disclose the cellular structure of oil and canvas, they will never determine why a painting is beautiful. And this is not because “science” is for the moment insufficiently developed, it is because the scientific method cannot, even in principle, explore such matters, which belong to a qualitatively different category of being than the proper subject matter of the sciences. [my emphasis -mb]

This claim of "category error" is at the heart of much philosophical musing on the relevance of science with respect to God.  Science cannot understand God, it is said, because God is in a knowledge domain where science is not equipped to operate. Human morality, which is supposedly a part of that other knowledge domain, is a common lynchpin in philosophical arguments for the necessity of God.  Such arguments hold that our innate sense of right and wrong must come from something higher, other, outside ourselves, and that something is God.

Reading C.S. Lewis in my youth, I found this notion compelling. And yet, it is demonstrably false that science will "never tell us why a human act is moral or immoral."  It turns out that human morality is quite simply a product of human evolution, and science is well equipped to explain the particulars.  For a taste of this, see E.O. Wilson's The Social Conquest of the Earth.  Also useful, and highly interesting, is Robert Wright's The Evolution of God. (By the way, some nonhuman social animals also exhibit moral behavior, which is closely related to human morality.  A fascinating and eminently readable elucidation of the latest science of animal morality is Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals by Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce.)

The essence of this Godless morality is that as humans evolved from lower species, we developed complex modes of social organization which allowed us to more readily compete and reproduce.  Heritable traits that support such organization increased through standard Darwinian evolution, because those traits conferred competitive advantage. The evolved social organization constitutes rules (or "norms") for how we interact with each other, as individuals and as groups.  Those rules are what we mean by morality, which is therefore in a very real sense a part of human hereditary biology.  

Religion's apologists warn that a morality divorced from God is insufficiently objective or absolute to serve what we mean by moral purpose, but such is not the case. They also argue that when separated from God, the meaning of good and evil is arbitrary——also not true. From the present perspective of our evolutionary history, there is nothing subjective about human morality as constructed by natural selection and explained by science: it is a fundamental part of human  nature, at the core of who and what we are, and therefore not——from our point of reference in the here and now——arbitrary.  The distinction is that our sense of right and wrong comes from nature——our nature——not from God. It seems we created God in our image and likeness, not the reverse.

It is easy to understand why philosophers before Darwin posited a God to explain morality.  Science, however, provides the more elegant explanation.  Similarly, as science continues to uncover new and more accurate insights about the nature of reality, the tired charges of category errors raised by objecting theologians will become ever less relevant.

Copyright (C) 2012 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved