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


At Tue Oct 09, 03:02:00 PM, Blogger Bert Haverkate-Ens said...

As you should know, I think your reasoning is impeccable, and yet, science will predict, correctly, that humans in large numbers will continue to imagine and believe and live by notions that are demonstrably false, even if it should lead to the extinction of themselves as individuals or the entire species.

It is an undeniable fact that more people who will not face facts are being born every minute than you will convert from devout faith to even mild skepticism in your lifetime.

You are more than welcome to try to articulate these truth questions.

My approach lately has been to seek common ground at a lower level that will lead to behavior both believers and unbelievers can appreciate.

My success rate approximates yours.

Now if only I could shame you into a post that approximates the beauty and clarity AND truth of your "Silence" post.

At Fri Oct 12, 04:51:00 AM, Blogger Bert Haverkate-Ens said...

I hate to play devil's advocate (now that's baldfaced), but I looked at this again and asked:

Why must religion empirically prove that God exists?

You and I surely think that the credibility of religion is diminished when it makes empirical claims that are demonstrably false and it certainly seems slippery to me to say that God's existence can't be proven, only believed.

Here's where I could trot out the Flying Spaghetti Monster, I suppose, but if I leave the Almighty FSM in the realm of faith, why shouldn't I believe if I want to.

Who made empiricism and rationality God? You (and I) can argue on the grounds of where would we be without science and reason, but is where we are with them so much better?

It's clear, to me, that there is no real bottom to this can of worms. So I quit by repeating my first question:

Why must believers empirically prove anything?

At Fri Oct 12, 09:07:00 AM, Blogger Mike Brennan said...

I think by mentioning the FSM you answered your own question. Perhaps you could find somebody doing a doctoral dissertation on why, if you want to understand reality, you can't just have faith in whatever silliness you care to make up, but that seems self evident to me. (Or, as Sam Harris says, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.) Maybe the problem is it isn't self evident to believers.

At Tue Oct 16, 12:00:00 PM, Blogger Bert Haverkate-Ens said...

I do think self-evidence depends on the self in question.

The serious question is beyond my ability or at least interest.

I think I have to leave some wiggle room for those who have beliefs that point outside of the empirical universe, if for no other reason than that I cannot anchor all I believe empirically.

My objection comes when religious folk make implicitly empirical claims that I think are demonstrably false.

But I have no real argument with those who say 'I believe in 'X' by faith, no proof intended.'

Of course, many people follow that with all sorts of nonsense, but not all.


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