May 06, 2009

Skyhooks and cranes-5: Darwin and morality

(For other posts in this series, see here.)

The final skyhook that is invoked is the one of morality. It is argued by some religious apologists that we cannot explain the universality of some ideas of right or wrong or the existence of altruism, without invoking something transcendent, some cosmic conscience. Francis Collins, former director of the Human Genome Project and of the National Human Genome Research Institute at the National Institutes of Health and author of the book The Language of God, elevates this idea to something he calls the Law of Human Nature and is a strong exponent of this skyhook. To do so, he has to make the self-serving and unsubstantiated assumption that human nature is not only unexplained, it is fundamentally mysterious and inexplicable, thus requiring a skyhook and thereby foreshadowing his conclusion.

If the Law of Human Nature cannot be explained away as cultural artifact or evolutionary by-product, then how can we account for its presence? There is truly something unusual going on here. To quote Lewis, "If there was a controlling power outside the universe, it could not show itself to us as one of the facts inside the universe – no more than the architect of a house could actually be a wall or staircase or fireplace in that house. The only way in which we could expect it to show itself would be inside ourselves as an influence or a command trying to get us to behave in a certain way. And that is just what we do find inside ourselves. Surely this ought to arouse suspicions?" (p. 45, 46)
. . .
In my view, DNA sequence alone, even if accompanied by a vast trove of data on biological function, will never explain certain special human attributes, such as the knowledge of the Moral Law and the universal search for God. (p. 189-190)

I have discussed earlier the flaw in Lewis's (and Collins's) reasoning.

Collins claims that everyone around the world seems to have the same intuitive sense of what is right and wrong (what Immanuel Kant called the Moral Law) and that they all seem to yearn to believe in god and that this is evidence that these things must have come externally from god. He arrives at this conclusion by simply dismissing the possibility (as he did for the origin of the universe) that our sense of right or wrong or the ubiquitous belief in god may have perfectly natural causes, despite much research (which I will explore in future posts) that point to just such a possibility.

Note carefully his argument. He says that god is "outside the universe" and therefore we should not expect to find evidence for him "as one of the facts inside the universe." Collins says that the evidence for god must be what we find "inside ourselves as an influence or command trying to get us to behave in a certain way." Since we have such a thing in the Moral Law and also our yearning for god, we have the necessary evidence for god.

The logical flaw in this argument is obvious. If some thing is inside us, and we are inside the universe, then the basic logic rule of syllogism implies that this thing must also be inside the universe. So how can Collins claim that this thing that is inside us is outside the universe? The only way to do that is to invoke magical Cartesian dualism and assume that our mind (and consciousness) is also outside the universe, although it can somehow communicate with us enough to make our bodies do things.

In invoking the existence of a moral sense as a sign of god's existence, people like Collins are merely reintroducing in a different guise the idea that the mind is more than the working of the brain. The means for doing this is to promote the curious and logically contradictory idea that we can split the world into two non-overlapping parts, where science deals with the physical sphere while religion deals with the moral and ethical sphere.

Collins, being an evangelical Christian scientist, of course supports this:

In my view, there is no conflict in being a rigorous scientist and a person who believes in a God who takes a personal interest in each one of us. Science's domain is to explore nature. God's domain is in the spiritual world, a realm not possible to explore with the tools and language of science. It must be examined with the heart, the mind, and the soul.

Pope Benedict XVI chimes in with his support for it in a Reuters report on Monday, January 28, 2008:

Scientific investigation should be accompanied by "research into anthropology, philosophy and theology" to give insight into "man's own mystery, because no science can say who man is, where he comes from or where he is going", the Pope said.

The Pope's statement that "no science can say who man is, where he comes from or where he is going" is one of those sweeping statements favored by religious people that have no empirical content whatsoever, with each of the three components in it being purely metaphysical. After all, if interpreted empirically, science has no difficulty at all in saying who man is (he is a biological system), where he comes from (he has evolved from other organisms in a fairly well-understood pathway), and where he is going (he will continue to evolve though we cannot predict what the changes will be since natural selection has an element of contingency).

While this appeal to the existence of morality and altruism as indicators of the need for skyhooks strikes me as hopeless grasping at straws, what gives this argument some durability is the curious fact that many people seem willing, even eager, to concede to religion the role of sole arbiter of morality and ethics, even though there is no reason to do so.

One can understand why religious people, scientists and non-scientists alike, find this argument appealing, despite all its logical flaws. It is an attempt to find a niche for religion that cannot be encroached upon by science. What is curious is why so many non-religious people, even scientists, also support it, though they must know that it makes no sense.

This will be examined in the next post in the series.

POST SCRIPT: Harman hypocrisy

Congresswoman Jane Harman is absolutely outraged that she was wiretapped, even though there was a warrant for it. She was the person who enthusiastically supported wiretaps when it was done without warrants to ordinary people, and even tried to prevent newspapers from breaking that story.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartM - Th 11p / 10c
Your Government Not at Work - Jane Harman Scandal
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Economic CrisisFirst 100 Days


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