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June 29, 2005

Evolution and morality

Here is my long overdue reply to Mark Kleiman on evolution, morality, and torture, and his follow-up on literalism, skepticism, and torture.

In his original post Mark argued that those of us on the culturally liberal, scientifically-minded "blue team" should show more respect for people who resist evolutionary biology. He notes that many religious conservatives are uncomfortable with evolution because it implies that humans descended from non-human animals:

The red team is, I am convinced, wrong to think that believing the account of human origins in Genesis is a necessary condition for behaving well. But red-teamers aren't wrong to think of that account as providing a potentially powerful prop to moral behavior, and can't, therefore, justly be faulted as unreasonable or superstitious for objecting to attempts to kick that prop out from under their children, and other children who are their future fellow-citizens. [Emphasis mine.]

In my last post, I argued it would be irrational and superstitious to reject evolution for the reasons Mark ascribes to the red team.

First off, there's overwhelming evidence that the creation myth of Genesis is wrong.

If members of the red team are rejecting evolution because they think that the story of Genesis might encourage good behavior, they are indulging in wishful thinking. It is irrational to start with the conclusion you prefer and adjust your reasoning to reach that conclusion. Some people are afraid of the implications of evolutionary biology, but the desirability of those implications is irrelevant to the plausibility of the theory itself.

Obviously, not everyone takes Genesis literally. However, non-literalists have even less intellectual justification for opposing evolution than their fundamentalist counterparts. If you regard your holy book as an inspired mixture of fact and allegory, you shouldn't necessarily feel threatened by evolutionary biology. As Mark said previously, the story about humans being created in God's image is a potentially ennobling metaphor. It is a poetic reminder of our shared humanity and our duty to respect other people. This is a good metaphor regardless of whether Genesis is an accurate geology textbook.

As Mark notes in his second post, it's a mistake to approach a holy text as a collection truth-valued propositions. That's the fundamentalist approach. Skeptics who assume that all religious study is an exercise in finding truth values are missing the point. As a skeptic, I approach holy books as literature. I don't expect them to be literally true, or internally consistent. I read the bible much the way I read a Shakespeare history play--as a potential source of moral, aesthetic, and psychological insight that can be appreciated independently of its historical accuracy.

I think my approach is similar to that of most religious believers, except that I deny that the bible is in any sense holy or inspired. Typically, religious people believe that their scriptures are a privileged source of insight relative to other texts or sources of knowledge. If you take that view, you can have the best of both worlds regarding evolution: God gave us these ennobling metaphors and the rationality to investigate his creation. It is our job to decipher the moral message and apply it to the world as we find it. If humans descended from apes, the faithful just have to figure out how the spirit of Genesis applies to an evolved species of primate.

The viability of any religion as a moral framework is simply independent of the truth of evolutionary biology. I have argued elsewhere that so-called revealed truths proffered by most religions are superfluous for morality. Specifically, the alleged supernatural or revealed source of the moral truth is irrelevant to the value of the moral principle.

If there are moral truths, they ought to be discoverable, or at least defensible by reason. Religious traditions may be rich repositories of accumulated moral insight, but at the end of the day, it's the arguments themselves and not the putative mystical authority that matters. Even if some religion turns out to teach the a valid moral code, that set of principles ought to be explicable and defensible to someone who isn't religious. If so-called moral principles must be accepted on faith, they cease to be moral principles at all.

That's what I was getting at when I argued that Genesis could just as easily be a corrupting influence. If you aren't committed to taking your entire holy book as unalloyed and literal truth, you get to pick and choose which metaphors and themes you find relevant and compelling. The story of Genesis only bolsters an appeal to universal human rights among those who already embrace those values. If you have other values, you can use the same source material to justify those baser impulses.

Unlike Mark, I won't say that those who advocate torture are bad Christians or bad Jews. I will say that they're bad people. Being a good member of religion X is just to be a faithful upholder of the tradition in which you find yourself. Sometimes being a good X increases your chances of being a good person, but not necessarily. Depending on the X tradition in which you find yourself, good Xness may be an impediment morality.

Members of the red team who reject evolution because of its moral implications are deeply confused about science and morality. I would argue that their reticence also bespeaks a lack of faith and/or a muddled theology. They deserve the same courtesy as anyone who is advancing a view in a public debate, but they don't deserve any special deference from us because their beliefs are well-intentioned and/or faith-based.

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» http://WWW.markarkleiman.com/archives/_/2005/07/.php from Mark A. R. Kleiman
Today, as I was printing out copies of the Declaration of Independence in preparation for a ceremonial group reading of the document in celebration of the Fourth, it occured to me that I had missed a trick in my colloquy... [Read More]

» "Endowed by natural selection with certain unalienable rights"? from Mark A. R. Kleiman
The Declaration of Independence builds directly on the Genesis myth about human origins. [Read More]

» "Endowed by natural selection with certain unalienable rights"? from Mark A. R. Kleiman
The Declaration of Independence builds directly on the Genesis myth about human origins. [Read More]

Comments

I can't quite wrap my brain around the idea that we should be sympathetic to fairy tales. We're supposed to soften our stance on science because it makes the Scopes folks sleep better at night?

Nice. I agree, of course. Of course, PZ has a thread on this again, too.


While I'm eternally greatful to Hume for showing me the light of the hardest religion of them all - skepticism - when I try to explain to believers that morals/goodness/value should not need to be derived from any external source but should be discoverable by themselves I find myself also glad that I followed Hume with Kant.

One of the things that drives me most nuts about this "debate" is that not all Christians deny evolution.

I know for a fact that the Catholic Church accepts evolution as a fact and interprets it as a sign of God's actions on Earth, since no one can really explain why a random mutation occurs. Call it utterly random, call it the hand of God, tomato, tomatoh, whatever.

What people like Kleiman are advocating is that we cater to a very small (albeit very vocal) group of people while mainline Methodists, Lutherans, Catholics, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, etc. etc. etc. are ignored or ridiculed for actually, you know, believing that science is correct.

Don't get me wrong -- I think all of those mainline Christians need to do a hell of a lot better job standing up for themselves and for the truth. They're reluctant to criticize their "brothers in Christ."

The Constitution ensures that the majority can't tyrranize a minority, but it doesn't say that minority rules, either.

Some "moral" things, like forgiveness, prayer, etc. have been proven to be beneficial physiologically. Perhaps these things themselves evolved? Of course, the whole point of Christianity is to love other people selflessly, not provide a scientific worldview. I've always been baffled that some people have trouble keeping the two apart. To me, science and religion are as unrelated as mathematics and politics.

Horatio, I'd look at PZ's discussion of the No True Scotsman argument.

Anyway: it seems that to the majority of Christians belief in the existence of God is central to Christianity. That's a factual assertion, which makes science very relevant.

Not sure what you mean, Eli. I don't think I'm moving the free throw line, as it were. Who's PZ?

No it's not, it's an article of faith. It's an assertion many people choose to believe, maybe even struggle to believe, although THEY KNOW it's not testable.

(Not all, obviously -- some believe in God and don't know any different. But others consciously live with a paradox.)

PZ Myers has a response to some of the Kleiman stuff here. One of the things he addresses is assertions of what Christianity and being a Christian is really about, and the No True Scotsman argument

(To Eli)

Speaking as one of those Christians who consciously live with a paradox, I want to point out that the assertion of the non-existence of God is also untestable, even though its quantification is universal, there being no clear, definitive properties of such a being to observe. In this case, atheism is as much faith-based as any other religion.

(To Horatio) Incidently, I think science and religion have much less to do with each other than mathematics and politics. I would have hoped that math and politics could be good friends.

Cameron, if you were closer, I'd give you a mug for being the thousandth Christian to make the "but atheism is totally faith!" argument to me.

This is interesting.

checking to make sure tags closed..

having trouble with the link...anyway, the URL is: http://www.geocities.com/inquisitive79/agnovsath.html

cameron,
so if someone says, 'there's an alien standing next to you' and can't show any verifiable proof, their belief in there being an alien there is faith. but, if i say, 'no, there isn't any alien standing next to me', how is that also faith? is it faith to not believe in something for which there is no verifiable proof? the answer is no, it is not faith.

I don't know why so many people baldly and confidently assert that atheism isn't compatible with fallibilism.

In the context of debate, courtesy all round is the order of the day. In a struggle between two incompatable ideas, a high level of courtesy seems most appropriate when each idea is held by a small group of adherents, there is a relatively large group of uncommitted and persuadable people in the audience and the ideas being debated are fairly unimportant. It is always safe to assume that no amount of eloquence on the part of one team will convince a member of the other to switch sides. If you change some of these variables, then the view you take toward courtesy varies considerably. Our current political scene is almost always the exact opposite of the ideal situation for courtesy: the issues are perceived to be of urgent importance, almost everyone is on one team or the other leaving no one in the middle to be convinced. In this situation, debate is irrational as anyone knows who has had the frustrating experience of trying to debate a troll in a reasonable manner. If debate is irrational, then what is the point of political discourse? I think it is primarily a precursor to action, but on this I could easily be wrong. When Kleinman says we should cut the creationists some slack, I don't believe he actually means it. I think what he is really saying is that we should reexamine our presuppositions about creationists, but this reexamination does not necessarily lead to a change in attitude or behavior on our part.

It's not true. God wouldn't lie about that or about how he took Jesus up to Heaven or anything else either.

regarding aliens: the difference lies in being able to identify up to some criterion what an alien is. you could make a (finite) list of characters that identify a thing as being "from earth"

the assertion "God exists" is unverifiable because it is an existential statement, hence is unverifiable in the sense that it is not falsifiable. the assertion "there is no God" is not an existential claim, so it is falsifiable in principle. however, it is, for example, not possible to enumerate a complete list of characteristics that make a thing "God." in any case, it's not clear how to apply the rules of a universe to a thing which is not strictly part of the universe.

i intended to say that both of the statements "God exists" and "There is no God" are unverifiable (though for different reasons). if that holds, then to *believe* the statement "There is no God" is certainly faith. also certainly, this argument has nothing to do with someone who makes no absolute claim in either direction due to the lack of evidence.

I have not intended to insult anyone, and I hope I haven't.

Also, I don't know what a "mug" is.

Some "moral" things, like forgiveness, prayer, etc. have been proven to be beneficial physiologically.

Well, forgiveness maybe, due to its salutary effect on the blood pressure of the person doing the forgiving.

But I am unaware of any study reputed to show a positive effect of prayer (other than as a form of relaxation) that has not been effectively debunked.

To partially defend Kleiman, I think a lot of what he is saying is that arguing purely on science misses the point, and so is bound to be ineffective. If people are truly worried about undermining the foundations of morality (no matter how irrational that fear) then any effective argument will have to discuss the independence of evolution and morality rather than the truth of evolution.

A large part of the problem is that the term God is hopelessly ambiguous. While the assertion, "There is a blue teapot orbiting Jupiter" is well-defined and (in principle) testable, simple predicates about God cannot be evaluated until we agree what the term refers to. At one extreme (an "uncaused cause") the (non)existence would seem to be unknowable in principle; at the other (the classic bundle of properties that make up one of the standard Christian views of God) Flew, Mackie and others make a pretty compelling case that the notion is intrinsically incoherent, and so (non)existence is moot.

Let me try this one more time: I'm not proposing to "reject evolution," or to remove it from the schools. As I said in my original post, biology class should teach biology.

I'm proposing constructive engagement with those whose opposition to teaching evolution in the schools is based on the fear that, in the hands of typical schoolteachers, Darwin will be made to sound like Herbert Spencer. In order to share that concern, people need not, and most of them do not, accept either of the conflicting accounts in Genesis as literal truth.

(Recall we're not dealing merely with a fringe minority of religious cranks or right-wing fanatics here: typical polling results find more than 60% of respondents taking an "anti-Darwinian" position.)

It's perfectly possible for someone who takes Genesis as poetry to be worried about what a seventh grader will make of the proposition "humans are just animals" (which is, of course, in one sense a perfectly correct proposition). And it is the concerns of such people that I propose that we try to understand and respectfully address. That proposal does not commit me to the belief that their concerns are empirically justified, or that "relgion" is on balance a force for good.

Try reading my post on its own, and not through the distorting lens of P.Z. Myers's desperate need for someone on whom to vent his hatred of theism and theists. As someone who rejected theism shortly after being Bar Mitzvah, I find the fundamentalism, literalism, and bigotry of some of my fellow atheists pretty damned embarrassing. Some of them talking about religion generally sound remarkably like Gen. Boykin talking about Islam.

Let me try this one more time: I'm not proposing to "reject evolution," or to remove it from the schools. As I said in my original post, biology class should teach biology.

I'm proposing constructive engagement with those whose opposition to teaching evolution in the schools is based on the fear that, in the hands of typical schoolteachers, Darwin will be made to sound like Herbert Spencer. They need not, and most of them do not, accept either of the conflicting accounts in Genesis as literal truth. (Recall we're not dealing merely with a fringe minority of religious cranks or right-wing fanatics here: typical polling results find more than 60% of respondents taking an "anti-Darwinian" position.) It's perfectly possible for someone who takes Genesis as poetry to be worried about what a seventh grader will make of the proposition "humans are just animals" (which is, of course, in one sense a perfectly correct proposition).

Try reading my post on its own, and not through the distorting lens of P.Z. Myers's desperate need for someone on whom to vent his hatred of theism and theists. As someone who rejected theism shortly after being Bar Mitzvah, I find the fundamentalism, literalism, and bigotry of some of my fellow atheists pretty damned embarrassing.

I'm proposing constructive engagement with those whose opposition to teaching evolution in the schools is based on the fear that, in the hands of typical schoolteachers, Darwin will be made to sound like Herbert Spencer.

You're assuming that constructive engagement might work. The problem is, almost anyone who can be swayed by constructive argument has. Most Americans under 35 were taught or are taught evolution in school, so it's reasonable to assume that if that didn't convince them creationism is bunk, little else will (the memorize-and-regurgitate paradigm of K-12 education is less effective at that than teaching critical thinking, but that's another story). Most Americans under 35 who would've been convinced if they'd been taught evolution are probably too old to change their minds about this.

Also, could you please refrain from using the terms blue-team and red-team? These terms exaggerate the difference between the two parties in the USA.

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