Friday, August 8, 2014

Is God a good explanation for morality? Part 2

The First Commandment
My friend and one of my most excellent high school teachers, Johnston Smith, inferred that the best explanation for morality lies in the existence of a loving and compassionate God (1). Let’s take a look at what he wrote:
"From where do we get the idea that seemingly gratuitous suffering is wrong? If we are simply chemicals sloshing around then these moral sensibilities have no basis in anything like a moral or ethical principle. And I don’t think one can take refuge in the culturally-induced view of ethical principles. I mean, how can Westerners credibly condemn the looming execution of that Muslim-born-but-Christian-by-choice African woman? Are our culturally-induced principles better than theirs? I mean, “Who sez?” Neither can one take refuge in the quasi-Darwinist argument that some ethical values promote the species, a sort of ethics natural selection. Natural selection works through individual genes of individuals...and, anyhow, it is better for the species as a whole to eliminate Downs babies, infants with spina bifida and, hell, even those genetically unproductive gays. Hello Germany 1940!
 So who sez that our ideas about protecting the weak and minorities, giving equal opportunity to all, having compassion on others are moral imperatives  ... if these are just the result of chemicals sloshing around? I don’t see any way out of the dilemma except to say that there is something transcendent, outside the scope of chemistry which mandates this. And I suggest that the idea of a compassionate, loving God WHO SEZ better explains our human yearning for an assertion of justice than does the proposition that there is no such God ." - Johnston Smith
Johnston begins by asking what makes pointless suffering wrong. As a naturalist, I'd like to begin my response with some of his own words:
Well Yorgo, pain and suffering are not good. Biologically I believe that pain is a warning to the creature … about some sort of threat. Hence, often the creature has the cue to desist in this or that.” - Johnston Smith, May 6, 2014
Evolutionary theory, the unifying idea behind all of biology, easily explains why such a mechanism would be selected for in the struggle for reproductive fitness. So it’s not at all hard for a naturalist to account for why needless suffering is to be avoided while it's opposite, well-being, is to be strived for. This remains true whether or not suffering is ultimately reducible to chemical reactions in the brain. Naturalism, it seems, explains these values, no God required.

But how could natural selection, operating in the harsh struggle to survive, explain the human yearning to do what’s in the interest of the well-being of others? Can't "selfish genes" only explain selfish yearnings and behaviour?

This common question fails to consider a possibility that turns out to be pretty obvious upon reflection, and pretty obviously true upon scientific investigation. What if what’s best for one’s own genes is also what’s best for others'? While this is especially easy to appreciate when the others are our kin, game theory research has also shown that it works for non-relatives within the small groups in which our ancestors banded together for mutual advantage. The combination of kin selection with another component of evolutionary theory known as reciprocal altruism (or biological altruism) explains altruistic yearnings and behaviour – not just in humans but from bats to elephants to other primates and many other animals in between.

I'll let this short video do some of the talking. Watch as Richard Dawkins does damage control on his unfortunate coining of the phrase, "the selfish gene".

My friend, Mike Doolittle, is not the first person to recognize that "the 'Golden Rule' itself is a maxim of reciprocal altruism, essentially saying I will respect your needs and interests as I wish you to respect my own." The Golden Rule precedes Jesus (and Mathew 7:12) by thousands of years and the Bible by at least hundreds, but more importantly, the reciprocal altruism upon which it is based 
precedes humanity itself, working through the selfish genes of our ancestors for millions of years to amazingly and counterintuitively produce creatures that want to be selfless. In this light, the fact that it lies at the core of virtually every religious moral code ever known becomes rather mundane. 

Our evolution-driven concern for the welfare of others comprises the moral sphere. Accordingly, morally good actions are those that diminish the suffering or increase the well-being of others(2) and morally bad actions are those that do the opposite.

This framework puts us on very firm ground in condemning the Islamic practice of execution for apostasy. Ascent to a particular belief, which causes no suffering, cannot justify the suffering caused by limiting human thought and expression, nor the suffering caused by murder. Johnston's objection here amounts to the claim that we don't know enough to say that capital punishment for dubious thought crimes causes human suffering and diminishes human well-being. Really? The fact is that some societies do a worse job of cultivating well-being than others, and in many cases (like Sudan), the differences are obvious.

The real problem Johnston raises here is his own. As a Christian, he can't criticize Muslims who believe, based on the Hadiths, that apostasy deserves capital punishment because he has no objection other than that those Muslims follow the wrong sacred scripture. That objection would be based upon the same insufficient justification for why he thinks that he follows the right sacred scripture: faith.

Johnston suggests that a morality built by evolution must kowtow to the interests of genes or species fitness. Make not the mistake of Social Darwinism: this is a non sequitur. In times when food and water were less abundant, evolution gave us powerful desires for calorie- and salt-rich foods but that doesn’t mean that we mustn't now watch our diets. Our genes are blind (though we can see), mindless (though we can reason) replicating machines that, combined with natural selection, gave us a lust for sex, but that doesn’t mean that we must not use birth control. (Only the Catholic Church says that). We don't owe our genes anything. They have built us a perch, but we’re free to fly from it.

So how do naturalism and Christian theism fare with respect to the explanatory virtues I discussed last time? Kin selection and reciprocal altruism make predictio
ns that pass rigorous tests, are consistent with our background knowledge about evolutionary fitness, and are simple (all that they require is that individuals in groups fare better than individuals alone ... that non zero-sum interactions abound). They predict that we should see altruistic behaviour and it's precursors and ingredients (like empathy and fairness) in even distantly related species, which Frans de Waal (3) and others have been demonstrating for decades.

Evolutionary theory also has good explanatory scope. It even explains how people could perform truly selfless acts. It readily explains why selfless and selfish behavior co-exist in humanity and why we regularly struggle between our moral and our prudential interests. But how does Christianity explain selfishness? God could create beings(4) that are perfect like him. Why would he create creatures as selfish and morally imperfect as us? Christianity gets pretty gratuitously complex (i.e. ad hoc) here: the blame for the fall is removed from God and placed squarely upon Adam, Eve, and a talking snake, none of whom fit with our background knowledge of human history, ancestry, and biology.

Is Johnston’s Christian God hypothesis testable? I’d love to hear him provide some predictions that flow from Christianity that we could test. I've previously pointed out that it doesn't fit with the geographic distribution of belief, nor the overwhelming presence of both non-belief and gratuitous natural suffering. Does it fit with our background knowledge? One wonders how it could fit less well: we have absolutely no knowledge of the existence of creatures with minds but no brains nor any knowledge of how that could even be possible. Is it simple? Of course not. While many apologists claim that God is simple, his mind must contain the plan for all of creation, from the forces that cause the universe to be just so, to the enzymes that digest food, to the venom of snakes, to how to incarnate himself as an Iron Age Jewish carpenter. This mind, if it exists, must be the most complex, information-laden mind, period.

I think that Johnston's God hypothesis fails to rise to all of the challenges he posed. As I previously discussed, divine command theories of morality let people take their eye off of the real moral ball, that is, off of considerations of the suffering and well-being of others, and they frighteningly permit doing so with what is erroneously perceived as the ultimate justification: "My God SEZ so!". Relativism of the religious variety flourishes, so moral relativism flourishes, too. All the while, theistic explanations of the yearning for justice that seems to be present throughout much of the animal kingdom fail to do their job while natural explanations excel. 

In fact, as explanations go, God fares so poorly that one must wonder if theistic explanations could ever be good explanations of anything

(1) This implies that Johnston knows at least some things about God beyond that he is loving and compassionate, namely, that he'd have beliefs, intentions, and desires that lead him to create creatures like us who also have the ability to love and experience compassion and that he'd be capable of doing so.

(2) To see why morality must be about the well-being and suffering of others, consider a universe where only one conscious creature, a single person, exists. Could this person possibly do anything morally wrong?

(3) De Waal is responsible for a great quote: "The possibility that empathy resides in parts of the brain so ancient that we share them with rats should give pause to anyone comparing politicians with those poor, underestimated creatures."

(4) If God is perfect, then he can’t desire anything, let alone the creation of other creatures. In other words, if God is perfect, then creation itself is puzzling. Here. I am granting, for the sake of argument, that even if he did want to create creatures, creating us doesn't add up.

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