A Physicist Testifies

 

 

Finally, another new entry on the “Mormon Scholars Testify” website.  I’ve let the project slide quite a bit, under the pressure of other obligations (including, beyond the usual teaching, such time-consuming items as the launch of Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture and The Interpreter Foundation), a lot of travel, and some extremely unpleasant university politics.  But I’m trying to get back into the swing of things.  I would like to post a new entry roughly every week from here on in.

 

 

  • jeff

    I am a mormon who doubts and questions but still wants to be a mormon. Okay, so I am on an evolution kick and I just read your Deseret News article on morality and evolution where you stated the following:

    But what of an individual who believes that morality is merely an illusion foisted upon him by evolution? Why should that person, doomed (on an atheistic view) to a brief span of life followed by oblivion, care what happens to his or her community? Why shouldn’t he grab whatever he can, if he can get away with it? Mere blind, purposeless evolution supplies no cogent answer

    To assume that human beings cannot comprehend morality without divine guidance is to greatly underestimate the human spirit! If the human species cannot comprehend kindness, compassion and love as a way to pass on their DNA and propell their species forward, then we are not capable of anything. How is group preservation (part of evolution) not capable of producing evolving thought that would lead one to tolerate, then to trust, then to be kind to, then to love as a way of preserving a way of life in the group. This evolving thought then leads one and or a group to moral behavior in order to ensure the group preservation continuation. Think about this way, species that failed to adapt their culture to a moral society(dont kill, dont steal except, dont cheat, so on and so forth) died out because they self imploded. A group that can work together and trust that his wife wont be raped while the husband is out on a hunt with the other tribal hunters, can create an economies of scale society that will produce far more resources than a single person or group that cannot trust each other. They die out just like the cell that mutates into something that is less functional and effective than its predicessor. Hence laws are formed, moral fabric is weaved, not through a diety that passes on sacred laws, but through evolution and the continuation of the species!

    You also stated:
    But, surely, even if one were to accept a rigorously undirected Darwinism, that would hardly seem to dispel our wonder at a mass of interstellar gas and dust that, having cooled and congealed, brings forth a pageant of whales, grasses, flamingos and rhododendrons, ornamented with the occasional Bach, Shakespeare and Dawkins.

    These gases did not just congeal and voila, there were whales and rhoddodendrons, but they congealed to form the right conditions on which life “could” exist and then over billions of years and trillions upon trillions of life iterations life evolved all while the earth maintained its ability to support and sustain life. To my simple mind this kind of argument works on those who are afraid to question outside their religious dogma of creationism and that God created the world and everthing on it in 6 days or 6 thousand years or 6 million year or whatever time God used to create the world. But that the world was created in the way we see it now…..which is clearly not the case. The world did not just appear but has been evolving for billions of years. Frankly, I am not sure how or if there is a god that directed evolution, I would sure like to believe there is, but in the face of compelling evidence that the world evolved, how will we face the facts that are infront of us.

    The notion of God is a great one! I hope there is a God that is a merciful being.

    Now here is my follow-up question, what rational would I use to believe that God gave us morality? Would I use that when a people became wicked he destroyed them, hacked them into pieces, had his hitmen kill all the women and children? Would I use the rational that he turned their skins to skins of blackness? or flooded the earth, or changed their tounges so they could not communicate when building a building too tall? How about the rational that he would send famine and starve little children and innocent people. Or how about to command his men to practice plural marriage and get their fill of sex while the women suffer saying that there is no place for love in plural marriage? Is that moral? Was it moral that early church leaders condemned the african race as a race that would never gain all of gods blessings?

    You know as I have studied mormon history I have found a tremendous amount of patterns that make absolutely no sense. I feel your article preyed on the uninformed and the uneducated and those that will not ask difficult questions about the world around them.

    I do hope there is a God that loves humans, my heart is open to this! I feel the basic premise to your argument, that morality could not come from evolution is flawed based on my arguments above.

    • danpeterson

      Dear Jeff:

      Meaning no disrespect, you seem to me to have quite clearly failed to grasp my point. Nonetheless, your letter is helpful to me, as it suggests ways of misunderstanding my position against which I’ll have to guard myself in future expressions of it.

      “To assume,” you say, “that human beings cannot comprehend morality without divine guidance is to greatly underestimate the human spirit!”

      But I said precisely nothing about humans needing divine guidance to understand morality.

      Nor do I deny that a system of morality might emerge out of an evolutionary process. My point is distinct from that. It is, at least in part, that we continue to feel that our behavioral codes have, precisely, moral force even if we conclude, as some do, that they’re purely the product of evolutionary adaptation.

      I may believe that a certain complex of behaviors is conducive to community survival and flourishing. But the question remains why I should care about community survival and flourishing. I believe that it’s right to care, of course, but evolution doesn’t seem to me to get us from the purely descriptive to the prescriptive.

      “These gases,” you contend, “did not just congeal and voila, there were whales and rhoddodendrons, but they congealed to form the right conditions on which life “could” exist and then over billions of years and trillions upon trillions of life iterations life evolved all while the earth maintained its ability to support and sustain life.”

      But that was precisely my point!

      “To my simple mind,” you continue, “this kind of argument works on those who are afraid to question outside their religious dogma of creationism and that God created the world and everthing on it in 6 days or 6 thousand years or 6 million year or whatever time God used to create the world.”

      As I say, you don’t seem to have followed my argument at all. I said nothing whatever about the age of the earth or biblical creationism. I said that an evolutionary process that creates flowers, sea creatures, poets, and scientists out of interstellar gas and dust is, itself, nothing short of miraculous.

      “I feel your article preyed on the uninformed and the uneducated and those that will not ask difficult questions about the world around them.”

      You didn’t understand my article.

      I apologize for that. But, in my own defense, I only had a little more than 700 words with which to make my case, and it’s very difficult to guard against all the ways in which people can misunderstand.

      • Jeff

        Thanks for your reply!

        I went and re-read your article, I suppose you could contend that I failed to grasph your point. As a reader, I personally felt your point clearly articulated through the Headline and through the body of your argument:

        Defending the Faith: Moral law is no product of evolution

        This headline does not seem too ambiguous to me….”moral law is no product of evolution”….while I agree that the probability is very low and it is very miraculous indeed, that stellar gas could produce (over billions of years) life as we know it, there is however compelling scientific evidence to validate such thought. So if this were the case that stellar gas could produce life as we know it, could then morality of its created species evolve then with them? As I noted in my arguments above, I believe they could.

        Now, the jump I took, which I should not have taken is that your article did not conclude with biblical creation or that morality came from God. I insterted that in error based on my own bias of what I felt the reader was left with at the end of the article that the only other choice was creationism and God. But that was potentially my own limited view of your meaning.

        My conclusion stands, I still feel like the premise of the argument that moral law is “no” a product of evolution is not substantiated in the body of your argument, after reading your article again while asking the question about the intent of the article to inform me of what? Modern and ancient groups and societies are always testing the bounds of their moral laws. Enron is a modern classic example of evolutionary morality, they cheated and now they cease to exist and we now have Sarbanes Oxley to help us govern our evolutionary groups called business entities.

        Now the question I have is this, did our moral code come from God or from our pack mentality?

        In all honesty, I do admire you! I have read a lot of your work as I have gone through my faith evolution, and while I have come to different conclusions, I admire your effort to defend the faith with all diligence! There is a lot in mormonism that is worth defending!

        Since no one wants to talk about my questions on mormonism, could I, in an intelletually honest approach, place my questions on your blog? I have tried to connect and create patterns that would either uphold or release mormonism as the one true church. I have not come up with any that would really definatevely uphold the truth of mormonism. But I would love to know your thoughts on how and why you still believe if face of such compelling evidence. I admit that there may be something that I am missing. I have been a bishop and a lot of other big callings and now am religated to the dark corner of mormonism. Which I am fine with, I am still happy and hopeful for life….even if it might be a “brief span of life followed by oblivion”. Why not? Life is good!

        • danpeterson

          “This headline does not seem too ambiguous to me….’moral law is no product of evolution.’”

          Please understand (a) that headlines don’t allow for much nuance and, more importantly, (b) that I don’t choose the headlines or titles and don’t see them until my articles are published.

          Once again, though: For the sake of argument, I was taking no issue whatever with the thought that, through billions of years, Richard Dawkins and rhododendrons might have evolved out of interstellar gas and dust. So your insistence that this is, in fact, how they evolved is utterly beside the point. I’m not contesting it.

          And, yet again, my contention isn’t that moral systems couldn’t have evolved. It’s that our perception of them as moral imperatives, and our insistence that they should be taken as such, rests on no firm foundation once we come to regard them only as the deliverances of biological and/or societal evolution. (Nathan restated this point quite well in his comment.) Why should I, personally, feel bound, and that I ought to be bound, by a moral rule, once I “know” its evolutionary origin? The gap between “is” statements and “ought” statements seems to me very difficult to bridge. Whether certain behaviors will be helpful to the flourishing of my clan and community or not is a factual question. Whether I should care about the flourishing of my clan and community is a very different sort of question. Perhaps — I would contend — still a sort of factual one, but definitely one that can’t be answered with empirical data.

          As to dealing with your questions and concerns about the Church, I would be happy to try. (I travel a very great deal, though, and have severely limited disposable time.) I would prefer, however, not to do so for a public audience, or on my blog. If you would like, feel free to send them to me at daniel_peterson@byu.edu.

          • Dent

            “Why should I, personally, feel bound, and that I ought to be bound, by a moral rule, once I “know” its evolutionary origin? The gap between “is” statements and “ought” statements seems to me very difficult to bridge. ”

            Because it is ingrained in our brains. When we see someone getting hurt, we feel (emotional) pain. When we know that our actions have caused another person to suffer, we feel bad. We don’t take the last cookie from a shared bowl because we instinctively anticipate how the other person would feel upon discovering the empty bowl. It’s called empathy, and is not a learned abstract concept (through parents, teachers or preachers), but a function of our brain that can be closely monitored via fMRI(functional magnetic resonance imaging).

            Of course we can decide not to “care” about the suffering of others once we realize that our morality is purely of evolutionary origin, but we would still feel bad about it. Just as we can decide that it is unreasonable to feel fear while watching a horror movie, we will still scream like a little girl when the sound artist hits the gong at the right moment.

            Even if we know where our evolutionary instincts and emotions come from, we can’t just switch them off. Unless we are sociopaths. But i doubt that is something to aspire to.

  • http://nathanrichardson.com Nathan

    Dan:I may believe that a certain complex of behaviors is conducive to community survival and flourishing. But the question remains why I should care about community survival and flourishing. I believe that it’s right to care, of course, but evolution doesn’t seem to me to get us from the purely descriptive to the prescriptive.

    Well said, Dan.

    Jeff, to put it another way, an purely evolutionary accounting of human morals and values cannot in the end call anything good. It can only call it advantageous or desirable.

    It may help me pass along my genes, for me to take care of my elderly parents (because it sets up a social pattern and expectation that increases the odds of someone taking care of me, which increases the odds that I will live comfortably and healthily and thus be more likely to pass on my genes). But if that’s the real reason I feel an impulse to care for my elderly parents, then I cannot say that doing so is intrinsically good; I can only say that it is advantageous. Evolution does not change the definition of good; it erases the concept altogether.

    • danpeterson

      Excellent way of putting it. Thanks.

    • Jeff

      Nathan, in evolution you dont have to call anything good, but the process by which the elongation of life occurs and creates more chance to pass on your DNA is what evolution is all about. If moral laws can allow that process to happen, then moral laws can evolve with species. I think we all agree with that. My argument, is that Moral laws are no product of evolution. Moral laws are a product of evolution whether we call them good or not. Good is a subjective term. What is good to one may not be good to another, and that does not help me understand how moral law cannot be a product of evolution.

      • danpeterson

        If “good” is a subjective term, then you’ve just drained moral law of its specifically moral content. That is, in a way, my point. There may still be complexes of ideas and practices and values that we call “moral” systems, but there is no moral reason to prefer one over the other, or to critique any of them, or to obey them.

  • http://nathanrichardson.com Nathan

    Jeff, to explain what evolution does to the term good, it might be helpful to compare it to another term. For example, miracle.

    Let’s say a religious person believes in miracles, which he conceives of as an event wherein deity gets involved in the natural world and temporarily suspends scientific laws, thus causing a highly unusual event (e.g., parting the Red Sea, turning water to wine). He calls those events “miracles,” seeing them as moments when the natural laws of the universe were bypassed and something supernatural happened.

    Let’s say there’s another person, a secular person, who believes there is nothing beyond the natural world. In his view, all events happen according to scientific laws. Those natural laws govern all events, and they cannot be bypassed or superceded. Thus any event, no matter how unusual, can be explained in terms of natural, scientific laws, and there is no need to hypothesize a supernatural dimension to the universe.

    Those two people see something highly unusual—say, a person inexplicably floating in the air, or a gravely sick person suddenly being healed. The religious person says it’s a miracle. Now imagine if the secular person said, “I agree. It’s a miracle. And I’ll explain how this miracle occurs according to scientific laws. I’m positive nothing supernatural is happening. We’re really fortunate to experience miracles like this.”

    The problem with the secular person’s language is that he’s muddying the term “miracle.” If there is nothing beyond natural laws, then the event cannot a miracle. His secular worldview does not change the definition of miracle; it erases the concept altogether. Likewise, if we say that evolution and genes explain why we want to do moral things, we’re muddying the term “moral.” If there is nothing to our codes of conduct but impulses that increase our odds of reproducing, then our actions cannot be called moral—merely advantageous.

    (I’m sure this same example could be done with other terms besides miracle. In fact, it might be fun to come up with other words or concepts that could make for similar comparisons.)

    • danpeterson

      Excellent post.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    Not on the main point, but I would hope that folks who want to say they believe in evolution would try to be more scientific in their definition of evolutionary science. The neo-Darwinian synthesis of genetic science with the theory of natural selection only addresses the transition from an existing species of living things, with one or multiple living cells and genetic information, to another species. However, the neo-Darwinian synthesis does NOT offer an hypothesis about how living cells first came into existence on earth. It assumes they exist. At the time Darwin was writing, that initial step was considered trivial, because people believed in spontaneous generation of small living things from inanimate organic matter, and had no idea how complex genetic information is or how it operates in a living cell as a template for its mechanisms. With our current knowledge of a cell as a complex, self-reproducing factory, the hurdles to creation of a cogent theory to explain how it could come into being without a predecessor programmed factory.
    Glossing over this unexplained transition, the real creation of life on earth, by claiming that “evolution” is some kind of scientific law that operates from the Big Bang to organize matter in the direction of life and intelligence, is to leave science behind and personify “evolution” as some kind of teleological force, a limited kind of deity or demiurge. Scientific theory cannot explain the initiation of living cells, and it has no widely accepted explanation for the fact that there are a dozen or so fundamental constants in physics that are not derived from any known law and appear to be totally arbitrary, yet which cannot vary more than 5% without destroying the possibility of life in the universe.
    Science does NOT offer any reason to believe that life is inevitable, nor that life that can think scientifically and articulate laws of nature is more than a random occurrence which could be obliterated if the timeline of the earth were tewound and played out in a new random process. Nature has no grand scheme to create internet bloggers and commenters. If you think the universe has purpose, then you are embracing a theistic idea that would upset atheists like Richard Dawkins.

  • Erich Zann

    Dent,
    That leaves society in a very weak position to criticize actual sociopaths, people who have already moved beyond caring about doing what’s “wrong.” And why shouldn’t I aspire to be one of these people, exactly, once I realize that my sense of morality is nothing more than an irrational evolutionary byproduct?

    • Dent

      Because a sociopath is defined as a “person with a personality disorder manifesting itself in extreme antisocial attitudes and behavior and a lack of conscience.” I don’t think those character traits are worth aspiring to, but that’s just a personal opinion.

      Are you saying that you would adopt “extreme antisocial attitudes and behavior” should you ever lose your faith? In that case, I should better stop trying to describe how we infidels can lead a fulfilled, moral life without the need for a belief in a god, because you might try it and fail. That would weigh heavily on my conscience.

      • Erich Zann

        “Because a sociopath is defined as a “person with a personality disorder manifesting itself in extreme antisocial attitudes and behavior and a lack of conscience.” I don’t think those character traits are worth aspiring to, but that’s just a personal opinion.”

        Dent, that IS just a personal opinion without some absolute morality. I could just as easily argue that when I exploit and lie to others for my personal gain, I shouldn’t feel bad about it. After all, it would be doing me good, and feeling bad is only going to get in the way of that. Of course, I wouldn’t want others to lie to and exploit me, but I also wouldn’t want to be dismembered, cooked, and eaten, which isn’t a compelling reason to stop eating meat.

        “Are you saying that you would adopt “extreme antisocial attitudes and behavior” should you ever lose your faith?”

        I’m not saying that. In point of fact, I didn’t even mention my faith. Of course, someone without a belief in a god can behave in a moral manner. The two questions are: a) who decides what constitutes that morality, and b) why SHOULD someone behave that way? Don’t say that it’s because it would be beneficial to me, because I can think of multiple ways that being immoral could benefit me on a day-to-day basis. I wouldn’t even need to become a sociopath. Just being an unscrupulous bastard would be enough. An atheist could behave in a moral manner, but then an atheist could also attend weekly church. Why should he though?

  • http://nathanrichardson.com Nathan

    Dent, I’m actually curious about your thoughts on Erich’s questions, too. I’ve heard what you’re saying from other atheists who believe in strictly evolutionary accounts of human morality. They say that you can believe that human morals are only a manifestation of our genetic programming (pushing our psychology to do things that maximize our chances of passing on our chromosomes) and still be a moral person. But I’ve never heard them give a rationale for why an evolutionary moralist continue to be a “moral” person. If reason helps us transcend our animal impulses, why not transcend morality as well, since it’s just one more animal impulse?


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