Polkinghorne on Natural Theology and Moral Law (RJS)

In this post today I would like to point to a series of posts on the BioLogos site featuring Rev. Dr. John Polkinghorne and his views on Natural Theology. Dr. Polkinghorne (picture below obtained from wikipedia) was a very successful scientist, Professor of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge University, before he resigned to study for the priesthood. He has since been a parish priest, Dean of the Chapel at Trinity Hall Cambridge and President of Queen’s College, Cambridge. After retirement he continues to write, think, and lecture about the interface between science and faith. I’ve read and commented on a couple of his books - Quarks, Chaos & Christianity and Belief in God in an Age of Science. I hope to read, and perhaps comment on, more of his work.

Last November Dr. Polkinghorne gave a series of lectures at Point Loma Nazarene University (available for download as mp3 files here) – he is, as always, insightful and well worth the time. The fourth excerpt from his lectures was posted on BioLogos last Saturday – and some of the concepts fit quite nicely with the discussion in last Tuesday’s post on belief.  In this excerpt Dr. Polkinghorne discusses the multiverse – and the idea that this theory, this hypothesis really, is irrelevant to the discussion of faith and science. The multiverse doesn’t impact the argument for a creator. If true, it provides insight into the nature of creation.  Science alone, without an accompanying metaphysical commitment cannot disprove God. If we accept that God exists, he is responsible for and behind all,  not just the parts not otherwise explained – and any reasonable, rational explanation is consistent with the nature of God.

At the end of the excerpt Dr. Polkinghorne talks about other signposts for God – coming back to the argument from Moral law,  adding to this a discussion of aesthetics. The text of this part of the lecture is copied after the break. I asked two questions at the end of the post on Tuesday and I’d like to come back to these questions today.

Is the existence of the Moral Law an argument for the existence of God? Why or why not?

What is the relationship between our view of moral behavior and our view of God?

Moral Law as pointing to God … From Dr. Polkinghorne’s lecture.

[…] I’ll say two things very briefly. I’ve simply been talking about natural theology in terms, essentially, of our scientific understanding of the world, but there is another possible source of natural theology which I think is very important, a different kind of general human experience: personal experience, the experience of value in the world.

For example, I believe that we have irreducible ethical knowledge. I believe that is just a fact, and I know actually about as surely as I know any fact, that torturing children is wrong. That’s not some curious genetic survival strategy which my genes have been encouraging in me. It’s not just some cultural convention of our society, that we choose in our society not to torture children. It’s an actual fact about the world in which we live.

And there lies the question of where do those ethical values come from? And theistic belief provides one with an answer for that, just as the order of world we might see as reflecting the divine mind and the fruitfulness of the world is reflecting the divine purpose, so our ethical intuitions can be seen as being intonations of the good and perfect world of our creator.

While it is true that all human society has moral behavior, the definition of morality varies from place to place. In the comment here Polkinghorne assumes that the torture of children in wrong, that knowledge that it is wrong is written into our very being. Yet there are examples of societies that practiced child sacrifice. Some think that the story of Abraham and Isaac may point to such a prevalent culture. In a lecture I heard him give Tim Keller presents moral law as an argument for God (unfortunately the lecture is no longer available on line). Most of us here would consider female genital mutilation to be morally wrong, yet it is an accepted practice in a number of cultures – on what basis can we declare it to be wrong, something to be opposed? Is it wrong here and now – but not wrong then or there? If we find an absolute moral law, how can we argue against the existence of a transcendent reality providing a ground for this transcendent morality? Is all of moral behavior merely pragmatic and relative?  There are too many questions here – but perhaps it can be focused a bit:

If moral law is inborn – not as social convention, but as an absolute value, how do we account for cultures where child sacrifice is an accepted practice?

If moral law is not absolute – a signpost for a transcendent reality – how can we argue against such practices?

After all the things we consider immoral could simply evidence an alternative way for a healthy and functioning society to develop. True for you, not for me … in a very real sense.

Aesthetics as pointing to God. Dr. Polkinghorne continues and discusses aesthetic sense as a form of Natural Theology – a signpost for God.

And then of course there is the aesthetic experience in the world, and I think we should take our aesthetic experience extremely seriously. I think it’s an encounter with a very important and specific dimension of reality. It’s not just emotion recalled in tranquility or something like that.

And again of course science offers no help for us in these questions of value. If you ask a scientist as a scientist to tell you all he or she could about the nature of music, they would say that it is neural response — things go off in our brains, neurons fire — to the impact of sound waves on our ear drum. And of course that is true and this way is worth knowing, but it hardly begins to engage with the deep mystery of music, of how that sequence of sounds in time can speak to us — and I think speak to us truly — an encounter of a timeless realm of beauty. I think we should take our aesthetic experience very seriously.

And where do they come from? Where does that aesthetic value come from? And again theistic belief suggests that aesthetic experience is a sharing in the Creator’s joy in creation. So I see belief in God as being a great integrating discipline really, a great integrating insight, perhaps I should say rather than discipline. It links together the order of the world, the fruitfulness of the world, the reality of ethical values, the deep and moving reality of aesthetic values. It makes sense. It’s a whole theory of everything in that way, which is to me, essentially, most satisfying.

A nice way to end – the combination of scientific knowledge of the material world and belief in God as an integrating insight, a unifying theory of everything. Science alone isn’t enough, but it is an approach to understanding part of the story.

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net

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  • http://www.tgdarkly.com dopderbeck

    I think he is basically right about the moral law. The fact that, as you note, some cultures — every culture — has accepted some practices that violate what we think of as universal moral law doesn’t contradict this claim. Even those cultures had many laws that were consistent with various principles of universal moral law, demonstrating that even in depraved cultures a moral law exists. This, in fact, is entirely consistent with a Christian understanding of the twin dynamics of universal moral law and sin.

    I’ve been reading a fascinating history of the Vikings lately that illustrates this very well. They were indeed a violent culture, and they practiced things like human sacrifice (often slaves were sacrificed at the funeral of their masters, for example). And yet, they had an incredibly rich concept of law and inherent rights (at least for non-slaves!).

    I also love the discussion of aesthetics here. Indeed, moral law and aesthetics are really part of the same package, because “the good” and “the beautiful” are intimately related.

  • Steve K

    I agree with dopderbeck (#1):
    The failure to align with a universal moral standard does not nullify the standard. “Consistent with universal moral law and sin”.
    What’s that Vikings book Dave? Sounds interesting.

  • http://www.tgdarkly.com dopderbeck

    Robert Ferguson, The Vikings: A History.

  • rjs


    Well sin is another concept worth a great deal of conversation, especially in connection with universal moral law, evolution, and the interpretation of Genesis…

    Sure – failure to align with a universal standard doesn’t nullify the standard. But it does seem to require that the standard be revealed in some fashion external to ourselves. The absence of an obvious universal standard seems to argue against moral law as natural theology and a reason for God.

    I have a hard time pulling a meaningful universal standard consistent with Christian theology out of what we know of different cultural manifestations of moral law through history.

    Why do you think it doesn’t matter?

  • http://www.tgdarkly.com dopderbeck

    RJS (#4) — I’m not sure why you’re having such a hard time. Can you name a single culture in all of human history that lacked any concept of justice, love, beauty, friendship, etc.? The argument from a “moral sense” is not an argument that all cultures have always worked these concepts out in precisely the same way or with the same degree of refinement. It is an argument that all cultures have always had some innate “sense” of these concepts — which is manifestly true.

    As to sin — haven’t we had the conversation a thousand times already?

    Oddly enough, sociobiology depends on precisely the same notion of universals as the moral argument. Sociobiology also asserts that there are strong tendencies towards cooperation and strong tendencies towards violence in all human cultures. The difference between Christianity and sociobiology here is the source of these tendencies. Or, more precisely, the difference is whether these tendencies can be reduced entirely and without remainder to chemistry and physical law, or whether, whatever their physical origins, they reflect something transcendent.

    So if you want to deny any universal human “values” at all, you are effectively, IMHO, denying evolution.

  • Jordan

    I’m also not entirely sure that examples of child sacrifice are a defeater of moral law. In some sense, it seems to me, that fact that it is a sacrifice speaks to the idea that it is not normative, i.e. there has to be a reason beyond normal every-day morality for a person to sacrifice a child. I guess if there was a culture for which the murder of a child within the family was entirely common and ordinary, it would be a problem for a universal moral law.

    I also wonder if it matters how specific we think the universal moral law is. If you look at human morality around the globe there’s an awful lot that is common and there are many many common themes, even though the implementation details vary.

  • Tim

    Dopderbeck (5),

    I agree with you in that both naturalistic and spiritual explanations exist for describing the ovious universiality in of morals in humanity. And these need not necessarily be exclusive of one another, the truth might be an overlapping of the two (which happens to be my view). But when we have a perfectly viable naturalistic explanation, I can’t for the life of me see how some then point to universal morality (at some core level) as “evidence” for God. I just don’t get that.

    Perhaps point to the “transcendent” experience of the conscience or some such thing, but universiality won’t work as evidence – as I’ve mentioned the naturalistic explanations already proposed (and I think you touched on this as well) by sociobiology are perfectly adequate. Concerning the aesthetic evidence case, I do obviously sympathize with that more strongly.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    I have a difficult time finding moral law, beauty and just about all discussed in this article as having any inherent support to god.

    Moral law clearly is not the same, at least the instances are not. I would concede that it is inherent in humans to develop moral laws, but I don’t see any moral law that is universal. People consider suicide the best morality, murder the best (sacrifice said above), etc etc.

    And beauty, I grew up going to the symphony every week that they were in town. We were season ticket holders. Whereas I could see how some people would like it, I did not. Likewise, I remember listening to the band Rush when I was very young and thinking that is horrible ugly stuff. Now, I think they have some quite beautiful music. BTW, I am a bit of a concert music fan again in my old age, but I did take a couple classes on that type of music to increase my appreciation. Soct talked about the Teaching Company in another thread and I admit I am an addict of their craft, the musical courses are awesome as are the philosophy, history etc.

  • http://www.tgdarkly.com dopderbeck

    Tim — the notion that the explanations posed by sociobiology are “perfectly adequate” is false. In some instances they do seem to be insightful and helpful. In many instances they are nothing but shallow “just so” stories.

    Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, the reductionism inherent in asserting that sociobiological explanations are adequate without more destroys the entire project of sociobiology. For if that reductionism were correct, there would be no such thing as a “mind” that could formulate the claims of sociobiology, nor any such thing as “reason” against which to test them. Every conclusion of sociobiology would be determined by sociobiology itself, the products of nothing but chemicals and physics, and thus all such conclusions would be meaningless.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    Continuing, I am a big fan of the show RadioLab and they did a show on morality back in 2007. These people are quite good and it is worth and entertaining listen.


  • http://www.tgdarkly.com dopderbeck

    DRT (#8): “People consider suicide the best morality, murder the best”

    I respond: Really? Which cultures say or have said this? Answer: None.

    Many cultures have of course made a virtue of suicide and murder under certain circumstances. But “under certain circumstances” is an important qualifier. Even Christian morality recognizes that it can be virtuous to lay down one’s life for a friend. Is diving on a hand grenade to protect the members of your company immoral “suicide?” Is committing seppuku to protect the honor of your community immoral “suicide?” Such distinctions can be argued ad infinitum, but there remains a broad sense that human life has some sort of intrinsic value.

  • Dana Ames

    Wading in where the water is probably too deep for me, but here goes…

    The writings of contemporary Greek theologian Christos Yannaras were recommended to me by a trusted Orthodox friend, and have been important in helping me understand how the Eastern church approaches things. I’m reading a third book by him now. Y. keeps coming back to the reality that we know and function in terms of Personal relationships – that is, the relationships of distinct hypostases (distinct existential realities who are centers of willing action) on the basis of love and freedom. In this view, morality is the behavior that arises from the “state” of loving relationship between Persons. It doesn’t come to us from any “objective” or “outside” source, including holy scripture or even “what God is” (which is forever beyond our knowledge); it is something that arises internally as we maintain the tension of the freedom and otherness of the other while at the same time participating in the life of the other with freely-given self-giving love.

    If we move away from a concept of legality, “moral law”, then we can see why sin is always relational. This explanation leaves room for evolution, and for how Christianity lived out on this basis can respect cultures and nonetheless change cultures from within, instead of “colonizing” and imposing “law” from without. It accounts for why cultures have some heinous values and how we can argue against them. The difficulties to which rjs’ questions point disappear – so it seems to me.

    Of course, there is much more than can be said in a blog comment, and I’m still chewing on Y’s ideas and making connections. But there is another way of thinking about “morality” and human behavior than the philo/theo constructs to which this series, esp this post, has pointed.


  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    dop#11 – I agree. There are always reasons.

  • Tim

    Dopderbeck (9),

    I disagree with much of what you said in your reply, but do not have available time right now to provide you with a detailed response.

  • Tim

    …(this got accidentally deleted)

    But I will try to return to this thread this evening Dopderbeck to give you a reply.

  • http://www.tgdarkly.com dopderbeck

    Dana (#12) — yes, but I’d see this relational approach as complementary to what Polkinghorne is saying. The universe itself is created out of the relational love of the Trinity. It is no surprise, then, that creation is imbued with a moral law grounded in relationship.

    Here is place where, as much as I appreciate Barth, I think I depart from Barth. For Barth, with his aversion to any kind of natural theology, ethics are grounded in the divine command. But this seems to leave two unappealing options: law based in an arbitrary divine command or law based in a scholastic / medieval sense of justice as primarily an affront to the sovereign’s glory. The Eastern tradition provides a very helpful third way: law flowing from the perichoretic fellowship of the Trinity.

  • Dana Ames

    I do think the relational approach is complementary to what Polkinghorne is saying, which is why I commented. But as I perceive it, it’s not any kind of Law at all. I know that could be really hard for you, David ;)

    The loving perichoretic fellowship of humans (which is the same mode of relationship as that of the Trinity) has nothing about it that is legal or legalistic or to do with law in any way, as I understand what Yannaras is saying. Such fellowship is described as love between Persons: free self-giving love while maintaining the freedom and otherness of the other renders “law” unnecessary. So of course, since the universe is created from the relational love of the Trinity, what it is imbued with is love (which in its present state is longing for fulfillment – Rom 8), not law. There is no objectification; love is always the relationship of subjects.

    Y. sees “moral law/morality” as something that society calls upon in order to exert control over people, and actually impedes true union. “Law” is what we resort to as fallen individuals as we reject self-giving love and tend to try to “colonize” the other, in order to maintain our own existence/survival from our own resources. I know this can sound scandalous. But within Y’s framework, which is his expression of his study of Greek patristic thought through Palamas, it makes a whole lotta sense.

    Do read “The Freedom of Morality”; it’s back in print. There’s another way to look at reality.


  • http://www.tgdarkly.com dopderbeck

    Dana – I suspect that dichotomy between “law” and “love” depends too much on something like Luther’s stark contrast between “law” and “grace.” As I see it, “law” at its most basic is the product of “love.” It’s of course true that there is a kind of “law” occasioned by sin, but I think that is only derivative of the higher law of love.

    So to me it would be a mistake to say that “relationship” makes law “unnecessary” or that “law” is always and only a tool of power relations / colonization. A form of law, the law of love, makes relationships possible, because it allows the “other” to be truly “other.” Without this even the Trinity is not the Trinity, for then there is only one substance and not three persons.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    dopderbeck, I have to call you on that one. To say the Trinity is only possible because of law is pushing it. :)

  • Dana Ames

    Toldya it was scandalous.

    As I understand things, the eastern church never needed to deal with contrasting “law” with “grace”, and so that way of thinking does not exist there.

    It’s not simply “relationship” as a category; it’s that the relationship *is* love (the mutual self-giving of distinctive hypostases in freedom, realized in communion), and this relationship of love actually constitutes life.

    Y. says it better and more precisely.


  • Tim

    Dopderbeck (9),

    OK, I’m back from work and can comment.

    “the notion that the explanations posed by sociobiology are “perfectly adequate” is false…in some instances [they're] insightful and helpful…[in others they're]‘just so’ stories.”

    I hope you didn’t think I was claiming that sociobiological explanations are perfectly complete or perfectly empirically supported across the board. Rather, I stated only that they were perfectly adequate as a naturalistic explanation for universal morality (and I only specified universal morality, not experiential issues such as consciousness or theories of mind or any such thing). The comparison group of course is a theistic or spiritualistic explanation of universal morality.

    In other words, I’m saying that sociobiological explanations are an adequate alternative to theistic or spiritualistic explanations of universal morality. Would you disagree?

    I certainly don’t believe that theistic or spiritualistic explanations of universal morality are perfectly supported empirically, or in some instances amount to anything more than “just so” assertions. What I was trying to do was simply demonstrate that those who want to use universal morality as a basis for arguing for the existence of God have a real problem on their hands, as the sociobiological explanation, while not perfect at this stage of course, is no less an adequate explanation compared to a theistic/spiritualistic one.

    As far as philosophical arguments concerning the capabilities of a purely naturally derived mind:

    “For if that reductionism were correct, there would be no such thing as a “mind” that could formulate the claims of sociobiology, nor any such thing as “reason” against which to test them. Every conclusion of sociobiology would be determined by sociobiology itself, the products of nothing but chemicals and physics, and thus all such conclusions would be meaningless.”

    I don’t follow you’re reasoning here Dopderbeck. An purely naturalistic evolutionary explanation of the mind would posit that it’s capabilities evolved along a number of adaptive fronts, including problem solving, social functioning, and awareness of one’s environment. Certainly an argument can be made that as problem solving became more abstract to meet the challenges of more complex problems needing, well, solving, coupled with a practically adequate awareness of our environment, that the foundation for our modern rational engagement and high-level thinking relating to the external world was laid. I see no reason why a lack of a divine spark here means we can’t trust our judgments. We have a very practical reason to trust our rational faculties given its evolutionary advantages. But if you want to make a case otherwise, I’d love to hear it.

  • dopderbeck

    Tim — no, I don’t think the sociobiological explanation is adequate at all. Maybe part of our disagreement is in defining what we mean by “the sociobiological explanation.” I take this in its strong sense — all human behaviors are ultimately reducible to biology. This strong sense does, in fact, elide any notion of “mind.” “Mind” is epiphenomenal, a illusion. There is no downward causation.

    If by “the sociobiological explanation” we mean theories that include “mind” as an emergent property that can exert downward causation, then I think your claims are stronger. But this weaker version of sociobiology isn’t really a consistent sociobiological theory because now we’re including something (“mind”) for which biology ultimately can’t account. And once that door is opened, it isn’t at all clear why other doors should be closed.

  • dopderbeck

    Tim, you said: We have a very practical reason to trust our rational faculties given its evolutionary advantages. But if you want to make a case otherwise, I’d love to hear it.

    First, if sociobiological reductionism is true, we have no “rational faculties.” These are merely epiphenomena of the drive to pass on our genes.

    Second, our perceptual capabilites would be evolved only for survivability, not for self-reflective truth. An amoeba has quite adequate perceptual capabilities, but it lacks meaningfully true knowledge about its “self” or the world it inhabits. If sociobiology is true, the same must be the case for us — but then that means we have no way of knowing whether sociobiology is “true” in any objective sense.

  • Tim


    I think you are trying to extend sociobiolobical models past where I am willing to go in my argument. I am merely noting that those aspects of sociobiological explanations that infer universal human morality as a consequent of universal human heritage of pro-social dispositions are adequate. If we all have the same sociobiological evolutionary heritage, then small wonder we all share some universal commonality in the way of core moral sentiments.

    Concerning theory of mind, I am not getting into that. That is not part of my argument. Yes, I am aware of emergent theories of mind and what not, but that is just way too metaphysically speculative for me. The bottom line is no one knows the mysteries behind conscious thought, so let’s not pretend that we do. It’s an unpioneered area rife with spiritual speculation, as well as naturalistic speculation. I have no interest in it.

    “First, if sociobiological reductionism is true, we have no “rational faculties.” These are merely epiphenomena of the drive to pass on our genes.”

    I don’t follow your logic on this one. If rational engagement with our environment provides an adaptive advantage in passing on our genes, and I believe it does (for reasons I mentioned in my earlier post), then that certainly is a strong reason to expect that our evolved mental capacities can be practically relied on.

    “Second, our perceptual capabilities would be evolved only for survivability, not for self-reflective truth.”

    I think the argument here would be that the capacity for self-reflection:

    (1) might actually have a practical utility in facilitating planning, management of resources, more effective social functioning, and greater innovative capacity. Even the ability to integrate symbolism in one’s thinking has practical advantages in increasing fitness for the individual and community.

    (2) in those instances where the practical advantage is lacking exist as a byproduct of highly advanced cognitive problem solving abilities (including the ability to abstractly reason through said problems).

    Again Dopderbeck, I don’t see the logic in your argument. Perhaps you could break it down into a syllogism and walk me through it if I’m missing something here.

  • rjs


    But the argument dopderbeck is making about social biological explanations is in line with thinking in the field. Any kind of top down control from mind to body is – as Anthony Cashmore put it in a PNAS article ( I posted here) simply a return to superstitious vitalism. We have no control – we simply are. …cogs in the cosmic material machine.

    I don’t find the mere existence of a moral law a conclusive, or even completely persuasive argument, for God because science can provide a plausible alternative that accounts for similarities and even for the differences. I think this is what you are arguing.

    But there is still a something beyond, something that allows us to categorize right and wrong in an absolute sense, not merely empirical effectiveness. This is, or should be, tied up in power and mission in Christian faith. Morality and free will, rational faculties, are powerful pointers to God.

  • Tim


    I understand that as a naturalistic explanation of human cognitive functioning, purely sociobiological models at their most fundamental level would involve a naturalistic theory of mind.

    However, couldn’t the same be said of evolution? That at it’s most fundamental level, it would involve a theory of Abiogenesis? Now, how frustrating would it be if every time you wanted to talk about Evolution, someone kept insisting that you HAD to talk about Abiogenesis?

    This is what Dopderbeck is doing. I am making an argument about those aspects of sociobiology that explain universal human morality, and Dopderbeck wants to bring in the sociobiological equivalent of abiogenesis – the theory of mind – into the equation.

    In any event, having control or not per Cashmore’s argument – essentially asking the question of free will – is not something I am arguing with Dopderbeck. I am simply arguing, as he introduced it into the conversation, that we have every expectation that our cognitive faculties are rational within an evolutionary framework. Whether or not we have ultimate free will is another question entirely, and one I did not discuss.

    “I don’t find the mere existence of a moral law a conclusive, or even completely persuasive argument, for God because science can provide a plausible alternative that accounts for similarities and even for the differences. I think this is what you are arguing.”

    Yes, this is what I am arguing and I think we agree here :)

    “But there is still a something beyond…”

    Certainly. I know for me aesthetic experiences are “pointers” to God. But let’s be honest here, these are deeply subjective arguments.

  • rjs


    I don’t think that this is exactly what dopderbeck is trying to do. With respect to abiogenesis – a discussion of evolution as the best explanation of the diversity and connectedness of species requires no discussion of the origin of the original primitive single cell. The connection of the two is part of the problem I have with Stephen Meyer’s book for example.

    With respect to sociobiology there is a profoundly different aspect that affects not only origins or the interpretation of all subsequent development and the very nature of the here and now. The theory of the mind is not the sociobiological equivalent of abiogenesis it is a theory about the very fundamental nature of human existence. I think the essence of the free will argument is what you are arguing with dopderbeck, or at least it is connected in ways that cannot be separated.

  • Tim


    I profoundly disagree. My background as you know is in psychology, and sociobiological explanations for evolutionarily adaptive cogntive behavior have as much to do with the theory of mind as abiogenesis has to do with evolution.

    Sociobiological models have as their starting point the facts that we evolved, that we are thinking creatures with advanced cognitive ability (incl., capacity for rational thought, engagement with environment, emotional processing, conscious self awareness, etc.), that we function in social units, and that adaptive social functioning is essential to our evolutionary fitness as a species.

    To bring in theory of mind simply drills down on that one point of our cognitive cababilities that is ALREADY assumed in the sociobiological model.

    This is directly equivalent to drilling down on how cellular life first evolved within evolution. It is a question of digging so deep into the foundation of a model, where our insight is profoundly lacking, and then using the fact that we don’t have answers at such a fundamental level as a mechanism to discredit the larger theory for which we do have some really good emperical support.

    Again, I see no reason why referencing sobioliological models requires one to get involved with the deeply metaphysical theories of minds. Sociobiologists themselves don’t really focus on theory of the mind, though given the number of scientists in that field I don’t doubt some do. But theory of mind is more a pursuit for philosophers. Sociobiologists take as a given that we are conscious creatures. Theory of Mind philosophers try to develpop specualitive models that explain how this might be possible. Again, I fail to see how Theory of Mind is more relevant to discussions of evolutionary sociobiology than abiogenesis is to discussions of evolution.

  • rjs


    But the fact that we as humans have true cognitive abilities as conscious ‘creatures’ is precisely the feature that so many wish to deny – if they think about it deeply. Others of course see consciousness as something special not yet understood – some will admit of something of a ‘spiritual’ outlook (as Ecklund found in her book). To many any cognitive abilities that we have are the result of bottom up natural laws. To allow for anything else is to revert to “vitalism.” This isn’t a metaphysical theory of the mind this is a physical understanding of the brain as a material object developed by evolutionary mechanisms. We have cognitive abilities the way a computer has cognitive abilities – but in a much more complex fashion, operating in a much more complex environment.

    But, without throwing sociobiology out the window, there is something lacking. We drill down on this because we always drill down on the weakness and shortcomings in any model – this is how thinking advances. This weakness does not mean that other observations and insights are discredited.

  • Tim


    First off, humans aren’t the only consciuous creatuers. Elephants, Chimpanzees, Whales, etc. pass the mark-in-the-mirror test that pretty strongly implies a certain level of self-awareness. BTW, this evidence falls within the field of sociobiology, and I believe the vast majority of sociobiologists accept these results and their implications concerning conscious experience of other animal species.

    So, given that most sociobiologists affirm conscious experience for not just humans, but other high-functioning mammals as well, who are you then asserting is trying to deny conscious experience?

    Also, out of curiousity, if we’re going to be about the business of poking holes in sociobiological explanations of human functioning, what is the theistic explanation for why animals such as elephants, whales, and chimpanzees have self-awareness? Is this an instance of the pot calling the kettle black?

  • rjs

    All of this is data Tim, including the behavior of elephants, whales, chimpanzees, my cat, and even ants and amoeba. I am not trying to give a theistic explanation in opposition to a sociobiological explanation.

    I have problems with moral law as a ‘proof’ of God for the kinds of reason you mention – which also plays out in the diversity of ‘acceptable’ human behavior, along the lines of the question I posed. But I also think purely naturalistic explanations are lacking in very important ways.

  • Tim


    I am not giving you or Dopderbeck a purely naturalistic explanation of human existence and human experience across the board. I simply introduced sociobiological explanations for why core moral sentiments are universal across our species. That is all. I don’t know why this ever needed to go to Theory of Mind at all. Do you?

  • http://www.tgdarkly.com dopderbeck

    You have to engage the Theory of Mind here because “morality” is about free will. The “moral argument” is in large part an argument premised on human free will. You cannot honestly engage the moral argument through “sociobiology” without getting to the question of free will. If that’s what you want to do, you’re ignoring the elephant in the room.

    Referring to abiogenesis here is unfair and mistaken, and simply begs the question of the theory of mind. Whether the origin of physical things can be explained at a naturalistic level is an interesting question, in which, IMHO, theism has no particular stake. But with respect to a non-physical entity such as “mind,” which is what makes “morality” possible, the foundational question is whether it is indeed a reducibly physical thing. You cannot escape engaging this question if you want to address the moral argument honestly.

    I understand why both of you (Tim and RJS) agree that “science can plausibly explain the similarities and differences” for behaviors we call “moral,” I think you are wrong both empirically and that you don’t properly understand the moral argument.

    Empirically, it simply is not true that “science” has offered “plausible” explanations here — what we have are some useful insights and lots and lots of pseudo-scientific just so nonsense.

    But more importantly, the moral argument is not that specific human behaviors can’t even theoretically be addressed by science. It is not a God-of-the-gaps argument. The moral argument is that the moral sense points to a level of will, volition, and perfection that is not fully reducible to things science can address. It is at heart an argument against reductionism, not an argument for “gaps.” And here, once again, you cannot escape the theory of mind and honestly address the moral argument. Otherwise, you’re shooting a straw man.

  • http://www.tgdarkly.com dopderbeck

    And BTW, RJS, the moral argument, as I understand it, is not a “proof” of God. As someone like Polkinghorne presents it, it is one among several reasons why belief in God is coherent and makes sense of the world. To respond properly to this argument, it isn’t enough to show that “science” can also offer explanations for behaviors we call “moral.” Unless those scientific arguments elide levels of causation beyond mechanism, they haven’t really responded to what Polkinghorne is saying. And again, this is why this conversation is inevitably tied to theories of free will and mind.

  • Tim


    I’m super busy right now, so a full response will have to wait till this evening. But briefly:

    “You have to engage the Theory of Mind here because “morality” is about free will.”

    Why does morality have to be about free will? Why can’t morality simply be an expression of evolionarily inherited adaptive pro-social dispositions?

    Unless you define morality as requiring free will as a tautological matter, I don’t really see why morality as a human expression of pro-social behavior has to in any capacity involve free will. This isn’t my own private view of course based on my own subjective experience. But you seem to be making a deductive logical argument and I would really like to see how you’ve arrived at it.

  • http://www.tgdarkly.com dopderbeck

    Tim (#24) said: If rational engagement with our environment provides an adaptive advantage in passing on our genes, and I believe it does (for reasons I mentioned in my earlier post), then that certainly is a strong reason to expect that our evolved mental capacities can be practically relied on.

    In Tim’s prior post, he offered this scenario: …problem solving, social functioning, and awareness of one’s environment. Certainly an argument can be made that as problem solving became more abstract to meet the challenges of more complex problems needing, well, solving, coupled with a practically adequate awareness of our environment, that the foundation for our modern rational engagement and high-level thinking relating to the external world was laid.

    There are multiple problems with this line of argument.

    First, it is empirically underdetermined and non-verifiable. It is not really a “scientific” explanation, but rather is a speculative just-so story. It is not at all clear what adaptive advantage was afforded by “abstract” reflective reasoning beyond pragmatic “problem solving”. And it’s not at all clear when or how or why this adaptation arose in the course of human evolution.

    Most physical anthropologists agree that there was a cultural explosion 40-100kya that was truly remarkable. Why? Why was so much energy diverted to things like art and religion? It has to go beyond the resources required for hunting and gathering, which after all had been going in in proto-human populations for millions of years. All anyone can offer are vague mumblings about some vaporous yet-to-be-discovered adaptive advantage. Or, like Dawkins’ we could suggest that most of this was a “brain virus,” a hostile “meme”. Psuedo-scientific naturalism-of-the-gaps rubbish — or at best, not nearly as compelling as the rich philosophical and religious explanations that have occupied the best human minds for thousands of years.

    Second, even if otherwise empirically supportable, it fails utterly to support the notion that our evolved cognitive capabilities could be trusted to give us true theory-of-everything knowledge that fully explains all aspects of reality. At best evolution could be expected to provide us with what is needed to survive in the physical world. Anything else would be a waste of energy. The best you can get out of evolutionary explanations is pragmatic survival knowledge.

    But if the best reductionistic evolutionary explanations can offer is pragmatic survival knowledge in the physical world, then there is no reason to expect that any claims about transcendent realities — including whether there are any transcendent realities — are accurate. A consistent materialist must simply remain silent as to such matters. This means “atheism,” the affirmative claim that there is no God, is off the table. This is not something we should expect evolution to equip us to know one way or the other if evolutionary adaptations are all about surviving and passing on selfish genes in the physical world. And materialism itself, then, is merely an assertion of faith, not an empirically based belief.

    The alternative to this is a non-reductive evolutionary explanation for self-aware rational reflection — i.e, an emergent theory of “mind.” If you want to claim that human beings are capable of true knowledge of the way things are, you can’t escape addressing the problem of mind.

  • Tim


    I will respond to your posts in full later this evening when I have more time.

  • Steve K

    Question: Is this begging the question?
    “Why can’t morality simply be an expression of evolionarily [sic] inherited adaptive pro-social dispositions?”

  • http://www.tgdarkly.com dopderbeck

    Tim (#35) — morality by definition is about choices made with some degree of freedom to choose between right and wrong. An action taken without any free will is not a “choice” and therefore has nothing to do with “morality.” This isn’t a “tautology,” it simply is the definition of what “moral” has always meant. If you want to say that what we call “morality” really is about things determined by our evolutionary past on our brain chemistry, then what you are really doing is eliding the notion of “morality” and replacing it with determinism. But then, once again, you are simply begging the question of whether we have any free will.

  • http://www.tgdarkly.com dopderbeck

    Steve K — exactly.

  • Tim


    It’s not begging the question. Begging the question is to assume that you already agree with some assumption of mine and then basing the argument off of that. I am asking you why the definition of moraliy HAS to involve free will. I am ASKING a question, no BEGGING one. Till this evening.

  • http://www.tgdarkly.com dopderbeck

    It’s begging the question whether we have free will, Tim. The question you said you want to avoid.

  • Tim


    It would be begging the question if I based arguments on the lack of free will. I’m not. You are asserting that free will MUST be necessary for morality. I’m simply not convinced of your assertion and am asking you to back it up. If you refuse to back it up, then you are asking me to accept an assumption that you have not substantiated, and that is the very definition of begging the question.

    “Begging the question is a type of logical fallacy in which the proposition to be proven is assumed implicitly or explicitly in the premise.”

    Why is free will assumed to be ABSOLUTELY REQUIRED for morality to work? If you just expect me to accept that as just so, then you are begging the question.

  • Tim

    …and I disagree that this is an accepted definion of morality:

    “morality by definition is about choices made with some degree of freedom to choose between right and wrong.”

    Try this one instead:

    “Morality is a sense of behavioral conduct that differentiates intentions, decisions, and actions between those that are good (or right) and bad (or wrong).”

    The metric here for “good” could easily be pro-social, and for “bad” it could easily be anti-social. Where does free will required here?

  • Tim

    ..and now I really do need to wait until this evening to continue this conversation :)

  • http://www.tgdarkly.com dopderbeck

    Tim, as I’ve said a couple of times now, the definition of “morality” involves choices made between right and wrong, the good and the evil. If you instead are taking about deterministic actions, then you are simply no longer talking about “morality.” This isn’t mere assertion, its what human beings have understood “morality” to mean for thousands of years. For empirical support, start reading Plato, and then continue on through all the great philosophers, playwrights and poets up until about Nietzsche.

    I think what you really mean is, why can’t human society be constructed without what I am describing as “morality” — i.e., without positing free choices between some supposedly objective notions of “good” or “evil”? Would that be a fair way to frame it? I think that’s a different, and more fair, question.

    The most immediate response to that question is that there is then no basis for choosing between rival conceptions of how exactly human society ought to be constructed, all of which involve assertions of power. In short, you do end up with Nietzsche.

  • Tim


    Just got through watching a movie with the wife and I’ll be calling it a night shortly. Sorry I couldn’t rejoin the conversation this evening, but I’ll pick it back up tomorrow morning.

  • dopderbeck

    Tim — c’mon, a movie with the wife or blog conversation with me? And you chose the wife? ;-)

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    dopderbeck#36 says At best evolution could be expected to provide us with what is needed to survive in the physical world. Anything else would be a waste of energy. The best you can get out of evolutionary explanations is pragmatic survival knowledge.

    No, not even close. While you could try to argue that all the various modes of sexual courtship are “pragmatic survival knowledge” it seems much more straightforward to believe that many speciation events are preceded by a group of them finding odd things attractive in their mates. Procreation is not a waste of energy for the participants. People could easily have picked people with certain mental qualities, perhaps they could sing, or dance better.

    Yes, God could have inspired that activity (and the peahen’s attraction to gaudy feathers) but so could simple taste.

  • Tim


    I know, priorities right ;)

    I’ll be posting around a half-hour/hour approx., I’m actually trying to pull together some material for you, while taking care of some chores this morning.

  • Tim


    I think what you are introducing here is a semantic argument. You are claiming that the component of free will is by definition integral to morality. In support of this claim, you have argued that it has always been so throughout humanity’s entire history of philosophical discourse on the subject.

    These are certainly interesting assertions. Let’s examine them further.

    To address the historical argument first:

    I certainly do agree with you that free will was integral to Plato’s treatment on morality. But how uniform is this across philosophers? Not with respect to free will as an incidental feature to morality of course, but as a truly integral, necessary, crucial component? How uniform is this?

    Well, let’s look at Aristotle’s treatment on the subject in his compiled work, Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle argued that virtue was acting in accordance with one’s proper function. He asked the question, what are the highest virtues, the most important functions for which human beings are meant? Aristotle proposed that a life lived in accordance with these functions, in the most excellent way possible, would constitute a virtuous one. Now, as a product of his time, Aristotle saw some functions as universal across all humanity, and some he broke down into social and gender classes. But the focus on engaging in actions in congruence with one’s highest functions as a person constituted the essential argument Aristotle made with respect to ethics. Any concept of free will, perhaps assumed in the background (along with gender and class distinctions, and concepts of the soul no one really ascribes to anymore) are incidental to this message. The focus was on lives lived in accordance with one’s highest functions. And in many respects Aristotle’s treatment was extremely practical in this regard (even acknowledging that circumstances beyond one’s control, essentially some measure of good or bad fortune, could impact the extent of the virtuous life one could be capable of living).

    So, I don’t see why we can’t continue to think of morality in the same terms today. That being that morality is acting in accordance with our highest functions. From a theistic standpoint, our highest function would be that for which God made us – to worship and glorify him, to love him, to obey him, to have fellowship with him, to love and have fellowship with one another, etc.

    From a purely naturalistic sociobiological view, our function could be to express those aspects of our humanity that represent our optimal flourishing as social members of our species. This could include pro-social functioning such that we thrive in strong families, strong communities (which increasingly are seen to span now from tight-knit local communities to a community of all humanity on a global scale), to healthy and actualized living, and perhaps even to nurturing a sense of appreciation of and belonging to with respect to our place and history in this universe (the atheistic alternative to theistic worship).

    So, from this framework, those more universal aspects of morality, with respect to our own species anyway, would be actions in accordance with these functions – and immorality would be actions in violation of these functions. Even should one rule free will out of the equation, the actions would still remain. Sure, this might mean ultimately that no one had a “choice” in a theoretical sense anyway but to live a life of virtue or one lacking in it. But I can again reference Aristotle in that he also argued that poor fortune could preclude an individual from living a particularly significant virtuous life – so that’s hardly a new idea.


  • Tim


    Now, with respect to the semantic argument of how we use the term morality today:

    In dealing with language, we are dealing with symbols. We are working with man-made systems of visual markings and phonetic utterances to represent concepts that are communal in nature.

    However, these concepts are not always fixed, and can express some variability – over time, across cultures, across persons, across usages, etc. It’s a messy business.

    Let’s take an example. What is faith? Ask ten different people, and you can get ten different answers. The answers most will give will have some commonality in that they will center on some concept of trust or confidence in someone, something, or some concept. But the fullness of the meaning will vary depending on person. the culture, and the historical time wherein one would ask the question. For instance, the concept that Kierkegaard used the term “faith” to convey is at considerable variance, as well as some commonality of course, to the concept Paul of Tarsus used the Greek word “pistis” to convey. This of course is just one example, I could give many more.

    But, specifically because of these semantic difficulties, we rely, not completely of course, but as a useful tool, on dictionaries. Now, dictionaries are more descriptive than prescriptive. The track the use of language and comment on it. The look at instances of past usage and try to categorize various meanings for our written symbols we call words. So, let’s refer to one of the most highly regarded dictionaries we have at our disposal, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Here are the relevant definitions of morality, ethics, and virtue that I pulled from my own personal copy copy of the OED. Let’s see what we can gather concerning the OED’s description of these symbols’ usages:


    1) Of or pertaining to character or disposition, considered as good or bad, virtuous or vicious; of or pertaining to the distinction between right and wrong, or good and evil, in relation to the actions, volitions, or character of responsible beings; ethical

    2) Of knowledge, opinions, judgments, etc. relating to the nature and application of the distinction between right and wrong.

    3) Moral sense: The power of apprehending the difference between right and wrong.

    4) Of feelings: Arising from the contemplation of an action, character, etc., as good or bad.

    5) Treating of or concerned with virtue and vice, or the rules of right conduct, as a subject of study.

    6) Moral law: The body of requirements in conformity to which right or virtuous action consists.

    7) Of actions pertaining to the moral law; having the property of being right or wrong.


    1) The doctrine or system concerned with conduct and duty; moral science.

    2) Points of ethics, moral principles or rules

    3) Conformity to the moral law; moral goodness or rightness.

    4) Moral conduct usually, good moral conduct behavior conformed to the moral law; moral virtue.


    1) Conformity of life and conduct with the principles of morality; voluntary observance of the recognized moral laws or standards of right conduct; abstention on moral grounds from any form of wrong-doing or vice.

    2) A particular moral excellence; a special manifestation of the influence of moral principles in life or conduct.


    1) Possessing or showing virtue in life and conduct; acting with moral rectitude or in conformity with moral laws; free from vice, immorality, or wickedness, good, just, righteous.

    2) Of acts, life, manners, etc.: Characterized by, of the nature of, virtue; according with, or conforming to, moral law or principles; morally good or justifiable.

    1) The moral principles by which a person is guided

    2) The rules of conduct recognized in certain associations or departments of human life

    Now, let’s look these over. A continuous theme of actions, behavior, and character corresponding to right conduct and right principles seems to arise. In just a couple instances is the concept of volition introduced, among all the definitions, but it is hardly prominent.

    So, my previous usage of “morality” with respect to a sociobiological model that stress behavior in accoradance with humanity’s shared/inherited pro-social dispositions, though being either free will agnostic or free will denying, seems perfectly appropriated given not just the above classification of usage of the term by the OED, but also by referring historically to Aristotle’s own treatment of the subject.

    But perhaps you would still object. Perhaps none of this has done anything to convince you. If this is the case, could you then provide terms you deem more appropriate for my usage when discussing every aspect of moral behavior minus the philosophical presupposition of free will. What would be a good replacement term for “moral sense.” Or “moral behavior.” Or “moral dispositions.” Or “shared moral values.” Perhaps we could substitute with pro-social, but naturalistic discussions of morality, as I noted above, can extend beyond only pro-social behaviors to healthy and actualized living as well (i.e., taking care of yourself, avoiding harmful drugs and alcohol, respecting your body, actualizing rather than wasting your potential, appreciating life, etc.). So, what term would you have me use David if not morality?

  • Tim

    I wanted to add that once we wrap up the semantic conversation, we can continue on to the objections you’ve raised concerning the viability of evolutionary explanations on why we ought to have some confidence in our rational faculties (incl. our ability to rationally perceive and engage with the world around us, our capacity for self-reflection and abstract thought).

  • dopderbeck

    It’s not just semantic Tim. All of the definitions you provided assume volition, even those that don’t expressly mention it. They all have to do with consciously understanding a choice between some objective standard of right and wrong and choosing one or the other, and this is how moral philosophers of every stripe have always and still do understand what “morality” means.

    Here is how Michael Ruse sums up the sociobiological perspective: “Ethics is a collective illusion of the genes, put in place to make us good cooperators. Nothing more and nothing less.” (Ruse, “Evolutionary Ethics Past and Present” in Clayton and Schloss, eds. Evolution and Ethics).

    Here we have not a semantic difference, but a complete redefinition of a term that has been used otherwise for millennia.

  • Tim


    I respectfully disagree that the definitions as a whole implied volition. If you want to elaborate on that, I would look forward to discovering where you are drawing this implication from. Is it just simply that action implies volition? Or “right” behavior implies volition? Does self-reflection or understanding imply volition? What specifically implies volition?

    In any event, what term would you have me use for morality minus the free will aspect you claim is so essential?

  • Tim

    …”and this is how moral philosophers of every stripe have always and still do understand what “morality” means.”

    Also, did you read my post #51? Did you have any specific comments with respect to my argument concerning Aristotle’s treatment of ethics?

  • dopderbeck

    Tim — do you really think Aristotle’s ethics aren’t about choosing virtue? You can choose to act or not choose to act according to your proper purpose or function — i.e., you can choose virtue or vice. (Aristotle of course didn’t advocate libertarian free will because of his hierarchy of causation, but the purpose of his hierarchy of causation is to make room for compatibilist free will).

    Moreover, Aristotelian virtue ethics are all about teleology. Don’t forget that Aquinas’ virtue ethics were in many ways a Christianization of Aristotelian virtue ethics. For Thomas, virtue is acting in accordance with one’s proper ends — and the ultimate proper ends of all human actions are to glorify God.

    No, you can’t equate Ruse’s deterministic, dysteleological redefinition of “ethics” with Aristotelian virtue ethics.

    If you want sources in Greek philosophy, you need to look to the Stoics, not to Aristotle.

  • Tim

    David – I just got home from work, and will comment this evening.

  • Tim

    …in the meantime though, could you elaborate on this:

    “but the purpose of his hierarchy of causation is to make room for compatibilist free will)”

    & this

    “Moreover, Aristotelian virtue ethics are all about teleology.”


  • Tim


    Sorry, but I won’t be able to get you that response tonight. If you’re still interested in continuing the conversation, I will do my best to respond tomorrow evening. In the meantime, if you want to take a stab at elaborating on those two points in #58, that would help make sure my reply is more useful.

  • Tim

    …sorry, #59.


  • dopderbeck

    Hey Tim. Aristotle’s philosophy emphasized different levels of causation — material, formal, efficient and final. For Aristotle, you couldn’t explain something with reference to only one level of causation, and you couldn’t reduce something to only one level of causation. From this he argued that everything has a purpose — a telos — grounded in a first cause. And Aristotle’s ethics were informed by his notions of causation, such that acting virtuously was to act in harmony with one’s purpose.

    All of this deeply informed Thomas Aquinas’ theological account of causation and virtue. For Thomas, of course, the “first mover” or first cause was God.

    It’s a complete misreading of Aristotle (and Thomas) to suggest that this is anything at all like the mechanistic selfish gene idea promoted by Ruse, et al.

    The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a good article on Aristotle and causality: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-causality/

  • Tim


    Aristotle did posit these 4 causes, as you claimed. However, nowhere is free will of humankind essential to any of those 4 causes. We are talking about free will specifically, not transcendent spirituality or God, with respect to what you are claiming is an essential component to the meaning of the term morality, correct? Up to this point, I thought this was what we were talking about concerning your understanding of the definition.

    In any event, wisdom, knowledge, and skill are all aspects of humanity that Aristotle focused on with respect to their ability to do any number of things – including living a virtuous life. Some idea of an ultimate free will underlying these aspects is incidental at best, and certainly was not a focus on Aristotle’s treatment of man with respect to virtue.

    If free will was an essential element anywhere in Aristotle’s philosophy, it was the free will of the “first cause”, the thinking being that began/sustains all things in the universe. But again, this takes us back to presupposing God/transcendent spirtuality/supernaturalism.

    In any event, what word would you have us use instead of morality to discuss every aspect of morality minus free will?

  • dopderbeck

    Tim — absent any sort of free will, we are talking about determinism. Is “morality” possible if determinism is true? No, because it’s impossible to say any action was “right” or “wrong.” It just is what it is. It happened because it happened. Hitler exterminated the Jews because [fate][the gods][the devil][his genes] made him do it, and that’s that.

    I understand, I think, what you want to argue. “Virtue” or “morality” is acting in accordance with evolutionary programming that has been successful in establishing stable human societies. That’s an interesting claim, but it requires some degree of free will — a freedom to chose some set of adaptive behaviors and not some other set — to choose a stable human society of one sort rather than another. But this now is no longer really sociobiology. It’s at least an emergent property of mind exercising downward causation.

  • Tim


    Would it be fair to say that you equate determinism with lack of free will, as if the two were almost synonymous? I want to quickly clarify this so I can better understand your position. When I hear determinism, what comes to mind is a philosophical paradigm that associates every event in this universe with an unbroken chain of causes, such that one outcome and only one outcome is possible at any point in time. I don’t know that too many hold to this position anymore. For one, strict determinism admits to no randomness. Everything that ever happened HAD to have happened according to strict determinism. I believe this philosophical paradigm depends on a physical view of the universe compatible Newtonian physics. As no physicist really sees the universe this way anymore, but understands instead that there is a quantum “weirdness” underlying all physical interactions in our universe, the possibility of true randomness certainly exists. So, many physicists feel that if you were to rewind back to the Big Bang, and let it play out again, you would get at least a slightly different universe than the one you have today. So, this would be incompatible with strict philosophical determinism.

    But perhaps you are intending to use the term determinism in a softer sense? Essentially just grouping together all causes minus free will, including randomness, and taking the term to mean, with respect to humanity, that across the range of all possible human responses the set of probable actions (loosely defined) are ultimately determined by preceding causal factors?

    I have to head off to work, and wanted to continue my response to your post. I will try to write more this afternoon.

  • Tim

    …OK, I have a little more time to write this morning.

    Continuing on the subject of free will, to summarize your first argument, you claimed that morality would not be possible without free will. Now, is this the same argument you made before or a slightly different one?

    Earlier you had argued that philosophers had always considered free will, the ability to freely chose from “right” and “wrong”, an essential element of morality from a definitional point of view. I endeavored to demonstrate by referring to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics that the freedom of choice between “right” and “wrong” doesn’t have to be central. It certainly wasn’t the focus of Aristotle’s work on the subject, but incidental at best. Rather, he focused on virtue as a life lived in accordance with one’s highest functions, and his treatment was highly practical in that he noted that the whims of fate could leave a man with little opportunity for living such a life of virtue. However, you then replied that Aristotle’s ethical model highlighted teleology toward some transcendent end. In this we agreed, but I noted that your argument wasn’t that morality had to be transcendent from a definitional point of view, but rather had to involve free will. That took us to where we are now in the conversation.

    Now it seems you are claiming that free will has to be necessary for morality to even work at all. So I am trying to work through what you mean by that. Is that a semantic argument.

    Are you saying that for us to use the term morality appropriately when discussing how to live a virtuous life, somewhat akin to what Aristotle argued in terms of embracing and living in accordance with one’s ultimate functions, that one has to incorporate the concept of free will – else a different term ought to be used? If this is the case, then I wonder what your specific objection was to my argument in referring to Aristotle’s usage.

    Or, are you arguing that for morality, even if more broadly defined than what you had been arguing for up to this point, one still has to have free will to make it work at all, or to make any kind of sense internally?

    If this is the case, then I would argue the following:

    Morality could ultimately serve as descriptive statement, as well as a prescriptive statement, concerning engaging in right or wrong behavior. So, it could say something like “Fred helping Sally cross the street was “good” (i.e., moral)” It could also say, “Sally ought to help Fred cross the street, as this is the “right” thing to do (i.e., moral)” Now, are you arguing that for descriptions and prescriptions of “right” or “wrong” to make sense, one HAS to have free will? I don’t see why this would be the case.

    Take the example of Hitler, as you introduced it. We as a society could certainly, according to a sociobiological model, make a strong claim that he was acting in violation of the pro-social dispositions of our species, of which he is a member. In essence then, we could say he was acting “inhuman.” Now, certainly there are other very “human” tendencies that he did express when acting so monstrously, as our pro-social dispositions aren’t all of who we are as a species. But our sociobiological moral model clearly takes at its starting point our pro-social tendencies. One could claim this is arbitrary, but a sociobiologist could respond that what we describe as our “moral sense” or “conscience” is very much real, as in we really do experience that, and that it is evidently aligned with our pro-social tendencies far more so than any other aspect of humanity’s inherited dispositions.

    So, a sociobiolical model of morality would say that Hitler acted in conflict with his pro-social inheritance shared with every human being, and as such what he did was descriptively “wrong.” Now, prescriptively a sociobiological model could say that if one chooses to embrace that underlying human inheritance from which our sense of “conscience”/”moral sense” manifests, then we “ought” to engage in pro-social behavior and refrain from engaging in anti-social behavior. Now, certainly someone could say, “I see no reason to embrace this aspect of human inheritance we commonly associate with conscience and moral sense, instead I intend to blatantly act with disregard toward them.” Now to this the sociobiologist could say, “certainly you can, but as a member of the human species that identifies with and embraces our species’ pro-social dispositions underlying our shared “moral sense”, I could fairly then describe your future actions and life as immoral.”

    So, you can see that there is some relativity here. It would be universal across our species, but relative only to our species.

    But I think I have strayed from discussing free will at this point, so I should return to that.

    To sum up the above, I would argue that one could certainly say, from a sociobiological point of view, that Hitler was functioning/acting/behaving immorally. You could also likely infer that Hitler had beliefs, attitudes, and judgments underlying those behaviors that would also likely conflict with a view of pro-social morality provided by socibiological models. So, according to “wisdom”, “skill”, “learning”, etc. and living according to one’s prescribed function, according to Aristotle’s view, Hitler could appropriately be described as “immoral.”

    I think what you are saying is that Hitler couldn’t have been held accountable for his actions without free will. But we certainly could hold him accountable from a certain point of view. Even if one is lacking in free will according to implications you might draw from some sociobiological models, one still functions mostly autonomously. Humans have the capacity for self-reflection, judgment, and learning. Even if you can make the argument that a sociobiological model would negate free will, thus precluding some existential control by the individual over any their own self-reflections, judgments, and learning, all these processes certainly take place in the individual. So, it wasn’t something external to Hitler that was at fault, it was Hitler. Hitler was faulty, if only from a functional point of view. So as a practical matter, whether we perceive that Hitler had existential control or none, how we act toward him is the same. We condemn him and his actions as violations against our moral norms, particularly those norms universal and biologically inherited in our species.

    I’d like to get your thoughts David concerning these arguments, and benefit from any feedback you might provide.

    *As I’ve made some effort to be precise in how we are using our terms, I wanted to note that when I use the term you initially introduced, sociobiology, I’m using it, as I believe you understood it, as an umbrella term to include all evolutionarily-based approaches to human behavior and expression, including evolutionary psychology and human behavioral ecology.