The Starry Heaven Above and the Moral Law Within

The Starry Heaven Above and the Moral Law Within October 13, 2019


A Hubble Space Telescope image from NASA/ESA
(Wikimedia Commons public domain)


I published the column below in the Deseret News back in 2012:


In one of his dialogues, the Greek philosopher Plato cites his beloved teacher, Socrates, as saying that “philosophy begins in wonder.”


Plato’s student Aristotle expresses a similar sentiment in his “Metaphysics”: “It was,” Aristotle says, “their wonder, astonishment, that first led men to philosophize and still leads them.”


In ancient Greece, of course, science hadn’t yet emerged as a separate discipline.  For many centuries thereafter, it would be termed “natural philosophy.”  Thus, for pre-modern thinkers – and, presumably, for most modern scientists – science too “begins in wonder.”


And there is much to wonder at, even beyond the vast distances of the universe and the uncountable numbers of its stars.


All the laws of physics were in place, for instance, within an unbelievably tiny fraction of a second after the Big Bang in which, roughly 13.75 billion years ago, our universe came to be.  That such a literally incomprehensible explosion instantly sorted itself out along orderly lines demands explanation, to put it mildly.


“The most incomprehensible thing about the world,” Albert Einstein is reported to have said, “is that it is comprehensible.”  Why is the universe orderly, law-like, and rational?  The title of a famous 1960 article by Eugene Wigner, a Hungarian-American theoretical physicist and mathematician who would share the Nobel Prize three years later, conveys his puzzlement: “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences.”  (In his later years, Wigner studied the Vedanta school of Hinduism, which teaches that an all-pervading consciousness undergirds the physical cosmos.)


The remarkable diversity and richness of the living world, too, provoke awed wonder in many.  A poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning captures that response beautifully:


Earth’s crammed with heaven,

And every common bush afire with God;

But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,

The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries,

And daub their natural faces unaware.


Even the militantly atheistic science writer Richard Dawkins is obliged to acknowledge that “Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.”


Professor Dawkins is far from alone in believing that Darwinian evolutionary theory has proved any apparent design to be mere illusion and has “made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.”  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.


However, it’s not only the physical universe that impresses.  Our innate ethical sense does, as well.


Moral law is notably uniform across cultures.  While applications can and do vary, fundamental values don’t.  No culture teaches that murder is good, that selfishness is a virtue, or that parents should be disrespected.


“The human mind has no more power of inventing a new value,” wrote C. S. Lewis, “than of imagining a new primary colour, or, indeed, of creating a new sun and a new sky for it to move in.” 


Another remarkable fact about morality is that it seems to come from outside of us, even above us.  If someone says that torturing kittens or small children is fun and morally permissible, we don’t simply dismiss it as a difference in taste, like preferring chocolate to vanilla.  We judge that person to be morally depraved and probably altogether sick.


There are, of course, naturalistic theories of the origin of morality that account for it as a result of evolution, the chance product of a trial-and-error process that has taught us what behaviors lead to the success (or failure) of communities.  We understand, for instance, that universal dishonesty would be lethal to a society.


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.


“Two things,” wrote the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant (d. 1804), “fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily reflection is occupied with them: the starry heaven above me and the moral law within me.”


Posted from Cedar City, Utah



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