The Evolution of Morality and Theistic Evolutionists

The Evolution of Morality and Theistic Evolutionists April 23, 2019

“It wasn’t God who introduced us to morality; rather, it was the other way around. God was put into place to help us live the way we felt we ought to.” – Frans de Waal

In my previous article, I wrote about how morality (or at least the mechanics of morality) are clearly evolved and are transcendent across several species. If we can clearly see that multiple species have evolved at least the rudiments of morality for functional reasons, what does this say about God and whether he underwrites morality or not?

This second article will deal with how the notion all and evolved morality across species fits with theistic evolution.

Theistic Evolutionists and Moral Law

As mentioned previously, a theistic evolutionist (TE) could deal with this idea that the brain has evolved the mechanics of moral intuitionism and moral reasoning. How? By claiming that God designed the human brain to be able to do morality. But this causes far more problems than it solves. Paul Bloom’s “Did God Make These Babies Moral?” is a really interesting read. It introduces us, in this article here, to Francis Collins, key to theistic evolutionary thought. Apologies for the overlong quote, but I see it as spot on and necessary in building the argument:

Collins is right, then, that there exists a moral nature. But the same research that finds that a moral sense exists also suggests that it is limited. Empathy and compassion exist early in development, but they are most powerfully triggered by the suffering of those who the baby or child is familiar with. Toddlers and children sometimes help others, but there is no evidence that they are willing to sacrifice for a stranger. Collins marvels at agape—selfless altruism—and describes it as “a major challenge for the evolutionist … a scandal to reductionist reasoning.” And it would be—if it had evolved. But there is no evidence that it has. Everything that Collins describes as special to humans, everything that motivates him to see God as playing an essential role in establishing our natures, is absent early in development….

Let’s look at things another way. The idea that God inserted into us a moral code, filling our brain with moral truths and moral motivations, certainly has a poetic sound to it. But what could it actually mean?…

These design theorists aren’t just talking pretty; they are making a serious argument, which is that God actually did something to us, presumably in the few million years since we split off from other primates. Collins didn’t come to believe in God because of a metaphor, after all.

Instead, Collins is imagining a distinct moment of implantation. In a public talk, he suggests a two-step process: First, biological evolution provided us with a sufficiently advanced human brain. Then God stepped in; he “gifted humanity with the knowledge of good and evil (the Moral Law), with free will, and with an immortal soul.” As we’ve seen, Wallace’s view is slightly different; he suggests that God made us moral by tweaking the process of natural selection, favoring some variants over others.

In his discussion of the Moral Law, Collins states that these sorts of claims are not testable—“If God exists, then He must be outside the natural world, and therefore the tools of science are not the right ones to learn about Him.” But actually, his own implantation view is a substantive and testable claim. If one believes that our moral thoughts and actions are the result of—or, to put it more cautiously, instantiated in—neural activities in our brain, then what implantation means is that God has rewired our brains, presumably by fiddling with the genetic instructions that dictate how neural connections develop. The genetic fiddling could have been direct—God might have divinely shuffled various molecules—or indirect; God could have guided the process of natural selection, directing variation and favoring certain results, as Wallace suggested.

Either way, it follows that careful neuroscientists should be able to find the parts of the brain that God created. And surely Collins, who used to lead the Human Genome Project, would appreciate the exciting prediction that his view makes about the human genome, as it implies that are certain divinely created sequences of genes that give rise to the Moral Code. It follows, then, that neuroscientists and biologists should be able to identity what God modified and observe how his handiwork differs from the more conventional products of biological evolution. If Collins and others are right, then, we are on the cusp of the greatest discovery in the history of science—decisive proof of the existence of God.

There is a different way to make sense of the design proposal, however. If Collins were to propose that, at some period in history, God modified the way in which we digest food, it would be natural to expect this modification to be manifest in both our internal organs and the genes that help build them in our bodies. But morality is different. Some people don’t think of the brain when they think of good and evil, and might believe that morality—or at least Moral Law—doesn’t have much to do with the physical world at all….

I don’t want to overstate what we know; we are far from anything like a complete understanding of human morality. And it’s always possible that someone will find evidence for divine intervention—a “Moral Law” gene that could never have evolved or some sort of moral action that has no neural correlate. But until that day, there is no need to posit divine intervention to explain any aspect of our morality….

None of the arguments here refute the existence of God, of course. A believer is always free to say that our morality is the product of God’s will, simply by taking the position that God created the universe so that it would give rise to creatures who come to possess the Moral Law. This is an empirically empty claim—nothing could prove it wrong—and so it’s a safe haven for any theist who wants to preserve a divine-origins account of our morality.

At very best then, the TE claim is unfalsifiable.

Creationists love to lambast TEs on this subject:

In sum, a theistic evolutionist account of our moral sense is not only inconsistent with Scripture, but also philosophically incoherent: (1) a first member in any series of subsequent members can only pass on what it has in its nature to pass on to subsequent members; (2) what comes from the physical, non-human and non-moral by means of the physical, non-human and non-moral can only be physical, non-human and non-moral. I conclude that theistic evolutionism cannot explain the origin of morality.

This is weak stuff and doesn’t really deal with God designing morality into human brains. Much of the argument deals with the species problem and separating humans out as special from other hominids and whatnot.

Cherry Picking

The problem for TEs is that they can’t really pick and choose what parts of evolution they believe or adhere to and what parts they don’t. It’s an all or nothing sort of thing. They will need to see, as all those who adhere to evolution in general do, that morality exists in many species to differing degrees and those degrees are themselves the results of the function that morality provides for that species. If God is designing morality into humanity, then God is designing morality into a number of different species and the reasons that morality must exist should look identical to the reasons that they exist to the evolutionary biologist. Francis Collins sets out 6 tenets of theistic evolution:

  1. the prevailing cosmological model, with the universe coming into being about 13.8 billion years ago;
  2. the fine-tuned universe;
  3. evolution and natural selection;
  4. No special supernatural intervention is involved once evolution got under way;
  5. Humans are a result of these evolutionary processes; and
  6. Despite all these, humans are unique. The concern for the Moral Law (the knowledge of right and wrong) and the continuous search for God among all human cultures defy evolutionary explanations and point to our spiritual nature.

Of course, the sixth point here is simply at odds with evolutionary theory and so TEs such as Collins aren’t really TEs – they are cherry picking and doing so badly. This is the cherry picking I was talking about above.

As another Christian critic states:

BioLogos’s current statements on explanations of morality remain similarly muddled, but ultimately admit evolutionary arguments mean “the argument from the moral law…is subject to the same risk of explanation as [the] God-of-the-gaps argument.”64 

Removing Morality from the Equation

BioLogos’s deference to evolutionary arguments has made it quick to surrender classic arguments for God’s existence when faced with weak, after-the-fact evolutionary explanations.65 As a result, Collins and BioLogos have backed away from arguing that human religion and morality scientifically reflect God’s special design.66

This irony is striking. When Collins explained why he moved from atheism to Christianity, it wasn’t simply because evolution was compatible with religion. Rather, he cited the inability of evolutionary models to explain morality as a major reason for needing God. Yet BioLogos’s philosophy shrinks from making the very argument that brought Collins to faith. This retreat reflects not so much the strength of evolutionary arguments for the origin of morality or religion but rather their philosophy that one ought not to question evolutionary arguments, lest one “hinder evangelism.”

It appears from this criticism that this the philosophy of morality and the evolution of morality cause big headaches for those involved in advocating both theism and evolution.

It all comes down to objective morality

The proper TE, if such a thing even exists, should argue that morality can be both functional and meaningful in a philosophical and theological sense, in a rather ad hoc rationalising manner. Perhaps, here, Collins suffers from what many people analysing the philosophy of morality suffer from. Namely, that if they can’t see morality as being somehow objective, then they have a problem. And since the term “objective” can only make any real coherent sense if you invoke God, then God gets invoked. Many people, naturalists and atheists included (or perhaps, often, in particular, these people), cannot handle a statement like “killing babies is objectively wrong” not being true. Of course, that statement is not true on account of killing babies being a great pastime, it is simply not true because the term “objective” is nonsensical. It is a term that is misused and, quite frankly, abused.

Killing babies is always wrong as we use near-universal subjective morality, logic and reason. We can think up some thought experiments or strange scenario where killing a baby is less wrong than an alternative. We can argue as to whether this makes it right or morally good as opposed to less wrong. These are the semantics of meta-ethical conversations. But when we say “killing babies is not objectively wrong”, we are not advocating the killing of babies (hopefully obviously), we are advocating that the term “objective” is problematic. Some naturalistic philosophers will argue that we can arrive coherently at a term objective and apply it to things of the human mind – sometimes, it is merely a case of semantics. It’s just that I don’t.

And so, perhaps this is why (indeed, as Francis Collins himself admits) theistic evolutionists exist and differ from naturalistic evolutionists – it comes down to the philosophy of morality. If morality only makes sense to you if you insist in seeing it in terms of strict objectiveness, then God is pretty much your best bet for trying to make sense of it. I still think the project is doomed to failure for all the reasons I have written before (and don’t have space to do here). But if you properly understand the evolution of the mechanisms of morality and understand the cultural development of the codifications of moral laws, then God is a superfluous notion and, indeed, part of that cultural and anthropological development of that morality.

It’s bottom up, not top down.

 

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