The problem of evil is probably the most vexing philosophical question for monotheism. It has affected people I know personally all the way up to famous scholars like Bart Ehrman. What are we to do with this problem? Even though the question has been explored endlessly, I want to think about it a little today.
First, according to contemporary philosophers, the logical problem of evil is more or less solved. The logical problem of evil is a subset of the problem of evil that argues that God’s existence is logically incoherent with the existence of evil. And yet many people remain unsatisfied with the logical resolution of this problem. Why?
Some people argue because the evidential problem of evil remains. The evidential problem of evil involves arguing that the existence of evil makes God’s existence unlikely, rather than illogical. That seems like a decent argument to make, and harder to refute decisively, but I don’t think God’s existence simply being made less likely or unlikely would have the same destructive effect on faith that the problem of evil has.
I want to try a different avenue. I think the problem of evil persists because it so deeply offends our moral sense. To explain, I will turn to a different story.
In Greek philosophy, much thought turns over the Homeric gods. The Homeric gods are the gods we traditionally associate with Greece–Zeus, Athena, Ares, Hermes, Apollo, and the like. The Greek philosophers by and large reject the Homeric gods. But why they reject the Homeric gods is illustrative. They don’t reject the Homeric gods on an empirical basis, such as the fact that you can physically walk over to Mount Olympus and check if the gods are actually there. Nor do they reject them on a logical or probabilistic basis. Rather, they reject the Homeric gods on a moral basis. Surely the gods do not act in ways unworthy even of human beings. Xenohpanes, a pre-Socratic philosopher, writes:
Homer and Hesiod have attributed to the gods all those things which in men are a matter for reproach and censure: stealing, adultery, and mutual deception.
Plato expresses similar thoughts:
Plato’s second objection, however, is more fundamental…Homer and the poets teach falsely about the gods and morals. Gods who fight one another, lie and cheat, and who speak and act falsely, are not suitable for the raising and teaching of children.
The Greek philosophers then puzzle out what or who exists if the Homeric gods do not. Some of their thoughts will sound very familiar to modern monotheists (especially Xenophanes’ writings). What I want to note, though, is the direction of their thought. If something about the gods and the world seem contradictory, the Greeks posit the gods (or more generally and non-theistically the moral foundation of the world) must be better than the popular understanding, not non-existent. I think this distinction is very important.
Why? Because, remember, our objection was originally moral in nature. If our objection is moral, and our conclusion then is that the supernatural does not exist, we face the much bigger problem of accounting for the origin of the moral sense that invalidated the supernatural in the first place.
Here’s where my story ties back to the problem of evil. I believe that the problem of evil persists because it fundamentally offends our moral sense. But if the origin of the problem of evil is our moral sense, we make a deadly error in rejecting the supernatural and embracing naturalism as the solution. C.S. Lewis explains this idea in full in Mere Christianity:
My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in such violent reaction against it? A man feels wet when he falls into water, because man is not a water animal: a fish would not feel wet. Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too—for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my fancies. Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist—in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless—I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality—namely my idea of justice—was full of sense. Consequently atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be a word without meaning.
Naturally I’m biased as a Christian, but I find this resolution fitting. The answer to our problems are implicit in the very objections we raise.
21 thoughts on “Exploring The Problem of Evil”
While it’s possible God imbued us with moral sense, and in it we find evidence of the supernatural, this process is not easily explained by our understanding of the universe’s physical laws.
Is there a way moral sense could have developed in accordance with the laws of nature, as we understand them today? Animals and civilizations that cultivate certain cultural practices tend to be more successful, in a reproductive/growth sense. Praising people for having babies young, but not too young, and then having lots of them, for example, is a good way to get your team going and growing. Could civilizations that developed a taste for (what we now call) moral justice flourish more successfully than more selfish tribes? We can see how that’s possible, and even probable.
It also makes sense that a successful civilization would take those traits that led to its success (industriousness, fertility, justice) and imagine gods that shared those traits, in order to further encourage development of those traits.
From within this fishbowl, it would appear from an individual’s birth that morality is a great principle that appeared from who-knows-where and helps us succeed. People ignorant of natural selection as applied to anthropology would probably find this all very magical.
By this theoretical process, a sense of what a God would be like has developed without a need for the supernatural.
I have no way of proving whether either or neither of these birth certificates for morality are historically accurate. I am inclined to believe the story that relies on plausible processes that we have observed repeatably in other traits and in other civilizations, rather than believe the story that requires hand-waving magic processes.
It’s a chicken and egg problem that at first seems vexing until you consider other sources of eggs than chickens.
“Could civilizations that developed a taste for (what we now call) moral justice flourish more successfully than more selfish tribes? We can see how that’s possible, and even probable.”
I wouldn’t doubt that right and just practices have some benefit for survival, but I also highly doubt that evolutionary fitness can explain the entirety of morality. For example, infanticide was practiced widely in Western antiquity, is still practiced today by some cultures, and is widespread in the animal kingdom. The evolutionary benefits are obvious: Weak and deformed children consume just as much or more resources while bringing little to no material benefit. And yet we’d all find infanticide horrific, just as, for the record, the Jews and later the Christians in the Roman Empire did. Or why martyrdom without any resistance? Non-resisting martyrdom flies straight in the face of any benefit I can perceive.
More philosophically, evolutionary ethics runs straight into the is-ought problem. We inevitably have to make some non-empirical normative claim in order to derive what we should do from what is because the natural world has no normative qualities. Nothing is ‘supposed’ to be, not even survival of the fittest. I think we also intuitively know that the good is not always coincident with the natural. I suppose one could argue we’re simply deceived by our nature and all our desires and morality do in fact come back to nature, but that’d be a very hard proposition to prove.
“It also makes sense that a successful civilization would take those traits that led to its success (industriousness, fertility, justice) and imagine gods that shared those traits, in order to further encourage development of those traits.”
I think many ancient gods follow this route. Even ancient Greek philosophers recognized that many gods including their own Homeric gods were essentially representations of themselves. The Persian gods are tan and dark haired. The Thracian gods are red haired and snub nosed. Etc. However, that’s what makes Yahweh supremely unusual, both in the past and today. His commands are often very much at odds with the people who at least claim to follow him.
8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
“I have no way of proving whether either or neither of these birth certificates for morality are historically accurate.”
That’s another issue I’ve noticed repeatedly with naturalistic explanations. People tend to definitely state ‘x evolved’ and what they mean is ‘I can logically conceive of x evolving.’ However, there’s a very large gulf between what we can logically conceive of evolving and what actually has evolved based on evidence. The process of natural selection isn’t the straight-forward arrow to perfection that people imagine. The best example off the top of my head is the fact that we may not even end up with the theoretically most fit trait for a given situation due to peaks and valleys in fitness for the transitional traits.
And there’s even a name for unfalsifiable evolutionary hypotheses posited to explain a human behavior. They’re called ‘just so’ stories. See: http://facts4u.com/OffSite_Stored_Pages/pdf/HowtheHumanGotItsSpots.pdf
Also, for longer reading, this paper explains what we can and cannot actually know based on sociobiology: http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1015&context=anthropologyfacpub
I may just need to write a post on evolutionary ethics and sociobiology :P
> “I suppose one could argue we’re simply deceived by our nature and all our desires and morality do in fact come back to nature, but that’d be a very hard proposition to prove.”
Is it harder to prove that as humans we don’t fully understand our nature, or that a supernatural organizer set up our nature? At first glance it seems terribly improbable that what we call morality would confer evolutionary advantages, but cultures that embrace it (to a point) have flourished. Correlation or causation? Hard to say.
The martyrdom question is a good one. Dawkins gets near it in one of his early (less preachy) books by asking why children with living grandparents tend to do better. In societies of scarcity it seems like adults that aren’t going to bear any more children should just die to free up their resources for young virile adults and their children. The theorized conclusion is that grandparents live on to support and teach the carriers of their genes and memes. (Memes, meaning cultural/social/etc practices, not cat videos.) Or maybe it’s just correlation, that adults with genes and habits that allow them to live a long time tend to have children that live a long time (and flourish). So a martyr is acting in a way that supports carries of his genes. Even if he himself has no children, his sister and her children bear huge numbers of his genes. Encouraging people to make sacrifices that help virile carriers of their own genes is logical.
Off the top of my head, I can see the quote from Isaiah as an encouragement to follow one’s leaders, even when what those leaders are doing doesn’t make sense. Having all the boats pointing in the same direction confers advantages, even if that direction isn’t necessarily ideal.
The point of all this explanation is to illustrate that these naturalistic explanations, however implausible, are certainly possible. They rely on no magical intervention. “there’s a very large gulf between what we can logically conceive of evolving and what actually has evolved based on evidence.” Of course there are gaps. I know of no gaps in our knowledge of evolution (biological and cultural) that are unbridgeable through natural processes. However unlikely the natural explanation seems, I’ll take it over a supernatural one.
It’s also important to acknowledge that these gaps in understanding remain gaps, even if we have good theories that explain a way across. When I suggest a way martyrdom could help proliferate the genes of the martyr, I’m not saying I accept that explanation. I’m saying it sounds more plausible to me than “martyrdom pleases God and he will make the martyr’s family extra lucky for a few generations” or something.
“At first glance it seems terribly improbable that what we call morality would confer evolutionary advantages, but cultures that embrace it (to a point) have flourished.”
I would say the West very much has flourished for embracing largely Christian moral and philosophical values in the long run, but we’re still left with the massive evolutionary road block up front from the fact that a very common outcome of being an early Christian was to end up dead–dead by martyrdom from the Romans, dead because you buried diseased strangers when they died, dead because the Pharisees don’t particularly like you, just dead all around. And the first Christians came from a group, the Jews, also famous for ending up dead due to revolting against the Romans. That forms a *massive* hump, so much so that even if we can see how these behaviors are beneficial now, we still have to explain how exactly we got here through a route so clearly not evolutionarily beneficial.
“So a martyr is acting in a way that supports carries of his genes. Even if he himself has no children, his sister and her children bear huge numbers of his genes. Encouraging people to make sacrifices that help virile carriers of their own genes is logical.”
I can see how dying in a battle or some form of resistance could help, but I specifically said non-resistant martyrdom for a reason. How is that going to help your own gene carriers? If anything, they’ll kill you first, and then go kill your gene carriers next since you didn’t put up a fight.
Furthermore, in general the kin altruism theory has issues. First, it can’t explain why we would help anyone outside our own genetic relations. If anything, we would want to help our genetic relations and harm or destroy people we aren’t closely related to. This idea very much plays out in nature and in human history–infanticide, war, and genocide come to mind–and yet we find these actions not only not good but abhorrent.
Second, people tend to overstate the evolutionary benefit of individual sacrifice for the population. To use Dr. Francis Collins’ example, worker ants follow this route, but ants are also unlike humans in that the sterile workers all have the exact same genetics as their siblings who will end up passing on genes. Humans are not in this situation, like all other more complex life forms, and in terms of evolution we very much operate on an individual and not a population basis.
“Off the top of my head, I can see the quote from Isaiah as an encouragement to follow one’s leaders, even when what those leaders are doing doesn’t make sense. Having all the boats pointing in the same direction confers advantages, even if that direction isn’t necessarily ideal.”
God is referring to himself. As far as following the leader, God reprimands all three kings of Israel at different points in their lives. The prophets specifically challenge the decisions of their leaders, and often die for it. The prophets, by the way, are a big evolutionary puzzle in this way: They challenge leadership *and* they die without fighting. In terms of evolutionary advantage, that makes zero sense.
“The point of all this explanation is to illustrate that these naturalistic explanations, however implausible, are certainly possible. They rely on no magical intervention….Of course there are gaps. I know of no gaps in our knowledge of evolution (biological and cultural) that are unbridgeable through natural processes. However unlikely the natural explanation seems, I’ll take it over a supernatural one.”
This is just blatantly begging the question. If you start off with the assumption that any natural explanation is better–no matter how counter-evolutionary, lacking evidence, and/or illogical–there’s simply no discussion to be had because you’ve already chosen your answer.
A plausible but unproven naturalistic explanation for humans having a belief in morality is a pretty strong rebuttal to the claim that humans’ moral sense must have a supernatural explanation. Lewis seemed to be making this claim in the quoted passage.
It’s a particularly odd claim, in my eyes, because such a small proportion of the people who have ever lived have agreed with Lewis about what morality requires. If it’s a feature of objective reality and we can reliably sense it, how is it that there hasn’t been greater agreement? The prevalence of infanticide you mentioned earlier, for example, seems to pose at least as great a challenge to your own view as to the evolutionary benefit explanation.
“A plausible but unproven naturalistic explanation for humans having a belief in morality is a pretty strong rebuttal to the claim that humans’ moral sense must have a supernatural explanation.”
I tend to focus on the evidentiary side since that interests people, but the much bigger problem is the philosophical side I outlined briefly. There simply is no way on an evolutionary basis to argue for what should be. Even if we can identify what is good on an evolutionary basis, we have no way to argue for why we should do it.
I would also argue that ‘plausible’ is a very loose term for what people often argue. What I tend to see is ‘this trait is beneficial now, so evolution can bring it about.’ This view works with an excessively simplified view of evolution, ignoring everything from fitness peaks and valleys to the fact that evolution works with what currently exists, not what will benefit people 1500 years later. So while, yes, having a plausible naturalistic alternative to morality would present a problem for the supernatural argument (if we temporarily ignore the is-ought problem), I would argue plausible should at least rise to the level of ‘we have some evidence evolution actually could have worked to produce this trait’ rather than ‘this trait is beneficial, so evolution must have caused it.’
Lastly, I would argue that the greater onus is actually upon the naturalistic argument, because everything has to accord with evolution with no exceptions. That’s why I take trouble to point out odd scenarios. Why non-resistant martyrs? Why oppose leadership *and* become a martyr? Why bury diseased strangers and die yourself? Why even treat genetic strangers with kindness rather than total destruction? Etc.
“It’s a particularly odd claim, in my eyes, because such a small proportion of the people who have ever lived have agreed with Lewis about what morality requires. If it’s a feature of objective reality and we can reliably sense it, how is it that there hasn’t been greater agreement?”
A couple things here.
1) We tend to overstate the differences in morality among people. In the Appendix to the Abolition of man, C.S. Lewis gives a list of different cultures with fairly similar moral codes.
See: http://archive.org/stream/TheAbolitionOfMan_229/C.s.Lewis-TheAbolitionOfMan_djvu.txt (use ctrl-f to find ‘Illustrations of the Tao’ in the back of the book)
2) Going off of #1, many times people’s seemingly moral disagreements are in fact factual disagreements. Abortion is a great example. People aren’t arguing whether it’s ok to kill a human person without sufficient justification. We all agree it’s wrong. Rather, we’re arguing whether fetuses are in fact human persons. Or we’re arguing whether the right to bodily autonomy is a greater right than the right to life in this situation. Alternatively, to give C.S. Lewis’ example, the fact that we have ceased to burn witches is a factual and not moral advancement. If we believed witches actually existed, people in league with the devil who used their powers to harm and kill people, we’d probably kill them too. But we don’t because we know witches don’t exist. So it’s no great moral advancement to say we don’t kill witches. It’s a factual advancement.
We have these debates within the confines of already set moral principles. In fact, if we didn’t have at least some set moral principles, there’d be no point in arguing any moral topic because we wouldn’t even have a mutually shared framework in which to operate.
– You’re absolutely right that an explanation being plausible doesn’t make it necessary. That’s the sort of claim which ought to be offered as a way of defeating an argument that naturalism is necessarily or probably false. You’re also right that stories about how something might have evolved tend to be a bit loose with their models, but again, that’s a consequence of their goals. They don’t purport to describe exactly how something did happen, they’re simply undercutting arguments that it couldn’t have happened using natural processes.
That’s an important distinction for someone making your argument to understand. When we talk about how evolution could have happened, being certain that something couldn’t have happened is really hard, and making claims about it is rhetorically risky. The problem is that, if you claim that something couldn’t have evolved and that this represents a hole in naturalists’ reasoning, you will be discredited if it can be shown that there is a plausible explanation and that it wasn’t that hard to imagine. That’s a pretty obvious set-up: I think your example of burying the dead has exactly this problem. Unburied bodies are a very serious health hazard, and have been for epochs. If the options available to an organism are to bury the bodies and die, or to not bury the bodies and die of pestilence which kills off all of the organism’s kin, it’s not hard to see how the burying is evolutionarily valuable.
That still doesn’t mean a moral preference for burying the dead must have evolved, but it does mean that the claim that it couldn’t have evolved is not only wrong, but indicative of less understanding of evolution than one would hope for in a person making claims about it.
– Are you denying that there has been any significant moral variability in all of human history? Because it seems to me that, while the factual/moral progress distinction is a useful one, the fact that a subset of humans have agreed on a lot of moral stuff doesn’t adequately meet the challenge of variable moral senses. It doesn’t seem to me that you’ve offered any explanation for those examples we can think of which fall quite dramatically outside that subset.
– The is/ought distinction does no work here, because naturalists needn’t believe in an objective morality. You described the problem as, “accounting for the origin of the moral sense that invalidated the supernatural in the first place.” There are lots of variations on explanations consistent with naturalism which result in people having the moral beliefs they do have. The problem of evil doesn’t rely on those judgments being accurate reflections of objective morality. It also works perfectly well as a proof by contradiction. If there is a traditional Christian God, then it is the case that there must be an objective morality (for He is said to be all-good, which is otherwise false), that He could not violate it by creating evil, and that He created everything. If we observe evil, then, the traditional Christian God must not exist.
My own perspective is that the problem of evil relies on a lot of pieces of the traditional definition of the Christian God, so there are lots of ways out of it. I’m told, for example, that Mormons believe God isn’t quite omnipotent, which totally dissolves it. If morality allows people to do evil in order to create greater good, then to retain the problem of evil you have to find an instance of evil which we can be certain resulted in no greater good, which is such a high evidentiary burden that no one’s succeeded in meeting it (to my knowledge), nor looks likely to. People often argue that this is what God has done while maintaining that the ends don’t justify the means–that seems contradictory to me, but if they relaxed a bit on the means/ends thing, that has promise, and there are lots of other such moves available. Consequently, I find the problem of evil interesting mostly when people pose it to themselves as a way of figuring out what’s most important to them about their own faith. It’s very rarely satisfying to try and pin someone down on a lot of premises.
“You’re also right that stories about how something might have evolved tend to be a bit loose with their models, but again, that’s a consequence of their goals. They don’t purport to describe exactly how something did happen, they’re simply undercutting arguments that it couldn’t have happened using natural processes.”
True, a plausible argument does undercut the argument, but again I would argue that plausible is used extremely loosely here. Perhaps an example will better explain my point. When talking about the problem of evil, there are many solutions which are plausible but totally unconvincing because they don’t answer the initial challenge in a way satisfying to most people. That’s how I feel about these naturalistic arguments, combined again with the fact that they don’t really answer using natural processes and evidence anyways but rather popular conceptions of how natural processes work and a starting unstated assumption that any naturalistic explanation, no matter how unlikely and unconvincing, is by default better than a supernatural explanation, as Ryan more or less stated in his last post.
“I think your example of burying the dead has exactly this problem. Unburied bodies are a very serious health hazard, and have been for epochs. If the options available to an organism are to bury the bodies and die, or to not bury the bodies and die of pestilence which kills off all of the organism’s kin, it’s not hard to see how the burying is evolutionarily valuable.”
Perhaps I should have explained this example better. I’m not talking about burying the dead in general. That action has obvious evolutionary benefits. I’m talking about how early Christians in the Roman empire had something of a reputation for burying the dead, no matter who they were and what they died of, and particularly plague victims that *nobody* wanted to touch. To me, everyone else is taking the evolutionarily advantageous route in this scenario–bury bodies so long as the benefit of burying the dead is greater than the risk of you and your family contracting the disease and possibly dying. So Christians are doing probably the most evolutionarily disadvantageous thing you can do–they’re burying bodies (which benefits everyone including their numerous enemies) *and* often dying in the process. That’s not just evolutionarily mysterious with decent reason to believe an explanation is forthcoming. That’s stupidly and lethally disadvantageous from every conception of evolution I know.
“It doesn’t seem to me that you’ve offered any explanation for those examples we can think of which fall quite dramatically outside that subset.”
But regardless of what examples may or may not exist, variability says nothing about whether one right answer exists. Do we suppose that math cannot have one answer because people, from the totally uneducated to even the brightest, can give alternate answers (otherwise known as wrong answers)?
Or closer to home, do we suppose the equality of men and women is nothing more than a fancy of this age, to be disposed of whenever another age finds it unappealing or evolutionarily disadvantageous?
“There are lots of variations on explanations consistent with naturalism which result in people having the moral beliefs they do have.”
The question is not whether people can have moral beliefs. The question is *why* follow them. This is a distinction which many proponents of naturalism repeatedly fail to understand, and a distinction which even agnostics like T.H. Huxley raised a century ago to refute ideas like evolutionary ethics. It’s not *what*. It’s *why*. And the why, in a moral sense, is a question that can never be answered empirically, not due to lack of information, but by the very nature of empiricism. Empiricism *cannot* make normative moral claims. Hume, an empiricist himself, was the one who originally formulated the is-ought problem because he actually followed his premises to their conclusions, which included the conclusion that what should be cannot be derived from what is on a purely empirical basis. Any moral conclusion will, by definition, include either a stated or hidden metaphysical (and thus non-empirical) normative claim.
“The problem of evil doesn’t rely on those judgments being accurate reflections of objective morality. It also works perfectly well as a proof by contradiction. If there is a traditional Christian God, then it is the case that there must be an objective morality (for He is said to be all-good, which is otherwise false), that He could not violate it by creating evil, and that He created everything. If we observe evil, then, the traditional Christian God must not exist.”
This approach depends on how we view evil. Under a rather common and old view (which I share), evil is not a thing. It is the absence of good, or more specifically the act of choosing something less than the ultimate good. So God did not create evil because you cannot create (in sense of ‘bringing into existence’) the absence of something. Evil, rather, is the result of our choosing anything less than ultimate good.
Of course, this then raises the argument that, if God gave us our free will, is he not indirectly causing evil? And this is where we make the argument that God allows evil to be chosen for the greater good of moral freedom (which as you pointed out does raise some interesting questions about ends and means). How this argument strikes people, I think, largely depends on how much they value moral freedom versus goodness. I naturally tend to take a higher view of moral freedom, and I would say my feelings on the matter are reflected in how human beings generally choose a situation of freedom but hardship over a situation of goodness but complete and total servitude, and in general by observing how great is the human yearning even for basic physical freedom.
Which then raises the further question (sorry for so many digressions!) of what heaven is like. Do we maintain our moral freedom in heaven despite being in a place of total goodness? I don’t really have a satisfactory answer, but I would posit that, if someone has reached heaven, they have no desire to do evil left anyways, or alternatively, anyone with the desire left to do evil would be in the utmost pain in God’s presence and therefore prefer to be anywhere but heaven. Admittedly, this view is not entirely Biblical (at least explicitly) but rather the musings of minds like C.S. Lewis which I happen to like because, in the end, everyone gets in the afterlife what they wanted and desired on earth.
“Consequently, I find the problem of evil interesting mostly when people pose it to themselves as a way of figuring out what’s most important to them about their own faith. It’s very rarely satisfying to try and pin someone down on a lot of premises.”
I agree. Nathaniel has pointed out before in discussions that people often formulate logical contradictions involving God in terms of the most constricting and sometimes ridiculous evaluations of his traits. Consequently, the argument might be logically coherent, but it’s not going to convince anyone because they don’t share that conception of God anyways.
But they are satisfying to most people, which is why most people think it possible for moral beliefs to have evolved. If what you’re saying is that they aren’t satisfying to you even though they satisfy most people, you seem to be admitting that you hold naturalistic explanations to a higher standard than ones which accord with your pre-existing views.
Which sounds right, actually. You have yet to offer any mechanism or explanation at all for how we detect morality on your supernaturalist view. Do you have one? Naturalists offer simple models for situations which would persist long enough to generate the sorts of traits we observe. The example of self-sacrificing gravediggers seems too short to have much evolutionary impact, though it poses an interesting game-theoretic question about how much free-riding on one’s grave digging to tolerate. Even if genetic evolution were the only factor which influenced behavior, there would necessarily be random variation–since this extreme form of burial mania would help kin in small, homogenous groups, it would be expected to take a while and diverse urban environments before it would be strongly deselected. Now, perhaps this particular explanation isn’t satisfying–that’s okay. My broader point is that evolutionary theory has a lot of resources which you don’t tend to apply when you consider examples which you think might violate it. If I were more widely read, I’d recommend a good source to learn more at this point. Much of my impression of how messy and complicated it is comes from Gould and Lewontin’s Spandrels of San Marco paper, but they were addressing a slightly different issue and the paper’s almost as old as I am.
But regardless of what examples may or may not exist, variability says nothing about whether one right answer exists.
Social support for cannibalism, genocide, infanticide, slavery, various kinds of rape, genital mutilation, honor killings, or forcing women to throw themselves on their husbands’ funeral pyres all seem like pretty strong candidates of incorrect beliefs about morality to me. My question isn’t principally metaphysical, but epistemological. Suppose there is an objective morality, and we have the ability to sense it. How? Under what conditions is it prone to error?
Exactly the sort of unusual view I had in mind–thank you for the illustration! On such a brief description, it’s hard for me to say anything sensible about what this means for the problem of evil. It sounds like one could morally cause arbitrarily large amounts of suffering so long as one thereby does some good. That’s morally repugnant to me, but effectively escapes the problem of observed suffering. For you, then, the challenge would arise only if it seemed as though the world God created is less than absolutely ideal. Could people be more morally free, for example? These are relatively idle speculations, though–I’m unlikely to be able to get enough of an understanding of your views to do more than ask questions you might be able to productively answer for yourself. The unlimited suffering for small good bit seems particularly likely to be a misinterpretation on my part.
“But they are satisfying to most people, which is why most people think it possible for moral beliefs to have evolved. If what you’re saying is that they aren’t satisfying to you even though they satisfy most people, you seem to be admitting that you hold naturalistic explanations to a higher standard than ones which accord with your pre-existing views.”
Who says they’re satisfying to most people? The only people I’ve seen them be satisfying to are people who already hold to naturalism and, again, will sometimes outright tell me, when pressed, any naturalistic explanation is better than a supernatural one. And these explanations haven’t even been satisfying to many non-theists, such as Hume and T.H. Huxley.
“Now, perhaps this particular explanation isn’t satisfying–that’s okay. My broader point is that evolutionary theory has a lot of resources which you don’t tend to apply when you consider examples which you think might violate it.”
Now that’s what I want to see! Like, actual specific mechanisms and thoughts on how these actions could make evolutionary sense. I get frustrated because the stock response always seem to be ‘well, evolution must have had a way to make it so,’ which is once more just begging the question that a naturalistic answer must exist. This explanation still doesn’t convince me, and it cannot resolve the is-ought problem, but I am satisfied that someone can actually think about the issue in a manner that utilizes real evolutionary theory.
“You have yet to offer any mechanism or explanation at all for how we detect morality on your supernaturalist view. Do you have one?”
Sure. To be short, objective moral laws exist (I’ll ignore answering the Euthyphro dilemma for brevity). We have reason. We have a conscience created by God. We have divine revelation. We use all three to discern what is right and wrong.
“My question isn’t principally metaphysical, but epistemological. Suppose there is an objective morality, and we have the ability to sense it. How? Under what conditions is it prone to error?”
As to the how, see the previous paragraph–reason, conscience, revelation. As to error, we can lack knowledge (the source of evil according to Socrates). Or we can have knowledge and fail/refuse to act upon it (the source of evil according to… everyone not Socrates :P). I would say both are modes of error. So our reasoning can go awry (or we can knowingly engage in sophistry). Our conscience can be malformed (or we can ignore it). We can fail to understand divine revelation (or purposefully misuse it). Now people might ask, if you can be wrong, why bother, but to me again that’s like asking why bother doing math if people can give wrong answers.
I also tend to take C.S. Lewis’ view that even the way we talk about morality implies we believe in an objective standard. We don’t talk about morality just changing. We talk about it improving or regressing. We say it’s good that women have more rights than in the past. We say it’s bad that sexual assault is still so common. Improvement or regression require reference to an ideal standard.
(As a side note, the first sentence clarification on what exactly you wanted to discuss was very helpful :))
I’m gonna take some time to contemplate your last paragraph ^_^
This conversation would really be expedited by the author reading The Selfish Gene, which covers all sorts of special gotcha cases like martyrs. It would take too long to explain these biological principles which have been accepted for decades.
“More philosophically, evolutionary ethics runs straight into the is-ought problem.”
Not a problem at all. What works and doesn’t becomes what should and shouldn’t be done. We should eat. We shouldn’t procreate with siblings. We shouldn’t arbitrarily murder, even if it would get us more food or mating in the short term. We should be willing to sacrifice more for people to whom we are related. etc
This “source of should” also explains how our understandings of should have changed with our environment. Organisms adapt to new conditions, and our morality adapts to what works under new conditions. Multiple wives might make sense in a migratory, warlike culture where males die young, then morality will change when a civilization settles down and the M:F ratio is more equal. Same with the number of children a family should have.
This messy process of morality by history is, of course, in constant flux and fraught with weird contradictions, just as human bodies have an appendix and pinky toes.
Another example of science-based morality is presented by Sam Harris at the link below. (His explanation is pretty poor, in my opinion, but all I’m out to show is that non-magical sources of morality exist.)
“This conversation would really be expedited by the author reading The Selfish Gene, which covers all sorts of special gotcha cases like martyrs. It would take too long to explain these biological principles which have been accepted for decades.”
Generally it’s helpful to give some sort of guidance beyond ‘go read this book’ if you want to make a point :P. If it’s too long, either give me a way to locate the particular information on my own (without reading a whole book) or preferably find a way to summarize it anyways so I don’t have to track down what I presume to be your argument. It’s not my job to make your argument.
Also, all the literature I’ve read is far from proclaiming that altruism, morality, etc. are totally understood and settled matters. Where, exactly, are you getting this information?
“What works and doesn’t becomes what should and shouldn’t be done. We should eat. We shouldn’t procreate with siblings. We shouldn’t arbitrarily murder, even if it would get us more food or mating in the short term. We should be willing to sacrifice more for people to whom we are related. etc”
The problem is that the premise ‘we should do whatever helps the human species survive and reproduce’ is a non-empirical normative claim. You cannot prove on an empirical basis that this premise is true or, more importantly, why anyone should follow it. You can argue over and over ‘because it’s good for species!’ but all you’ll be doing is arguing in a circle, because you can never get from what is to what ought to be on a purely factual basis. Or to put it another way, you can tell me all day ‘x is good for species,’ but why should I care? Who says the survival of the species is good anyways?
“His explanation is pretty poor, in my opinion, but all I’m out to show is that non-magical sources of morality exist.”
It’s not just poor. It’s totally inept as far as actually defending its central claim. Even people who ideologically identify with Harris have a hard time endorsing the central argument of his book. Following the general New Atheist trend, Harris is good at science and horrible at philosophy.
Just as a moment of reflection, I keep seeing the argument essentially of ‘I know these arguments aren’t good; I just want to show they exist.’ Would anyone here accept that kind of lame argument from a theist? You can find arguments defending anything. The point is to have good arguments in hopes of discerning the truth. That’s why we discuss in depth issues like the problem of evil as people have done practically since monotheism has existed. Would anyone here be satisfied if I knowingly presented a bad solution to the problem of evil just to show that ‘answers exist’?
“Generally it’s helpful to give some sort of guidance beyond ‘go read this book’ if you want to make a point :P.”
I realize that’s an unsatisfying answer. Keep in mind that the only reward I get from making comments like this is the pleasure of composing arguments. Summarizing arguments from books is less pleasant. So I am being selfish.
A good place to start looking is the book’s wikipedia page:
In the book, chapter 12: Nice Guys Finish First.
These sections get into how a concept we consider normative, like altruism, can emerge through evolution.
“The problem is that the premise ‘we should do whatever helps the human species survive and reproduce’ is a non-empirical normative claim.”
I’m finding it difficult to explain how a practice can become normative organically because the method seems so self-evident. If you have two clans, one which believes it should reproduce and flourish, and one that believes the opposite, clan one is obviously going to take over very quickly. Now everybody on this world believes people should multiply. Normative beliefs emerge the same way as fashion: as products of culture and utility.
“Who says the survival of the species is good anyways?”
The survivors do. A few aberrant individuals aside, that’s everybody. Normative claims are normative because we say they are. Because these beliefs are why our ancestors survived and multiplied, and individuals who believed other things didn’t. This unstoppable force is clearly capable of making a claim seem divinely inspired if that belief serves our reproductive ends.
In my view, the poor argument is the one which throws up its hands and says the source of something confusing is a magical, incomprehensible, external entity. Why does evil exist? Because we saw a thing in nature and named it evil. This thing violates the commandments pounded into us by reproductive success, so we oppose it with all the power that made us alive today. Is that explanation, which relies only on mechanisms we see in nature every day, not more plausible than an external entity we are unable to reliably observe?
Apologies for earlier quote fails which made my posts harder to read. I’ll try using blockquote this time.
I say they’re satisfying to most people, and citing non-theists who died before they’d have had an opportunity to hear about kin selection (or, in Hume’s case, evolution) seems to suggest that you’re not giving modern evolutionary theory as much credit as it deserves. Perhaps my earlier thought about the Spandrels of San Marco paper isn’t such a bad one–it’s brief, and its primary purpose is to criticize a certain sort of evolutionary argument, but in doing so it explores a pretty wide range of alternatives which complicate the sorts of reasoning we use about evolution. Here’s the wikipedia page, which links to the full paper:
Remember, the purpose of explanations about how moral behaviors or beliefs might have evolved is not history. The question isn’t “how did this evolve?”, but “how could this have evolved?”, or even “is it possible that this evolved?” To that end, people propose simple hypotheticals, because there’s a danger in committing oneself to many assumptions which you might not fully appreciate. It’s much like the problem of over-fitting a curve–the more freedom you have to tweak a formula to fit observed results, the harder it is to disprove the theory behind the formula. So, when I see explanations which assume that the past was like the present, I see a very simple set of assumptions which serve as a bulwark against that temptation to preserve your theory by changing your beliefs about the past. That was a very brief sketch of the relevant concern; if you’d like me to explain that in more depth and with specific examples, I’d be happy to.
So, reason, conscience, revelation–a strong candidate answer. Can you give an example in which you think you can identify which of these was at play in an instance of moral progress, that I might better understand how you use this trifold explanation?
If I say that morality has improved, why can I not mean that it has come into greater concordance with my own subjective standard? If I believe there is now broad agreement among many subjective agents, the natural way to talk about morality seems to be very difficult to distinguish from objectivity.
In case you find it helpful to have a particular view to contrast with, my still very provisional view is that our moral beliefs are a consequence of our understanding of what causes people to thrive. To the extent that our natures and contexts are similar, we should expect people to have very similar views about morality. In very different contexts, we’d expect more diversity. So, for example, in areas with a long history of low population density, we’d expect people to think that independence is really important. When access to others is easy, that would be expected to fade somewhat in favor of traits which make one a good neighbor. In this explanatory regime, moral progress results from the advance of knowledge about ourselves. This opens up another kind of moral progress: greater functional knowledge of what causes people to thrive. If we believed, for example, that burial was better for humanity than cremation, we might learn that this was not so and our practices around respect for the dead might well change based on which option was more burdensome. Similarly, a change in the world might require changes in moral beliefs–in a world with no pathogens which could survive the gut, cannibalism of those who die peacefully might keep valuable nutrients in the population. Once such pathogens arrive, it would be an instance of moral progress to abandon cannibalism.
So here’s a standard which is only as subjective as “thrive”, but can change. I would regard it as objective but not universal, though most cases of objectivity entail universality, so I’m not sure everyone would use those words in those ways.
True. But the definition of “moral” as “whatever helps the human species survive and reproduce” isn’t.
Yes! If you could explain how our observations are consistent with a particular variety of theism, we would no longer rule out that variety of theism. It needn’t be the case that the particular way you explain them as consistent is the way things actually are in order to do the job of showing that it’s possible. Indeed, I regard myself as an atheist even though there are forms of theism I can’t rule out, in exactly this way! They seem to me more complicated than naturalism for no explanatory benefit, so I describe those forms of theism as “epistemically irresponsible”, but I don’t think their claims are provably false.
I need to differentiate once more between empirical issues and metaphysical issues. While I have been arguing at times on an empirical basis, I acknowledge that the empirical problems (e.g. non-resistant martyrdom) could theoretically be overcome by future discoveries in evolution. The metaphysical issues (i.e. can we make any moral statements on an empirical basis), however, are insurmountable and no amount of empirical progress will change that.
Now, more to the point, both Hume and T.H. Huxley’s main objections are metaphysical, so whether or not they knew about the latest information on evolution or even evolution itself is irrelevant because they’re not dealing with the empirical issues. For example, no amount of new knowledge on kin selection will change that you cannot derive an ought from an is on an empirical basis.
Now back to the empirical stuff, I appreciate your comments. I realize there’s still quite a bit of work being done, and hypotheses will naturally start off more vague. Mostly, I’m making a claim that we have some real oddities in human behavior, and as of yet there really aren’t good explanations on an evolutionary basis and there may never be. Admittedly, I am making an argument that relies on ignorance, an argument susceptible to being proven wrong with new empirical information, but I still think it’s worth making because we have yet to find good reasons, and only by begging the question can someone say we will find answers.
True, there’s work being done, and it definitely offers some insight into why humans act the way we do, but I also think some aspects are really overplayed, such as kin selection entirely explaining altruism and possibly even morality itself. Altruism isn’t even really a good word for what we’re describing anyways. A more accurate term is quid pro quo. Even Dawkins in The Selfish Gene very much acknowledges that, solely in terms of human natural impulses, we’re not going to get much help on being truly altruistic. You’re right, though, that it’s probably worthwhile for me to do some more digging on the matter.
I would say God giving the Ten Commandments is an example of divine revelation leading to moral progress. But that’s probably not very satisfying.
A better example would be the development, through reason, of concrete human rights on the basis that all humans have inherent, inviolable dignity.
As a side note, but of interest I suspect, I don’t believe the inherent, inviolable dignity of every human being is discoverable by reason or experience alone. If anything, going purely on experience guides people away from the principle of inherent human dignity and equality. Reason has a better shot, but I share St. Thomas Aquinas’ view that, even if these concepts could theoretically be discovered, the process would be painfully slow, known only by a few people, and filled with errors. So divine revelation becomes necessary to reveal truths above both experience and human reason and make them readily accessible to all of humanity.
Because to believe your own moral standard is even worth progressing towards, you have to believe your standard is objective or, more generally, some objective standard exists worth progressing towards which hopefully is yours. If every moral standard is of equal value and there’s no way to compare, why would it be good to progress towards yours? You could say “because it’s good for me” or “it puts more people on my side,” but I don’t think anyone here conceives of justice or rightness in terms of simple convenience and power for themselves. Or if they do, that’s not really a discovery so much as a regression to might makes right.
It sounds like you’ve more or less arrived at utilitarianism of one sort or another. I can’t really disprove utilitarianism, but I don’t think utilitarianism would be a very pleasant moral system to live under.
I also have a question that I meant to ask both you and Ryan, but since I’m responding to you first, I’ll toss it your way: If we found out at some point that war, rape, theft, murder, infanticide, etc. were evolutionarily advantageous at some point, would those acts have been right so long as they were advantageous? Or closer to home, would you two endorse all of the above if, at some point in the future, they produced evolutionary advantage?
The same kinds of questions can be asked of utilitarianism, the classic question being whether you would hang an innocent man to prevent a riot. In terms of human thriving alone, we’re not going to miss one person, but a riot will do a lot of damage. And that, in my opinion, is the story of morality if we measure it purely in terms of generalized human thriving: A person is expendable for the good of the whole. And humans do operate on that principle very often. I’d argue it’s even our natural and most basic mode of operation. But we generally recognize it’s wrong to operate that way, and so the question becomes: How can we even recognize something that comes naturally to us as wrong if we and our moral systems are purely products of evolution?
Right. But then you aren’t doing science. You’re doing philosophy. And the whole point of evolutionary ethics, so far as I can tell, was to discover a way of doing morality empirically rather than metaphysically.
I think we want to rise above ‘unable to be ruled out’ as the strongest argument in favor of a position :P. Consistency, also, is helpful but not really that strong of an argument in favor of any position because, while consistency is a prerequisite for being true, consistency by itself says nothing in favor of a statement actually being true (other than the most basic favor of ‘not obviously false’).
Again, I could give responses to the problem of evil that are consistent and unable to be ruled out, but they’d probably leave anybody I actually wanted to convince unconvinced because they don’t answer their underlying reason for raising the objection. Which I guess kinda brings me to the heart to my original issue: The point of constructing an argument is to convince other people of the truth of your position, particularly people who don’t already agree with you. If the answer is satisfying only to people who already share your point of view, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wrong, but it might be worth rethinking at least your formulation if not the whole argument itself. So someone telling me ‘I already know this argument isn’t good’ sounds like wasting everybody’s time. Why present unconvincing arguments if the whole point is to formulate good arguments in favor of your position in hopes of showing other people your position is true?
I think, like I said to Kelsey, this argument is way overstating what even people like Dawkins were trying to show. A more accurate term than altruism would be quid pro quo. And Dawkins acknowledges that, purely in terms of human nature, you’re not going to get very far in obtaining true altruism.
There’s still no ‘should’ arising on a purely factual basis. Evolution, if we may personify it, doesn’t care if you survive or not. Survival isn’t good or bad. It just is. More adaptive organisms survive. Less adaptive organisms die. Saying survival is ‘good’ requires a metaphysical assessment, and making metaphysical assessments defeats the point of evolutionary ethics because the whole point of the system is to use science (empirical) rather than philosophy (metaphysical) to construct morality.
I realize this seems like the most obvious moral value to derive in all the universe, but it’s a metaphysical derivation all the same, one that cannot be made on the basis of empirical observation alone. You have to add a value statement to the empirical observations to derive that survival is good.
A syllogism might help.
1) Science concerns empirical observations and the relations–mathematical, causal, and organizational–between these empirical observations.
2) Neither empirical observations nor their relations contain value statements.
3) Therefore, science does not concern value statements.
For example, the observation that the sun rises everyday has no moral component. We probably say it’s good that the sun rises every day because we depend on it to live, but the basic empirical observation that the sun rises everyday is neither good nor bad. It just is. The same goes for every empirical observation.
That’s kind of the whole point of my argument, to show how nature by itself is insufficient to explain every aspect of humanity, particularly the entirety of our moral sense and our moral sense not just as something convenient or useful or advantageous but true.
Anyways, I’ll toss the same question to you as I did Kelsey. If rape, murder, war, theft, etc. were evolutionarily beneficial at any time, would you consider them good so long as they were evolutionarily beneficial?
I guess it seems to me that I’d need a pretty comprehensive understanding of existing evolutionary theory to say that it can’t explain something. Do you feel you have such an understanding? Part of the problem here is that I don’t feel as though I do, yet I think many of the things you seem to regard as unexplained have been explained, and it’s hard to know whether the problem is that I am simply more generous in my evaluation of the explanations we both know, I know more explanations than you do, or you know more than I do and enough more to know why the explanations I thought did the job have since been abandoned.
As for characterizing the behavior as quid pro quo, that surprises me. Can you explain what you have in mind? My understanding of kin selection was that it was specifically intended to address self-sacrificing behavior which precluded the possibility of repayment. My memory of Dawkins is poor enough that I can’t recall the context in which he would make this claim, but it doesn’t agree with the rest of my understanding.
This sounds to me like an admission that God’s judgment relies very heavily on his own choice to grant or withhold revelation. That seems like kind of a dick move, doesn’t it? It’s like giving all your students the same test, but only telling the red reading group how to find the answers.
If so, I’m not doing evolutionary ethics. I’m trying to explain why people make the moral judgments they make. You described this, I thought, very well in the original post, as accounting for the origin of the moral sense. That’s different from describing the foundation of morality, but you seem since to have run those two together with some frequency. I’m not doing morality at all, I’m explaining beliefs about morality. That doesn’t require making any claims at all about what morality is, or whether it exists.
That’s a little complicated by the fact that the very processes I’m describing have also worked upon me–I have what I’d call pre-theoretic moral intuitions, and those intuitions are very much in accord with your description of morality as objective and universal. But I don’t endorse those intuitions whole. Instead, I have developed what I think is an elegant abstraction from those intuitions which helps guide my moral preferences even in situations in which my intuitions are unreliable, and I think of this abstraction as a feature of me. It structures my judgments of all actions at all times (including a future in which evolutionary advantage attends infanticide, which I would oppose despite the evolutionary advantage). So it’s not that I think that whatever causes human thriving is moral, but that the conditions of my development gave me moral intuitions which largely correspond to what causes human thriving in my context, and these intuitions have been the inputs into a process from which emerges my moral preferences, which are now largely independent of those conditions (though, if conditions changed enough, my intuitions would probably lag that but change some as well, and my abstraction might again lag that but change to accommodate).
The evolutionary bit doesn’t describe what ought to be, it only describes how people form their judgments about what ought to be. I’m not sure I actually do think my moral standard is worth progressing toward–I would clearly prefer such progress, but that’s not quite the same.
I don’t think I’ve ever heard a response to the problem of evil which is consistent with a traditional Christian God and conception of good and evil, so even that seems to me like it would be very informative to me. I think it would seem unsatisfying only if it weren’t actually consistent–if, for example, there were some reliance on mystery, which is often used as just a way of admitting inconsistency in a way which turns that admission into an accusation of inadequate faith on the part of those who noticed. I also think “I already know this argument isn’t good” mischaracterizes what people actually say. Instead, it’s more like, “We suspect the past wasn’t like this, but to avoid over-fitting our model, we’re not complicating it with those factors and it still works.” The ways the explanations aren’t good are ways we’d expect to undermine their ability to produce the results they’re intended to explain. That they do produce those results anyway reinforces their value, rather than undermining it.
Sorry for the delay! I was out for the weekend :)
I don’t really have to understand the entirety of evolutionary theory all by myself. All I have to do is have enough understanding to be able to read papers/books, read people who claim to have explanations for morality via evolution/science, and then see if their theories seem sensible to me in conjunction with how the wider scientific/philosophical community evaluates their theories.
Dawkins doesn’t use the term quid pro quo, but I’m talking about material like this quote from paragraph 4 of Chapter 1 of the Selfish Gene:
“However, as we shall see, there are special circumstances in which a gene can achieve its own selfish goals best by fostering a limited form of altruism at the level of individual animals. ‘Special’ and ‘limited’ are important words in the last sentence. Much as we might wish to believe otherwise, universal love and the welfare of the species as a whole are concepts that simply do not make evolutionary sense.”
When I talk about altruism vs. quid pro quo, I’m talking about genetic altruism vs. genetic quid pro rather than personal altruism and quid pro quo. So, for example, with a case of self-sacrifice, the self-sacrifice might not pay back the person himself or herself, but genetically the act benefits them somehow. There’s no true altruism in the philosophical sense that the good is done for the sake of itself and heedless of benefit/loss. And so far as I know, that’s the understanding for evolutionary theory in general. What we would call ‘good deeds’ are all done for specific genetically self-beneficial purposes.
I believe that Christianity is the final and complete revelation of God, but I also believe that God speaks to all people, both through private revelation and religions that aren’t Christianity (on top of having a God-given conscience), so I don’t see any major issues. I suppose one might consider it unfair to have lived in a time before certain revelations (specifically Judaism and later Christianity), but God as the final judge takes into account what we could and could not know, so I don’t think that’s a problem either.
Furthermore, Christianity was and is specifically plugged by Jesus and Paul (among others) as meant to bring God’s revelation to the entire world. You’ve hit on one reason I reject any gnostic religions: I don’t think God would be a dick and reserve revelation for a chosen few in exclusion to everyone else.
Makes sense me. But then we’ve circled right back to my original point: Saying our moral senses are preference or evolutionary advantage (rather than objective truth) invalidates our reason for raising the problem of evil against God in the first place. We’d might as well argue God doesn’t exist because he doesn’t share our taste in ice cream.
I think we’ve debated that last point on what constitutes a good answer sufficiently XD
That seems like a reasonable way to get a solid amateur’s understanding (which is all I have, and seems adequate) of a particular sample of explanations. I’d be worried about it for two reasons: first, any sample may miss the explanations which are most relevant to your interests, so it’s still going to be really hard to say that evolutionary science has no satisfactory explanation for a given phenomenon. Second, if you’re sampling explanations and you tend to be directed to them by those who are skeptical of their ability to explain altruism, you’re more likely to be directed to bad explanations because they help make the author’s point that such explanations stink. So there’s a strong possibility that your sample, already a poor way to support a universal claim, is biased.
I don’t think that’s quite right, because we’re organisms. It’s true that genes which tend to occur in organisms which behave in ways that decrease the frequency of the gene become less well-represented over time, so whatever behaviors the genes make more likely will generally (barring the sorts of criticisms of adaptationism in the spandrels paper) make the genes no less common. But, just because genes on average benefitted from self-sacrifice in the context in which humans evolved says nothing about whether I personally benefit from sacrificing myself.
Moreover, genes stick around for a long time past when they’re optimally adaptive. Right now, in humans, memetic evolution has totally overtaken genetic, such that many of us have expanded the set of people to whom we are willing to extend the protection of our morality to all of humanity (and some extend it even further, and become vegan), and there’s broad agreement that genocide is very bad. In this context, altruism is much less related to kin selection, and genes which code for reduced self-sacrifice might do better than those which rely on coding for proto-morality to benefit other carriers of that gene. If that’s true, it’s now even genetically “altruistic”, in the sense of not beneficial even to the gene.
If behaving morally matters, it’s still a problem. To return to the test analogy, what you’re describing sounds like this: a teacher gives both the green and red reading groups some training in how to solve the problems, but much more to the green than the red. Students then take the same test, but the teacher curves the scores differently, so that the average for both groups is the same. In this scenario, the curve undoes the injustice of the differential in education as far as the score on the test is concerned, but the kids in the red reading group still don’t know how to solve the problems as well as the kids in the green one. Returning to the problem of evil, it seems to me that, if God offers more revelation to some than to others, then even if He takes that into account in his final judgment, those who’ve received less revelation will still have done more evil and less good than those who got more. My intuition is that this matters, because doing good matters for reasons other than passing God’s test.
The other alternative seems to be that God makes revelation about the nature of morality equally available to everyone. But in that case, it can play no role in explaining differences in our discovery of morality, and all of that work must be done by reason and experience, which are also available to naturalist explanations.
The argument isn’t “God did evil, therefore He doesn’t exist,” it’s “If the traditional Christian God were to exist, then what we observe would be objectively evil, which violates the assumption of God’s existence.”
Thank you for spending so much time on this discussion! I’ve appreciated your thoughts and attention.
True. It’s more or less impossible to actually prove a sufficient theory doesn’t exist, only that you’ve never seen or heard of one. So I suppose I can only make something of a limited inductive claim: I haven’t seen any, and no one (until you) has brought to my attention theories that come even close to satisfactory in my opinion.
Normally I would consider it an oversight on my part to find good feedback on an internet blog of all places, but I find the state of philosophical understanding to be abysmal among contemporary non-believing popular figures. Lawrence Krauss, Stephen Hawking, Sam Harris, Michael Shermer, and others come to mind. Great scientists (or historian of science in Dr. Shermer’s case). Abysmal philosophers. Which in my opinion really limits how much mileage they get in making a naturalist case for morality.
Also true. Hence why I poke non-believers ^_^
A very good clarification. Thanks!
That’s actually one area I really want to see more thoughts and research: memetics. To me, trying to get to true altruism and morality through genetics is largely a dead end and not getting any better, but memetics seems like a real possibility since memes spread faster (thus allowing for an account of how drastically the human race has changed in the last 2000 years) and seemingly don’t have the same degree of survival constraints as genes.
That’s an interesting thought, but I still don’t think it counts as truly altruistic. If you think you’ll get benefits but end up mistaken and not benefit, you’re not really being altruistic, just incompetent at being selfish :P
(Or more accurately in the case of evolution your genes predispose you to do something that was once beneficial genetically but isn’t anymore)
A few thoughts:
1) I think this critique leaves out free will. True, revelation makes doing good easier since we better know what to do, but that’s only part of the story. We still have to choose to follow it, and our conscience can limitedly guide in the absence of revelation. So a person with less revelation can still do more good, albeit it will indeed be harder.
2) Our intentions also matter. Evil done through ignorance is less than evil done through malice. So if lack of knowledge is what has led someone to do evil, then they are less culpable (provided they had no reasonable prior way of obtaining that knowledge). In some ways, this makes living after revelation more challenging. We know better. Luke 12:48 reads, “But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”
3) Taken to the extreme, it seems this view would require God making everyone at all times and places the same homogeneous persons, with equal levels of reason and access to experience and divine revelation, which seems kind of silly. I guess I can only offer my opinion, but I’d take uniqueness over nobody else having an advantage over me morally, especially since God accounts for disparity in resources.
What other reasons did you have in mind? I can guess, but I generally prefer to ask to avoid assumptions and confusion.
I think the existence of an even field, now worked by reason and experience, does not obviate the importance of the revelation, which is not open to naturalism. So I think revelation could be equally available to everyone and still have relevance. Or perhaps I have misunderstood your point? I am admittedly not sure exactly what you meant.
Hm. Good point. But I still think we have to answer the question of where exactly we’re getting this conception of objective morals in the first place. If the concepts do exist as part of the fabric of reality, we have to explain how they came to exist (which is beyond naturalism since morals as concepts do not have physical existence), and if they don’t exist as part of reality (which would be the naturalist conclusion in my opinion), how did we conceive of them in the first place? How can we know we’re evaluating this problem accurately? If we live in a world without God or any other supernatural elements (the naturalist conclusion of the problem of evil), how can we know the morality we actually possess and use to evaluate God is anything like the objective morality that would exist in a world with God?
I’d argue we’d have no way of evaluating since there’s no reason to believe, if naturalism is true, that objective morals exist. If they don’t exist, we can’t know them. If we don’t know them, we can’t evaluate a hypothetical God with them.
For what it’s worth, I’d go even further and argue that reason itself is suspect in a completely natural world, since reason would be attuned to survival first and true facts about the world only insofar as they support survival, but that’s a whole ‘nother discussion.
Absolutely correct on the version of free will I take you to mean. So far as I know, the explanatory value of free will is identical to the explanatory value of randomness. Attributing a difference in behavior to free will isn’t an explanation of the difference, it’s a way of saying that we can’t explain that difference.
Sure. God curves the grades of the reading groups separately, so being in the group that got more instruction means you’re graded on a harder curve.
I assume that’s what’s meant by morality being objective. If we’re assuming that there is a traditional Christian God and that He has decreed/recognized (again, skirting Euthyphro concerns) an objective moral standard, it seems to contradict the assumption if there are different moral standards for different people based on their beliefs about morality. That seems like a perfectly adequate description of moral relativism, which objective morality is usually positioned as in stark contrast to.
It’s relevant to explaining the existence of a moral sense, but not to explaining differences between the moral senses of different people.
I’m not sure I understand what is meant by “the concept exists”. My own naturalist view is that morals are not written into the fabric of the universe, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have a concept of objective morality, which exists as a pattern of physical goings-on in my brain. We have all kinds of concepts for things which aren’t real, and patterns of physical brain activity seem perfectly sensible naturalist views of what they are. Why is it any harder to have an idea of morals than an idea of a golden mountain, or centers of gravity, or the inevitable triumph of global Communism?
Right. The problem of evil only works if the God under discussion comes bundled with objective morality. Then a failure to follow the standards set out in that particular idea of God would be an inconsistency with that idea. This is why there is no problem of evil for Zeus–he’s always depicted as sort of feckless and inconsistent in his morality.
I agree! Naturalism has much better explanations for error available than traditional Christian theology, in my opinion, for exactly this reason. If the processes of reason occur in my soul rather than my brain, and are thus not subject to physical constraints, why am I so easily misled?
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