Saturday, June 9, 2007

Faith, Reason and Science II: Francis Collins, C.S. Lewis and the Moral Law as Evidence for God

I recently finished Dr. Francis Collins' The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. One of the interesting aspects of this book was Dr. Collins' explanation of why he became a Christian. The short answer is that he was influenced by C.S. Lewis' argument based on the apparent universal sense of a moral law in all humans and in all cultures. Collins, like Lewis, concluded that the universality of the moral law was a sign of God.

Here is Stephen Barr's summary of this argument from his review of the book in First Things:

Lewis gave Collins a simple, though crucial, insight: God is not a part of the physical universe and therefore cannot be perceived by the methods of science. Yet God speaks to us in our hearts and minds, both in such "longings" for the transcendent as Collins had himself experienced and in the sense of objective right and wrong, "the Moral Law." A key aspect of this moral sense is "the altruistic impulse, the voice of conscience calling us to help others even if nothing is received in return." Such altruism, says Collins, "is quite frankly a scandal for reductionist reasoning," for it goes directly contrary to the selfishness of the "selfish gene."

Collins reviews some of the attempts to explain altruism in evolutionary terms. One theory is that our primate ancestors rated altruism a positive attribute in potential mates. Another is that altruism provided survival advantages to its practitioners through "indirect reciprocal benefits." A third is that altruism benefited the whole group in which it was prevalent rather than the individuals who practiced it. Collins explains why none of these theories works.

Read it all.

There is actually growing scientific evidence of at least some innate moral language that guides human morality in all cultures. The troubling issue, however, is this: is this argument in danger of the classic "God of the Gaps" problem? That is, is there a danger that developments in evolutionary science will offer a compelling scientific explanation for the development of this moral law that will offer a more compelling reason than God?

I, for one, am concerned that Dr. Collins is coming close to the God of the Gaps fallacy. Indeed, I had the same reaction when I reread Mere Christianity a few years ago. Nonetheless, I think that Collins is correct that to date, there has not been a convincing case made for an evolutionary basis for morality.

One of the leading scientist working on this issue today is Harvard psychologist Marc Hauser, who offers the following explanation for how natural selection could lead to a common moral language:

One possibility is that these principles that I’m describing were not selected for morality. They were favored for other aspects of social cognition and are simply borrowed by morality. What does morality do at a very general level? It sets up, either unconsciously or consciously, rules for navigating the social world. Now, why might it be unconscious? It might be unconscious for exactly the same reason that language is unconscious at some level.

Imagine that every time you would try to talk to me, you had to think about adjectives, nouns, verbs, and where they go. Well, you would never say anything. This conversation would take 10 years to complete. Whereas if it’s unconscious, well, you’re just jamming through all this information, because the structure of this stuff is just natural to you. My guess is that there is some aspect of morality which is very much like that. If every time you were confronted with a moral issue you actually had to work it through, you would do nothing else. So there’s something highly adaptive to the unconscious aspects of not having to think about these things all the time.

Of course, one of the things that makes morality adaptive is that it does allow for a certain level of within-group stability and, therefore, allows for individual fitness to be enhanced from a genetic perspective. So if I live in a world of defectors, I have no chance, whereas if I can find the cooperators and cooperate with them, my own individual fitness will be greatly enhanced. So I want to know who are the individuals I can trust and those I can’t trust. At that level, there’s been, of course, greater selection for any kind of social group to have certain kinds of principles that allow for group-level stability.

Read it all.

The problem with this argument is that evolutionary biologists find arguments based on group selection (which is essentially Hauser's argument) unpersuasive in other contexts. Why? Because the genetic variance within a group is too little in comparison to genetic variance within individuals to justify survival of a gene that may be to the detriment of individuals. As the wiki article on group selection explains: "Genetic variation, the raw material of selection, is much higher between individuals than it is between groups, particularly as groups grow larger. Alleles are likely to be held on a population-wide level, leaving nothing for group selection to select for. In addition, most phenotypes, particularly physical ones, are not highly heritable in the first place. Additionally, generation time is much longer for groups than it is for individuals. Assuming conflicting selection pressures, individual selection will occur much faster, swamping any changes potentially favored by group selection."

Indeed, there has been no evidence of such group selection in animals. This is explained in a recent New York Times article on Hauser's work, which also offers Hauser's response:

Many evolutionary biologists frown on the idea of group selection, noting that genes cannot become more frequent unless they benefit the individual who carries them, and a person who contributes altruistically to people not related to him will reduce his own fitness and leave fewer offspring.

But though group selection has not been proved to occur in animals, Dr. Hauser believes that it may have operated in people because of their greater social conformity and willingness to punish or ostracize those who disobey moral codes.

“That permits strong group cohesion you don’t see in other animals, which may make for group selection,” he said.

Absent some evidence of group selection in either animals or humans, I am unpersuaded by Dr. Hauser's natural selection theory for an apparent innate moral language or 'law" that appears universally in human beings. Still, more recent models of group selection are beginning to suggest that group selection was far more effective than theoretical models ever would have predicted. This moral law argument, therefore, seems to be a dangerous foundation on which to base a reasoned faith in God--it is too subject to the developments of science.
Any thoughts from either the theologians or scientists among you?


Nick+ said...

Chuck, I agree with your final statements.

IANAB (I am not a biologist) but, it seems to me that the existence of a evolutionary development of moral thinking and a capacity for moral action isn't necessarily a clear sign of God's providential action.

I think one could argue that a species that developed a sense of altruism (which would lead to cooperative actions) would be a pretty excellent evolutionary strategy.

In other words, altruism could just be natural selection at work. Or it could be the hand of God. I can't think of a way to determine which. And Occam's Razor would lead one to assent to the first and not the second explanation.

Chuck Blanchard said...


IANAB wither, but it seems to me that the main problem with the evolutionary theory of altruism is that natural selection tends to work only at the individual level, and not at the group or species level. Generally, factors that may be helpful to a group don't get selected because natural seelction at the individual level drowns out any advantage. As Hauser points out, however, human beings are quite social and it may be that this group dynamic will naturally select actions that help a group of humans.

But my larger point remains--I would not bet my faith on the moral law argument, and am surprised that it featuees so prominantly in Dr. Collin's book.

Gabe said...

I suspect that even if science later bears this out and there is a bit of moral hardwiring in the brain, this would have no effect on the argument from moral law. There's an enormous difference between the claims "That feels wrong" and "That is wrong". Moral hardwiring addresses only the first, the argument from moral law only the second. Take the ancient Christian idea of a badly formed conscience (either too lax or too scrupulous) needing to be corrected. That implies that there is a conscience (since our bodies evolved, it would be entirely unsurprising if the conscience evolved also) and an external standard to which it should be conformed (i.e. the moral law).

Gabe said...

On further thought, it seems that the whole force of an atheist argument from evolved consciences rests on the choice of analogy. The author Marc Hauser chose Chomsky's dubious theory of a neurally based Universal Grammar as his analogy, which unsubtly suggests that morality is as arbitrary as language. I'll suggest a different analogy. Whether or not the UG is real, it's clear that our brains do subconsciously inform us of some basic physics. That's a case of a naturally evolved system which imperfectly models a universal, external standard. It's also one which our reason lets us correct. Here's a popular example of reason correcting an error in the brain's physics engine:

global said...

Have you read The Selfish Gene? The key to understanding the evolutionary basis of morality is considering that genes, not individuals are the unit of selection. A behavior that leads to the survival of my relatives (who have many of the same genes) will increase those genes' presence in the gene pool regardless of my own personal survival.

Chuck Blanchard said...


Yes, I have read The Selfish Gene. A great book. I understand that evolution is about gene slection, but I don't think that answers the question. While gene slection might explain behaviours that benefit close relatives. It does not explain behaviors that benefit non-relatives. In the end, I think there may well be an evolutionary explanation, but it is not simple or obvious right now. Indeed, Richard Dawkins himself is very sceptical of group selection.