Friday, November 25, 2011

Calvinism and Moral Evolution

David Lahti has an article on Calvinism and evolution. I understand he has a PhD in moral philosophy but works as a professor of biology. I guess not many people hire philosophers these days. 
When I told my father I was going to Cambridge to give a talk on the question of whether humans were good or bad, he looked at me sternly over his glasses. "You know what the answer is, don't you?" Total depravity and filthy rags he was hoping I would say of our nature – the first is a primary tenet of Calvinist doctrine, and the second is a phrase from Isaiah. I was about to say that we are at our root neither good nor bad, but pulled in contrary directions with the ability to make a decision. So I knew we were in for … a discussion.
I don't think Calvinism is that simple. As a Calvinist I did believe in common grace. That means that even the unsaved are capable of good though the grace of God. Still evil is emphasized as the deepest truth about ourselves. The creation story is actually different. We were created good, even very good. Then we chose evil. The corruption of evil is deep and profound but the good in us is even deeper. That is our essence. That is who we are.

He does what many do. He judges all of Christianity by the particular form of it he was raised with. This is why it is important to identify heretics. Then people know when a guy is not considered a true Christian.
From an evolutionary perspective, considering other social species on this earth, it is remarkable that a bunch of unrelated adult males can sit on a plane together for seven hours in the presence of fertile females, with everyone arriving alive and unharmed at the end of it. We could be a lot worse than we are, according to our common notions of right and wrong. We have certainly come a long way towards becoming a co-operative, sympathetic, even loving species.
This is a good point. People know there is something sacred about sex and about life. If evolution told the whole truth about us we would engage in rape and murder all the time. Scientists have frequently speculated that cave men married by means of kidnapping and rape. There is no historical evidence this ever happened. But if you follow the logic of the science that is what we should do. The fact that we don't means that science is missing an important part of the picture. They understand man only as an animal but that does not explain all the data.

Granted, this depends on your perspective: if you're a biologist, as I am, you might notice how far we've come. If you're a theologian, perhaps the more salient realisation is how far we haven't. The meeting place between these perspectives is that we are full of conflicting tendencies and inconsistencies in our attitudes and behaviour. So we would do well to ask why this conflict exists, in addition to arguing whether we've done well or poorly in it.
I don't know that there is a conflict. We compare ourselves to animals and look pretty good. We compare ourselves to God and look pathetic. What is  inconsistent about that? The question is how do we get better? Understanding our animal self has helped us get better physically. It has allowed us to do medicine and nutrition and that has been a great benefit. But is there any benefit to contemplating our spiritual side? Can science tell us much about that or do we need to turn elsewhere?
At several points in our evolutionary history, sources of conflict have arisen, leading to moral tension and ambivalence. Perhaps the oldest and most significant is the fact that we as individuals have gained by looking out for ourselves in competition with others, but that we also have depended on our social groups and so gained by supporting and contributing to the stability of those groups. From this ancient situation eventually arose the tug of war between selfishness and altruism that is a common aspect of our moral experience.
He needs to be careful here. The evolutionary evidence of any moral development in man is very thin. Almost to the point of being invisible. Can we look at the last few thousand years of human history and see moral improvement? You could argue there is but you could also argue the opposite. We now have the United Nations but we also have suicide bombers. Europe has avoided a major war for the past 65 years but the 30 years before that saw the worst 2 was ever. The point is people start with the theory of evolution and read tends of moral development into history because the theory says they should be there. One could just as easily argue that man is just as prone to evil as he has ever been. If you consider that Gandhi and Hitler were contemporaries you have to think it is not as simple as to say man is progressively becoming more moral.
We should realise, however, that these often contrary tendencies both evolved in our nature through natural selection based on individual advantage. Even more importantly, though, we should realise that an evolutionary mechanism does not necessarily trickle down into our intentions and motives – caring for each other may have evolved by natural selection, but this does not rule out the possibility of genuine love and kindness.
That is an important distinction.  Science cannot rule out genuine love but if it exists it is not something that can evolve based on survival advantage. If it is just the advantage to self from social groups then that is a different beast from the virtue of love. Love is self-sacrificing. If it is even indirectly selfish it is not love. So science does not rule out love but if you assume evolution is the whole answer to where we came from then you have to rule out love. It must be an illusion. All love must be an attempt to give so we can get. Jesus' idea of laying down you life for your friend would be a distortion of the essence of evolutionary love.  Sure he might have discerned some transcendent moral truth. But if that is the case then evolution does not tell the whole story about morality. We need to contemplate those transcendent moral truths.
Furthermore, we can extend our moral consideration far beyond what was beneficial to our ancestors – to humanity as a whole, even to the natural world. This leads to another important source of angst in our moral life: the difference between attitudes and behaviours that would have been advantageous for our ancestors, and those we wish to embrace and promote today. We need not wait for evolutionary adaptation to catch up with our vision of goodness, if ever it would. We can do this on our own, but it requires that familiar battle between what we feel like doing and what we know we ought to do. The former very often comes from our past, our evolutionary heritage, whereas the latter comes from whatever is most important to us.
This is getting into what I would call morality. What he has been calling morality is really too self-serving to deserve the term. He glosses over the question of how we determine what we ought to do. He seem to say it is subjective rather than objective. What we feel versus what we think is important. So we are still self-serving. Does he think someone who says sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll are most important to him is just as moral as someone who says world peace is most important? He seems to frame things in terms of a conflict between the desires of the flesh and the desires of the spirit. But he cannot seem to say anything concrete about the spirit. He agrees that it is "most important" but he does not dare give it content. Just a vague notion that there is something we want to strive for.
Many of the evolutionarily savvy among us have chosen one of two roads with regard to describing our moral nature. One is the comforting notion that we are generally prosocial nice folks except for those odd meanies who must be explained as having some strange allele or bad childhood environment. The other common option is a descent into moral scepticism or nihilism where nothing matters anyway because it's all just a product of our evolution. These alternatives together look remarkably like a sour grapes attitude: either we are fundamentally good, or else forget it there's no such thing as good and bad. The main reason for Isaiah's admonition to remember how we fall short, as for most Jewish and Christian moral admonitions come to think of it, is to counteract our tendency to look at ourselves with rose-coloured glasses and become complacent. It looks like we could use a dose of my father's old time religion after all.
I don't know what he means by "evolutionarily savvy." Perhaps he means atheists. He seems to mean those who push the theory of evolution way past what the evidence supports. Having pro-social feelings is good. Whether we got them from evolution or something else does not matter much. What is more important is what is our goal. How do we define progress? We will discard our pro-social feelings for a greater good. That is wonderful if we correctly discern what the greater good is. Communism thought it understood the greater good. Even Hitler thought he was doing something good for Germany. How can we be sure we won't make a huge mistake? That is why we need Isaiah's admonition. So we don't assume nice folks like us are not capable of that kind of evil. But we also need to heed Isaiah's solution also from chapter 64:

8 Yet you, LORD, are our Father.
   We are the clay, you are the potter;
   we are all the work of your hand.
9 Do not be angry beyond measure, LORD;
   do not remember our sins forever.
Oh, look on us, we pray,
   for we are all your people. 

That is that God is real and He cares for us and will lead us if we let Him. Dr Lahti seems to have gotten some less than impressive advise from his evolutionary father. He needs to go to his heavenly father to get his morality properly centered. He seems to have thought through a lot of the peripheral questions. It is the part in the center he is missing. What is this thing called moral goodness anyway? Until he tackled that question his moral reasoning will be incoherent. 


  1. Very good post, Randy. If there's one set of terms we let slide too often, it's "progress" and "progressive" — the conjunction many people (not just atheists and social liberals) make between the increase of technological complexity and man's current moral state. Because we use computers instead of goose quills and tractors instead of ox-drawn plows, it follows that morally we must be better than we were in the age of Caesar Augustus. But as Chesterton and Lewis both pointed out, "progress" is a term whose correctness is relative to a known goal; simply stumbling forward through time isn't "progress" if you don't know where you're headed. It's always possible to cherry-pick the good things out of the last three or four hundred years and make the case for moral progress; it's just as easy, though, to make the case that we are as barbaric in our own way as were the Romans under Marcus Aurelius (Frank Weathers has an interesting post on this). This is definitely a topic that could stand more exploration. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Thanks for the link Anthony. It mentions reason. That is central. We think we are good at that but we just are not. This article shows that well. It sounds good at first but when you try and analyze the core of the argument there is not much there. Avoiding talking about what is that known goal. But this is a guy who is well qualified in modern moral thinking. This is why the pope keeps saying that if you remove objective truth then morality collapses. Removing the known goal makes the whole enterprise incoherent.