“Evolved morality” hypothesis takes a hit

Harvard’s Marc Hauser, a primary academic proponent of the idea that our moral codex is a result of evolutionary development, has been kneecapped by the University (and likely the Feds, since some of his grants were federal) for “scientific misconduct”.

Mr. Hauser has been at the forefront of a movement to show that our morals are survival instincts evolved over the millennia. When Mr. Hauser’s 2006 book “Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong” was published, evolutionary psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker proclaimed that his Harvard colleague was engaged in “one of the hottest new topics in intellectual life: The psychology and biology of morals.”

Why is this important? One of the challenges of defending the absence of a God has been the universal human understanding that some things are right and some are wrong. There may be differences from society to society in defining the circumstances under which it’s acceptable to lie, for instance, but lying to those who should be able to trust you is unacceptable and requires justification through the invoking of a higher principle.

Hauser examined the cognitive capacity of monkeys, their methods of communication and so on, to provide biological and anthropological support for his theses. Unfortunately, it is in those studies that research improprieties have been identified. (Link for more details) It appears that he depended on his own “coding”, i.e. interpretation of the significance of observed behaviors, a process known to be influenceable by subjective interpretation. That is why such coding is generally checked by other observers, and when different, a third impartial observer is brought in. This Prof. Hauser not only failed to do, but refused when confronted by graduate students assisting with the study. A significant number of his publications are affected by the University’s findings.

This is a blow to the evolutionary psychology discipline. Primate studies offered an opportunity for hard scientific support rather than speculation. However, according to the article in the UK Telegraph, “The problem . . . is that many other scientists have followed up Hauser’s work, or have been inspired to adopt new lines of inquiry by his findings. Without knowing more about the investigation, researchers will remain unsure about how much of Hauser’s work to trust.” And from the WSJ article: “As rumors swirled that Harvard was about to ding Mr. Hauser for scientific misconduct, prominent researchers in the field worried they would be tarnished by association. The science magazine Nature asked Frans de Waal—a primatologist at Emory University and author, most recently, of the widely read book ‘The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society’—about what Mr. Hauser’s predicament meant for his discipline. He was blunt: ‘It is disastrous.'”

The Harvard investigation will be of limited help. It focused only on Hauser’s studies about which specific allegations had been made by others close to the projects. His other works have not necessarily been found blameless — the bulk of his academic output didn’t fall within the scope of the investigation.

This demonstrates, once again, that difficult truth: No matter the source of your moral sensibilities, betraying them gets you into trouble. Bon chance, Dr. Hauser. Choices have consequences.

Deity as product of wishful thinking?

This is what I once thought, and it’s articulately presented by blogger Lousy Canuck.

Some humans were unsatisfied with a lack of knowledge about the world they knew of, and so, being the only creatures on the planet in possession of the power of imagination, they postulated that magical beings created the world they recognized, and did so in magical ways — ways we did not need to understand, in order to benefit from. . . .

As time marched on, these ideas evolved and changed with the times, as most ideas are wont to do. What was once a game of telephone, with myths passed through oral tradition, became written tradition with the invention of writing. These writings were corrupted by means of translation and retranslation, each time being changed slightly by the human doing the transcription and translation. . . .

Humans invented gods to fill in gaps in our knowledge of the natural world when we didn’t yet have the ability to investigate them and figure out how our natural world actually works. These gods became moral law-bringers over time, to explain why we shouldn’t go out raping and pillaging. Humans then developed science as a way to investigate how the universe actually works, and thus the acts attributed to these gods rapidly dwindled. And yet the concept of “god” is still around as some sort of law-giver despite these laws being entirely written by humans.

I understand this and consider it a reasonable argument, though heavily punctuated with bias and inappropriate assumptions: “some [laws] were merely built to perpetuate the religious stranglehold on the populace“, “humans are naturally disinclined to such objectively bad activities through long millenia of evolution” (oh, really?), and “as scientific experimentation identified issues with the proposed epistemologies of the religions of the time, those parts of the religion were for the first time ever questioned by their adherents” (as if the people in Jesus’ day would have needed a scientist to realize that it was impossible for someone who had been dead for some days to come back to life).

What is completely ignored in arguments like these is the fact that the sole function of scientific investigation is to determine how matter and energy generally behave. It is tempting to extrapolate these patterns into unbreakable laws, but it is logically invalid to do so. “I have seen Mrs. Smith down the block every day for the last ten years. I have even peered into her living room windows. Every time I see her, she is fully clothed. Therefore, she is always fully clothed without exception.”

So how can it be intellectually honest to assume that every report of events outside of the observed pattern is false? By definition, a “miracle” would run counter to what is generally observed. Does this mean it cannot take place? Our understanding of the Laws of Gravity doesn’t make us any more certain than primitive peoples that a dropped object will go down and not up. The inhabitants of a small town where Jesus preached knew it was impossible for a man who had been a blind beggar his whole life couldn’t regain his sight by putting mud on them and then washing it off in a pool. (See Gospel of John, chapter 9) The reported stir created by such events betrays their remarkable nature. The skeptic will assume that the story could not be true and will proceed to insist on a “scientific” (i.e. non-remarkable) explanation for the story: it’s a fabrication, the man wasn’t really blind, he was hallucinating, etc. But the skeptic’s bias prevents him or her from truly objective questioning, such as “Is the possibility greater than zero that this is a true story? What evidence, for and against, can be observed? What would be the outcomes if it were true? Can I observe any of these outcomes?” And so on.

The assumption that we are capable of understanding everything in the universe is hard to support. In an illustration I think I first read in C.S. Lewis, my dog may think he understands what is really happening when he sees me reading my evening newspaper, but he doesn’t. The possibility that more may be going on is beyond his comprehension. Can we safely assume that no such possibility applies to us?

Lousy Canuck suggests that moral and societal norms, attributed to a now-outdated deism, are really a solely human development.

Isn’t it about time we outgrow the need for gods to provide echo chambers for our own intrinsic beliefs about good and evil? Why can we not sit at a table and hammer out some equitable, moral, and just laws, laws which ensure the perpetuation of the human species and the fair treatment and protection of each of its members, and take credit for these laws as a species, rather than attributing these laws to some higher power?

This would be comforting to the materialist if true, as he describes the assumption of the existence of a higher power might have been to earlier generations. There’s unfortunately plenty of evidence to the contrary, witness the twisted use of good values (loyalty, desire for progress, self-sacrifice) to produce undescribable horrors in Nazi Germany. He suggests that a nameless group undertake to hammer out norms of moral and just laws. I wish him luck. (The inability of most groups to come to consensus on issues of much less scope makes me pessimistic.) Forgive me if I specullate that those laws might end up looking a lot like the Ten Commandments when complete. And, in the current environment of “Don’t impose your morality on me!”, they might run into a lot of the same challenges.

Good resource

Apparently there’s a list of ongoing “atheism vs. theism” debates at Commonsenseatheism.com. Though it was started last year, there are ongoing updates in the comments field. Thanks for the heads-up, folks.

Some questions I’d like to ask atheists

I have a questionIn no particular order:

  1. In the absence of a common moral code derived from any sense of a higher power, how do you decide what is right and wrong? Is it all subjective and situational, or are there some things, for instance, that are always wrong (e.g. rape, harming the earth, child abuse)? What do you see as the foundation of your moral sense?
  2. This is for atheists who want to persuade religious people to give up their faith and adopt a non-believing perspective: Why? I can see how you might want the brand of religious person who gets in your face and tries to persuade you of their views to back off, but in the absence of behavior that directly affects you, I’m curious about why freethinkers sometimes adopt an “evangelistic” position.
  3. Admittedly, I’m not as familiar with atheist writings as I would like to be, but a lot I find around the web is rather more emotional than rational, or based on misunderstandings of what people of faith actually believe. I can understand that a lot of blogs, for instance, are written for an audience of people who are already like-minded, so they would tend to assume the argument has already been made and accepted. But are there people out there who are interested in offering evidence, listening to evidence and having discussions?
  4. If you are an atheist who used to believe in God, do you think there’s a difference in your experience from people who have never had any faith? If so, how is it different?

See, it’s stuff like this . . .

I don’t mind atheists having fun. A lot of them have great senses of humor. But I’m going to have to hang around for a while before I figure out how to tell the difference between silliness that indicates the having of fun and arguments that are meant to be taken for persuasive and reasonable.

Here’s an example from the articulate Crispy over at Too Many Questions as he wrestles with why God (if he exists) hasn’t just swooped in and made hash of Satan once and for all.

Satan and God are supposed to be on opposite sides, aren’t they?

So why would those sent to hell get punished?

Those following God’s rules expect to be rewarded, surely satan would reward equally, those flouting his opponents rules! If you were at war with someone, would you do EXACTLY what your opponent wanted you to do? I doubt it, more likely one would flaunt and parade the flouting of the opponents wishes! So why does Satan accept the soul? I can only guess they must sustain him, give him power and strength.

Here’s my dilemma: There’s actually a good conversation to be had here about the nature of God, the nature of Satan, free will, etc. I’m genuinely interested in engaging in genuine reasonable dialogue with Neo-Atheists (though I don’t know if Crispy considers himself one of them), but since the tone of their speech and writing is so frequently contemptuous and filled with ridicule, I don’t know how to express curiosity or offer an explanation without tripping a triggered response that wouldn’t be helpful and might raise my blood-pressure.

Suggestions welcome.

Why we’re here

Well, why I’m here is to read, think and write. Why we’re here is to make sense of things. We don’t seem to be able to help trying to figure things out, which might suggest that there’s actually something to understand. If everything were random, how would we know?

Contrary views welcome. Contempt and ridicule not so welcome.