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Evolution in the Key of D: Duty and Devotion (RJS)

posted by Jesus Creed Admin

The next two chapters of John F. Haught’s book  Making
Sense of Evolution: Darwin, God, and the Drama of Life
deal with the topics of duty and devotion. While Haught’s discussion of death left something to be desired, his discussion here is worth some thought and conversation.  

Evolutionary explanations of duty and devotion reduce both to nothing more than an impulse geared to enhance the survival probability of an individual or a community (which enhances the survival probability of the information content of the individual). Duty is not an impulse toward a higher good but an empirically effective mechanism for preservation. As Haught points out:

Furthermore, if a neo-Darwinian explanation of altruism is sufficiently illuminating, one may assume that there is no such thing as exceptional virtue or real moral heroism either. Morality is a by-product of genetic determinism, and so the belief that our actions are rooted in an underlying freedom, courage, loftiness of character, or personal integrity is an illusion. Christian charity, from an evolutionary perspective, is no less a product of gene survival than the lone prairie dog’s self-sacrifice. (pp. 112-113)

Even expressions of charity that Christians consider to be the epitome of virtuous behavior are taken to be nothing more than a consequence of the blind drive that populations of genes must possess in order to achieve reproductive success. (p. 113)

Haught suggests that a purely natural, evolutionary, explanation of morality and virtue leaves both as empirical observations with no ultimate reality – in a fashion that counters our deepest belief. This is no less true for the secular atheist than the Christian theist.

What do you see as the root value in moral or virtuous behavior. Is a purely natural explanation sufficient to understand morality?

In this chapter Haught makes a rather provocative statement that a naturalist explanation of virtue and morality is a rationalization of behavior not an explanation of morality: “by trying to explain every instance of moral behavior in terms of adaptation, the gene-centered account ends up explaining nothing. (p. 122)”

The point is that a gene-centered approach will explain  the abolition of slavery, the push for equal rights, the view of the essential humanity of all nations and races, the Nazi goal of racial purity, the Rwandan genocide, the trail of tears, and the historical preference for hard patriarchy on the same ground. There is no value judgment though, no justification, no basis, for an ultimate choice between these. There is only a pragmatic good localized to a given context. If survival is enhanced by ethnic purification, or by a societal structure that treats women as property – then this structure will, on purely functional grounds, be preferred in the long run.

The layered view of reality leaves science and theology not at logger heads, but as different aspects of the ultimate explanation and ground of morality.

Although evolutionary and other scientific accounts may be part of any richly layered understanding of morality, these cannot function coherently as ultimate explanation without subverting even the evolutionary naturalist’s own sense of duty.

It is the business of theology, not of science, to look for ultimate explanations.  … Allowing for the gradual evolutionary emergence of our moral responsiveness, theology may reasonably make the following claim: the absoluteness of certain moral demands (such as the imperative to seek truth, no matter what the cost) is justified if the whole universe out of which moral aspiration has emerged is itself pervasively grounded in an ultimate transcendent goodness, in what the theistic faiths call God. (p. 123)

Again there is a universalism, and an unsatisfactory view of God within Haught’s expression – but there is also a core of important truth. Morality, duty, and virtue are either grounded in something greater, in God, – or are pragmatic natural responses to a specific context. Without undercutting the level of natural explanation (the spelling and grammar) we can look for ultimate meaning and ground for morality in God.

Devotion is a concept related to duty, and a concept which evolutionary naturalism can rationalize but not explain. Many are trying to explain belief in God as nothing more than an adaptive response to an uncertain surrounding. The claim is straightforward: “By creating the fiction that the universe is purposefully governed by a loving providence, belief in God gave our prescientific predecessors a (fictitious) reason for living moral lives, which in turn kept our species’ genes from perishing. (p. 128)” But, Haught suggests, belief in evolutionary materialism is as much a faith statement as belief in God. And belief in evolutionary materialism – cosmic mindlessness as the ultimate foundation and explanation for everything, including the human mind – leaves no ground for trusting the human mind. The mind is formed in a quest for survival, not for truth. (Pete Enns just this week had an article on Atheists as Believers – worth a look).

Evolution,” Haught says, “makes better sense if we locate it within a theological vision in which the cosmic past is liberated from lifelessness and mindlessness by God, the “power of the future.” (p. 135)”

The book of natural history. I have found Haught’s illustration of the levels of truth a useful concept. A book can be truthfully described at the level of the chemistry and physics of paper and ink, the level of spelling, vocabulary and grammar, at the level of meaning, intent, purpose and goal. So to can the world around us be described at different levels of truth – not contradictory but complementary: physics, cosmology, chemistry, molecular biology, systems biology, anthropology, and theology.

Tim Keller (see here) makes the same kind of distinction. Evolutionary biological process is distinct from evolution as the grand theory of everything (GTE). Evolution as GTE is inherently a faith statement – but it is only one possible direction to go from the basic grammar of evolutionary biological process. I agree with Haught that evolution – without changing the basic approach to the science – simply makes more sense, life makes more sense – when it is located within a universe with a purpose.

We don’t see God most clearly at the level of physical process – but at the level of meaning and purpose. We experience God not as an answer to scientific questions about the world, but in relationship, a relationship he has initiated. Here, with the emphasis on relationship, is where I part ways most significantly with Haught – as we will discuss in the next post.

For today though…

What do you think? Is an evolutionary explanation for concepts like duty and purpose satisfactory? Does the idea of layered meaning help with understanding the world around us?

If you wish you may contact me directly at rjs4mail[at]

Comments read comments(13)
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Scot McKnight

posted August 19, 2010 at 8:00 am

Great sketch of a good set of ideas. I have long believed that evolutionary materialism cannot explain what touches us at our deepest. Even if love emerges somehow, and I can’t say I know this or believe this, from the instinct to survive, or is connected to that instinct, that explanation/rationalization doesn’t explain its meaning, its significance, or its powerful force in our lives. A man/woman may give his/her life for a child or another loved person but that transcends the will to survive for that person. It begins to touch on what goes beyond “my” survival to “how” and “why” I want to survive.
The captcha words are getting weirder and weirder.

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posted August 19, 2010 at 10:26 am

The Design Spectrum
I agree.
1. Our moral sense and experience exists as data about the world.
2. Our awareness of the moral law, our moral sense, and our experience of morality in day to day life cannot be adequately explained by evolutionary materialism.
3. Evolution is not the “best explanation” of the moral law, our moral sense, and our experience of morality in day to day life.
4. What’s the alternative? I think design by a intelligent (and moral) designer is a better explanation.

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Ray Ingles

posted August 19, 2010 at 10:52 am

Morality is a by-product of genetic determinism…

First off, even if ‘genetic determinism’ were true in the sense Haught seems to mean – which it isn’t and I’m not aware of any serious thinker who actually believes that – that wouldn’t necessarily be true. Perhaps genes would have the effect of allowing us to recognize a truth rather than creating that truth. We have inbuilt instincts for physics (at least, in Earth gravity and atmosphere), but the genes that give us that talent don’t make physics true.
For a good introductory treatment of these arguments from the other end, I recommend David Sloan Wilson’s “Evolution For Everyone”.

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Ray Ingles

posted August 19, 2010 at 10:54 am

If survival is enhanced by ethnic purification, or by a societal structure that treats women as property – then this structure will, on purely functional grounds, be preferred in the long run.

I’d say ‘the long run’ has argued against that, though.

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posted August 19, 2010 at 10:59 am

The alternative is a universe with purpose, design, and meaning. I’ve never claimed any differently.
But we don’t shore up the reality of God, making purpose, design, and meaning plausible by finding gaps in the basic chemistry and physics, or even in the processes of evolutionary biology. This is my primary point all along. We can simply take the scientific evidence as it is as our understanding of God’s creation and his mechanisms of creation increase. The reality of God, his purpose and design, the meaning imparted to our existence – all these stand above the chemistry and physics and explain the chemistry and physics.
The whole world makes more sense if we simply take what is – but locate it within a theological vision of God and his creation.

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Ray Ingles

posted August 19, 2010 at 11:04 am

…no ground for trusting the human mind. The mind is formed in a quest for survival, not for truth.

There are a lot of problems with the ‘evolutionary argument against naturalism’, but one is quite simple:
“We don’t necessarily want accurate maps, we want useful ones. But accuracy is extraordinarily useful.” – David Gerrold

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posted August 19, 2010 at 11:08 am

The Design Spectrum
RJS #5,
My logic does not depend on any “gap” logical fallacy. I think you are shackling your thinking by finding non-existence gap fallacies all over the place.
Asserting that there is a gap fallacy where there is none is itself a logical fallacy.

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posted August 19, 2010 at 2:42 pm

Much of what you say resonates with me personally, as I have a very deep and profound belief in God. However, I think it would be a mistake to say (and I’m not sure you meant to imply this) that evolutionary mechanisms can’t currently explain or could never explain the extent of altruism and emotional experiences such as love that we see throughout the human condition. I think there are evolutionary explanations for these things. Personally, I see God dovetailing with genetically inherited emotional dispositions to lend something transcendent to an otherwise empty process.

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posted August 19, 2010 at 11:19 pm

Thanks for this post RJS; I think this is one of the most important points in the disagreement with atheists, and found it very interesting. (I wish this post got more attention than the other one today!)
Is it true that there are legitimate naturalistic explanations for people sacrificing for the “other” — i.e., someone not in their family, tribe, community? Or does the post just assume it for the sake of argument? I had always assumed that evidence for the naturalistic perspective on that point was weak, but I admittedly don’t know the evidence. Of course, either way, that doesn’t undercut your point, which is that even if there is a naturalistic explanation, it doesn’t provide “ultimate reality,” which we all sense there is.

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posted August 20, 2010 at 12:02 am

The evolutionary argument for someone sacrificing for someone outside their family/tribe/community is one of simple over-generalization of an altruistic impulse. For instance, we know that there are characteristics of a baby’s face that elicit nurturing impulses in both male and female adults. This is meant to keep parents bonded to their children and invested in their welfare – but the same mechanisms elicit nurturing responses even if the child isn’t yours. So in evolutionary terms it is seen as an application of a survival impulse (of one’s descendants genes) simply generalized outside that scope to another person’s child.
Having said all this, I still think love is love and has a transcendent spiritual component. But I strongly caution against targeting seeming gaps in darwinistic explanations for altruism as you won’t get very far. The atheists are on as solid ground as the theists on this one.

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posted August 20, 2010 at 6:58 am

This post couldn’t compete with the historical Adam question – and Haught’s book in general doesn’t seem to inspire many comments. Even without the competition I doubt it would have gotten much conversation going. It is too bad, because I think the topic is an important one.
There are many natural explanations for altruism and related concepts that are given. Sociobiologists like E. O. Wilson have discussed these and are continuing to work on understanding behavior at the scientific level. This was also (indirectly) the topic of an earlier post that I did on Free Will (from a scientific, not theological perspective): Is Free Will Anti-Science.
Ultimately though all of these explanations devolve to a position that our social impulses are effectively no different from those of an ant colony where workers will sacrifice their own well being for the good of the sisters who do reproduce. We are impersonal stochastic units in a massive natural computer (quasi-parallel) looking for solutions to the survival problem using a genetic search algorithm to explore the available space of possibility.
Of course some of the solutions will optimize for cooperative units larger than the individual because on the average these solutions allow for a better fitness for survival. “Good” that doesn’t survive is gone – good is pragmatically only measured by survival. Thus the existence of altruism, sense of duty, etc. can be explained from a naturalist perspective.
Even if these natural mechanisms are operative, even in part, in bringing us to our present state – is this really all that there is to life and the world around us? I don’t see a theistic approach as as filling a mechanistic explanatory gap in this question – rather I see it as supplying the meaning that transcends the mere chemistry and physics our existence. I really like Haught’s analogy with layers of truth in a book.

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Ray Ingles

posted August 20, 2010 at 4:45 pm

Ultimately though all of these explanations devolve to a position that our social impulses are effectively no different from those of an ant colony where workers will sacrifice their own well being for the good of the sisters who do reproduce. We are impersonal stochastic units in a massive natural computer (quasi-parallel) looking for solutions to the survival problem using a genetic search algorithm to explore the available space of possibility.

And the Mandelbrot Set is “just a set like the circle |c|

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Ray Ingles

posted August 20, 2010 at 4:47 pm

< 2″.
(Sigh. HTML escapes…)

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