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]

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