A Scientific Approach to Moral Reasoning

http://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/issues/98apr/bio2.htm

MEANWHILE, the mélanges of moral reasoning employed by modern societies are, to put the matter simply, a mess. They are chimeras, composed of odd parts stuck together. Paleolithic egalitarian and tribalistic instincts are still firmly installed. As part of the genetic foundation of human nature, they cannot be replaced. In some cases, such as quick hostility to strangers and competing groups, they have become generally ill adapted and persistently dangerous. Above the fundamental instincts rise superstructures of arguments and rules that accommodate the novel institutions created by cultural evolution. These accommodations, which reflect the attempt to maintain order and further tribal interests, have been too volatile to track by genetic evolution; they are not yet in the genes.

Then new answers might be found to the truly important questions of moral reasoning. How can the moral instincts be ranked? Which are best subdued and to what degree? Which should be validated by law and symbol? How can precepts be left open to appeal under extraordinary circumstances? In the new understanding can be located the most effective means for reaching consensus. No one can guess the exact form that agreements will take from one culture to the next. The process, however, can be predicted with assurance. It will be democratic, weakening the clash of rival religions and ideologies. History is moving decisively in that direction, and people are by nature too bright and too contentious to abide anything else. And the pace can be confidently predicted: change will come slowly, across generations, because old beliefs die hard, even when they are demonstrably false.

From a convergence of these several approaches the true origin and meaning of ethical behavior may come into focus. If so, a more certain measure can then be taken of the strength and flexibility of the epigenetic rules composing the various moral sentiments. From that knowledge it should be possible to adapt ancient moral sentiments more wisely to the swiftly changing conditions of modern life into which, willy-nilly and largely in ignorance, we have plunged.

Still, if history and science have taught us anything, it is that passion and desire are not the same as truth. The human mind evolved to believe in gods. It did not evolve to believe in biology. Acceptance of the supernatural conveyed a great advantage throughout prehistory, when the brain was evolving. Thus it is in sharp contrast to the science of biology, which was developed as a product of the modern age and is not underwritten by genetic algorithms. The uncomfortable truth is that the two beliefs are not factually compatible. As a result, those who hunger for both intellectual and religious truth face disquieting choices.

THE essence of humanity’s spiritual dilemma is that we evolved genetically to accept one truth and discovered another. Can we find a way to erase the dilemma, to resolve the contradictions between the transcendentalist and empiricist world views?

Unfortunately, in my view, the answer is no. Furthermore, the choice between the two is unlikely to remain arbitrary forever. The assumptions underlying these world views are being tested with increasing severity by cumulative verifiable knowledge about how the universe works, from atom to brain to galaxy. In addition, the harsh lessons of history have taught us that one code of ethics is not always as good — or at least not as durable — as another. The same is true of religions. Some cosmologies are factually less correct than others, and some ethical precepts are less workable.

Human nature is biologically based, and it is relevant to ethics and religion. The evidence shows that because of its influence, people can readily be educated to only a narrow range of ethical precepts. They flourish within certain belief systems and wither in others. We need to know exactly why.

To that end I will be so presumptuous as to suggest how the conflict between the world views will most likely be settled. The idea of a genetic, evolutionary origin of moral and religious beliefs will continue to be tested by biological studies of complex human behavior. To the extent that the sensory and nervous systems appear to have evolved by natural selection, or at least some other purely material process, the empiricist interpretation will be supported. It will be further supported by verification of gene-culture coevolution, the essential process postulated by scientists to underlie human nature by linking changes in genes to changes in culture.

Now consider the alternative. To the extent that ethical and religious phenomena do not appear to have evolved in a manner congenial to biology, and especially to the extent that such complex behavior cannot be linked to physical events in the sensory and nervous systems, the empiricist position will have to be abandoned and a transcendentalist explanation accepted.

For centuries the writ of empiricism has been spreading into the ancient domain of transcendentalist belief, slowly at the start but quickening in the scientific age. The spirits our ancestors knew intimately fled first the rocks and trees and then the distant mountains. Now they are in the stars, where their final extinction is possible. But we cannot live without them. People need a sacred narrative. They must have a sense of larger purpose, in one form or another, however intellectualized. They will refuse to yield to the despair of animal mortality. They will continue to plead, in company with the psalmist, Now Lord, what is my comfort? They will find a way to keep the ancestral spirits alive.

If the sacred narrative cannot be in the form of a religious cosmology, it will be taken from the material history of the universe and the human species. That trend is in no way debasing. The true evolutionary epic, retold as poetry, is as intrinsically ennobling as any religious epic. Material reality discovered by science already possesses more content and grandeur than all religious cosmologies combined. The continuity of the human line has been traced through a period of deep history a thousand times as old as that conceived by the Western religions. Its study has brought new revelations of great moral importance. It has made us realize that Homo sapiens is far more than an assortment of tribes and races. We are a single gene pool from which individuals are drawn in each generation and into which they are dissolved the next generation, forever united as a species by heritage and a common future. Such are the conceptions, based on fact, from which new intimations of immortality can be drawn and a new mythos evolved.

Which world view prevails, religious transcendentalism or scientific empiricism, will make a great difference in the way humanity claims the future. While the matter is under advisement, an accommodation can be reached if the following overriding facts are realized. Ethics and religion are still too complex for present-day science to explain in depth. They are, however, far more a product of autonomous evolution than has hitherto been conceded by most theologians. Science faces in ethics and religion its most interesting and possibly most humbling challenge, while religion must somehow find the way to incorporate the discoveries of science in order to retain credibility. Religion will possess strength to the extent that it codifies and puts into enduring, poetic form the highest values of humanity consistent with empirical knowledge. That is the only way to provide compelling moral leadership. Blind faith, no matter how passionately expressed, will not suffice. Science, for its part, will test relentlessly every assumption about the human condition and in time uncover the bedrock of moral and religious sentiments.

The eventual result of the competition between the two world views, I believe, will be the secularization of the human epic and of religion itself. However the process plays out, it demands open discussion and unwavering intellectual rigor in an atmosphere of mutual respect.

About basicrulesoflife

Year 1935. Interests: Contemporary society problems, quality of life, happiness, understanding and changing ourselves - everything based on scientific evidence. Artificial Intelligence Foundation Latvia, http://www.artificialintelligence.lv Editor.
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