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A Glimpse Into the Abyss

Paul Nelson

“Before going on,” said Frost, “I must ask you to be strictly objective. Resentment and fear are both chemical phenomena. Our reactions to each other are chemical phenomena. Social relations are chemical relations. You must observe these feelings in yourself in an objective manner. Do not let them distract your attention from the facts.”

C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength (1946)

The relevance of this passage from Lewis will be clear below. But first…

Marc Hauser‘s Surprising Thesis: If You’re Human, You Are Built to Understand Right and Wrong
For some weeks, I’ve had a note in my calendar to wrap up a piece of unfinished business from my coverage of the University of Chicago Darwin conference — i.e., to say something about Marc Hauser’s fascinating plenary lecture on the origins of morality. Hauser argued that moral behavior is largely insensitive to gender, education, cultural background, class, or even religious belief. Rather, humans seem to be hard-wired (biologically) with a moral sense. Find a member of the species Homo sapiens, Hauser argued, and you’ve located an organism that knows some actions are right, and others, wrong.
Here is how Hauser put his case in a recent essay:

Recent discoveries suggest that all humans, young and old, male and female, conservative and liberal, living in Sydney, San Francisco and Seoul, growing up as atheists, Buddhists, Catholics and Jews, with high school, university or professional degrees, are endowed with a gift from nature, a biological code for living a moral life.
This code, a universal moral grammar, provides us with an unconscious suite of principles for judging what is morally right and wrong. It is an impartial, rational and unemotional capacity. It doesn’t dictate who we should help or who we are licensed to harm. Rather, it provides an abstract set of rules for how to intuitively understand when helping another is obligatory and when harming another is forbidden.

Now, the announced title of Hauser’s Chicago talk was “Where Do Morals Come From? NOT Religion!” So I expected a Richard Dawkinsian or PZ Myerish attack on nasty old pernicious religion — but Hauser had almost nothing to say along those lines. Indeed, he had almost nothing to say about how Darwinian evolution explained the origin of human moral behavior.
What Hauser did present was piles of evidence for human uniqueness, with respect to morality. Summarizing new experimental data, for instance, showing the predictable onset of self-sacrificial behavior in children — at about the age of 8, children begin to act on a sense of “fairness,” and will give valuable objects to others, which they might just as easily have kept for themselves — Hauser said, “This type of behavior is uniquely human. We see nothing like this in other animals.”
In the weeks since Hauser’s lecture, I have often reflected on its remarkable content (I hope Jerry Coyne follows through with his commitment to make the videos of the Chicago talks available online), and have found myself cheered up. Why? Because a design theorist could have given Hauser’s lecture. Maybe even the Apostle Paul:

For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness…(Romans 2:14-15)

The “law” here, of course, comprises religiously-codified proscriptions and commands, as contained in sacred texts such as the Pentateuch. Hauser denies that morality arises from religion, but Paul would have agreed with him. Only a tiny fraction of the great mass of humanity around Paul in the Mediterranean world of the first century AD were Jews, with the Mosaic law.
Nevertheless, Egyptians and Romans and Greeks and Persians knew that murder, and adultery, and theft were wrong. The law was written on their hearts, by design.
Looking into the Abyss
So Hauser cheered me up, but then Alex Rosenberg of Duke University brought me down. Way down.
When I taught philosophy to undergraduates at the University of Chicago (1987-91), we’d read some Nietzsche, and usually a handful of students would be swept off their feet by his undeniable panache and bad-boy attitude. The Nietzschean spell rarely lasted the entire quarter, however. Genuinely consistent and thoroughgoing disciples of Nietzsche make for miserable classmates. When the sophomore Ubermensch talks over the other students for the 20th time, and doesn’t give a damn if they like it or not, stuck as they are in their slave morality — well, let’s just say these are not people you want to invite to your party, and you certainly wouldn’t want that same wretchedly consistent Nietzschean living next door.
Nor would I want a consistent eliminative materialist as my neighbor. For Alex Rosenberg, “scientism” is a good thing, because it tells us that since everything is particles in motion, and particles in motion know nothing of morality, what we see as right and wrong today, and tomorrow, will be entirely contingent on the vagaries of evolution:

Since natural selection has no foresight, we have no idea whether the moral core we now endorse will hold up, be selected for, over the long-term future of our species, if any.

On this view, if rape, or theft (or whatever) is perceived as “wrong,” that is strictly a temporary perception which may be swept away by changing circumstances tomorrow. At bottom, nature has no purposes, argues Rosenberg, other than the illusory. Thus, the message of a consistent naturalism

forces upon us a very disillusioned “take” on reality. It is one that most naturalists have sought to avoid, or at least qualify, reinterpret, or recast to avoid its harshest conclusions about the meaning of life, the nature of morality, the significance of our consciousness self-awareness, and the limits of human self-understanding.

There are self-referential problems with Rosenberg’s thesis which I leave as an exercise for the reader (Ed Feser provides a guide). Here I want only to note that few philosophical naturalists have Rosenberg’s nerve. Why?
Maybe because they look into the abyss and don’t like what they see there.
Thank goodness, or God, for that. Let us praise blessedly sane inconsistency. I want someone as my neighbor whose moral intuitions are stronger — a LOT stronger — than his philosophy.

Paul Nelson

Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Paul A. Nelson is currently a Senior Fellow of the Discovery Institute and Adjunct Professor in the Master of Arts Program in Science & Religion at Biola University. He is a philosopher of biology who has been involved in the intelligent design debate internationally for three decades. His grandfather, Byron C. Nelson (1893-1972), a theologian and author, was an influential mid-20th century dissenter from Darwinian evolution. After Paul received his B.A. in philosophy with a minor in evolutionary biology from the University of Pittsburgh, he entered the University of Chicago, where he received his Ph.D. (1998) in the philosophy of biology and evolutionary theory.