[asa] Origins of human morality

From: Austerberry, Charles <cfauster@creighton.edu>
Date: Fri Aug 07 2009 - 08:34:44 EDT

The Strange Case of Francis Collins
ollins2/> has Sam Harris' longer critique of Francis Collins.
Jerry Coyne critiques Robert Wright's The Evolution of God in the New
7af196d0> .
Both are focused on the origins of human moral imperatives.
Regarding Collins' emphasis on the inexplicability of Moral Law via any
natural or social science, I agree that Francis Collins' views on the
origins of human morality are not as well informed as are his views on
some other subjects. He draws almost exclusively from C.S. Lewis. I
give more credence to the ideas of those who have studied neurobiology,
animal behavior, and evolutionary psychology, but I don't fault Lewis or
Collins for not being experts in those areas.
Some Christians do not use the existence of human moral intuitions as
evidence for God, at least not in the way Collins does. Rather, they
base their faith in the Christian God on other grounds, and then explore
the congruence between scientific and religious understandings of
Take Malcolm Jeeves, for example. He's Emeritus Professor of Psychology
at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. One book on the subject
he edited is

From cells to souls, and beyond: changing portraits of human nature
=en&ei=izB7SsHHJoeyNo_7hd4C&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=6> .

Jeeves has authored lots of stuff himself, such as a chapter in The Work
of Love: Creation as Kenosis (2001, Eerdmans) in which he quotes
extensively from Frans de Waal's book Good Natured: The Origins of Right
and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals (1996, Harvard University Press).
Here's a sampling of what de Waal wrote, as quoted by Jeeves (and echoed
in more recent books by Robert Wright, Marc Hauser, etc.):
"Morality is as firmly grounded in neurobiology as anything else we do
or are ... Once thought of as purely spiritual matters, honesty, guilt,
and the weighing of ethical dilemmas are traceable to specific areas of
the brain. It should not surprise us, therefore, to find animal
parallels. The human brain is a product of evolution. Despite its
larger volume and greater complexity, it is fundamentally similar to the
central nervous system of other animals."
Then Jeeves writes:
"For those of us who begin from theistic presuppositions, we can thus
see embedded within creation the seeds, development, and fruits of
self-giving behavior ... Evidence pointing to a genetic component
modulating the degree of expressed self-giving and self-limiting
behavior sits alongside the evidence indicating that [the expression of
such behavior] is increased and multiplied by moment-to-moment, personal
choices and arguably also by the catalytic effect of a kenotic
On the other hand, there are Christians besides Collins who use the
existence of human moral intuitions as evidence for God. But, many take
a different tack than Lewis or Collins.
I'll use one example, John (Jack) Haught, since Coyne quotes him in his
New Republic piece. Haught critiques creationism and intelligent
design theory. He also defends Christianity from the New Atheists like
Dawkins, Coyne, and Harris. Anyway, here's a brief excerpt from
Haught's book Is Nature Enough?: Meaning and Truth in the Age of Science
(2006, Cambridge University Press). The italics are in the original
"Although evolutionary and other scientific accounts must be part of any
adequate understanding of morality, these cannot function coherently as
ultimate explanation without subverting the whole naturalistic project.
The project itself ... is inseparable from the naturalist's own
submission to the imperative to be responsible. Here responsibility
means submission to an ethic of knowledge that takes
scientific-objective-theoretic knowing as unconditionally normative.
But any claim to be able to explain this exacting ethic in purely
naturalistic terms would be to render it conditional rather than
unconditional. Naturalism therefore cannot lead the intelligent and
responsible subject to any secure foundations for either intelligence or
Earlier in the chapter:
"But if an understanding of evolution, history, society and culture
cannot tell me why I should follow the imperative to be responsible,
then what can? Certainly natural, social and personal history ...are
involved in the shaping of conscience. However, something in addition
to past causal influences must be involved in the awakening of a sense
of responsibility. I propose once again, therefore, that an adequate
grounding of the imperative to be responsible can come only from a view
of reality that includes a theological dimension at its foundation.
Nevertheless, I would not argue, in a Kantian sort of way, that [the
moral imperative] is the consequence of a divine command planted
immediately in each person's mind. Nor is it based on the finite mind's
faint remembrance of a Platonic realm of perfection from which it has
been temporarily estranged ... I believe it is more appropriate to say
that the imperative to be responsible is activated by the mind's
anticipation of a transcendent goodness that encompasses and grounds
both the world and our consciousness, as proposed in the preceding
Unless you read "the preceding chapter" in this book by Haught or read
some other of Haught's books, Haught's idea of the future being a causal
influence on the present will not make any sense. It involves process
theology. I'm not sure it makes any sense even after reading Haught a
lot! But I did try to put Haught's "metaphysics of the future" idea in
a nutshell at the end of a short review I wrote of a talk he gave at
Creighton on Darwin Day (Feb. 12), 2001. It's at
In general, I see the usual confusion in the attacks and counter-attacks
between the New Atheists and the Theistic Evolutionists. The village
atheist objections to Christianity are mostly old hat. The failure to
distinguish between different kinds of evidence, logic, forms of
knowledge - that too is nothing new.
Calmly responding to the New Atheists without anger or malice is a
positive approach, I think. I expect Collins to take the high road, and
breeze through his confirmation as NIH chief.

Charles (Chuck) F. Austerberry, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Biology
Hixson-Lied Room 438
Creighton University
2500 California Plaza
Omaha, NE 68178
Phone: 402-280-2154
Fax: 402-280-5595
e-mail: cfauster@creighton.edu

Nebraska Religious Coalition for Science Education

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Received on Fri, 7 Aug 2009 07:34:44 -0500

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