Tag Archives: evolution

Creationist ‘audits’ science museum

Imagine you are 10 years old and your crazy aunt is taking you out for a treat.

A crazy aunt can be fun. Problem is this aunt is also a creationist and she is taking you to the local natural history museum.

Well it never happened to me (not that I didn’t have a crazy aunt) but I imagine this is what it would be like.

The museum is the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History – looks great.

Thanks to: Christian Fundamentalist Goes To Science Museum To ‘Audit’ Its Liberal Bias, Makes Ass Of Self VIDEO.

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Dawkins’ new book

Richard Dawkins’ latest book is due out next September. The title – Childhood, Boyhood, Truth: From an African Youth to The Selfish Gene

It’s yet a new genre for Dawkins – autobiography. Mind you he has reached the age where people do tend to write memoirs and autobiographies.

Richard says  this book covers his life up to the  writing of The Selfish Gene.  There will be a second volume, published in 2015, covering the second half of his life.

I have enjoyed his other books and am looking forward to this one – especially as I have a special interest in scientific biography.

These two volumes will be a good read – he is an excellent writer and has had an interesting life, scientifically.

I wonder if it will get the same sort of emotional attacks his earlier books received?

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Talking sense about morality

Here’s a great blog post by Jerry Coyne outlining a scientific approach to morality (see How should we be moral?: Three papers and a good book) it gives a summary of his current ideas and a reading list of papers and a book which have influenced him.

I go along with Jerry’s conclusions but I would add a couple of things  to his summary:

  1. I agree that there is no such thing a objective morality – but let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. I think we can show an objective basis for morality. We can understand how some of our values have an objective basis (others may not) and this is important in our evaluation of moral codes.
  2. I think we should extend our understanding of an instinctual morality model (as opposed to a rational one) beyond the simple proposition of an evolutionary origins of our instincts. We need to see that the instincts or intuitions driving our moral feelings or emotions can also develop, or evolve, via cultural mechanisms. I think this is important to understanding of the moral zeitgeist, the way that our moral codes tend to change over time.

An objective basis for morality?

There is a difference between objective morality – which implies some sort of moral truth existing independently of humanity – and objectively based morality. This latter implies that there is a basis for our morality – the nature of our species – which means that we generally come to the same moral conclusions. Our morality is not just a matter of personal choice.

I see the simplest basis of morality in the simple facts of life itself. Living organisms, even the most primitive, have the property of valuing life and its continuation. Without this basic biological value such organisms would not survive and reproduce. Just imagine a simple organism which ignored indications of nutrients in its environment and had no ability, or “desire,” to reproduce. Natural selection would soon have put paid to it.

While initial organisms may have had simple physical and chemical mechanisms putting biological value into effect evolution eventually led to development of neuronal structures and brains. Biological value could be expressed as instincts and emotions.

Evolution of social animals provided requirements for a finer structure to biological value. The interactions between organisms became more important and this finer structure became represented in the instincts and emotions of social animals – including humans.

Long story short – I see an objective basis for human morality in human nature itself. The fact that we are a sentient, intelligent, conscious, social and empathetic species.

Hijacking human instinct

Of course, there is not necessarily a direct line between our evolved instincts, objectively based in biological and social value, and the morality we profess.  Jonathan Haidt described his useful theory of foundational moral values in his recent book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (see my review in Human morality is evolving). While some of our moral codes related to life, care, harm and well-being are related to foundational human values involved with life and its survival – biological and social value – others are not. Or at least they are driven by instincts which have been hijacked. For example instincts of purity may well be related to survival and life, but moral codes related to sacredness, racial superiority and religious purity (unrelated to life and survival) rely on the hijacking of such instincts.

So while I assert that there is an objective basis for some of our morality – especially that related to life, care, harm and well-being –  some of our morality may well not have a genuine objective basis, even though it utilises basic human instincts.

Moral learning and moral zeitgeist

A simple instinctive model of morality, relying on evolved instincts and not conscious deliberation, really doesn’t explain how and why human morality changes. It doesn’t explain the moral zeitgeist.

I think it’s necessary to include both rational consideration as well as instinctive, emotional reaction, to explain this. As Jerry said, our “instinctive judgments are largely a product of evolution.” But it doesn’t stop there. Our intuitions, and hence our emotions, are produced unconsciously, without delineation, but over time they are influenced by our conscious deliberation and learning.

When we learn to ride a bike, or even to walk as a toddler, our actions are deliberate. We consciously consider them and put them into effect. But with learning these actions no longer need conscious deliberation. They are incorporated into our unconscious brain and carried out automatically. Just as well – imagine that adults had to continue all the conscious activity the toddler uses when they start walking. With all the inevitable conscious mistakes. Just imagine grown-ups walking along the footpath, but every so often falling on their backside like a toddler! Because the process of walking had not been learned and incorporated into their unconscious.

I argue, that the conscious moral deliberations of individuals and society produce the same sort of learning. These deliberation may be active – as, for example, our current discussion of marriage equality. Or the learning could be almost passive. Exposure to our culture. I think many people have unconsciously shifted their attitudes towards working mothers, racial integration and homosexuals because of their exposure to TV shows, books, and life itself, where these modern moral attitudes are accepted.

Incorporation of this moral learning into our subconscious means that  homosexuality, for example, no longer automatically provokes our instincts of purity and disgust. Or meeting an atheist no longer causes us to react out of disgust or respect for authority.

So while our day-to-day moral functioning relies on these intuitional reactions and not logical consideration, these unconscious intuitional reactions have been modified by our learning and exposure to cultural changes.

Moral progress?

On the one hand, that moral attitudes related to care, life, harm and well-being can have an objective basis in biological value, in the very nature of life, means we have ways – both emotional and logical – at arriving at common agreement on what is “right” and “wrong.” On the other hand, although our morality is instinctive or intuitional and not rational (at least in common day-to-day activity) the deliberate intellectual consideration of moral issues, as well as our passive exposure to a culture which is changing because of that deliberate consideration, means that we are capable of moral learning. Of adjusting our automatic moral reactions over time. Of making moral progress.

And I think we can conclude that this has happened on issues such as human rights and discrimination – even if not uniformly and evenly.

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Does religion blur understanding of evolution?

Victor Stenger has a short, but important, blog post in the Huffington Post. Appropriately (because it’s about evolutionary science) dated February 12 – Darwin Day, 204th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth.

Stenger’s article, No Belief Gap, considers Gallup Poll data on the numbers of American who accept evolutionary science and who believe in a god. But in contrast to some commentators, he differentiates between those who see evolution as guided by their god or as a so-called “naturalistic” process – defined in the polls as: “Man has developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life [and] God had no part in the process.”

This is, of course, what we mean by evolutionary science. Guidance by gods, goblins, elves or whatever is not part of that science. (Nor is it currently part of any other science). The distinction is important and it is no accident that some religious apologists like Alvin Plantinga  misrepresent the issue and are trying to create the impression that “divine” guidance is an essential part of evolutionary science (see Naturalism and science are incompatible).

Stenger finds of those accepting a proper definition of evolutionary science:

“This is exactly the same percentage of Americans who declare themselves unaffiliated with any religion.

“It may be that the only Americans who accept naturalist evolution are those who do not participate in any organized religion.”

His last comment:

“Virtually all Christians who accept that species evolve, contrary to the Bible that they believe is the word of God, think evolution is God-guided. This is not Darwinian evolution. God-guided evolution is intelligent design creationism. How many American Christians believe in evolution, as it is understood by science? The data indicate none.”

Could we draw the same conclusion about New Zealand Christians? I would be interested to see similar poll data for our country.

See also: A specious argument for the comity of evolution and faith

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Wonders of Life coming – we hope

Readers of the New Zealand Listener will probably have read the recent interview with Professor Brian Cox (see Interview: Brian Cox). It’s good to see such interviews down in this part of the world – just hope we get to see some of the science TV programmes Brian Cox is currently fronting. (He was a regular on TV7 which we have unfortunately lost this year)

Anyway – here’s hoping we will get to see his new programme Wonders of Life. Eric Idle has rewritten one of his best known songs for the programme – an evolutionary version of the “Galaxy Song” from the Monty Python film The Meaning of Life.

Here’s a promo for the programme which includes the song.

Wonders of Life Trailer – BBC Two

Thanks to Why Evolution is True: Wonders of Life by Brian Cox – with added Eric Idle.

Coming up:

An article by Brian Cox and his collaborator Robin Ince* seems to have provoked some controversy in the UK. In particular, some science historians and sociologists have got on their high horses. I will discuss the issues in an upcoming post Historians and sociologists lecture scientists –  about science.

(Cox and Ince current produce a science comedy podcast for the BBC – The Infinite Monkey Cage. Have a listen if you enjoy both science and comedy).

Sex, Death And The Meaning Of Life. Episode 3: Meaning

This is the third and last video in the series Sex, Death And The Meaning Of Life. It’s about “meaning.”

Richard Dawkins sets out to answer the question he often gets asked - “How do you get up in the morning?”

Sex, Death And The Meaning Of Life Episode 3.

Another laid-back coverage by Dawkins. He gives plenty of space to the religious attempts to find meaning but is personally not convinced. I find his own description of meaning in understanding and observing reality, experiencing human art and culture, and appreciating the awe provided by our surroundings, far more attractive.

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Death – part 2 of a series

Here’s the second episode in the series Sex, Death and the Meaning of life – fronted by “everyone’s favourite Strident Atheist.” See Sex, Death And The Meaning Of Life – Sin for Part 1

It’s another laid back, non-threatening presentation of an important issue. A chance to consider different religious/philosophical approaches and to also learn some science.

Sex, Death And The Meaning Of Life Episode 2.

For such an evil atheist Dawkins seems to spend a lot of time in cemeteries and churches. Seems quite at home there.

The 3rd and final episode on The Meaning of Life screens in the UK next week.

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From evolution to belief

How reliable do you think your cognitive facilities are? Your eyes, ears, etc? Your brain,  memory and mental processes? According to philosopher of religion Alvin Plantinga, not very good. He asserts any belief you form using these facilities is as likely to be untrue as it is to be true. “A probability of 0.5″ he says – like a magician pulling a rabbit out of hat.

But it gets worse. For some reason he thinks your beliefs are formed randomly – so “If I have one thousand independent beliefs, for example, the probability (under these conditions) that three quarters or more of these beliefs are true will be less than 10–58.” When he considers only 100 independent beliefs “the probability that three-quarters of them are true, given that the probability of any one’s being true is one half, is very low, something like .000001.”

So, you wonder – how the hell do you get by? You are in the middle of the road, a bus is speeding towards you, but the chance of your cognitive facilities leading you to believe you are in danger is minuscule. You are just as likely to belief you are having a pleasant bath – or a gazillion other things.

Guided evolution

That doesn’t sound right, does it? Something is fishy here. Surely natural selection will have weeded out organisms which had such poor cognitive facilities millions of years ago. Well, according to Plantinga, no! Unless evolution was guided by his god! He just thinks that unguided evolution is incapable of producing reliable cognitive facilities. In fact, he claims evolutionary science supports him saying: “The scientific theory of evolution just as such is entirely compatible with the thought that God has guided and orchestrated the course of evolution, planned and directed it, in such a way as to achieve the ends he intends.”

He argues that unguided evolution is “prohibitively improbable.” Not surprising to see that he has a soft spot for Michael Behe‘s irreducible complexity argument against evolutionary science (and for “intelligent design”). Plantinga’s recent book ( Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism) is full of theological pretzel twisting, motivated logic, unsupported logical possibilities, probability assumptions, cherry-picked quotations, and bald statements supporting his claims. But, unhappily for many of this theological supporters, he is also very careful to include qualifications for almost all his claims and arguments. This gives him deniability, wriggle room, but makes it difficult for his supporters to find supporting evidence for his claims.

Here I will deal with just his claim that evolution via inherited variation and natural section is incapable of producing reliable cognitive facilities. Even here he claims he is not arguing: “that unguided evolution could not produce creatures with reliable belief-producing faculties; I very much doubt that it could, but that it couldn’t is neither a premise nor the conclusion of my argument.”

Still, that is exactly what he does argue. He says “it is improbable, given naturalism and evolution, that our cognitive faculties are reliable.” That his god “could have brought it about that our cognitive faculties evolve by natural selection, and evolve in such a way that it is natural for us to form beliefs about the supernatural in general and God himself in particular.” “that God has created us in such a way that we come to know him; and the function of the cognitive processes, whatever they are, that ordinarily produce belief in God in us is to provide us with true belief.” And “According to John Calvin, God has created us with a “sensus divinitatis,” a natural tendency to form belief in God.”

So you can see where he is going with this. Belief in a god seems to be an indicator that your cognitive system is working well, whereas non-belief shows its not! You atheists have something missing from your brain.

Naive survival argument

Plantinga’s argument centres on a naive interpretation of natural selection:

“We might think that our evolutionary origin guarantees or strongly supports the thought that our basic cognitive faculties are reliable: if they weren’t, how could we have survived and reproduced? But this is clearly an error,  . . . . . Natural selection is interested in adaptive behavior, behavior that conduces to survival and reproduction; it has no interest in our having true beliefs.”

And his followers see that as a key premise in his argument.

However, if a particular inheritable variation is selected because it aids survival or increases number of offspring this does not prevent that particular variation contributing to the life of the organism in other ways.  A cat’s paw enables it to move, to pursue prey and avoid predators but this in no way prevent cats from using their paws in grooming.

We can understand how selected variations in our ancestors perception organs, brains, and the rest of their body, would have had survival and reproduction values.  Tool-making abilities, a thickened pre-frontal cortex, language abilities, self-reflection and recall of memories would have contributed greatly to the natural selection of our ancestors.

But once selected, not only did our ancestors become more social, more able to communicate and more able to change their environment with the tools they created. They also were able to use their perception and cognitive faculties in a more advanced way. To formulate more detailed pictures of their environment and to check out the accuracy of those ideas or beliefs. And to pass on this knowledge to their offspring.

It is just overwhelmingly naive not to recognise the wider implications of variations selected by the evolutionary process beyond survival and reproduction. And it is dishonest to cherry-pick, as Plantinga does, quotes from evolutionary scientists and philosophers which stress the role of survival and reproduction in natural selection as if there were no other consequences for the evolution of the selected organisms.

Why is it so hard to see the natural selection of intelligence in our ancestors has lead to huge technological and cultural changes quite above and beyond its value for survival and reproduction? Why should Plantinga accept that unguided evolution can lead to intelligence for its value in survival and reproduction but drag in the concept of guided evolution by his god to explain the resulting cultural, technological and social changes?

Reliability of cognitive facilities – something more than chance.

I find weird Plantinga’s idea that guidance of evolution by his god is necessary for our cognitive faculties to produce reliable results. Even weirder that in the absence of such guidance natural selection would produce cognitive faculties which caused us to adopt beliefs completely randomly. Surely such faulty cognitive faculties would have been selected against? And those organisms whose cognitive faculties produced a sufficiently reliable picture of reality (or belief) to enable survival and reproduction would have been selected for.

Plantinga confuses his argument by steadfastly referring to “belief” and “true belief” whereas the day-to-day life of an organism requires (usually unconscious) perception or knowledge of its environment and reaction to what it perceives. In effect, the organism, and particularly a species like humans, is continually forming a mental image or model of its environment. The accuracy of this model relies on the abilities of the perception organs, the unconscious aggregation of perceptions and memories to form a mental image and the amount of conscious deliberation. We can be sure that this knowledge never amounts to a completely accurate model of reality. All sorts of practical assumptions are made for the sake of efficiency. And animals like us are just not able to perceive bacteria and molecules, let alone atoms or subatomic particles.

So our mental model of reality will always be imperfect. It can never be identified with Plantinga’s “true belief.” But it is good enough for what we are doing – surviving, reproducing, making tools, telling stories, formulating theories, etc. And we quite naturally pay special attention when we need to fill out details. Or we can resort to tools and instruments which aid our perceptions.

If natural selection working on genetic variation has produced animals capable of surviving and reproducing by using their perception organs, intelligence, memory and imagination why should it be impossible (as Plantinga claims) for such animals to form “belief”, or knowledge about reality, which, for all practical purposes, can be considered “true?” Why does he claim guidance by his god is necessary?

Theistic evolution?

When I hear this term “theistic evolution” used I never know what is intended. At one end it could just be that a person who claims to believe in theistic evolution is only saying they accept evolutionary science, while at the same time they are a Christian. Perhaps its just a way of avoiding criticism from their fellow church members. An assurance that their acceptance of evolutionary science does not signal rejection of their faith.

The adjective “theistic” is actually unnecessary – except for social purposes. One could equally say they believed in “theistic gravity,” “theistic chemical reactions,” etc. Sounds silly – but I guess social pressure produces silly conventions and scientifically meaningless terms.

At the other end of the spectrum I think the person is actually claiming a belief similar to Plantinga’s. That evolution is actually impossible without divine interference, specifically guidance from their god. They may imagine that their god actually fiddles with the atoms in an organism’s DNA, or aids selection with a flood, collision of an asteroid or a volcanic eruption or two. Even, as some of these people claim, the divine injection of determinism into quantum indeterminacy

Of course, people who claim such guidance is required for evolution to work just don’t accept the current scientific understanding of the evolutionary process which is very much unguided (except through the natural selection process). If adherents of “theistic evolution” mean this, something like Plantinga’s “evolution” then they don’t accept evolutionary science.

And that’s why I just don’t like the term “theistic evolution” and am always suspicious of people who describe themselves that way.

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The prejudiced journalist

The media interview is sometimes problematic for the scientist. There’s all the problems of getting one’s message across in a way that the public can appreciate and in the allotted time span provided by news bites.

But one problem that really annoys me is the motivated, or dogmatic, journalist. You know, the one who has an ideologically motivated picture of your science, has probably already written the headline and conclusions, and is just trying to get quotes to fit their prejudices.


Dr. Maggie Turnbull – a freelance Astrobiologist

In this respect I have mentioned Suzan Mazur before (see Self-exposure – a journalist out of depth and  Suzan does a mini- Monckton). Well she has surfaced again, and again the creationist/intelligent design echo chamber have latched on to her. They are making a lot of her interview of Dr. Maggie Turnbull,  a freelance Astrobiologist who does some contract work for NASA (see Is Life an “Artificial Category”? for the interview and At NASA, Another Crack in the Darwin Consensus? for the misrepresentation of the interview).

Turnbull’s answers are relatively common sense and straight froward – but some of Mazur’s questions are real woozies. She is so clearly trying hard to generate responses she can quote to undermine evolutionary science, and science in general. Here are some examples:

Suzan Mazur:You’ve indicated that the laws of life are being drawn too narrowly, saying you “mentally resist” defining the parameters of life because so far we only have one example of it — life on Earth. You’ve also said that “as scientists we always want to categorize everything, but is it possible that it’s just a continuum of a one-based system?” Would you expand on those comments?

Maggie Turnbull: It’s a very human tendency to want to put things in categories: This is alive and this other thing is not alive. But those categories are artificial. The Universe does not know anything about those categories.

We want to be thinking in terms of a continuum. That continuum can be along whatever parameter — different behaviors, different relationships with other parts of the system. But defining life as a category — as something in a box and whatever is outside the box is non-life — will continue to produce exceptions.

By some definitions, a human would not even be considered to be alive. If only one human were in a box in space, there’d be no way that human could reproduce. A single human would in that instance not fully qualify as a life form.

Even though categorizing things according to specific characteristics is useful for organizing human thought, it will never allow us to describe the whole system. We need to get over our obsession with defining things as living and non-living.

Suzan Mazur: NASA’s official definition for life is no longer still limited to “a self-sustained chemical system capable of undergoing Darwinian evolution,” is it?

Maggie Turnbull:
All I can say is, if NASA has an official definition of life, I don’t agree with it, and neither does life.

Suzan Mazur:
Would you know if NASA is still financing and otherwise supporting research pegged to the Darwinian model?

Maggie Turnbull:
I don’t know exactly what you mean by “pegged to the Darwinian model.” NASA supports research in genetics and in mechanisms that allow for survival in extreme conditions.

It’s really all about our collective desire to investigate things and the technology catching up as well as our understanding of how the Universe works. Scientists in many ways are their own worst enemies. There’s so much disagreement in the scientific community because of all the objectives being pursued simultaneously. Often the result is a loss of focus. Scientists end up rehashing the same questions and the mission disappears.

For example, the mission concept I’ve been developing the past few years is one where most of the technologies are now available and it’s a matter of organizing those technologies to demonstrate that they can be effective in combination to observe Earth-like planets around nearby stars. Not far-away stars like with Kepler, but the stars you can see with your naked eye. In order to do that we need a more collective agreement that we’re going to invest in such a mission.

Suzan Mazur: Funding of origin of life research is increasingly a contentious issue because there’s a schism between the neo-Darwinists on one side and on the other many of the evo-devo scientists, symbiogeneticists, geologists, mechanical engineers, natural scientists, cognitive scientists, linguists and others. Would you comment?

Maggie Turnbull:
I don’t know much about it. I’m really an astronomer at heart. My focus is on the stars. I have very simple objectives when it comes to finding habitable planets and whatever the biologists want to say about the evolution of life is fine with me. At the end of the day though nothing matters until we find it.

Suzan Mazur:
Until we find what?

Maggie Turnbull: Until we find life on another planet.

Suzan Mazur:
So you don’t think that much about origin of life issues.

Maggie Turnbull: I think about origin of life, but personally I’m more interested in exploring other environments and finding out whether there are life form systems there. Evolutionary biologists would get a lot out of that search as well. I’m looking for the variety of life in the Universe.

Suzan Mazur: How much of science would you say is social momentum, i.e., not objective?

Maggie Turnbull: I would say a lot of it is social momentum because science is about a community of thinkers. By thinkers I mean scientists as well as non-scientists. Because when the American public is keenly interested in something, it is much easier for Congress to make the case for funding it. What scientists want, however, often does not concur with what the public wants. I don’t mean to be harsh in saying this, but the truth is that when scientists want to do what they want to do, they try to sell it as something the public should care about.

It takes so long to get a PhD and to build a career in science. Once that’s achieved, a scientist is hemmed-in as far as what they’re expert at and able to work on. A scientist can’t easily reorient their research just because the American public wants to study something else. So scientists try to persuade Congress to pay for the research they want because that’s what they know how to do. Scientific progress thus is 99% a wait for consensus.

Currently the Discovery Institute (intelligent design headquarters) is working hard to spread these questions and answers through their creationist internet silo. But you have to wonder why – because Suzan Mazur does tend to discredit herself with her questions, doesn’t she?

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Human morality is evolving

I want to give some of my final thoughts on   Jonathan Haidt‘s book – The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. In Morality and the “worship” of reason my interim judgement (after reading one third of the book) was favourable – but I had concerns. Now, having finished the book, my judgement overall is very critical. I don’t think it’s a book I can truly recommend (except for the first third).

Partly because I feel Haidt really uses the later parts of the book to promote his own hobby horses – prejudices about atheism (or the “New Atheists” – whoever they are), political ideology and the role of religion in morality and society. But also because his scientific analysis of human morality was too reductionist – in a bad way.

Why badly reductionist?

Throughout the book I was acutely aware Haidt’s analysis was of human morality – as it exists. To his credit, as it exists in several different societies. To me its important philosophically to study things in their environments.

But the big mistake was to study human morality as a static phenomenon – he didn’t investigate it in its development, as a constantly changing, evolving thing. (Again I think the investigation of things in their development is philosophically important).

The fact is human morality in most cultures is evolving. And there are huge factors in today’s world which make this inevitable, probably even escalate moral evolution.

A role for reason in moral evolution?

So yes it is useful for Haidt to draw out two principles in his book:

1: Morality is about emotions, not rationality. Our emotions enable us to react quickly in moral situations and our intelligence enables us to “explain” why after the fact. Haidt’s slogan is “Intuition comes first, strategic reasoning second.”

2: His second slogan is “There’s more to to morality than harm and fairness.” He describes six different foundations underlying human morality:

  • Care/Harm;
  • Liberty/oppression;
  • Fairness/cheating;
  • Loyalty/betrayal;
  • Authority/subversion;
  • Sanctity/degradation.

But he does little to elucidate the role of intelligence and reason in moral change and evolution. He limits this to only the possible education of one person by interacting with another (and hence inhibiting somewhat our inbuilt desire to rationalise rather than reason properly). But ignores the much wider role of society in general, especially in today’s world of modern communication and entertainment, mass entertainment, the internet, etc.

Also, in concentrating on the six different intuitive or instinctive foundations of human morality – as it exists - he does not investigate the relative roles of these intuitions, and their resultant human values, in the evolution of human morality and laws.

How do we change human morality?

Obviously this is not simple. Nor is it always, everywhere, and for everyone a rational process. A result of reasoning, discussion and democratic decision.

But, despite all these other factors we should recognise that reasoning, rational discussion and democratic decisions are involved. Look back over your own life time. In my case I have seen huge evolution in aspects of human morality like attitudes towards discrimination – racial, gender and even species. For the average person in the street these changes may have occurred subconsciously – because of changes in social acceptance of women and gays, of interracial marriage, etc., or because they were habituated to a new morality by what they saw on TV or read in books. But this was also accompanied by the intelligent debate that occurred, and is occurring in society. The challenging of old prejudices. The argument for recognition of human rights, etc. Even the passing of anti-discrimination laws – which of course require intelligent discussion and decision.

So while a static view of human morality must emphasise that emotion comes first, rationalisation after, when we look at the evolution of human morality in today’s society we must recognise an important role for reason, intelligent discussion and decisions.  So, I think there is a lot of value in Haidt’s metaphor comparing our subconscious feelings and emotions to an elephant -(which usually goes its own way) and our conscious and intelligent reasoning to its driver (who thinks he is in control). But using that metaphor there are times when those drivers can educate the elephant. Train it out of old habits and into new ones.

What role for Haidt’s moral foundation theory?

And what role do the six foundations of morality Haidt identifies play in the the evolution of human morality. Well of course they operate at the non-conscious, non-reasoning, emotional level – and continue to. But when it comes to intelligent collective discussion and deliberation of moral issues I don’t think they have the same importance.

Yes, citizens of a specific nation may argue for recognition of authority, loyalty and purity when it comes to discussing laws and acceptable behaviour regarding oaths, respect for the national flag, etc. But in a modern, pluralist society such foundations will not play the same role when consider laws and behaviour on blasphemy, defamation of religion, genital mutilation, freedom of speech, freedom of association, marriage equality, gender equality, discrimination, rights of individuals, etc. When we come to applying reasoning and rational discussion to human issues the values based on the foundation of harm and care will be dominant.

That’s not to say the values based on purity, authority, sacredness, etc., won’t be involved. Just that in a modern pluralist democratic society these cannot play a controlling role. Partly this is just a fact of the way democracy must work in a pluralist society. Minorities should not get the freedom to override and dominate majorities. But it is also based on the reality that there is actually a more objective basis for the foundations of harm and care than there is for the other foundations. That objective basis is fundamental to biological life (how could it be otherwise – life would not have survived and evolved without these objective biological values).

Looked at this way – seeing human morality in its development and not as a static phenomenon – leads, I think, to quite different conclusions to those drawn by Haidt. He sees liberals as being at a disadvantage because they give more relevance to the foundations of care/harm, Liberty/oppression and fairness/cheating than conservatives who actually include, and give similar emphasis to the other foundations (loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion and sanctity/degradation). He argues that therefore conservative understand human morality better than liberals and politically they communicate better with others.

But I see conservatives as playing an undermining role in the development, evolution, of human morality because they are actually less concerned with the values based on care/harm liberty/oppression and fairness/cheating than on those values which are in fact secondary, do not have an objective basis, which are based on loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion and sanctity/degradation.   And I suggest that if we look back over our own lifetimes we can see that in fact political conservative have generally not lead movements for moral progress. They have worked to undermine moral progress by appealing to those secondary, less basic, foundations.

Atheists who promote religion?

It turns out that Haidt is another one of these atheists who actually see a positive role for religion and therefore are hostile to the so-called “New Atheists’ and others critical of the role of relgion in today’s society. They wish these “strident,” and “militant” atheists would STFU – because they feel such criticism undermines the very foundation of social cohesiveness and human morality.

Haidt uses (opportunistically and unthinkingly I think) a model of group selection to justify a determining role for religion in preserving society. Let the evolutionary biologists take him to task over that one. But it enables him to advance the slogan “Morality binds and blinds,” to substitute religion for morality as a force which provides our social glue and leadership.

He expresses it this way:

“Religions are moral exoskeletons. If you live in a religious community, you are meshed in a set of norms, relationships, and institutions that work primarilty on the elephant to influence your behaviour. But if you are an atheist living in a looser community with a less binding moral matrix, you might have to rely somewhat more on an internal moral compass, read by the rider. …… When societies lose their grip on individuals, allowing all to do as they please, the result is often a decrease in happiness and an increase in suicide . …”

And he warns atheists:

“Societies that forgo the exoskeleton of religion should reflect carefully on what will happen to them over several generations. We don’t really know, because the first atheistic societies have only emerged in Europe in the last decades. They are the least efficient societies ever known at turning resources (of which they have a lot) into offspring (of which they have few).”

Again, let those who are concerned about the populations explosion, limited resources and ecological damage to our environment deal with that last sentence. But, personally I think his approach is cowardly and unrealistic (as well as unjustifiable righteous).

Cowardly because it expresses fear about the changes in human morality and moral understanding already underway. And unrealistic because it appeals to old institutions and beliefs to solve new problems in new situations. Yes, this does mean that more people will be appealing to their own inner moral compass – but when has development of a sense of moral autonomy been a bad thing.  And yes there will be, already are, new institutions and new communities. That is inevitable in a modern society with modern forms of communication and creation of communities. And modern understandings where appeal to supernatural guidance is far less effective.

Yes that does mean the old religious moral exoskeletons may disappear. But I don’t think moral exoskeletons in general will. In fact I think we are creating new ones all the time. And perhaps the much hated “New Atheists” are encouraging formation of these new exoskeletons by their activity.

Human society and human morality is not static. They will inevitably evolve. And our investigations of morality this should recognise this evolution.

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