On God, Darwin, Morality and Muehlenberg.

I’m a sucker for punishment.  I just can’t help but swing by CultureWatch every so often to see what the King of Religious Right Rhetoric is coming up with.  In a recent piece entitled On God, Darwin and Morality, Muehlenberg gets fired up about an article by Steven Pinker published in The Age.

He begins:

A recent article by Steven Pinker, reprinted in the Age last week, tried to explain morality from an evolutionary perspective. Steven Pinker is an evolutionary psychologist and an atheist. As an atheist, he is a philosophical naturalist and a materialist. Thus he believes that only the natural world exists, and that only matter matters.

As you can see, we’re not off to a good start.  You can tell that by informing his readers that Steven Pinker is an atheist/philosophical naturalist/materialist Muehlenberg is confident that anything said by Pinker won’t be given any serious consideration.  Furthermore, by the end of the first paragraph he’s given us his first straw-man.  He accuses Pinker (as he does of all atheists) of believing that “only matter matters”.  Well, I’m an atheist, and I don’t believe this.  I’ve never encountered an atheist who does believe this.  It’s nothing other than a pathetic smear against atheists in an attempt to paint them as hollow, indifferent and uncaring.

It is hard in such a scheme of things to argue for something manifestly outside of the natural order.
Yet he tries to do this in suggesting that moral realism might be true. Moral realism is the idea that real objective morality exists.

Pinker does not suggest that moral realism exists outside of nature.  This is what he actually says:

Steven Pinker: An option is that moral truths exist in some abstract Platonic realm, there for us to discover, perhaps in the way that mathematical truths (according to most mathematicians) are there to discover. Perhaps we are born with a rudimentary moral sense, and when we build on it with moral reasoning, the nature of moral reality forces us to some conclusions but not others.

Pinker suggests that perhaps moral truths exist in a similar fashion to mathematical truths.  Do mathematical truths exist ‘outside of the natural order’?  Back to Bill:

Now Christians happen to be moral realists. We believe in objective moral laws. But we ground those in God himself. God is a moral being, and moral law is simply a reflection of who he is.

What are these objective moral laws?  More importantly, how do you know they are in fact the right ones?  Muehlenberg can offer nothing in support of these claims other than more religious assertions: ‘God is morality’ or ‘God is goodness’.

[H]e suggests that some type of moral realism may have to be dragged into the picture. But the question remains: in an atheistic and naturalistic worldview, how can one even speak of an objective morality? Right and wrong are not material things, and should not even exist in a Darwinian world.

The more consistent Darwinists, such as Dawkins, simply concede the point: there is no such thing as right and wrong. As Dawkins put it in River Out of Eden, “In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”

That Dawkins’ description of the observable universe isn’t a comforting one does not make it any less accurate.  And of course, if you were to ask him about human societies, he’d describe them in very different terms indeed.

Yet Pinker and other Darwinists speak of “reciprocal altruism,” the idea that we do “good” things in order to help our survival chances. Thus the survival of the fittest mentality is dragged in here to explain even altruism. Yet as Dinesh D’Sousa points out, reciprocal altruism is simply “the equivalent of ‘I’ll be nice to you, so that you be nice to me’.” He is worth quoting at length in this regard:

“The problem is that this entire framework of Darwinian analysis does not even come close to explaining morality.  It confines itself to explaining altruism, but it only succeeds in what may be termed ‘low altruism.’ But humans also engage in ‘high altruism,’ which may be defined as behavior that confers no reciprocal or genetic advantage.  A man stands up to give his seat on a bus to an old lady.  She is nothing to him, and he is certainly not thinking that there may be a future occasion when she or someone else will give him a seat.  He gives up his seat because he is a nice guy. There is no Darwinian rationale that can account for his behavior.”

Sorry, but try as they might, materialists and hard-core Darwinists simply cannot properly account for real altruism.

Muehlenberg must be hoping that his readers won’t read Pinkers’ article for themselves or he completely missed/ignored the following:

Steven Pinker: “Selfish” genes are perfectly compatible with selfless organisms, because a gene’s metaphorical goal of selfishly replicating itself can be implemented by wiring the brain of the organism to do unselfish acts, such as being nice to relatives or doing good deeds for strangers.

Nor does reciprocal altruism — the evolutionary rationale behind fairness — imply that people do good deeds in the cynical expectation of repayment. In a classic 1971 article, biologist Robert Trivers showed how natural selection could push in the direction of true selflessness. The emergence of tit-for-tat reciprocity, which lets organisms trade favours without being cheated, is just a first step.

Since it’s good to be chosen as a recipient of favours, competition arises to appear to be the most generous — a reputation for fairness and generosity becomes an asset.

Bill continues:

Of course their reply is simply, “Yes, we may not have an answer now, but eventually we will have one”. This is really a type of “atheism of the gaps”.

“Atheism of the gaps”!? This is almost as good as his “Fundamentalist secular theocracies” phrase.  What complete nonsense.  Scientists (or atheists) do not point to gaps in human knowledge as evidence of atheism.

Atheists accuse believers of using a “God of the Gaps” fallback when they have something they cannot explain. They claim that when science cannot explain something, believers smuggle God into the picture. Yet this is just what the atheists are doing here. When they have no clear scientific explanation for something (often for something which is actually outside the realm of scientific investigation in the first place), they just say, give us enough time, and we will cough up a good evolutionary and naturalistic explanation.

What’s a more intellectually respectable position concerning gaps in human knowledge?  “We don’t know, but we’re going to do our best to find out.” or “God did it”?

Charles Colson also picked up on the Pinker piece when it first appeared in the New York Times. Colson argues that the naturalistic worldview “leads Pinker, like other Darwinians, to redefine altruism and fairness as little more than enlightened ‘self-interest.’ We are generous toward others because evolution has ‘taught’ us that this is the best way to ensure their generosity toward us. What we call ‘fairness’ is really an unwritten pact not to cheat each other and, thus, promote social harmony and community.”

That there is a natural explanation for altruistic behaviour does not in any way render it less meaningful to us.  We can see the benefits of altruism in that it makes for a more pleasant and harmonious society in which to live.  If human emotions are ever fully understood in terms of brain chemistry would that make the feeling of say, love, any less significant? No.

He continues, “The problem with these superficially plausible explanations is that real human beings, as opposed to theoretical ones, do not live this way. If altruism is ‘hardwired,’ many people are poorly wired, indeed: They are stingy and cheat their neighbors with regularity. Other people are profoundly generous, not only to their friends and family, but also to complete strangers. They are willing to make do with less and even go without, to help others in need. And they would much rather suffer an injustice than commit one.”

And of course Pinker hasn’t suggested that levels of altruism within humans is universal.  Humans have a tendency to be altruistic. That doesn’t mean we’ll be altruistic all the time.

Indeed, the biblical account is the best explanation for good and evil. Being made in God’s image explains why we want to act altruistically. But the doctrine of the Fall explains why we usually don’t.

Of course.  Several thousand years ago someone was tricked into eating an apple of the wrong tree by a talking snake, and that’s why people are bad sometimes.  That’s why there are tsunamis, hurricanes and earthquakes  That explains ebola, malaria and cancer.  It is the “best explanation”.

How could you ever hope to engage in a constructive conversation with someone who believes such nonsense?


~ by Sammy Jankis on February 25, 2008.

4 Responses to “On God, Darwin, Morality and Muehlenberg.”

  1. Oh geez. I’ve stopped reading.

    “The more consistent Darwinists, such as Dawkins, simply concede the point: there is no such thing as right and wrong.”

    Dawkins has;

    A) Never said this (the quote that followed didn’t even support the notion when taken out of context!) and…
    B) Contradicted it (such as in stating that he thinks there is such a thing as evil but not as a supernatural force and in arguing against social Darwinism.)

    Bill has also surreptitiously slipped in the “Social Darwinist” straw man in above quote as well. For the record, The Devil’s Chaplain contains Dawkins’ argument against social Darwinism.

    Bill should seriously consider actually reading someone he critiques, but then I guess that would make it harder to be dishonest.

    If I can stop mentally vomiting, I may take a crack at Muehlenberg for this one.

  2. Hey, I’m a materialist and I think morality exists- not as a platonic from, but the same way concepts such as good and bad exist. I don’t believe matter, er matters- only people do (and other thinking creatures- categories a bit wider now). Matter can’t feel pain- people can. It is the wonder of complexity.

  3. Ahhh! But Bill doesn’t believe that you think that Sam, so you don’t, even if you do!

  4. Charles Colson also picked up on the Pinker piece when it first appeared in the New York Times. Colson argues that . . .

    Does Bill Muehlenberg ever have a thought of his own?

    And his notion of “objective morality”–“If I don’t observe x set of dogmas then God will punish me and send me to burn in the fires of Hell for ever and ever and ever and ever and ever amen”–is sheer Kohlberg Stage 1. When fundies like Bill ever decide to rise above their kindergarten approach to moral reasoning, I might consider listening to them.

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