Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Morality, Science, and Intelligent Design: New Essay on Religion Dispatches

A new article of mine--"Does NIH Head Francis Collins Believe in Intelligent Design?"--has been published in Religion Dispatches.

One commenter ("ortcutt") makes explicit the distinction that is implicitly at work in the article, between moral psychology and meta-ethics. I eschewed this terminology in writing the piece, since I thought my points could be made without introducing those technical terms from my discipline. However, the distinction is helpful and important. Put briefly, meta-ethics pertains to the nature of moral claims and their truth-conditions (if indeed they have a truth value), while moral psychology pertains to our moral motivations and their origins.

In these terms, my article can be summarized as follows: Paul Bloom takes it that when Francis Collins appeals to morality in making his case for God's existence, Collins is invoking an argument premised on beliefs about moral psychology. It is this way of reading Collins that allows Bloom to treat Collins' argument as an intelligent design argument, one that can be refuted by his own research into moral psychology.

But it is more plausible to see Collins' argument as premised on meta-ethical views. And while claims about moral psychology are generally subject to straightforward scientific investigation, meta-ethical claims are not (which isn't the same as saying that scientific discoveries would have no bearing whatever on meta-ethical disputes, but rather that scientific discoveries would have to be invoked as premises in fundamentally philosophical arguments if they're to help us answer meta-ethical questions).

Collins himself may not have been as clear about this as he should have been. Not being a philosopher, he doesn't draw the distinction and sometimes speaks as if his argument is rooted in moral psychology. But when you look at the larger thrust of his arguments, his claims about moral psychology are (it seems to me) best seen as corollaries to his "meta-ethical case for God": If we take it that there are objective moral truths best explained by appeal to God's existence, then we are moving towards a worldview in which the motives for heroic moral actions admit of a layer of explanation above and beyond (not incompatible with) the one that science provides. And this added layer of explanation gives such actions a significance that resonates with Collins.

When understood as an argument for God's existence based on meta-ethical views, Collins' case remains highly controversial. Some naturalists deny the meta-ethical view that moral utterances have a truth value at all (that is, they're "noncognitivists" about ethics); others accept that they have a truth value but deny that moral utterances are "objectively" true; while still others accept that moral utterances have an objective truth value but deny that we have to invoke God or anything supernatural to explain what makes true moral claims objectively true. For arguments like the one Collins invokes to work, all of these naturalist counter-moves need to be answered.

A number of theistically-inclined moral philosophers have attempted to do so in various ways, and continue to refine and develop their arguments in the light of trenchant criticism from naturalist philosophers who are making their own divergent cases for an ethics that does not invoke anything beyond the empirical world.

Collins--as head of the NIH--has other things to do.


  1. Hi, Eric-

    Let me respond to your RD piece ...

    "... but then to hold that there are advantages to seeing the whole natural world as the product of intelligent design—advantages that have nothing to do with the purported inadequacies of purely scientific theories."

    Hold on there.. a significant ingredient of the scientific argument is that its forces are clearly recognizable in the natural processes around us, which are truly random and blind. Mutations happen truly randomly, and selection is non-teleological, and unintelligent in many other ways. Now if you propose that an 'intelligence' is behind it all, it would have to be some deistic, inert intelligence, which for all its creativity in creating the mechanisms, has let them run on unmolested.

    As for the moral argument you make, let me get this straight. You propose something that is clearly false.. that some morals are 'true', such that you can say enslavement is 'false'. Then you invoke a deity in order to sponsor this bizarre model of reality, rather than just chalking it up, as you might, say, gravitation, to the way the universe works intrinsically. Now I know why theologians get paid so much money!

    It is the height of absurdity, and what is more, doesn't even address the critique, because if some moral 'truths' exist, then evolution would natually have incorporated them into our being, which it has in our sense of right and wrong, in our empathy, and many other ways ... end of story. The argument remains a design argument because it seeks to explain how we are designed, or how our design is close to some ideal, if not close enough. Francis Collins time and again cites our morality as something that could not have come from evolution, as far as I understand. It is not about the objective idea of morality, but our sense and practice of morality, if only in idealistic terms.

    "First, Collins consistently stresses—as he does again in the above passage, that he is not offering proofs. He does not intend to say that evolutionary theory just can’t account for Autrey’s actions, thus demanding God."

    This is disingenuous. He is clearly offering an argument citing part of our design or capability/behavior as contrary to his understanding of Darwinian natural selection, which is, I might add, defective. If he is not demanding god, he is being just as coy as the ID-ers in demanding something that is not evolution as scientifically understood.

    "In short, Collins consistently rejects the idea that there is a proof for God’s existence, offering instead reasons for belief of a more modest sort."

    Yes, you are correct here, in that Collins's core belief stems from other, and much less logical sources. But these compatibalist arguments amount to the same thing, demanding "something", even if its identity is left unspecified. Rationizing post-hoc is still rationalizing, and it would be splitting hairs to differentiate between "proof for" and "arguments for".

    "You might deny that the theistic way of seeing the world—the world that science describes—has any of the advantages over naturalistic worldviews."

    It is important to understand exactly what the advantage is. It is an advantage that has nothing whatsoever to do with explaining what is in the world. Its sole advantage is to rationalize a belief that has no positive support, but can, if attenuated sufficiently, be foisted onto reality as a sort ofrose-colored glass which (may) have beneficial psychological effects (or not), but are well known to have negative educational effects. One can be thankful that Collins came to this faith relatively late.

  2. "You propose something that is clearly false..."

    To show that "'enslavement is wrong' is an objective truth" to be clearly false, wouldn't you have to disprove the entirety of modern Kantian moral philosophy? I've yet to be convinced myself, but I'm certainly not prepared to disprove it. The burden is on you, I guess.

    And this is assuming Eric is even making that argument here. The article read more like he was referencing it as A) one possible counterexample to Bloom's false dichotomy (of what kinds of arguments can be reasonably made) -- not as B) an objective truth in itself.

    1. This is exactly right--about both points. While I have some affinity towards (some) moral arguments for God's existence, my efforts to wrestle through them largely has established for me that they will be convincing only granted matters that are a matter of ongoing controversy and which we are unlikely to settle any time soon. But such controversial disputes are best pursued , and insights most likely to be gained, when there are champions of the arguments and honest critics, and when the champions continually refine their thinking in the light of the best concerns of the honest critics. While I am interested in moral arguments for God, I have yet to rigorously adopt either role.

  3. By the way, Eric, what would you take as the most powerful proof of God's existence out of those that *don't* rely on a conception of the nature of morality?

    -- Jarod Scott

    1. I think the Leibniz-Clark version of the cosmological argument is particularly powerful--not as a proof for God's existence, but as showing that a reasonable person could, based on a reasonable starting point, take it that there is an essentially transcendent dimension to reality (something that transcends the world that science studies) which gives rise to the empirical reality with which we are immediately familiar.

      Also, my friend and co-author John Kronen is prevailing upon me to work with him on explicating an argument developed by the late 19th Century German philosopher Hermann Lotze--one that is based on the fact of interaction among things and the conditions under which such interaction is possible. The argument begins with showing that there is a puzzle here--a problem of making sense of the fact of interaction. I think Lotze is at the very least right about THAT: ordinary things that we take for granted are actually far more mysterious and perplexing than we recognize until we start trying to make sense of them.

  4. Hi, Anonymous-

    On this blog, yes, the burden is indeed on me. What about morality can you point to as objective? The only real argument is one from popularity- that the morals you like or regard as "objective" are shared by lots of people (excepting those in Syria right now). They have no other measure or weight. Or reality. They are like any other desire or judgement that has been adopted into a social convention, like bathing daily. Is that an objective thing, or a social convention, however popular?

    The fact that one feels deeply about some good or moral doesn't make it any more objective. In fact, it makes it less objective, and more subjective, if subjectivity has any meaning at all in your system. Is gravitation good? Or bad? No, it is merely objective.

    To Eric:
    I think the cosmological argument that you refer to fundamentally abuses the PSR. Positing PSR in no way grants us the insight into what that reason might be. It only recognizes ignorance when some phenomenon remains causally unexplained. If we are ignorant of the nature of lightning, that does not grant us the inference of god, or transcendence, etc. It merely highlights our ignorance. Whether we will ever overcome ignorance with an explanation remains to be seen in many cases, including the cosmic origin.

    And the more serious defect with your interpretation of PSR is that your jumping to a "transcendent" "explanantion" of a mystery du jour suggests that some other mode of perception, mysticism, or analysis, vs science, might be more effective or directly insightful in divining the actual cause at work. This is an idea whose track record is so abysmal as to hardly deserve comment. It represents the perennial triumph of narcissistic intution over reason... precisely the boundary you are trying to breach with the "reasonable person" construction.