Escaping nihilism: The genealogy of morals

I have raked the neodarwinists over the coals for portraying a cold, purposeless universe, while insisting on the purposeful glory of the humanist worldview.  The logic of their speculations must end in moral nihilism — or so I believe, and I am not alone in this opinion (see here and here).

Let’s assume I am correct.  A dispassionate observer might then wonder:  “Are we stuck in the logical cage of nihilism, in that case?  Or is it possible to escape — to justify morality, somehow?”  After all, if we have torn away the illusions of scientists and philosophers, what hope is left for the rest?

It is particularly incumbent on those of us who credit many of the biological theories of Darwinism to provide an argument on behalf of traditional morality that survives the acid bath of evolution.  The task, however, is dauntingly complex.  The question of meaning must be untangled.  The reality of moral facts must be defined.  I hope to deal with these weighty subjects at length and in due course:  but not now.

Now I propose to start at the beginning:  with the origin of morals in that purposeless, mechanistic universe of the neodarwinists.  According to this account, everything is explained by the interaction of random variation and natural selection.  Morality, which apparently adds not a feather’s weight to the world, is explained away.  We are really pawns of the universe, or sock puppets to our genes.

Richard Dawkins states the case most starkly:  “In a universe of blind physical forces and blind genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, some people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice.”

This assertion poses three connected questions that need to be answered satisfactorily, if we are to clear the ground for an argument in support of morality.  The first question is that of cosmic determinism.  The second is that of genetic sock-puppetry.  The third concerns our hardwired tendency to error or delusion in moral beliefs.

To differing degrees, all three deny human agency.  The rescue of morality must begin with a plausible account of freedom.

Cosmic determinism is an old philosophical battleground, fought over by contending tribes since before Lucretius.  If I solved the problem in this blog, the next logical move would be to apply for the Nobel Peace Prize.  Fortunately, the goal here is far less ambitious:  to offer some hope of human agency, given what we know of the universe.

The premise of cosmic determinism (or materialism) is that all things, including living things and human things, are in the inescapable grip of causation.  In effect, we are self-aware billiard balls, acted upon but never actors.  This outlook has proven functionally productive to science, particularly physics, but it should not be mistaken for a scientific description of reality.

The abolition of agency immediately gets entangled in paradox.  John Searle jokes about going to a restaurant and saying to the waiter, “I’m a determinist.  I’ll just sit here and see what I order.”  Taken at face value, turning people into billiard balls hollows out not just morality but every human activity, including science and neodarwinism.  If all things were inexorably predetermined from the first moment of time, then billiard ball Dawkins chattering on about the selfish genes is as much a stage prop to causation as billiard ball Pope Benedict XVI defending the Garden of Eden.

This catastrophe can be avoided with a little scientific modesty.  Science requires observation.  Yet the universe is billions of years old, vast, and contains infinite levels of description — while we, on the other hand, are newly arrived, small, short-lived, and peering out from a small planet.  Given the dark glass of human perspective, the surprise is how much has been processed by modern science.

The more facts we gather, however, the more uncertain our understanding has become.  The universe appears to be deterministic, but also probabilistic, chaotic, and noisy.  Bizarre theories have been put forward to explain this cosmic puzzle, which propose multiple intersecting universes.  The world may be many, not one.

But we don’t really know.  That is the point.  The universe does not confirm or refute human agency:  the glass is too dark, the facts too scarce.  Some day we may discover the theory that explains everything, and then we’ll finally learn whether human freedom is truth or illusion.  Just as likely, I believe, is that our confusion will continue to grow with our knowledge, and that whatever regularities we uncover in nature will turn out to be bounded and contingent.

Most of the neodarwinists work at science, but all are fervent rationalists.  Their affirmation of cosmic determinism flows from the philosopher’s hunger for universal principles and metaphysical grandeur, not from scientific work.  The universe, alas, is under no obligation to feed this hunger, and may well be an irrational place.

It is in the field of biology, in which the facts overwhelmingly support many of their theories, that the neodarwinists must be taken seriously.  A good question is whether talk of selfish genes adds any punch to the determinist argument.  I think it adds specificity:  a detailed story, which can be tested, of how we came to to be sock puppets.

Here is the gist of it, as told by Tamler Sommers and Alex Rosenberg:  “Darwinian Nihilism explains away ethics by showing that our ethical dispositions were very strongly selected for over long periods, which began well before the emergence of hominids, or indeed perhaps primates (vide the vampire bat).”  Again, Dawkins’ version wins the starkness prize:  “DNA neither knows or cares.  DNA just is.  And we dance to its music.”

The question is whether we are so “strongly selected for” that we have no choice or freedom of action:  whether we are truly sock puppets dancing to the music of our genes.  It’s an empirical question.  The data set is large, but more manageable than pointing to the entire universe as proof.

Stephen Pinker tried to refute nihilism by noting that genes are ultimate, not proximate, causes of behavior.  But unless we can sever the link this just turns us into ultimate rather than proximate sock puppets.  I think — and this is what Pinker might have meant — that we must look to the 200,000-year history of our kind.  Is it a closed circle, or have significant new behaviors developed?  As we search for an answer, let’s follow Pinker’s advice and abandon the threadbare “selfish” gene metaphor.

Genes aren’t selfish.  Genes are just stuff.  In some ways, my genes are like my ears or my nose.  In other ways, no.  Unlike my ears and nose, genes set boundaries to my body and my behaviors.  Of course, if my body had no boundaries I would be the universe, and if my behaviors had no boundaries I would be a lunatic.  I need boundaries to survive.  The problem is one of degrees, not absolutes.

A number of behavioral regularities can be found in all epochs and across human cultures.  Neodarwinists call these “universals.”  Mothers protect their children.  Men and women engage in lasting intimacy.  Social hierarchies command respect.  Music, art, story-telling, religion — these occur in the simplest communities, and the most complex.  There’s little question in my mind that such shared behaviors arise in our common biology.  Commonalities in the human race outweigh the differences.  We do, after all, belong to a single species.

We are also prone to vanity where freedom is concerned.  In experimental settings, we sometimes ascribe purposes where clearly there are none.  A body of evidence indicates that we are less free than we think.

All that on one side.  On the other is the evolution of human behavior, and of our knowledge set, from extreme simplicity to mind-boggling complexity, without a parallel evolution in the human genome.  At some point, quantity becomes quality.  The differences between a hand-axe and a 747, or between a cave and the Pentagon, or between magic and atomic theory, appear to cross that threshold.  My wife and I may hold certain feelings in common with an Upper Paleolithic cave-dweller and his mate, but our hopes and expectations, our everyday lives, even our thoughts, are radically different.

The genetic boundaries of behavior are pegged to the environment.  Yet we manipulate and create our own environment, thereby pushing back the boundaries and expanding the circle of possible actions.  This isn’t merely a case of flying in airplanes or living in climatized homes.  We live longer.  We are healthier.  We are safer.  We know vastly more.  Human activity changes the conditions of human life, and the changed conditions in turn offer the possibility of new behaviors.

Termites today behave exactly like termites a million years ago.  The boundaries set by termite genes offer no hope of freedom.  In contrast, the human behavioral set gives every appearance of being open to change.  The neodarwinists, in their calmer moments, acknowledge as much.  In The Selfish Gene, Dawkins explains how genes cede command of behavioral policy to brains, as the latter become “more highly developed” and adept at learning and simulation.  This is metaphor.  It means that the organism in question isn’t machine-like or termite-like.  Genes and agency are not mutually exclusive.  The sock puppet can declare independence.

We are not perfectly free, for which we should be thankful.  We are bounded and limited in any number of ways, but the empirical evidence, while contradictory, suggests we are open to self-initiated learning and change, and to that extent are free.

We’re not out of the woods yet, however.  Even if agency it granted, a troublesome question remains in connection with the origin of morals in natural selection.  Sommers and Rosenberg observe that the success criteria for moral beliefs and judgments, under Darwinism, is reproductory success rather than truth.  Since, despite the best efforts of the neodarwinists, it has proved impossible to justify such beliefs and judgments in nature, the nihilistic conclusion is that morality is by and large a set of useful delusions.

This is the question of the reality of moral facts, which must be explored next.


One Response to Escaping nihilism: The genealogy of morals

  1. will says:

    I wanted this blog to allow me to escape nihilism. We are still all human animals with short lives. Delusions and ignorance are our only source of comfort. I want to escape, and lead a meaningful existence. But I can’t! Not without modifying my brain chemistry via drugs. And loving other people. That feels really good. Loving other people. Love. Love. Love. Love. Love. Love. Love. Love. Love. Love!
    🙂 😀 🙂 😀 🙂 😀 🙂 1!!!!!!

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