CAN EVOLUTION EXPLAIN MORALITY?

This week’s post is a follow-up to a discussion that I started on Hubpages.

Recently, while reading The Magic of Reality (2012) by Richard Dawkins, I came upon this interesting proclamation in the chapter titled, “Why Do Bad Things Happen?”:

“Bad things happen because things happen. Whether they are bad or good from our point of view doesn’t influence how likely it is that they will happen. Some people find it hard to accept this. They’d prefer to think that sinners get their comeuppance, that virtue is rewarded. Unfortunately, the universe doesn’t care what people prefer.”

So yes, as harsh as it sounds, the universe is indifferent to humankind. It is without emotion, has no sense of right and wrong, and is without the ability to be concerned for life. Let us, then, take this observation and apply it to how Darwin’s evolutionary theory possibly interacts with human morality. The question that puzzles my mind is, “How can natural selection and the raw materials of an indifferent universe be able to facilitate the evolution of human beings who do, in fact, have morals—or, at minimum, have a basic sense of right and wrong?”

Certainly, using Mr. Dawkins’s logic, a very easy answer would be to say that because the universe does not concern itself with this question, neither should we. The only problem with this line of thinking, however, is that we all know morality is real because we can experience it using our senses—one of the best gauges of what is real in the first place. And what do our senses, based on real experience and evidence, tell us? That some things are inherently better to do than others (e.g., giving a stray cat a cup of milk instead of poking it with a knife). When faced with a moral dilemma, we feel internal angst and tension. This tension persuades us either to act or not to act. Morality, then, is so real that it can change how we behave or even what we intend to do. And indeed, there are non-biological (and therefore non-evolutionary) reasons to behave or not to behave in certain ways: legal consequences, group identity, and peer shame are a few examples. Here, I am more concerned with the core (and relatively static) essence of morality that people tend to share across time and culture (e.g., that taking innocent life is wrong).

So, natural selection works with uninterested building blocks to assemble interested beings in a universe that doesn’t give a toss. The world is independent of my wishes or will, which is why the sun will rise tomorrow regardless of whether I want it to or not. I may have a psychological need for the sun to rise and a logical basis for it to rise (because, for me, it has happened every day for the past thirty-five years), but the universe still does not care. The event may happen or not happen exclusive of my preference. If I harmed someone or saved someone’s life, the universe does not care. I may have a psychological need for my actions to be “bad” or “good,” or a logical yearning for good works to “count” for something, but the universe still does not care.

The bedrock of science is the derivation of rules and laws from the observation of the universe using human senses or senses augmented by instruments. So, if the rules of the universe inform us that, ultimately, it does not care, nor does it assign fault or virtue, does this mean that our morality is meaningless? Because if the universe does deem it so, are we not then forced to engage in an irresolvable dilemma in which our senses tell us that what is, in fact, real (morality) is not, in fact, worth anything? Does this persuade us to challenge our senses or the model that ascribes value to reality using our senses? Or both?

Ultimately, all of these questions cannot be logically resolved using naturalism because the answer that is derived is senseless—it requires human beings to reject their physical senses as hollow while relying on those same senses in order to ascertain what is real. An argument in favor of worthless reality is put forth by Sam Harris in his 2012 book Free Will. Here, the author boils down our felt experiences of conscious choices into seemingly random, impersonal, physical events in the brain. So while we may feel as if we are making choices, in fact, what we do (and think) is predetermined by subliminal neurochemical phenomena. So, as the author posits, free will is an illusion. It naturally follows, then, that if we cannot trust what happens in our own heads, then what anyone thinks or believes cannot be trusted either.

So can evolution explain morality? No, at least as it pertains to objective morality. Plausibly, it can “produce” subjective morality, which, as I’ve now described, has no real meaning. Here, morality is simply an illusion that is the by-product of indifferent neurons firing in our brains, and just like the universe, those neurons have no interest in what is right and wrong. Hence, within the natural world, all existence and happening is accidental. For morality to have any value, that value must be assigned, and that assignment comes from outside the realm of naturalism. Outside the realm of naturalism lies supernaturalism, where morality is now non-accidental and has a legitimate, inherent value. Supernaturalism validates the sense of right and wrong that everyone has written on their consciences, and no one ought to reject his or her felt tension when navigating a moral dilemma.

So indeed, evolution cannot explain morality because morality is transcendent.

 

Dr. C. H. E. Sadaphal

 

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