I suppose I should publish something every once in a while to show that I’m still alive. So …
Why life? Why is our little speck of the universe teeming with complex things that move, reproduce and evolve, all in apparent opposition to the entropic laws that push the rest of the universe closer and closer to a dull, cold uniformity? The secular, scientifically minded among us deny that there is any cosmic teleology which places life on a pedestal, but there’s no denying that living things are quite different from everything else. Life is dynamic and proactive, in stark contrast to the passive and reactive clumps of matter which characterize everything else. Having rejected the élan vital, what is left to explain this dichotomy?
In his 2012 book “What is life?”, Addy Pross offers us ‘dynamic kinetic stability‘ to answer the titular question. Upon reading that compact and clearly articulated text, I was smitten with the idea. But I was also left wanting more. If there is an alternate form of stability that stands in opposition to the stability realized in thermodynamic decay, does it exist on its own as some sort of new law, or is there another explanation for it?
In 2016, Nick Lane published “The Vital Question” to explain the energetic underpinnings of life and it’s advance into greater complexity. I came away with the image of life as an engine for the burning of fuel, and it occurred to me that perhaps Pross’ dynamic kinetic stability is not in competition with thermodynamic decay, but is rather a duplicitous aid to the cause.
Life perpetuates states of low entropy with seemingly reckless disregard for the second law. Or so it wants you to think. Yes, the astounding ordered complexity of living things is, by definition, a low entropy state. But look at what that living thing is doing. It is consuming, transforming and destructing the world around it. Energy is being burned at a rate far beyond that which occurs in its lifeless surroundings. At the micro level, entropy has been lowered by the presence of life, but at the macro level, life is an insatiable engine for the increase in entropy as it proliferates throughout the world it inhabits – even as selection favors the growth of populations and optimizes that which, in isolation, increases entropy at the highest rates.
So is that it? Did life arise, and persist against the pull of entropy at the micro scale, because it wielded a remarkable power to accelerate thermodynamic decay at the macro scale? Could it be that entropy, the universal law of death and decay, is in fact also the cosmic teleology which has brought us life? It seems plausible to me. Of course, I could be wrong – and none of this explains how we got into that low entropy state in the first place.
With this post I am introducing a new page on the site – 355 Prophecies (Fulfilled in Jesus Christ?). This is a project that I started a long time ago and have now decided to make public despite the fact that it is largely incomplete. I’ve come to terms with the fact that it will probably take years to “finish”, so I might as well open it up now to the process of peer review and get started making corrections and improvements.
My intent is to continue to slowly work my way through the list and occasionally publish posts that summarize the updates. As of this writing the list is roughly one third complete, though I fully intend that the entries will be continually revised in response to feedback and/or new discoveries; so it will never really be complete. All critiques and comments are welcome.
This post is a continuation of my reflections on Mike McHargue’s recent book “Finding God in the Waves” (see Part 1). With Part 2 I am engaging with the second half of the book – titled ‘God in Science’ – which presents the ideas upon which Mike has reconstructed his faith (which he would assure you is an ongoing process without a known end point). Unlike Part 1, my aim here is not to explore points of contact with my own story but rather to offer my honest assessment of the ideas and data that are presented.
God in Science
The second half of the book starts with a chapter bearing the tongue in cheek heading of “Happily Ever After”, and we soon see that Mike’s religious experience didn’t undo the skepticism that was cultivated in the preceding years. It’s a laudable demonstration of his integrity that, despite such a powerful experience, he did not dismiss all of the data that had influenced and sustained his period of unbelief but rather sought to integrate it with this new data point.
So what might you expect to find in a book section titled ‘God in Science’? If you’re hoping for a recapitulation of the modern refrain of evidential apologetics surrounding cosmology, DNA, etc.., then Science Mike is going to disappoint. He instead embraces the mystery and finds God hidden in plain sight. The following is my attempt to briefly summarize the data that is presented to lay the groundwork for the foundational axioms that he develops throughout this section:
The cosmological data doesn’t favor any one particular type of “cause” for the big bang, but science does reveal a universe that originates in a mysterious singularity which became a framework of forces and energy that sustain the observable universe with an unfailing regularity.
The brain is adept at creating a model of God and when that model is abstract and assigns God a loving and peaceful nature, the time spent attending to that model will encourage focus, compassion, empathy and result in lower stress and blood pressure.
There is no good evidence for the effect of intercessory prayer except as a therapeutic effect for the person doing the praying. Contemplative prayer can also yield effects similar to those established for meditative practices, which generally improves focus, willpower and compassion and results in lower stress and blood pressure.
It is historically probable that Jesus of Nazareth was an actual figure who was crucified in response to his claims and following, and whose influence inspired a persistent God-centered movement that became the largest such movement in history.
Therapy can be effective because the impression left on the brain by past events can be altered when those memories are revisited, and revisiting the past in a safe environment will reduce the negative emotional impressions associated with those events.
Humans are an innately social species and are most psychologically healthy when immersed in a cooperative and loving social context. This immersion will also reinforce and motivate dedication to the beliefs associated with that social context.
The Bible is a collection of texts that were written, assembled and copied by human hands and these texts reflect the beliefs and cultural contexts of their authors.
I think these summaries do a pretty good job of fairly outlining the modest claims that Mike puts forth, and I don’t see anything obviously wrong or misleading in them. This data is the basis for a set of axioms that then serve as the foundation for his reconstructed faith. No discussion of Finding God in the Waves would be complete without a review of those axioms, but I should first note that the axioms are all structured as propositions of the form “X is AT LEAST … EVEN IF this is all X is, …”. The intention is to define X in a minimal sense, based only on the empirically grounded data above, and that this minimal definition is sufficient to arrive at a reasonable justification for integrating X into one’s beliefs and practices.
Axiom #1 – Faith
Faith is AT LEAST a way to contextualize the human need for spirituality and find meaning in the face of mortality. EVEN IF this is all faith is, spiritual practice can be beneficial to cognition, emotional states, and culture.
The subjectivity surrounding the words “spirituality” and “meaning” make this hard to analyze. But maybe that’s part of the point – that faith is a subjectively grounded perspective, in which case I accept that this could be a viable definition if “need for” is replaced with “tendency toward”. We’re still left with a lot of ambiguity and the observation that the outworking of this tendency yields so many divergent beliefs and behaviors that it’s not obvious how to untangle the association to any benefits. Having recently read Newberg’s “How God Changes Your Brain” (one of Mike’s favorite sources) I perceived that faith was used as a synonym for a general sense of hope and optimism. This axiom might have been more concrete if it aligned better with Newberg’s definition.
Axiom #2 – God
God is AT LEAST the natural forces that created and sustain the Universe as experienced via a psychosocial model in human brains that naturally emerges from innate biases. EVEN IF that is a comprehensive definition for God, the pursuit of this personal, subjective experience can provide meaning, peace, and empathy for others.
There’s certainly precedent for this conception of God and though there is no way to objectively arbitrate between definitions of the divine, this clearly does not satisfy the profile for even basic theism, which is the benchmark for most definitions of God. But Mike is again presumably OK with this since he prefers the non-theist label as an alternative to the typical theist/atheist dichotomy.
Axiom #3 – Prayer
Prayer is AT LEAST a form of meditation that encourages the development of healthy brain tissue, lowers stress, and can connect us to God. EVEN IF that is a comprehensive definition of prayer, the health and psychological benefits of prayer justify the discipline.
Given the definition of ‘God’ above, it isn’t clear what is meant by saying that prayer “can connect us to God”. My best guess is that prayer can serve to reinforce the sense that the psychosocial model of God reflects reality. No argument there. I would contest, however, whether this definition of prayer is adequate to support the ‘EVEN IF’ conclusion, which assumes a particular form of prayer that isn’t clearly constrained in the definition and thus infers that anything one labels as prayer could fit into the claim. To clarify in Venn diagram form:
Incorporating these observations, I suggest that a more accurate axiom might be that “Prayer is AT LEAST an attempt to connect with God that, in a certain forms, can encourage healthy neurological development and lower stress. EVEN IF that is a comprehensive definition of prayer, the health and psychological benefits justify these forms of prayer as a religious discipline”.
Axiom #4 – Sin
Sin is AT LEAST volitional action or inaction that violates one’s own understanding of what is moral. Sin comes from the divergent impulses between our lower and higher brain functions and our evolution-driven tendency to do things that serve ourselves and our tribe. EVEN IF this is all sin is, it is destructive and threatens human flourishing.
It appears to me that this axiom is assuming that one’s own understanding of what is moral is neither destructive nor threatening to human flourishing. I don’t think there’s any doubt that people can cognitively accept moral perspectives that are destructive or threatening to human flourishing. So though I find the given definition to be a reasonable projection of the concept of sin onto a scientifically grounded view of human moral agency, the unstated assumptions underlying the conclusion are not certain, even if they often hold true. See the Moral Ontology post for a more thorough unpacking of my take on the nature of morality.
Axiom #5 – The Afterlife
The afterlife is AT LEAST the persistence of our physical matter in the ongoing life cycle on Earth, the memes we pass on to others with our lives, and the model of our unique neurological signature in the brains of those who knew us. EVEN IF this is all the afterlife is, the consequences of our actions persist beyond our death and our ethical considerations must consider a timeline beyond our death.
Axiom #6 – Salvation
Salvation is AT LEAST the means by which humanity overcomes sin to produce human flourishing. EVEN IF this is all salvation is, spiritual and religious actions and beliefs that promote salvation are good for humankind.
The issue I raised for the definition of sin – namely that a person’s notion of what it means to overcome sin is not guaranteed to produce human flourishing – spills over into this definition. That is, the pursuit of salvation is not guaranteed to produce goods for humankind. Even so, I agree that the underlying principle of practicing careful moral reflection to deliberately guide our actions is worth encouraging and generally yields outcomes which prove themselves to be preferable in the long run.
Axiom #7 – Jesus
Jesus is AT LEAST a man so connected to God that he was called the Son of God and the largest religious movement in human history is centered around his teachings. EVEN IF this is all Jesus is, following his teachings can promote peace, empathy, and genuine morality.
I want to start by first offering a proposed revision to this axiom: “Jesus is AT LEAST a man so connected toassociated with God that he was called the Son of God and the largest religious movement in human history is centered around his teachings persona. EVEN IF this is all Jesus is, following histhe socially relevant teachings attributed to him can promote peace, empathy, and genuine morality.”
That first change is just an attempt to clarify. I don’t know if Mike intended to identify a conceptual connection or a spiritual connection, but we can’t know anything about the latter, so I assume the former. Regardless, I also see that Christianity as a whole is more centered on the identity and nature of Jesus than on the words attributed to him. With regard to those teachings, I agree that there are many facets which can promote peace, empathy and moral behavior, but that does not apply to the entirety of the red letters. It is ultimately the persona of Jesus that we embrace which dictates the personal impact of those teachings as a whole.
Axiom #8 – The Holy Spirit
The Holy Spirit is AT LEAST the psychological and neurological components of God that allow God to be experienced as a personal force or agent. EVEN IF this is all the Holy Spirit is, God is more relatable and neurologically actionable when experienced this way.
Axiom #9 – Church
The Church is AT LEAST the global community of people who choose to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ. EVEN IF this is all the church is, the Church is still the largest body of spiritual scholarship, community, and faith practice in the world – and this practice can improve people’s lives in real, measurable ways.
Much of what I said for Axiom #7 also applies to the definition here, with regard to the church’s relation to Jesus. I would also suggest that this axiom implies far more cohesion than actually exists, though I recognize that there is a core set of beliefs and practices in the Christian tradition which are embraced by the vast majority of the communities who claim the label. Nonetheless, this diversity also means that there are plenty of options to choose from and thus a good chance that you can find a community in which you are comfortable. This is one area where the secular world is lacking. I would not be at all surprised if, in practice, this particular aspect of the Christian tradition outweighs all others with respect to encouraging and retaining affiliation.
Axiom #10 – The Bible
The Bible is AT LEAST a collection of books and writings assembled by the Church that chronicle a people group’s experiences with, and understanding of, God over thousands of years. EVEN IF that is a comprehensive definition of the Bible, study of scripture is warranted to understand our culture and the way in which people come to know God.
This definition is OK, though I think it somewhat overstates the period of authorship and centrality of God (especially as previously defined) in the biblical corpus. More significantly, I’m having trouble reconciling the conclusion. I can see that the study of scripture would be warranted for the purpose of understanding the authors’ cultures and the way in which they perceived God, but it isn’t clear to me how well this translates to a more generalized human culture and perception of God. I would think you would need to study a wide variety of religious texts and traditions to get a handle on that. Nor is it obvious why that should be considered a worthwhile pursuit.
In the end, I don’t have overwhelming objections to these axioms and can appreciate how they would serve the role for which they are intended – to provide a reasonable grounding for justifying the adoption of some form of Christianity. But I am also left feeling like several of them are playing semantic games that manipulate our sense of religious identity by establishing associations to Christian terminology for concepts which are not clearly rooted in that tradition. Mike might even agree with that assessment. He is a self-professed expert manipulator, after all.
Any Way You Want It
I am intrigued by Mike’s experience and appreciate his perspective and approach to faith, but this book doesn’t have the gravity to nudge my trajectory. As I see it, the primary obstacle lies in the way that the reasoning presented in the second half of the book struck me as a recipe for improving your life by creating God, rather than by finding God, as suggested by the title. The realization that the god I believed in could very well be my own creation, built upon the creations of generations of humans before me and evolving right along with my shifting beliefs, was a primary influence in my deconversion. Despite recognizing the possibility of a pragmatically grounded faith, it is difficult for me to countenance how that same creative process might restore me to some sort of religious faith. Interestingly, it’s possible that Mike wouldn’t deny that this is exactly what he’s doing. The first question at the Portland stop of his Q&A tour asked whether God would continue to exist if every sentient creature ceased to exist and he said “what I identify as God would no longer exist”, but immediately followed that up with a caveat about how the mystical and irrational side of the equation leads him to hope for a different answer.
That’s a Wrap
Science Mike will remain in my podcast rotation and has inspired me to spend more time exploring the “Pragmatic Christianity” investigation that I proposed a few years back. Even though I am not compelled to embrace the scaffolding upon which Mike has built his current worldview I respect the way that he engages with the evidence and I appreciate the environment he is working to cultivate. I think that most of us would prefer a world full of people who interact with the same kind of compassion, open-mindedness and respect that this community seeks. Here’s to hoping that the future of American Christianity looks more and more like the communities we find in the wake of the waves that are being made by Science Mike and his cohorts.
Somehow, despite expecting that I was keeping current with the zeitgeist at the confluence of belief and skepticism, it turns out that I was oblivious to a relatively prominent movement in progressive Christianity over the last few years in America. The Liturgists podcast, which started in July 2014, currently reports over a quarter million subscribers. The podcast was birthed out of the faith crises of Mike McHargue and Michael Gungor (who I recall seeing open for David Crowder about 10 years ago – when we were both unquestioningly abiding in the evangelical world of our youth). It deals openly and honestly with doubt as a central component of a healthy Christian faith and tests the limits of orthodoxy while embracing controversial figures like Rob Bell, Rachel Held Evans and Pete Enns. Participants in this community call themselves exvangelicals and talk about going through an ongoing process of deconstruction. Mike McHargue published the first episode of Ask Science Mike six months after the first Liturgists podcast and eventually garnered a large enough following that when his book was released in September 2016 he was able to schedule a whirlwind tour hosting live Q&A events across the country. That’s when I caught wind and started to tune in.
The Ask Science Mike podcast has been a regular member of my podcast rotation for several months now. It’s where I became familiar with Mike McHargue’s story and the not-so-orthodox brand of Christianity he endorses (if “endorse” if even the right word). His website labels him a “spiritual skeptic” but in his book he says he avoids self-labeling as much as he can. That’s probably a good choice because “empiricist, progressive, skeptical, non-theist, mystic Jesus follower” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. Labels aside, I have come to respect Science Mike as I have listened to him discuss his journey, his regard for a scientific epistemology and his concern with much of what we find in evangelicalism. So, despite its title, “Finding God in the Waves: How I lost my faith and found it again through science” isn’t your typical apologetics book. Scratch that – this isn’t an apologetics book at all. It’s a story of one man’s journey and his faith perspective at the time of writing, a perspective that he suggests is no more justified than the perspective of a contented unbeliever.
The book is divided into two distinct halves. This post focuses on Part I – titled ‘Lost and Found’ – which is an autobiographical recounting of Mike’s journey, from growing up in the Southern Baptist church (and as a social pariah at school), to a spiritual renewal into a more progressive form of Christianity, to an unwilling transition into a closet atheist, to making peace with his loss of faith and finally to the experience that led him to, well, whatever he is now. You may have noticed that I just glossed over a whole bunch of details that you can enjoy if you read the book for yourself. My goal here isn’t to retell Mike’s story but rather to highlight the points of contact (and dissimilarities) with my own journey to see if I can provide some context for my response to the second half of the book, where he delves into the foundations of his current faith.
The Journey Begins
Many aspects of Mike’s story have no analog in my life, but there are still elements to which I could relate. We share a “1960’s sitcom” (his words) upbringing in a stable, loving family with a commitment to a biblical Christianity. Mine came complete with family devotions based on James Dobson’s ‘Focus on the Family’ materials and church engagement that extended well beyond Sunday morning. But that’s about the extent of the similarities. I was never bullied, never went through an apathetic rock-band stage, and haven’t experienced any earth-shattering family crises. My backstory is about as boring and untraumatic as it gets.
Fast-forward twenty or so years and I did find some familiarity in his description of the period where he began to honestly question, for the first time, the faith tradition that he had always taken for granted. For Mike this was spurred on by a conviction that the Bible was the key to reconciling his parents’ divorce. For me this was a matter of being in a position to lead small group studies and feeling an obligation to know how to “properly” guide the discussion in truth. Either way, we ended up on a similar course, discovering a whole new dimension of the Christian world and shedding the more fundamentalist aspects of our faith. I embraced the scientifically literate reconciliatory work of Biologos, the rationalism of C.S. Lewis and a view of the Bible that did not insist on inerrancy. I directed the group into a study based on Tim Keller’s ‘Reason for God’ DVDs to share my newfound appreciation for apologetics (and because I knew that Keller was a “safe” figure in the evangelical world despite accepting the validity of theistic evolution). I distinctly remember the hesitancy and nervous deliberation before hitting send on what I considered to be a controversial email that responded to a small-group discussion by offering support for the potential legitimacy of universalism. So I feel like I can relate to this stage of Mike’s story. It’s invigorating to discover that faith and intellectual integrity can coexist. But of course, that wasn’t the end of either of our stories.
Don’t Stop Believin’
The thing about apologetics is that there are two sides to the argument. Once you dive in, its hard to miss the views that the apologetics are intended to rebut and eventually you’ll see the true depth of the argument rather than the strawmen that the apologetic often sets up. Mike entered willingly into that fray, confident that his newfound perspective could hold up to scrutiny. I’m not sure how I was drawn into a more deliberate review of the arguments from the other side; I think I just gradually stumbled into more and more encounters with the opposing views until suddenly one day I found myself with a big pile of unsatisfactory explanations for what was starting to look more and more like my own private brand of Christianity. It was time to test the quality of the truths I held. Books needed to be read.
Deconversion stories don’t always have a clear tipping point. Some people just gradually fall away from the faith while others can distinctly recall a gestalt switch moment. Mike encountered his gestalt switch while reading Carl Sagan’s ‘Pale Blue Dot’, which led him to really question whether it made sense to impart a purpose behind the immense vastness of the universe. His prayer the next morning was simply “God, I don’t know why I’m praying. You aren’t even real” and he was instantly struck with a sense of existential nihilism and profound grief.
My gestalt switch moment also came in response to a book. I was sitting in my truck after work and had just finished listening to the audiobook for Bart Ehrman’s ‘Misquoting Jesus’. The primacy of humanity in the development of the Christian faith tradition was more apparent than ever and I found myself saying something like “Doesn’t this all* make more sense if there isn’t a God behind it?”. Like Mike, I experienced an instant reaction to that verbalization but it bore a vastly different quality. Rather than darkness and defeat I was struck by a sense of shock and wonder – shock at the fact that I had actually just assented to a reversal of a lifelong belief, and wonder at the prospect of a universe that could be understood on its own terms. As bizarre as it may sound, I distinctly remember helping my wife make the bed that evening and perceiving the billowing of the sheets as if it was this intricate dance between different forces of nature. It was as if I could finally see the world for what it really was. I was Neo and the veil over the matrix was gone.
*To be clear, when I say “this all”, the sentiment extends well beyond the Bible and includes all of the aforementioned unsatisfactory explanations. Ehrman’s book was simply the straw the broke the camel’s back.
The gestalt switch moment may be subjectively profound, but the novelty wanes and we eventually must contend with the a world that has carried on, oblivious to our revelation.
I find it difficult to express the incredible fear associated with the public disclosure of a loss of faith. In retrospect the extreme trepidation almost seems ridiculous, but the strong social dynamic and binary nature of the Christian identity combine to present a daunting hurdle for the apostate. Couple this with a family bond and the whole thing is absolutely terrifying. I guess that’s why Mike went on putting up a facade for two years; teaching classes, serving in ministries, playing worship songs and even leading his daughter through a confession of faith! I, on the other hand, wasn’t able to last more than a few months. The masquerade was more than I could bear.
Case in point – I distinctly remember the first time my newfound perspective started to leak out. It was probably only a few weeks after that moment in my truck and I was leading our small group through a study that for some reason included a reading of the story of Uzzah in 2 Samuel 6 – you know, the one where God kills Uzzah on the spot because he touched the ark to steady it after the ox had tripped. Seeing this story with fresh eyes, I found myself unable to resist asking the group whether they thought it extreme and callous for God to respond this way to a person’s instinctual reaction, to which one member of the group responded by saying that “rules are rules”. I was dumbstruck. After a brief period of uncomfortable silence, I somehow managed to make it through the rest of the night without incident and started this blog shortly thereafter.
Fast-forward a couple months and I had reached my threshold for pretending. I broke the news to my wife, shortly after Christmas, and subsequently excused myself from all roles in the church. The marital strain was almost certainly the most difficult part of the whole process. It created a distance between us that I had never felt before and have never felt since. Here I find agreement with Mike, who describes the night after revealing his unbelief to his wife:
“We went to bed, and for the first time in our marriage, an iron curtain ran down the center of the mattress. We were in bed together, but we weren’t together. A rift had opened up between us.”
As dramatic as that sounds, Mike and I had it good. Many marriages have disintegrated under these circumstances and though Mike’s wife followed up the next day with “I’m not sure we can be married anymore”, in the end it appears that we were both fortunate to have partners who were thoughtful enough to see past the marital apocalypse and believe in a relationship that could survive ideological boundaries. I sincerely echo Mike’s appreciation for a wife and family who are committed to unconditional love – it makes all the difference. But then our stories diverge again.
The closing chapter caps off the narrative portion of the book with a climactic event that offers the most dramatic contrast to my own journey. I’ll skimp on the details again and just say that Mike had a religious experience which involved hearing a voice and – several hours later – encountering an unexpected literal wave that was immediately followed by a metaphorical wave of transcendent, ineffable, mystical goodness. The tremendous impact this had is evident in both the retelling and the ongoing role it has played in shaping his journey since that time.
I can’t say that I’ve ever had an experience like this. Sure, I’ve had deeply emotional moments that were initiated through a religious context but, as far as I can tell from the description, they were nothing like this. Still, I can’t help but wonder whether I have actually experienced circumstances similar to Mike’s but in which I failed to perceive the divine and so also failed to summon the kind of transcendent response in which it culminated. I suspect that most deconverts can relate to having questioned whether God was trying to get their attention through spontaneous thoughts, coincidences and other circumstances in which a message or purpose can be found. So I can’t help but find myself wondering whether the crescendo of the events leading up to Mike’s beach encounter, and his generally emotional disposition, set the stage for a strong and sudden flood of emotions (at 3AM, no less) that birthed an overwhelmingly ineffable experience. Maybe. Or maybe it was God. I have no way to know. And therein lies the difficulty.
Regardless, the narrative portion of the book was an engaging read that clearly isn’t trying to sell anything and appears to present an honest portrayal of his journey. I find no reason to question Science Mike’s sincerity and I respect the way he has integrated the full body of experiences into his current position – a position that I consider to be rational in spite of any differences we may have. In Part 2 I’ll move on to explore the second half of the book, where Mike expounds on the foundations of his reconstructed faith.
I took advantage of the new .blog top-level domain to do something I’ve wanted to do for some time – I’ve transitioned the blog to my own hosting account, now resident at measureoffaith.blog. This is mostly driven by the fact that I’m a geek and want to try some things that couldn’t be done on a standard wordpress.com account, but for the time being everything should look pretty much identical to the way it did before. The transition is supposed to be seamless for all followers and readers and all permalinks should still work, but please let me know if you discover any issues or have any suggestions for the new site.
A while back I wrote a post titled “What is a moral claim” that did not do a good job of getting at the heart of the topic I was actually aiming to address. So I wanted to recalibrate and go beyond asking “what is a moral claim” by offering an answer. That has turned into a rather thoroughgoing presentation of what I now consider to be the moral ontology which is most likely true. Sorry for the length, but I hope its worth the effort.
First, some moral epistemology
I am of the opinion that epistemology should inform ontology (and vice versa). In other words, understanding how it is that we know about something should play a role in defining what we think that something is. Likewise, our understanding of what something is should play a role in defining how it is that we know about it (I covered this more generally in My Ontology – Part 1). I have found that the discussion of morality, particularly in the God debate, often focuses on moral ontology – we like to talk about what morality is without giving too much thought to the epistemology. By asking “What is a moral claim?” in that post last year I was aiming to explore how moral epistemology might inform our moral ontology – contra William Lane Craig, who suggests we should just posit our desired moral ontology and then define our epistemology as a follow-on.
My assertion in that original post was that we can recognize moral claims, and distinguish them from other claims, and that this tells us something about the nature of morality. As was noted by several commenters, this supports nothing more than the notion that morality is at minimum a distinct mental concept. However, I was aiming for something more…
The moral referent
In one of the comments on that original post Dave compared morality to beauty, to which I replied by noting that:
“This is the question of the referent. For beauty, we can generally link the shared concept to ‘the way we feel about certain sensory perceptions’, like sunsets, music, etc…. There is a class of experiences which trigger a similar response in us and so we call those things beautiful.”
This gets to the heart of the matter. As with beauty, there must be some referent which shapes the concept of morality and, as with beauty, it appears that the best we can do is to introspectively trace this to a particular feeling. Just as the concept of “tree” is informed purely by the phenomenal experience of trees (and not through some special metaphysical access to the abstract ideal tree) the concept of beauty is informed by the phenomenal experience of conditions which trigger a particular feeling. Isn’t it most reasonable – perhaps even obvious – that morality is no different?
But there are trees out there in the real world which are separate from our phenomenal experience of them. What is the corresponding reality which feeds into the concept of morality?
When I presented my ontology, I identified universals as mental concepts which are constructed as generalizations of our experience of particulars. The particulars which inform a universal need not be mind-independent, objective entities. Despite the connotations of our language (e.g., “that’s a beautiful sunset”), most of us are not inclined to actually assign beauty as an intrinsic property of the object of our perception, but we rather accept it as a subjective component of our experience; beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Likewise, we’re all familiar with the concept of sadness, but not because it exists ‘out there’ in some sense, but because we are all human and have been able to relate a similar internal state to a common idea which we can communicate. My proposal is that morality is like beauty and sadness. Morality is informed by my phenomenal experience of the feelings and intuitions which arise under certain circumstances.
I take it that the view I have presented for sadness and beauty is fairly uncontroversial, but for some reason morality is a different beast. We struggle against the prospect that the subjective experience of the feelings and intuitions which have informed our conception of morality might be wholly subjective – it’s uncomfortable to suppose that there isn’t an objective reality against which we can hold others accountable and point to and say “No! You’re wrong!” How do we account for this relatively unique property of the moral experience?
The social theory of moral origins
I have been hesitant to adopt the standard naturalist explanation for the origin of morality as an evolutionary product of our social heritage. Regardless, I have since come to accept that the evolutionary development of a moral faculty driven by social selection pressures is quite plausible. In the following sections I attempt to summarize the key evidences and reasoning behind this conclusion.
Prosociality in non-human primates
If morality is an evolutionary product then there should be traces of it in other species and, in fact, morally relevant sociality is a characteristic of our closest evolutionary relatives (and beyond). This is perhaps best described by just about anything that Frans de Waal has published or, more immediately, his TED talk (below) offers a quick and accessible overview:
Social factors strongly influence our morality
If a social heritage was a key element in the development of our moral intuitions then we would expect to see that social forces have a continued impact on the expression of that morality. This appears to be the case:
Social Awareness: A multitude of studies have demonstrated that even subtle awareness of “watchers” impacts our moral behavior. This may reflect a biological predisposition, but when we allow that our moral sense is in part a development that arises through our life experience, the social dimension of that development also corresponds nicely with this data point.
Social Compliance: Setting aside survival instincts, ‘peer pressure’ is perhaps the most capable mechanism for getting us to act in opposition to our moral sense. The Milgram Experiment, the Stanford Prison Experiment, Nazi Germany and, more recently, Derren Brown’s “Push” program serve as some of the more extreme negative examples. However, this applies equally in reverse, where our tendency to realize an arduous moral good is substantially bolstered by encouragement from peers and anticipation of “other-praising” emotions.
Social Comprehension: Our moral intuitions tend to calibrate moral culpability in accordance with the moral agent’s capacities and intentions. This feature depends on an interpersonal judgment built on a theory of mind, such as would be inherent in a socially developed morality where other agents inform that development.
In the end, it is clear that the social environment is a primary factor in our moral behavior even when the social consequences of our behavior lie well beyond our perception. This is consistent with the theory that social pressures have guided the development of our moral sense.
The rider and the elephant
The long-standing traditions of moral philosophy and ethics infer that moral judgment is primarily a rational endeavor, but this appears to be a flawed conclusion. Jonathan Haidt has famously compared our moral sense to a rider on an elephant – the rider being our reasoning process and elephant being our emotionally driven intuitions. There is an extensive body of constantly growing literature on this topic, so for a deeper dive on the role of emotion in morality I will simply refer to the writings of Joshua Greene and Jesse Prinz in addition to those of Haidt.
Regardless, the proposition that our moral sense is predominantly emotional only lends support to the social theory of moral origins when we consider empathy and the explanations on offer for the causal link between morality and emotions. Claus Lamm is one of the more prolific researchers of empathy and is a cautious voice at a time when many are hailing mirror neurons and empathy as the underpinnings of our moral intuitions. Despite this caution he affirms that “there is compelling evidence that similar neural structures are activated when empathizing with someone and when directly experiencing the emotion one is empathizing with” (here) and that “There is some support for the above-mentioned role of empathy in morality, although the direct link between empathy and morality remains rather unclear and requires further investigation” (here).
I hope to heed Lamm’s concerns but I also cannot help but step back to view the big picture and see a tidy set of links wherein our moral intuitions are largely dictated by an emotional elephant whose course can be directed by the neurological capacity to take on the perspective of others – a definitively social faculty. The cohesive picture this paints is compelling and when one considers the implications for moral origins, the social theory seems a natural fit.
The last piece of evidence I wish to present for the social theory of moral origins is the very concern which instigated this discussion – the apparently innate drive toward moral agreement. The desire to hold others and ourselves accountable to a particular moral standard has led many to conclude that morality itself is objective (in fact, this is the only non-pragmatic reason I am aware of for the claim of objectivity) but this phenomenon is also explained if our moral sense was developed through social pressures. To say that selection occurred through social pressures is to imply that there is a social dynamic to the evolutionary pathway. This, in turn, requires that there be some sort of reproductive advantage to the selected pro-social tendencies. However, a lone altruist among a band of free-riders is unlikely to realize any advantage. The advantages which arise from prosocial behavior are then also dependent on reciprocity and cooperation. This means that the development of prosocial behavior is most readily accomplished in coordination with the development of proclivities which favor agreement and reject disagreement with respect to those behaviors. The end result is not only a tendency toward prosocial behavior, but a tendency toward favoring agreement on those behaviors.
Some will object here and suggest that our intuitions regarding the objectivity of morality are more like the intuitions we have regarding the veracity of a proposition (e.g., I am sitting on a chair) than they are like a drive toward agreement with others. I’m not sure this is a proper assessment, but I do agree that on the spectrum of intuitions about an entity’s objectivity, our moral intuitions are generally weighted closer toward the ‘objective’ end compared to more broadly subjective claims like beauty, ice cream flavors, etc… This is perhaps most evident in the language we tend to employ in moral discourse, where objectivity is often inferred (though not always – and this inference is certainly also frequently employed in other domains that are generally regarded to be subjective). That said, I’ll offer two thoughts in response:
As noted above, morality is deeply entangled with emotion. The majority of other subjectively informed claims do not carry the same emotional weight, and this is a significant component of the perceived difference and the drive toward absolutes. That is, the strength of the underlying emotions compels us toward an unwavering perspective. There may even be some degree of a subconscious post-hoc rationalization informing an intuition of moral objectivity. The emotional elephant leads the way and the rider can only make sense of the world by rationalizing the course it’s taking as if that is simply reflecting the objective facts about the world. Neuropsychology is replete with examples of how our cognition engages in this kind of post-hoc rationalization and confabulation.
Though speculative, it is not unreasonable to suggest that the evolution of our moral sense may have incorporated the same faculties which bear on our sense of objective veracity if this improves the effectiveness of morality as a motivating factor. Despite the protests of anti-realists, the data does seem to indicate that moral realism is more conducive to moral compliance than is anti-realism (see one, two, three). This makes intuitive sense – if we think that our moral judgments do not have any subjective wiggle room and we can thus be held objectively accountable to those judgments, then we are more motivated to align our behavior with those judgments. So if our moral sense evolved to incorporate some of the same cognitive machinery that helps us judge the veracity of non-moral propositions then the moral sense would be more effective in eliciting the advantage of moral behavior. The net result would be the subjective perception, to some degree, that our moral judgments are in fact objective. Subjective preferences like beauty wouldn’t carry the same selective advantage and so wouldn’t bear the same character in this regard.
Social origins objection #1: Widespread non-social moral intuitions
So what about those pervasive moral claims which are devoid of social impact? For example, why have so many cultures moralized purity and why has disgust been shown to influence our moral judgments? How does the social theory of moral origins explain this?
The first point to make on this topic is to note that whereas some moral claims are devoid of a direct social impact, they are typically not insulated from social feedback. In particular, the anticipation of shame is a significant factor in motivating against non-social behaviors which have been moralized.
Second, there may very well be an indirect social impact. In the case where purity or disgust is linked to the non-social moralized behavior we can note that an inadequate avoidance of pathogens is not only detrimental to the individual but also to that person’s social circle. The germ theory of disease converts a seemingly non-social disgust instinct into a socially relevant behavior, such that social judgment that accompanies moralization may in fact be efficacious.
Lastly, if our moral sense is largely an adaptive product of evolution then the evolutionary path is predicated on the behavior which corresponds with our moral sense (because the feelings themselves offer no selective advantage apart from behavior). Evolution favors efficiency, so it is likely that the neurological systems which serve to guide our behavior in general (through the feelings which motivate and inhibit) are also involved in our moral sense, such that there is some level of commonality in our interoception of the morally relevant motivations and the motivations which influence other aspects of our well-being. This would imply that there isn’t a ‘moral’ category that cleanly distinguishes moral interoception from other interoception. So even if the majority of the intuitions that we have categorized as ‘moral’ carry a social relation, it is reasonable that other, non-social intuitions may seem to fit that category as well.
Social origins objection #2: Culturally constructed morality
Many anthropologists have argued that morality is memetic, not genetic. That is, they suggest that the moral sense is learned and acquired from one’s environment – specifically, one’s cultural influences. I think there’s some truth to this perspective, but I don’t see that it is mutually exclusive with an evolutionary explanation. It seems quite evident that cultural influences serve to inform our moral intuitions but this alone does not explain the aforementioned ‘moral referent’, that distinct component of our interoception. I do not doubt that one’s moral compass is informed by their environment but it’s the compass itself that is primarily of interest here, and culture does not explain it’s existence in the first place.
This is an important concept when it comes to the discussion of moral progress. If morality is defined to be nothing more than a cultural construction then the realist is correct to suggest that there is no such thing as progress. However, if there is a biological basis for the moral sense then progress can be assessed relative to that faculty. Even if there is variability across persons, there is still a common origin that fosters some level of agreement at a fundamental level. Here anthropology re-enters the picture to support the notion of an innate moral nature, as elucidated in the work of Donald Brown and Richard Shweder. This is not to suppose that we can necessarily determine right and wrong answers to individual moral claims by reference to that nature alone, but rather to say that there is a general bent which our species shares.
What is a moral claim?
This was the question I asked long ago and hoped to also answer here. In case the preceding discussion has not made it clear, I am arguing that morality is the concept which refers to a particular set of feelings and intuitions that arise as a result of predispositions which developed in our species through social pressures and are shaped and influenced by our development, experiences and reasoning. As such, a moral claim is simply a claim which implicitly or explicitly refers to those feelings and intuitions (or their absence) as if they were properties of an action, person, object or event. This perspective entails a particular moral ontology, namely …
So it seems that in adopting this view I have officially joined the moral relativist camp. I am quite comfortable with the epistemology and ontology this entails (as outlined above) but these are not informing my conclusion in isolation. Other considerations include:
Dependence on biology: Though I have already touched on this to some degree, there is much more that could be said. Neuroscience has increasingly demonstrated how variations in our neurology bear on our morally relevant judgements and behavior, as most famously illustrated by the classic cases of Phineas Gage and Charles Whitman (also see Patricia Churchland’s ‘Braintrust’ and, more briefly, David Eagleman’s article in the Atlantic for overviews). While this state of affairs is not logically inconsistent with moral realism, it is more parsimonious with a relativistic ontology.
Moral diversity: In accordance with the biological dependence noted above, we observe that these variations manifest themselves in widespread moral disagreement. Though it is true that there are many claims where moral agreement abounds, and even some fundamentals that are nearly universal, it is also the case that moral disagreement is more rampant than is found in objectively arbitrated claims. That is, we are more likely to disagree about a moral claim than to disagree about a claim that is based on empirical observations. As before, though this condition is not incompatible with moral realism, it highlights a divergence from the ontologies we posit for most of the entities that we identify as objective and so it is in that sense unexpected. Conversely, such diversity is entirely expected under a relativistic framework.
Epistemology and ontology aside, relativistic normative ethics is admittedly troubling. Not because I am forced to subscribe to Dostoyevsky’s “all things are permitted” – the shallow characterization of relativism which completely abandons both normative ethics and moral discourse and is often parroted by theistic apologists. No, the trouble is that normative ethics are inherently social and even when we employ frameworks which seek to satisfy our moral intuitions about fairness and reciprocity, such as social contract theory, we are unable to realize the ideal. The application of a normative ethic at the social level will require some level of subjugation wherever there is genuine moral disagreement. Perhaps this is simply an inescapable tension which is intrinsic to our moral sense; a consequence of the unavoidable competition between the benefits of both freedom and cooperation. Just as the realists must concede the inability to objectively arbitrate the moral truths to which they subscribe, perhaps the relativist must concede that the implementation of normative ethics cannot escape the morally distasteful act of imposition. Thrasymachus made a similar observation 2500 years ago and as far as I can tell we’re no closer to a solution. It’s worth continued discussion, but I have grown increasingly skeptical that it will ever be resolved.
Moral relativism also does not mean that we surrender our ambitions of moral progress. There is a human nature and even pervasive moral intuitions are sometimes inconsistent, or in conflict with our nature, or uninformed or misinformed by errant beliefs. Moral discourse and experience can elicit change so that our moral judgments are more accurately aligned with reality and with our inherent nature. Relativism does not mean that we accept all moral claims as equally true. It does not entail pacifism, complacency or anarchy. It does not ask us to ignore our sense of indignation and stand idly by. No, none of these strawmen are true if you’re willing to scrutinize your moral judgments. Can a moral relativist tell somebody else that their behavior is wrong? Yes, but be ready to expose the inconsistencies and faults in their reasoning. Can a moral relativist promote or discourage social policy? Yes, but be ready to use evidence to justify your position, preferably with reference to fulfillment of human nature. Can a moral relativist fight back or intervene when they perceive wrong? Yes, of course. I’m not sure I understand why I even feel the need to answer that question but the rhetoric around this issue suggests that I do.
The big objections
Which leads to the big question. It was going to happen eventually, so I might as well put Godwin’s law into effect now: “Relativism, huh? So the Nazis weren’t wrong?” Under relativism I am able to say that the Nazis were wrong according to my intuitions and those of everybody I know, but I’m not making an absolute claim. Notice that the framing of the objection begs the question for moral realism, so it’s a bit of a trap that tries to force a response within the bounds of that assumption, pushing one to grapple with the intuition toward objective morality that was the focus of the prior discussion. That said, it seems to me that it’s also very reasonable to argue against the legitimacy of the Nazi program on the grounds of errant beliefs and an inconsistency with the moral nature of those who carried out the program. Furthermore, as noted above, there is nothing about relativism which entails inaction or ambivalence toward those with whom we disagree.
“and there’s nothing wrong with torturing babies for fun?” Again, I am perfectly able to say that this is wrong according to my intuitions and those of everybody I know, but I’m not making an absolute claim. However, this is a bit more difficult because there isn’t any reason in this case to also object on the grounds of errant beliefs or conflicts in human nature. If an individual were to be biologically disposed so that they did not find this behavior morally abhorrent then I have nothing but disagreement to offer (though I would argue that in a practical sense, the realist is in the same position). As before, this does not entail inaction or ambivalence.
The last word
In the end, moral relativism is neither pacifism nor a blank check. It requires introspection, reasoning, evidence and discourse. We sometimes act in ways which are in opposition to our true values and intentions; we experience regret. Relativism suggests that you take a hard look and try to understand those values and intentions – to consider whether they actually align with your nature and to examine how they are best achieved – and then to direct your life accordingly. You will still mess up, but at least you are trying and that diligence can eventually shift the underlying feelings and intuitions into closer alignment with reason and, hopefully, reality.
“Ha! Caught you. That’s self-defeating! You can’t say that moral relativism requires scrutiny of our moral judgments! That’s an absolute moral claim!”
I have indeed made a normative assumption, but that assumption was not moral. It was an assumption about the reliability of cause and effect. So allow me to rephrase: moral relativism is most rational and most able to accurately satisfy our morally relevant desires when coupled with introspection, reasoning, evidence and discourse.
I embarked on this truth-seeking pilgrimage four years ago and in doing so devoted myself to following the evidence wherever it leads. Accordingly, I have refrained from aligning with any particular moral theory for most of that time. It is an incredibly complex, confounding, divisive and emotionally draining topic. Evidence is difficult to gather and interpretations abound. So while I have finally taken the step of adopting a moral ontology, it is perhaps more tentative and provisional than any other position that I have staked, even as I recognize that this hesitancy is almost entirely emotionally motivated. Regardless, if you disagree with the conclusion then you are welcome to try and change my mind. That’s why I’m here.
For some time I have been slowly working through a gargantuan post that aims to review and comment on each and every one of the 355 Prophecies Fulfilled by Jesus (and there’s still a long way to go). In the course of that process I’ve had to put some thought into the concept of typology, which claims that some earlier entity or event (E0) is a type, or prefigure, of a later entity or event (E0+t). With regard to prophecy, the idea is that E0 is directed toward E0+t in a teleological sense – that is, E0 existed for the purpose of serving as a pointer to E0+t. As I see it, this is a type of retrocausality, in that we could say that we have E0 because of E0+t. My understanding is that this was commonly accepted as a valid perspective in the ancient world, which stands in contrast to a more modern, “scientific” conception of causality that operates only according to the arrow of time.
However, I have also been reading Sean Carroll’s ‘From Eternity to Here’ which, if I’m understanding correctly, suggests that the temporal causality we see (that earlier events ’cause’ later events) is merely a macroscopic artifact of the universe having started in a low entropy condition. At root, all physical laws are reversible, such that there isn’t really a direction of cause and effect – there’s just a universal trend from lower to higher entropy because high entropy states are simply more probable than low entropy states.
So now I find myself intuitively balking at the nonsense of the retrocausality suggested by typological claims while simultaneously pondering this entropic perspective on time and the reversibility of physical laws, and subsequently wondering whether E0+t really can be a valid part of the explanation for E0. I’m not sure I’ve really wrapped my head around this, so I’m hoping for some additional insight from any readers who feel like they might have something to offer. In short, does a properly scientific perspective on time and causality lend credence to notions of retrocausality, such as we find in claims of prophetic typology?
Note that I am not suggesting that prophetic typology claims would thus become the best explanation for an identified relationship between E0 and E0+t as a result of this perspective. We can still identify the best (i.e., more probable) explanations according to the probabilistic description of entropy, which we perceive as a causal direction from past to future in accordance with physical laws. The question is only whether those prophetic claims are more compatible with a proper scientific perspective on causality versus the classical view of an inviolable temporal order from cause to effect.