Sunday, January 04, 2004

The Biological Basis for Morality

Do we invent our moral absolutes in order to make society workable? Or are these enduring principles expressed to us by some transcendent or Godlike authority? Efforts to resolve this conundrum have perplexed, sometimes inflamed, our best minds for centuries, but the natural sciences are telling us more and more about the choices we make and our reasons for making them.

There is a tremendous amount of handwaving and vagueness on Wilson's part in this article when he goes about explaining how science is eventually going to explain religion and ethics. I for one am not inclined to give Wilson the benefit of the doubt. Philosophers have been struggling with this very question for over 90 years, and I'm quite certain that they would regard Wilson's effort here as glib and as lacking rigor.

Wilson concludes by saying that religious and ethical traditions will be subsumed under secular humanism, and in that he has already been proven wrong. I'd recommend the writings of Alasdair MacIntyre in that regard. I don't doubt that secular humanists will continue to attempt to explain religion and ethics, but MacIntyre explains why the attempt will never succeed.

In brief, efforts to explain ethics and theology with science will always founder because science itself is not completely rational and cannot be.

As is often the case for the secular thinker, Wilson seems unaware of the ways in which the very foundation of science is irrational. This is fatal to his argument because this irrational foundation rises up to choak off logic and reason whenever science intersects with the more sensitive aspects of human nature.

At one point in the article Wilson poses the question of what aliens from outer space would think of human behavior and concludes that they would regard ethics and theology as arising out of the biological imperatives of human nature. This might be correct, but until we have the aliens to consult on the matter we are stuck with human beings as the only sentient beings willing to try to understand ourselves, and that gives rise to unavoidable problems.

At several points in this article hints of the the pre-rational foundation of science, i.e., Wilson's overweening pride in his "completely rational" scientific approach, the same chauvinistic, tribalistic aspect of science as a community that he seems to look down upon in religions, threaten to break through and reveal science to be the all too human tradition that it is.

In other words, science will never be an adequate explanation for the workings of the human heart if for no other reason than human beings are not inclined to be emotionally satisfied with such explanations, and because emotions are bound to intrude on the science itself. (One need go no further than a critical reading of the current human psychology literature, as bound up in issues of political correctness as it is, to confirm that much.)

Science and theology are in some ways parallel traditions in modern cultures that will always be seen as the masters of their own domains. People can and will shift back and forth between them as the need arises, using that tradition which works best in the particular circumstance. Thus, science and engineering will continue to be used to design computers and jet airplanes, and ethics and theology will be evoked to settle questions of morality.