Monday, February 25, 2013

Sy Garte on Scientism and Morality

This recent post on the website of BioLogos (an organization of Christian evolutionists) is an interesting analysis and rebuttal of atheists (notably Sam Harris) who claim to be able to derive morality scientifically. Sy Garte approaches the intersection of biology and morality much better than I, with my very limited knowledge of biology, have been able to.


  1. As a PhD scientist in training, it's certainly tempting to say things like, "to the extent that mankind has ever come up with real answers about how the universe works, those answers have been found through science." This sort of stance appeals to me because I think that when we make claims, we should make the strongest possible claim we can based on the facts we have available to us, and I think this could fairly be described as a form of "extremism."

    What draws me to extremism, in that sense, is that if we're trying to be both extremist and intellectually honest, we should have a much easier time challenging our ideas than we would if we only took our ideas to the point of "well, everyone agrees that..."

    I think the most important part of the article you posted is the part where Garte calls out Harris' moral values as being counter-evolutionary. Rather than providing concrete examples of morally prohibited but selection-positive behavior and establishing in detail how these examples rebut Harris' claim, the author briefly mentions three examples of behavior he claims fits the bill, and then 1) begs the question 2) claims that Harris isn't supported by science 3)accuses Harris of hypocrisy 4)Claims that Garte's own claim is easy to support without supporting it 5)Agrees with another prominent author that Dennet wants to do something bad that's unscientific 6)Says something that seems irrelevant to me about cunningham 7)makes a claim about evolution of instruments that's probably relevant to someone's book and 8) concludes by asserting that scientism is a failure.

    As far as I can tell, the chief challenge Garte raises to the idea that human social behavior can be explained through Darwinism is that: a) we frown on killing enemies indiscriminately b) we frown on sexual aggression and c) we avoid concentrating power into the hands of dominant factions

    I'm not convinced that these are real challenges. There are obvious benefits to not killing your enemies indiscriminately if you can, instead, convert them into allies or exploit their labor(either through slavery as was common in ancient times, or through economic exploitation which is more common today).
    Regarding concentration of power in dominant factions, I don't really know what Garte is saying here. Power seems to have been pretty well concentrated in the hands of a relatively small number of influential westerners over the last century or two.

    If I were in Harris' shoes, I think that rather than claiming that moral values can be based on scientific principles, I'd claim that we would expect humans to have some moral principles built-in, in a sense. Through a combination of biological and societal influences, we would expect people to behave in a way that allows societies to form and that these societies would be advantageous for society's members compared to people living outside of a society. I haven't read any of Harris' books, however, so I don't really know what his argument is in his own words.

    I don't think that any of behaviors Garte raises as counterpoints to Harris' philosophy provide real benefits to an individual without destabilizing society, and so I don't think Garte has raised a significant challenge to the idea that evolution explains significant parts of human behavior.

  2. Dude, get a blog. :P

    I guess now I'm wondering from a materialist perspective, like you said, how much of human morality we can claim is naturally selected and how much is cultural. I suspect it would be more cultural.

  3. Haha, sorry. I've been thinking about getting a blog, actually, but I'm worried that I'd be another one of those folks you mention who abandon their blogs :D I also sort of like the directness of a comment section for encouraging discussion.

    One thing about selection, is that I don't see it being limited to biological selection. To me, the idea represents a more general principle that things that are able to propel themselves(or a version of themselves) into the future tend to persist, and that as time goes on, you get predominantly things that are really good at persisting. So I see culture as something that can be selected in some regards. This would explain why, for example, we don't see many(although there are some!) cultures that forbid having children. So saying that morality is more cultural than naturally selected(referring to biological selection, I assume) doesn't quite refute the materialist perspective.

  4. I would say that such a generalized version of evolution goes beyond being a scientific inference to a paradigm for looking at and explaining the world, of a similar kind (though maybe not as wide in scope) as the "Christian worldview". Interesting, though. I wonder if anyone has written papers applying the principles of natural selection to cultures?

  5. Yeah, one of the things I'm thinking about writing my first blog post about is trying to define where science ends and rationalism begins. I feel like a beginning of a reasonable definition is to talk about science being rationalism applied to the natural world, but, of course, materialists might define the natural world broadly enough to include human cultures, much like how people would probably include the social structures of lower animals in the category of, "the natural world." This also leaves mathematics outside of science somewhat, and probably a lot of the "soft sciences" too.

    I would definitely agree that trying to talk about selection's application to culture is probably better placed in the soft sciences, but I don't think it's so different from attempting to predict the behavior of markets through rational thought that economics can be called a science and "cultural selection" has to be categorized as something different.