Relativity of Theories

I don’t know how many readers of this blog check in at The Corner, but one of the regular features there is the Derbyshire vs. the Papists melee. Over the last couple of days, another one of these broke out over the Pope’s comments about relativism. If you’re interested in following this sort of thing, see here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here. The latest entry is from our own Jim Manzi here and I think the whole business started with this piece on NRO from David Klinghoffer.

This is a bit of a hobby-horse of mine, but I’m only going to ride it briefly now. So:

1. Nothing about the assertion that religion is a psycho-social phenomenon as opposed to something with scientific truth value (that’s what I take to be Derb’s position) implies anything about whether or not there is some kind of universal moral law. I know Derb doubts the existence of God or the gods; I know, as well, that he finds human consciousness to be deeply mysterious, though he doubts this mystery has any religious implications; but I don’t know whether he thinks there’s some sort of universal moral law accessible through reason.

2. Nothing about the denial that there is a universal moral law implies that societies have no ethics. A moral law would presumably exist without a society. An ethic cannot. If there are ethics but not morals, but if the ethics of human societies are meaningfully constrained by human nature, then there may be a natural foundation for much of what we want, socially, from a universal moral law. This is, in fact, what the evolutionary psychologists are trying to argue. They may or may not be wrong on either the science or the philosophy – but that’s what they are up to. It seems to me that if Derb is going to be attacked for not engaging with the specifics of Catholic history and theology (indeed, for dismissing both cavalierly) then Klinghoffer among others deserve similar derision for not engaging with the quite serious arguments about ethics coming from the evol-psych crowd.

3. Regardless of the above, I’m not sure that Jim’s question is a telling one, because it’s just not obvious to me that philosophy has those kinds of consequences. I’m not convinced that anyone becomes a psychopath because of lack of faith, and while I would suspect that some forms of psychopathy go together with a lack of awareness of the reality of other minds, I’m not convinced that there’s a therapy for this condition, and I’m quite convinced that philosophy is not part of that therapy. Indeed, I think his question is backwards: the question is not why, if there is no moral law, we don’t all go on killing sprees. The question is: why, if there is no moral law, and if we know that Joe is biologically disposed to go on killing sprees, we don’t just kill Joe and avoid having to deal with the trouble he’s likely to pose for us down the road. That is where, I think, the Nazi analogies have some force – and where, I think, those who want to construct an entirely contingent (or relativist) set of ethics have some work to do. But, by the same token, there are a few other ideas – nationalism and militarism come to mind – that are probably more readily and directly implicated in the Nazi experiment than Darwin.

4. I continue to believe that both sides of the Darwin vs. Christianity battle are missing the most telling point. We should all agree that religious dogma has no bearing on the truth or falsity of a scientific theory. Heliocentrism is true; geocentrism is false. There is an enormous weight of evidence behind the theory of evolution by natural selection. There is going to be more and more evidence behind new theories about the workings of the human mind, and the interactions of the human genome and human personality. All religion can do is react to these discoveries and, as part of that reaction, caution us about drawing unwarranted conclusions (political, moral, what-have-you) from the evidence. But I don’t think that’s the end of the story, because I think science does have implications for the persuasiveness of specific religious doctrines, simply as a psychological matter. And I think evolution through natural selection is extremely uncongenial to the central Christian story about the nature of sin and evil in the world. Why? Because the Christian story has the entry of strife into the world come about as the result of human sin, whereas the core idea behind evolution by natural selection is that our existence – and the consciousness and ability to sin that comes with it – is a product of strife. Put bluntly: natural selection is not the mechanism that the Christian deity would use to create man in His image. Or, if it is, I’d like to see the explanation. I think that natural selection poses similar but less-acute problems for Judaism and Islam; it poses the fewest problems, I suspect, for Hinduism. Again: I’m not speaking of science refuting religion. I’m speaking of scientific results making certain core religious claims less persuasive. That should have implication for religious affiliation of the small group of people who have truly understood the scientific theories in question – which, in turn, will probably have some social implications. And those social implications should be of general interest, independent of the validity of either the science or the religion.