Thursday, March 25, 2010

Pedophile Priests and Catholic Reform

I don't usually comment on social issues in churches.  Nor do I typically pass on a lot of timely news relevant links.  There are a thousand blogs out there that do that quite well, and I have bigger, philosophical fish to fry.  But this piece, written by gay, ex-priest Catholic blogger/columnist, Andrew Sullivan is an exception.

Sullivan is calling for radical reform in the Catholic Church and for the resignation of Pope Benedict over the most recent priest child molestation and rape scandals.  What's striking about this piece is that Sullivan gives you an exception insider view to the mind and sexual struggles of a priest who is trying to deal with the archaic and unnatural moral demands of the Catholic Church.  I'm also bringing this topic up because the pattern of priest child molestation and rape over recent decades is provoking a level of disgust, cynicism, and moral outrage in me that I am usually too jaded to feel about church matters.

Here's what I think is happening.  As I have argued on many occasions, for evolutionary or psychological or whatever reasons, humans have a deep seated affection for all things religious.  Whatever the truth of the matter is about God, people really want to be religious.  They have what I've called The Urge.  As I see it, this affection and attachment to religiousness among the population has been exploited, deliberately and unknowingly, by religious institutions like the Catholic Church.  So for decades, or centuries rather, priests have routinely molested and raped children in a horrifying abuse of the trust and investment that people have in them in virtue of this deep seated urge.  And by a variety of social, political, and psychological accidents, the Church has somehow managed to cordon off those rapists from the general sanction and normal treatment that any other child molester would get under the law.  The Catholic Church has actively campaigned, and largely succeeded, in keeping the redress of these cases in house.  They have reappointed, moved, hidden, and minimally punished the offenders, while keeping the normal legal authorities at bay.  We've allowed this to happen.  Emboldened by their seeming invulnerability to regular legal and moral requirements in society, the rapes and molestations have gone on and on and on.  Now, apparently, we have a Pope who was complicit in some of these reprehensible acts of facilitation of abuser priests, at least by Sullivan's and a lot of other careful people's assessments.

Our special treatment, and the invincible status of the clergy in our cultures that arises from our affection and respect for religion has to come to an end.  And at the very least, the Catholic Church must have some radical reforms in the sorts of demands they make on their priests and in the way that they deal internally with people who abuse, molest, and rape children.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Monkey Morality

On an evolutionary or naturalized account of morality, the natural selection process endowed us with a set of strong behavioral preferences.  That is, morality evolved.  We are built to be moral beings by evolution.  These behavioral tendencies and preferences have been divided up many ways, but Pinker’s list is a good one: 

  • Harm
  • Fairness
  • Community
  • Authority
  • Purity
See Steven Pinker's “The Moral Instinct”  in the New York Times. 

The idea is that there were selection pressures in place long before we were recognizably human that would have selected for some types of behavioral tendencies over others.  And rather than the common misconception that evolution selects for utter selfishness, a growing body of empirical research is showing that cooperative, constructive social tendencies have been built into us down to the genes. 

Franz de Waal, noted primate researcher, has also provided us with a useful way to view the development of morality.  For centuries we have tended to treat humans as having an evil, selfish, brutish core upon which socialization and the civilizing effects of religion and education impose a thin veneer of moral behavior.  Veneer theory is the view that our chocolate insides are sinful, and our candy coating outside is a set of forcibly imposed moral behaviors. 

But research across many different species has presented a very different picture.  What we appear to have is a deep set of sympathetic behavioral impulses that are fundamental parts of our nervous systems.  The suffering of others isn’t just a forced concern—monkeys, great apes, rats, and even mice all exhibit remarkable behavioral interest in the welfare of others, particularly, but not limited to, their own species.  This research suggests that basic impulses of sympathy, consolation, empathy, generosity, kindness, reciprocity, and fairness run all the way into our pre-human evolutionary history. 

Our nervous systems are built to feel an emotional contagion from the pains and pleasures of others.  Higher cognitive functions allow us to interpret those feelings in terms of empathy for others by recognizing the situation that produced the feelings and the reasons for the other being’s emotions.  Even higher cognitive abilities, laid on top by evolutionary stages, make it possible for us to understand our own feelings and those of others by fully modeling and adopting the other being’s perspectives. 

The charge against this evolutionary and naturalized account of morality is that whatever preferences evolution may have endowed us with, acting in conformity with those contingent behaviors can’t amount to real moral efforts.  One problem is that the account encourages an objectionable moral relativism.  If morality is “just” an evolved set of behavioral preferences and nothing more, then the accidents of history and the variables of evolution could just as well have produced a radically different set of moral principles.  If the tape was run back and play hit again, we could have just as easily ended up praising rape and genocide as virtues and treating kindness, sympathy, and social cooperation as evil.  And if the set of preferences that we have are this arbitrary, then they can hardly be called moral in any robust or meaningful sense. 

Here’s a bit of speculative evolutionary reasoning by way of response to the charge.  At the risk of lapsing into an evolutionary just-so story, let’s consider some of important features or milestones that must be achieved in a species that could end up with something resembling moral behavior.  What’s required, roughly speaking? The creatures must have developed neurologically to the point that they have achieved some level of self-reflection and self-determination in their actions.  Grant me, for the sake of argument, that freedom could evolve.  (See Daniel Dennett’s Freedom Evolves for more.)   
It must be possible from their perspective, at least, to view their own actions as under their control and subject to the influence of their will.  We hold a human morally responsible for murder, but we don’t similarly fault a mountain lion for doing the same thing.  The mountain lion who kills a jogger isn’t the sort of creature who could have done otherwise or who could have wanted anything else, or who could have exerted some self-imposed controls over its actions.  But humans can—we think that they ought to have done otherwise because they can do otherwise.  That’s the famous “ought implies can” dictum from ethics.  

Do we have evidence about what sorts of general evolutionary circumstances could produce beings with these sorts of cognitive capacities?  We do.  There appears to be a consensus among evolutionary scientists that the evolution of our big brains with their fancy capacities is intimately tied with our evolution in social groups and with the development of language.  It’s very difficult to know which comes first here, but at the least we seem to be justified in thinking that a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for the development of higher cognitive functions such as (moral) self-direction  must happen in conjunction with the development of language, and the development of language only occurs in social or group contexts.  (If not, who would one talk to?)  Complex social relationships and robust linguistic communication require a big fancy brain. 

And Morten H. Christiansen and Simon Kirby, Language Evolution.  for some of the work around this thesis.  

So that lets us speculate some more. It would appear then that the only sorts of evolved beings that we would expect to acquire proto-moral and then moral behavioral preferences are beings developing in a relatively stable social and linguistic context.    

What is required for a species to have a relatively stable social and linguistic context?  Think of the roving bands of 30-50 chimpanzees in Kenya.  The evolutionary traits that make those sorts of groups possible are the ones that a conducive to group living.  Now we can see the connection:  Sympathy, generosity, fairness, etc. or some analogs are the behavioral preferences that have to develop in species with higher cognitive functions if they are to have stable social groups.  If they didn’t, they couldn’t function with each other.   We would only expect to find large, stable social groups with complex communications where there are behavioral tendencies that are conducive to social group dynamics. 

This amounts to a roundabout way of suggesting that it’s a least plausible that there are selection pressures in some cases against behavioral norms that are highly disruptive to stable, group social dynamics.  That is to say that if you were to rewind the tape and hit the start button again, you might get creatures who are more hostile, less sociable, and less “fair.”  But it seems unlikely that within species where those behavioral norms take hold, we would not expect the sorts of social cooperative behaviors to develop that must happen in conjunction with the neurological development that will eventually produce beings who are self-governing moral agents.  It seems less likely that creatures who do not take the social cooperation path through evolutionary history would ever develop cognitively to the point of being moral actors.  You either get cooperative, fairness loving creatures with big brains and the ability to reflect on their own actions and make moral choices, or your get creatures that don’t have the brain power to qualify for moral agency. 

As I have pointed out, this is all highly speculative, and I’ve glossed over a lot of very complicated issues.  But the suggestion is that there could be something about the development of big brains like ours that is inextricably tied to particular categories of behavioral norms.  And if that’s right, then the bite has been taken out of the moral relativism charge coming from God believers.  Only certain kinds of moral norms can evolve—the do unto your neighbor as you would have him do unto you kind.    

Some more sources:

Wade, Nicholas.  "Is 'Do Unto Others’ Written Into Our Genes?”  New York Times

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Facing Facts

In the end, one of the central criteria of explanatory adequacy of a theory or hypothesis is the extent to which it fits with the rest of what we know about the world.   If someone is going to adopt the view that God exists, there is a long list of these knowns that the God hypothesis needs to be reconciled with.  There are many, but for the purposes of this discussion I have in mind a group of claims that include these facts: 

  • The age of the universe from the Big Bang to now is approximately 13.7 billion years.
  • The Earth formed about 4.5 billion years ago. (We can find ancient rocks older than 3.5 billion years on all of the continents, and some crystals have been found that are thought to be 4.3 billion years old.[1])
  • Life in the form of the simplest, self-replicating molecules occurs on Earth around 4 billion years ago.
  • The dinosaurs existed during the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous periods from about 208 million years ago to 65 million years ago.
  • Placental mammals arise about 54 million years ago.  
  • Modern humans (homo sapiens) originated in Africa about 200,000 years ago.  (Humans were not, as some people seem to think, contemporary with dinosaurs.)

There are many more.  But for now, let’s just consider these claims about some milestones in the history of the Earth, and we’ll call this list F. 

If it weren’t for the long established religious doctrines that tell a very different story about the history of the Earth, life, and humanity, there would be less cognitive dissonance, at least on the surface between F and the view that God exists.  But those doctrines present believers with the dilemma:  will you accept or reject F in the light of your religious tradition’s denying F?  Of course, some believers deny F.  I don’t want to deal with this position in great detail, but we can say a few things about it before moving on to the main thesis about F and G (God exists.)  To say that the evidence we have in favor of F is substantial is a gross understatement.  We are now in a position where hundreds of thousands or even millions of very smart people, working very hard have amassed a staggering amount of information that proves F beyond any substantial doubts.  We have diverse and thoroughly vetted evidence that has been subjected to rigorous peer review processes from molecular chemistry, geology, anthropology, cosmology, physics, biology, genetics, and paleontology that support F.   During this process, every claim that was part of the case for F has been subjected to the most aggressive and creative attempts at disconfirmation that we could muster.  That is, we believe the claims in F because of their resistance to our best efforts to disprove them.  

As a result, the person who wishes to deny F is in a very difficult position:  she will have to present arguments and counter evidence that is sufficient to undermine or defeat this massive, scientifically sophisticated, and diverse body of evidence.  In effect, she will have to out-science science by producing a means of disconfirmation that is either better than the ones that the scientific establishment has already considered, or that the entire scientific establishment somehow overlooked before they came to their consensus about F.      Some people argue for the fallibility of radio-carbon dating, for example.  But those criticisms haven’t amounted to anything substantial, and the larger problem is that the evidence we have for F doesn’t not rely on any one particular method of corroboration.  Our methods for corroborating F include hundreds of different techniques from different fields that have been tested, retested, vetted, and carefully scrutinized for any possibility of error.  The person who would simply deny F may not appreciate the range, depth, and quality of this evidence, and she has a Herculean task ahead of her in trying to show that all of it is wrong.

On a side note, depending on what sort of God believer she is, she may have this additional problem.  Suppose  she argues that all of the evidence for F, call it EF, is insufficient to prove F because it fails to meet the various high standards of proof that the believer demands.  Presumably, that same believer holds that there is another body of evidence, EG, that is sufficient to prove G, God’s existence.  So in very general terms, this believer is now in the unenviable position of arguing that the quantity and quality of EF is inadequate to prove F, but EG exceeds EF in terms of quantity and/or quality by a margin wide enough to prove G.  (I, for one, am quite anxious to hear what the impressive information in EG is in this case.)  

Here’s another problem that this believer may get embroiled in.  The methods and information that have produced EF are deeply ensconced in much of the rest of what we know in science.  The methods and information that produced EF are so deeply intertwined with the rest of science that denying EF will most likely also have the unintended consequence of forcing the believer to reject a number of other facts.  This will depend upon the details of the case against EF, of course, but I suspect that in order to be consistent, the person who denies EF may well have to also deny claims like e=mc2, Boyle’s law, the Ideal Gas Law, Newton’s laws, Planck’s constant, the atomic weight of hydrogen, the atomic composition of carbon, and so on.  That is, if EF isn’t supported well enough for you, then the evidence for many of those claims won’t be either.  Or in the process of denying EF you’ll be logically, or mathematically committed to also deny some or many of these other central claims in science.  In short, denying F will most likely require you to also deny too many other things that we know are true and that you probably don’t want to abandon.  But deep seated commitments to ideologies make us do surprising things.   Think of the ever sprawling and more bizarre set of claims that the Holocaust denier has to defend in order to consistently reject the murder of 6 million Jews in WWII.  

But let’s assume that the believer has enough sense to acknowledge the reasonableness of F.  What is the problem then?  At least this believer doesn’t have the challenges that the F denying believer above has.  But this believer does need to connect F to G.  God, as most people regard him, is the all powerful creator of the universe.  It was his plan and his act of creation, in some sense, that brought all of this about.  Since God is thought to have had such a broad role in the universe, believing that God is real cannot simply be compartmentalized off from F.  So one would hope that the believer will have some sort of account of how F fits with G.  If humanity has a special relationship with God and God has a particular interest in the existence of humanity in the world, then it’s only fair to ask, how do we reconcile God’s anthrocentric goals and actions with the facts about the advent and development of humans on Earth?  How can the 13.7 billion year age of the Earth or the billions of years of evolution through many lower life forms before humans come onto the scence be reconciled with God’s special intentions for humanity? 

Let me put the challenge another way.  Recent polling data says that only 30% of Americans believe that evolution, unassisted by God, produced humans, while 51% believe that humans evolved with “God guiding the process.”[2]  In some recent, acutely unscientific attempts to clarify, I asked many of my students to speculate about just what form this “guidance” of evolution by God took.  Exactly what work did they think that God did during the process?  A surprisingly large number of them just didn’t know; they hadn’t really thought about it before.  So now I am asking everyone to think about it.  If you think that God is real, and he is in charge of everything, then how does that jive with all of the facts in F? 
“I don’t know,” shouldn’t satisfy us for several reasons.  Since the facts in F are so obviously inconsistent with the traditional religious stories about the origins of the Earth and life and humanity, those facts are at least some prima facie grounds for rejecting the whole account that God did it.  Another way to put it is that the view that God is real should not continue to be the default position once we have rejected the Genesis story.  For eons, people’s doctrines about God and creation have been built around stories that are soundly refuted by F.  So at the very least, we want to hear some account whereby God “creates” it all by way of F.  Even better, we would like to hear some substantial argument that F is in fact the means by which God did it.  Of course, none of the traditional religious doctrines contain such stories.  None of them suggest anything even remotely like the facts in F.  How could they?  Those religious books were written just a few thousands of years ago (after humans had been around for 200,000 years) and we have only come to understand F in the last century or so.  Furthermore, those books tell just the sorts of stories about creation and the history of life that we would expect primitive people to come up with 10 or 15 thousand years ago.  They do not tell the sorts of creation stories that we would expect the infinite creator of the universe to have communicated, given that such a being surely would have known that the universe is 13.7 billion years old, and that life evolved on Earth for 4 billion years before humans came along.  That is, the facts in F come as a complete surprise to those who believe G.  And at the very least, the believer must admit that F doesn’t sit comfortably or easily with G as God has been traditionally conceived.  There’s some explaining that needs to be done to have F and G both be true.  "I don't know" is an evasion that is increasingly difficult to hide behind.  As the "I don't know's" accumulate about how a favored hypothesis can be made to cohere with the facts a reasonable person should reach a tipping where they realize that  there are too many gaps or outright  conflicts between F and G to sustain them both.  

Ideally, this is a set of questions that I think the believe who accepts F should want to answer for themselves.  And they are the questions I’d like to hear answers to:

  • How does it fit into God’s plan for humans to have them evolve from other life forms by natural selection for 4 billion years? 
  • What was the purpose or role in God’s overall scheme of creation of all of the other creatures like the dinosaurs? 
  • If God intended for humanity to arise out of his creation, why would they come about by way of a process that seems to make God’s involvement unnecessary?  
  • That is, how is it that God is in charge of it all, but it all unfolds according to mindless, blind natural principles exactly as if there were no God?
  • Why is God hiding? 
  • If God played a role in the evolution of humans, what exactly was that role? 
  • What did he do?  
  • Did he bring it about that some species died instead of others?  
  • Or that some genetic mutations rather than others occurred?  
  • Did he send forest fires to wipe out the Cro-Magnons so that other Homo Sapiens could ascend?
  • What grounds do we have, aside from a prior commitment to the view that God exists, to think that there was any supernatural involvement in any of these events?
  • How come F runs so deeply counter to traditional religious doctrines about the advent of the Earth, life, and humanity?  
  • Why is it we’re just finding out about F (if God knew all along)?
  • Why is it that God hasn’t appeared to want us to know F?
  • Why is it that it has been human ingenuity and the rigors of the scientific method that have produced our knowledge of F and not God?  
  • What else are we going to find out besides F that will be suprising in light of G? 
  • Can any religious doctrines give us any insight now into other facts about the universe that we’re going to figure out in the future? 
I know that there are some believers such as Craig or Dembski who have attempted to tackle some of these questions.  I do not present these questions as a solicitation for book recommendations—I’ve read those books and I’ve found those attempts at answers to be insufficient for a variety of reasons.  But what I hope to do here is solicit the believer to try to fill in some of the these gaps herself and for us. 

That ultimate answer, I think, is that it becomes too difficult to try to reconcile the God hypothesis with F, if that characterization includes many of the details of Christian or Muslim doctrine.   Reconciling F with G requires too many ad hoc provisions, special pleadings, and equivocations.  This isn't just atheist wishful thinking on my part.  Believers have seen the light on this point by the thousands.  Extensive polling data has shown a robust negative  correlation between education and belief in God and religiousness.  That is, as education (about the claims in F among other things) goes up, belief in God goes down.  Why?  As people learn more about science, as they see how powerful the scientific method is and how predictive it is as a model of reality it simply gets more and more difficult to sustain the religious commitment that they during their more ignorant phase.  As these tensions between F and G build, they give G up.

So for the remaining believers who acknowledge on the one hand that F is true, and who wish to be reasonable, they should be wondering, as we are, what is the back story that can reconcile them?

The answer that I'm suggesting and the one that all of those people in the polls have acknowledged is that the  God hypothesis must be rejected because of its overall failure to fit with the rest of what we know about the world.