Friday, October 19, 2007

New Scientist On Ethics and Religion

For a perfect example of how flimsy scientists' reasoning tends to be when they deal with ethics and religion, look at the article in New Scientist featured on the magazine's cover under the title of "If morality is hard-wired in the brain, what's the point of religion?"

This cover-title pretty much sums up its argument, and its summary in the magazine's table of contents repeats the same idea: "What good is God? You don't need religion to be a moral person, so why is it part of almost all human cultures?"

The article describes the work of cognitive psychologist Marc Hauser, whose book Moral Minds says we have an innate sense of morality that is similar to our innate sense of language. Just as Noam Chomsky has argued that the many different human languages all reflect certain deep structures that are hard-wired in our brains, despite the difference of their surface grammars, Hauser argues that the many different moral codes of different human societies all reflect common deep structures that hare hard-wired in our brains, despite the differences in their explicit moral codes that make some societies accept and others reject slavery, revenge killing, aggressive war, inferiority of women, and so on.

Then the article asks: since these deep moral structures are wired in our brains, and since this means that atheists can be good people, then why do we need religion as a support of morality?

It gives the answer developed by Jesse Berling, head of the Institute of Cognition and Culture at Queens University, Belfast: morality and religion evolved in parallel in response to the same evolutionary pressures. Once early humans acquired language and a theory of mind, they could spread news about people's behavior, and anyone who behaved in a pro-social manner would be at an advantage because of his good reputation, while anyone who behaved in an anti-social manner would be at a disadvantage. At the same time, religious belief evolved, because early humans developed a sense that they were being watched and judged, which they attributed to supernatural beings rather than to the group, since theory of mind attempts to attribute intentions and meaning even when they are none.

This argument is superficially plausible, but it has some very obvious flaws.

First, if there are hard-wired deep moral structures that underlie the moral systems of different societies, but if these deep structures allow the moral codes of these societies to be so different that some societies accept slavery, revenge killing, and inferiority of women as part of their moral code, while other societies condemn these same things as immoral, then these hard-wired deep structures obviously are not in themselves enough to impel us to live moral lives or even to tell us what it is to live a moral life. Marc Hauser's theory of hard-wired deep structures underlying morality is interesting, but it obviously does not eliminate the need for moral reasoning or for sanctions to support moral behavior, as the author of this article seems to think.

Second, Jesse Berling's theory that religion exists to support pro-social and suppress anti-social behavior, shows a profound ignorance of the history of religion. This might be a good explanation of the function of modern ethical religions, such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, but early religions did not have this sort of ethical function at all.

Anyone who knows the most prominent Greek myths, such as the myth of Agamemnon sacrificing his daughter Iphegenia to please the gods, can see that this early religion had nothing to do with ethics: it was a matter of pleasing capricious, temperamental gods in the same way that you would please capricious, temperamental people, by doing favors for them. Go back further to early horticultural societies, and you can see that religions are largely a matter of imitative magic, of convincing nature to be more fertile by performing fertility rites.

Jesse Berling's theory of the evolution of religion is what we would expect from a cognitive scientist who knows all about cognitive science and who knows nothing about the history of ethics and the history of religion. When he talks about the evolution of religion, he assumes that the earliest religions had the same functions as religion had in the nineteenth century, because he is ignorant of what literature and anthropology tell us about the history of religion.

See Helen Philips, "Is Good Good: You don't need religion to be a moral person, so why is it found in almost every human culture and what is it for?" New Scientist, September 1-7, 2007, pp. 32-36.