Why God is Necessary for Morality

untitled“No,” my friend insisted, “Morality is just a social construct. It’s a product of ‘group-think,’ a way for the herd to govern itself. It’s just part of the way the mind works, and like the mind, it evolves with the passage of time.”
We had been discussing (here) whether the existence of morality was evidence tending to show the existence of a supreme law-giver, God. I argued that morality is a message, a set of instructions influencing us in how we should act, and that messages only come from intelligent sources. Since moral messages are coming to us from outside of our cultural or temporal setting, there must exist, somewhere, a source for these messages. He disagreed, arguing that such “messages,” if they exist at all, come ultimately from us.
“Slow down a second,” I said. “Let me grant part of what you say. I agree that some rules, some instructions as to how we should act, come from us. We develop social conventions that help us navigate situations in ways that are mutually productive, and each culture may view these customs differently. Looking someone in the eye when discussing a contentious issue might be a sign of respect in one culture but a grave insult in another. We obviously have to know these things if we want to avoid unnecessary bloodshed.”
“Exactly,” he said, beginning to gloat that he had made his point.
“But,” I continued, “the issue here isn’t whether some rules are man-made. No, the question is whether there are any rules that don’t stem from us. Because, if there are, we’re back where we started, in need of an adequate explanation. So, even if I can identify only a handful, or perhaps even one, ‘message’ from an external source, my argument would retain its validity.”
“But you can’t,” my friend insisted. “It’s all just man-made.”
“I don’t think so,” I began. “What you’re not considering is the whole process by which we make moral decisions. It’s not simply learning rules of the road, or rules of behavior. Part of the ‘message’ that we’re receiving is that we really ought to act a certain way. We may disagree on what that way is, but we intuitively try to align ourselves with that ‘right way,’ all the while condemning others who view things differently, or who act differently. We want to not only do what we think is ‘right,’ but convince others of that as well. Why should that be so?”
“Evolution, of course,” he countered. “People who get along with others, who want to do the ‘right thing,’ will survive longer than people who buck the system, so they will produce more offspring over time.”
“Nice try,” I said, “but do you really think that’s an explanation? What makes you think that the guy who cooperates will get rewarded? Take a look at our early history. It looks like ‘might makes right’ was – and still largely is – the human condition. The history of humanity’s behavior is not one of compromise, but of conquest. It’s only with education and enlightenment that people began to change their views, to see the value in compromise. They needed to be taught a different way. And it’s taken us a long time to get here from there, but I don’t see any evidence that ‘evolution’ has much to do with it. Our capacity to judge situations and make moral choices seem to be intrinsic to us; it’s what informs those choices that has changed.”
“How so?” he asked.
“Take a look at what Christ’s message to the world did to the prevailing view of that day. Take any subject where you think we’ve made progress over the centuries, whether it’s slavery, equal rights for women, rights for children, care for the poor or  help for the disadvantaged, and you’ll see Jesus’ radical message about universal brotherhood, about God and our need to heed God’s command to love one another. Our moral progress, to the extent that it exists, stems from a change in ideals. Our external behavior has changed, at least to some degree, because we have adopted a way of thinking that extols virtue, that encourages the value of service, that recognizes the equality under God and therefore under the law of all human beings. We’re still getting lots of stuff wrong, but he gave us a radically different value set as to these issues.”
“Wait,” he interrupted, “You can’t bring Jesus as God into the picture in order to prove that there is a God.”
“You’re right, ” I conceded, “But I’m not trying to do that. It doesn’t matter, for these purposes, whether Jesus was God in order to make this point. The change came in the things, or ideals, that we value, and that wasn’t the product of evolution. In fact, the ideals haven’t changed since Jesus’ time. We’ve just gotten better, in some areas anyway, of putting these beliefs into practice. And I can show you how that is.”
“I’m waiting,” he smirked.
“You think that what we view as morality is simply our genes operating as a product of cultural heritage. But the fact that we assess and condemn aspects of our own culture, of our current culture, is proof that something far different is at play. Lions never gather the pride and consider whether hunting prey could be done in a more ‘humane’ fashion. They operate on their internal programming, their instincts. If conditions change, they may learn to change their approach or their tactics. That would be ‘evolution.’ But we do more than simply change our customs; we ask the question, of ourselves and others, is this the ‘right’ thing to do? There is a part of our minds that engages the question from an ‘outside’ perspective: is this the way things ‘should’ be? This capacity in humans, however, does not itself change. We don’t evolve away from that question onto to newer or better questions. The question about right behavior always remains. If morality was simply a byproduct of ‘evolution,’ we would just act; we wouldn’t ask ourselves whether our current way of acting was ‘wrong’ or could be improved upon. What changes, in any particular time or place, are the situations we confront, and often what we consider to be ‘right’ in a particular situation. But the desire to ‘do right’ – even if only as we see it – remains. That’s what needs explaining. Why do human beings feel the need to justify their behavior? To compare it to a standard of right and wrong? To align themselves with the ‘right’? This never changes; the situations we confront are what change.”
“No, no, no,” my friend interjected. “You’re way off here. What you’re talking about is simply ‘reason.’ We each have the capacity to think, and all you’re describing are examples of thinking, of reasoning.”
“Really?” I paused, wanting him to think about it. “You say reason explains it, but reason is the tool by which we discern things, by which we come to know things. It is not an authority itself.  What we’re looking for is not ‘how’ to think through a problem, but instead what the ‘right’ outcome is. For that we need to know the rules, what a right outcome looks like in the first place, where the ‘authority’ is for claiming that something is ‘right.’ We know ‘how’ to think – we do it naturally – which is what you are referring to with the term ‘reason.’ But those rules of ‘right’ behavior have to first come from somewhere for reason to start working on them, leading us to them. They must be fixed, or they’d be of little value to us. If I want to build a house, for example, the nails and hammer are the tools. I would use these things to reach a result. But it’s the blueprint that is the ‘authority,’ the thing I am following, and it must be set before we begin the work; it tells us what a ‘good outcome’ looks like. What I’m getting at here is how we all seem to agree – how we recognize intuitively – that there is an authority out there for us to access. Something – no, someone – is there, and we seem intent on justifying our behavior to him, even when we consciously reject his very existence.”
“I don’t know,” he countered, but he seemed a bit more hesitant.
Was I making progress? Probably not, but it certainly felt like the ‘right’ thing to do.
Posted by Al Serrato


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  1. mcp says:

    Al, you said “we all seem to agree – how we recognize intuitively – that there is an authority out there for us to access. Something – no, someone – is there, and we seem intent on justifying our behavior to him, even when we consciously reject his very existence.”

    We don’t all agree on that! A combination of empathy with other humans and use of our reason to assess likely consequences of our actions are all that are needed to determine the behavior you describe. If you like you can argue about why we have empathy and reason, but evolution appears to provide a sufficient basis.

    • Al says:

      mcp – I guess we’ll have to disagree on that. While we may not consciously acknowledge what we are doing, that is – in my view anyway – what is occurring. From earliest childhood we hear the refrain – that’s not fair. But who can define “fair.” We just know intuitively that being fair is somehow right, and that others must recognize the validity of this claim of right. We know, in short, that an objective standard is out there, even if we disagree on what the standard is in a particular case.

      You say empathy and reason are all that are needed and evolution can explain them. I don’t see how. How did these first humans act toward each other before any of them had “evolved” empathy? Or reason for that matter? How can you picture a human being, freshly evolved from some earlier life form, that does not yet have the ability to feel or to reason. No, it’s much more reasonable to conclude that human beings have always come “loaded” with software that allows us to feel, to emote, to reason. The question is what values we extol or discourage. And for that we need something more than empathy or reason; we need in short “religion” – a guide that is transcendent to us.

  2. mcp says:

    We can define “fair” by using our empathy and reason! And our intuition relies on that. I understand how you would feel if treated unfairly (reason) and don’t want you to feel that way (empathy).

    You imply that under evolution once upon a time there were earlier life forms without empathy and reason and then suddenly there were humans with empathy and reason. This is just not true and is not how evolution works. As humans evolved, their empathy and reason evolved at the same time. And of course there are many non-human animals with a degree of both empathy and reason.

    • Al says:

      I’m not sure I understand. What, then, is empathy? If evolution didn’t bring it into being, how did it get there in the first place? If it was there in the first place for evolution to help develop, what – or who – put it there?

      • Jordan says:

        Great post Al.

        I think the key thing you hit on about morality that no one seems to get or wanna discuss in the replies is near the end:
        “Reason is the tool by which we discern things, by which we come to know things. It is not an authority itself. What we’re looking for is not ‘how’ to think through a problem, but instead what the ‘right’ outcome is. For that we need to know the rules, what a right outcome looks like in the first place.”

        This is the major tenet of the morality argument. I like the tool illustration, but I think a math illustration works better. Say I present a list of ten numbers. I then ask you to label which of them are irrational. How can a person come to the “right” answer?
        Is reason involved? Sure. But it is not that which makes an answer right. What makes an answer right or wrong are the laws of mathematics. These universally transcendent laws set a right answer to the question “which are irrational?” whether or not I can reason my way to the correct answer or not.
        So how would someone come to the right answer? Sure, someone who was never taught what an irrational number is might be able to come up with a relatively accurate guess as to what it is and could then reason his way through and even get the right answer on most of them. That does not mean his reasoning “made” the answer right. It just let him find the right answer. Even the first to recognize the difference between rational and irrational numbers did not define right and wrong answers. He simply discovered a rule already existing in mathematics. The best way to answer the question then, is to know the universal, transcendent rule that makes an answer right or wrong, and then use reason to apply the rule to the specific problem.

      • mcp says:

        Empathy wasn’t there ‘in the first place’, but some animals prior to humans would have had a degree of empathy, presumably evolved because it gave a social species a competitive advantage in their environment – parental care of relatively helpless offspring and cooperation with others come to mind. Google has plenty of links to articles on evolution of human empathy.

        Are you proposing that it was not possible for empathy to arise through evolution? Or that my empathy and reason are insufficient for me to know what is ‘fair’?

        • Al says:

          mcp, I’m still trying to picture these earlier animals gaining an advantage by developing empathy. I’ve seen plenty of lower animals and they all seem to be operating from instinct. Empathy by contrast requires reflection, an appreciation that I, though different than another human being, share things in common that allow me to “feel” what the other is feeling. I’ve yet to see an animal engage in that kind of reflection. In fact, I see no evidence of any lower animal ever developing empathy, even though they too have presumably evolved these past few million years. That strikes me as a bit odd. Perhaps you could give me an example of an animal group that has evolved past its fellow beings by evolving this mental state?
          Yes, I am quite definitely saying that empathy did not evolve. It is part of the inherent “software” of the normal human mind. While a particular person’s capacity for empathy may increase (or decrease in the case of criminals or sociopaths), it did not evolve from nothing, any more than my muscles evolved from fat. The building blocks are there, and I simply have some capacity to tweak them. Empathy and reason may help you make sense of fairness, but the point of my post is that our recognition that such a state as “fairness” exists – that we attempt to access through reason – is proof of the existence of the standard setter – God.

      • zilch says:

        Evolution did bring empathy into being: you can see it in animals everywhere, taking care of their young. We humans have extended it, at least sometimes, to include all of life. Nothing mysterious here.

  3. mcp says:

    Al, an obvious animal group that has evolved empathy is the primates. But many other animals also exhibit some empathy. Bear in mind there are degrees of empathy, with humans having more than other animals. As zilch said: “Nothing mysterious here”.

    A state of “fairness” only exists in as much as we have an emotional response to being treated more harshly than others, and our empathy means that we have a similar emotional response if others are similarly harshly treated (particularly if those others are ones we strongly identify with). Similar responses have been observed in other animals. Again, “Nothing mysterious here”.

    You are leaping from the fact that we have empathy to “proof of the existence of the standard setter – God”. This is not only not a proof of God’s existence, it is not even an indicator. A ‘common-sense’ belief that something like empathy couldn’t possibly have evolved flies in the face of scientific evidence to the contrary.

    • Al says:

      mcp,that’s news to me. Do you think that a primate can relate to mother a worrying about the safety of her child? About a worker who receives a pink slip and wonders how he will support his family? Without being able to communicate with the primate, can you really be sure that you’re seeing empathy and not simply instinct?

      As to fairness, it may include an emotional response, but emotion is not required. Justice and fairness are similar concepts – rewarding good and punishing evil, giving things their due. Emotion has very little to do with true justice. By your definition, a murderer who strongly feels that his sentence is longer than it should be could claim it was “unfair.” Such a claim would tell me something about the murderer’s feelings, but very little about the fairness or the justice of the sentence being served.

      I’m not claiming that empathy is a proof of God’s existence. I’m saying that it is one of many factors that, when taken cumulatively, point to God as the best and most rational explanation. People are of course free to view things differently, but the cumulative case remains quite powerful, despite assertions that science will eventually explain everything.

      • zilch says:

        Al- who has ever asserted that “science will eventually explain everything”? Sure, maybe some people believe that, but I’ve never met one- have you?

        And as far as I can see, the debate here is mostly about definitions, not ideas. For you, “empathy” requires the sort of rational thought that only humans seem to have. For myself and I think mcp too, “empathy” also includes what can be observed, for instance, in a chimp handing something to a human who can’t reach it, even when there is no reward involved.

        As my father always told me, we need to define our terms.

        cheers from unseasonably cold Vienna, zilch

        • Al says:

          Zilch, a fair point. It is rational thought that needs to be explained. Pointing to instinctual behaviors that appear to be reflective doesn’t change the question, whatever term is applied. Storms make the sky look angry, but that is a reflection of what am thinking, not the sky.

      • mcp says:

        At the risk of laboring the point, I’ll repeat that degrees of empathy have been observed in many animals, not just primates. Google has many links, Wikipedia has a reasonable summary, and there are several easy-read books that cover the subject. Scientific evidence strongly supports the claim that empathy evolved long before humans were around.

        I’m not aware of anyone who asserts “that science will eventually explain everything”, but on this particular topic science already does a pretty good job!

  4. zilch says:

    Al- as I’ve said here before, although we cannot fully explain how rational thought works, and may well never be able to completely, why rational thought exists is not really a mystery. It evolved because it’s an obvious good move, at least for those who can afford it (brains are expensive). If a tiger sees its prey hide behind a rock, even though the prey is now invisible to the tiger, the tiger still knows it’s there, unless it runs away. That’s rational thought, at least in its beginnings, and its fitness value is pretty obvious, is it not?

    So while there are still plenty of mysteries about how thought works- and theism doesn’t explain them either- the fact that some animals evolved to think is not really surprising. It’s actually a no-brainer.

    cheers from chilly Vienna, zilch

    • Al says:

      Zilch, if thought is an “obvious good move,” who was the “mover.” Moves are made by beings that are already thinking. And, if tigers are using rational thought, and if tigers have been around for millions of years, why did the development simply stop? The question is why did one animal, and one animal only, develop rational thought? It really isn’t explainable naturalistically. What you’re left with are numerous unanswered questions. Theism, by contrast, get you to look in the right direction. You won’t find the answer to thought in vague ‘moves’ by primitive life forms with magical self-organizing properties that allow them to become increasingly ordered and complex, despite the law of entropy. The answer lies in some being which transcends this universe, a being with limitless intellect, power, etc. Your next question will, no doubt, be – then who created that being? But this question does not apply as it would for a temporal or natural cause. The answer is, plainly, we don’t know (or as in the case of God – he is without beginning). The same answer we would give if we found machines on the moon. They must necessarily have come from an outside intelligent source, but we would know nothing of that source unless the source revealed itself. What we would not do – I hope – is insist that the moon has properties that allow it somehow to generate machines.

      • mcp says:

        Al, the evolutionary process was the “mover”. You asked: “Why did the development [of rational thought in tigers] simply stop?” Zilch has already given you the answer: “brains are expensive”.

        Traits such as rational thought are not all or nothing. Tigers have a bit, humans have a lot. This is exactly what you would expect under evolutionary processes. Tigers evolved to be successful in their environment, humans evolved to be successful in their environment.

        When you say: “why… one animal, and one animal only, develop[ed] rational thought… isn’t explainable naturalistically”, I can only interpret this to mean that “Al cannot naturalistically explain the level of human rational thought”. Are you really claiming that the development of rational thought breaks “the law of entropy”? Do you think that God magically transformed the DNA in two or more animals to give them human rational thought? Or did he magically zap the first humans into existence, complete with never-seen-before rational thought? Why would he try to fool us by making it look as though rational thought developed via evolutionary processes? In which direction does theism get you to look? Unanswered questions indeed!

        • Al says:

          mcp, your response is a bit circular. The evolutionary “process” can’t be the mover; it is what we are seeking to explain. They developed because they developed does not advance our knowledge. Saying that something is “expensive” requires a standard – expensive compared to what? If they were complex, which I agree, then we’re back to requiring an adequate explanation; random processes don’t suffice.

          As for your comment on expectations – what I see is consistent with a designer, who designed different animals for different purposes. What I would expect from evolution is what I see in nature – gradual degrees of change. If a city is abandoned, I would expect to see random weeds in various stages of growth popping up through the cement. I would not expect to see highly developed patches of ground in the middle of chaos. The same applies for minds -I would expect to see some transitional forms, certainly from primates, or perhaps other mammals, some of whose numbers would begin the process that we supposedly underwent. So, in short, man as the only rational animal is precisely what I would not expect if evolution operates as you posit.

          Yes, if rational thought is a function of our brains (at least in part) and if brains are constructed by following highly specific and complex instructions contained in DNA, then yes, thought violates the law of entropy, which describes what we see in nature – things wind down to lower energy states unless intelligence and power act on them. And yes, God did “zap” the first humans into existence at some point in the past. As for fooling us, one – his revealed word tells us that he did so and two – I see no theory by which rational thought ‘evolved’ into existence. After all, if rational thought can discover truths such as calculus, then such truths must already have existed before the first “evolving” mind discovered them. Leading us back again to an eternal mind.

          • mcp says:

            Al said: “your response is a bit circular. The evolutionary “process” can’t be the mover; it is what we are seeking to explain”. We had been discussing empathy and then rational thought, and indeed evolution is sufficient to explain the existence of both.

            You asked about “expensive compared to what” – you may not be aware that evolution is a series of trade-offs – a large rational/empathetic brain has a cost in terms of (for example) more helpless infants, increased food requirements and a reduced ability to use available energy for other “expensive” traits such as running fast like a tiger.

            It is probably not worthwhile for me to comment on your ‘God-of-the-zaps’, other than to say that “zapping” and breaking the known laws of nature are not necessary to explain the evolution of observed traits.

          • Al says:

            mcp, we’re at an impasse I guess. I don’t think evolution can produce rational thoughts. That would require an intelligent source. It’s not enough to simply say that given enough time, rational thought would somehow emerge. The rocks in my yard will never think, even if I wait a billion years.
            When you describe trade-offs, you apparently do not realize that what you are describing is what intelligent designers, such as engineers, do in building something. Ironic, it seems to me, as you continue to insist that a mindless process that cares nothing about the outcome is engaging in tradeoffs.
            I’m not sure what you mean by god of the zaps. I meant to say “gaps” if I wrote that incorrectly. My point remains the same – evolution works within the laws of nature, acting on systems that are already designed. Evolution is not designing anything, since designing is what intelligent, not random, sources do.

  5. zilch says:

    Al- you don’t believe that evolution can produce rational thought. Fair enough- I don’t believe that just having been there all the time can produce rational thought. Or is God not a rational thinker?

    mcp answered your question about brainy tigers exactly as I would have. There’s room in this magnificently complex world of ours for many ways of making a living, and being brainy, while it has its advantages, is not the only one that works well. Thermophile bacteria, who can withstand temperatures up to and beyond 100 C, make a living on chemicals such as sulfur from the Earth, and may account for the vast majority of the biomass of the planet. They came billions of years before us, and will most likely go on billions of years after us. To them, us brainy types are just an ephemeral froth on the surface of their world.

    More generally, al: you ask us many “why” questions, some of which have pretty good scientific answers, and some of which don’t (yet). And you claim that God is the only possible answer. Trouble is, you’ve provided no evidence that the God hypothesis provides better or even equally good explanations for what we see in the real world- and we are talking about the real world here, aren’t we? For instance: evolutionary theory, combined with radiometric dating, led researchers to guess that they might find a fossil transitional between fish and amphibians (another breaching of the Biblical “baramin” kind) in a certain part of northern Greenland. Lo and behold, they dug, and they found Tiktaalik. Look it up.

    Positing a God does not produce results like this. And I’m hopelessly tied to the real world, especially after seeing how people make up stuff all the time.

    cheers from chilly Vienna, zilch

    • Al says:

      I can see I will never convince you that the God hypothesis makes sense. I start from the premise that the physical universe, with its fine tuned laws and outbreak of life on Earth, is what we are trying to make sense of. A being existing outside of this universe, possessing certain characteristics, is an adequate explanation for both. Things just happening in such a way that this universe and life appear are explanations that defy probability and reason. Consequenly, I infer that God is a better explanation than chance. You, by contrast, set as a presupposition that God must first be fully explainable, visible, accessible for him to be a possible explanation. Since I can’t satisfy that presupposition, you reject him as a possibility. But logic does not demand the presupposition that you impose on this discussion. Knowing everything about the “adequate cause” is not required to know that such a cause must be there.

  6. Jordan says:

    Google “tiktaalik debunked.” Scientists make stuff up all the time.

  7. zilch says:

    Jordan- yes, I’m aware of this “debunking”. Can you tell me what stuff, exactly, scientists made up here? All that happened is that footprints were discovered in Poland that are about twenty million years older than Tiktaalik. All this means is that Tiktaalik is not the earliest vertebrate to crawl on land. But as far as I know, none of the scientists involved ever claimed that it it was. What was claimed is that Tiktaalik is transitional between fish and amphibians, which it is. And what I pointed out- that it was predicted, looked for in a very particular place, and found, is unchanged.

    This illustrates a common misconception about fossils and the Tree of Life. Because new species evolve all the time, but very few new species go on to become the ancestors of a major lineage, that means that any given fossil, while it might be a cousin or close relative to such a direct ancestor, is very unlikely to be that direct ancestor itself. It’s not surprising at all- in fact, it’s to be expected- that there would be many different species close to the one that became the ancestor of all amphibians, some more fishlike and some more amphibianlike. So although there might have been some disappointment that Tiktaalik was not the earliest vertebrate on land, that doesn’t constitute a “debunking” by any means.

    Looking at what google came up with for “tiktaalik debunked”, I was not surprised to find no paleontologists or even biologists saying anything about debunking, but just creationists, and they all used the same argument, based on the same misunderstanding I outlined above.

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