Monday, August 7, 2017

Slavery and Evolution


It is always sad to see Christians trying to make themselves seem intellectually or morally superior, but even more so when they attempt to use science to justify their smug haughtiness.  Sad, because this attitude is a violation of one of their Seven Deadly Sins (namely pride), which they blithely ignore, even as they go about touting how much better they are because of their Christian values and beliefs.  And sad, too, because they reject science whenever they see it as a threat to their belief system, but proudly claim credit for it when they think it will make them look better (as in their claim: It was Christians, not atheists, who invented science).  And then there's the misuse of science (or pseudo-science) in a vain attempt to show that their religious beliefs compare favorably to non-theistic scientific theories.  Perhaps the most notable example of this is ID science, which doesn't follow the methods of scientific investigation, but sounds kind of sciencey, and that's good enough for them.

In his latest assault on reason, Victor Reppert again takes the anti-science tack, claiming that moral facts, and by logical extension, the rights of mankind are "metaphysically grounded" (read God-given), and that if we had only naturalism and science as a guide, we would be sure to abrogate those rights.
When we had slavery in this country, of course slaveowners appealed to religion, because people were religious. Had they not been, do you think they would have had any trouble appealing to evolution to justify enslaving black people? If you are looking for it, the case for slavery virtually jumps off the pages of the Origin of Species. - Reppert
But this doesn't make sense on at least two different levels of analysis.

1. The metaphysical reality of moral facts doesn't explain slavery.
If there actually were some kind of abstract or universal object that exists independently called a "moral fact", how would we ever know it?  You can't see it or touch it.  You can't locate it somewhere in space.  It is completely undetectable by any objective means.  And yet, theists claim to "know" that they exist.  How do they know it?  Probably the best answer they can come up with is to say that God reveals it to them.  But this is highly problematic at best.  If God reveals moral facts, he can't manage to get his story straight, because different people have different ideas about what these moral facts are. 

Under what circumstances is it right to tell a lie?  Some would tell you never.  Others would define various scenarios where lying is justified.  And both of these groups will claim that their version of morality is correct, and that it reflects the objective moral truth, as revealed by God.  But it is obvious that both versions are not objectively correct.  What gives?  Maybe God fails to consistently reveal his morality.  Or maybe this objective moral fact doesn't exist.

Similarly, in the case of moral justification for slavery, there was a time when it was seen as an acceptable practice, even among those who believed in the Christian God.  Even the bible condones it.  And I'm not talking about indentured servitude.  I'm talking about harsh, cruel, forced slavery, as described here.  But that moral view has mostly vanished in today's culture.  Now Reppert wants us to believe that his moral rejection of slavery is due to the metaphysical existence of this moral fact.  But how can that be?  The moral "fact" certainly didn't stop earlier cultures from practicing slavery.  Maybe that objective moral fact didn't exist back then.  Or maybe it doesn't exist at all.  But moral beliefs are certainly derived in some part from cultural norms.  At least that would explain why slavery was once acceptable, but isn't now.

2. The scientific theory of evolution doesn't entail slavery.
As a dig to atheists, Victor declares that evolution theory practically entails the practice of slavery.  He says it "jumps off the pages of  the Origin of Species".  Really?  I wonder what pages in particular he was reading when he saw this.  Darwin's Origin of Species doesn't even discuss human evolution, although he did explore this topic, including human morality, in Descent of Man, but I suspect Victor has never actually read either of them.  Interestingly, there is a mention of slavery in the Origin of Species.  It refers to slave-making ants where it appears that one species enslaves another.  This is actually an example of parasitism between species, and it says nothing at all about human morality.

There are four major types of interactions between organisms, each of which have inter- and intra-specific variants (between and within species).  They are competition, predation, cooperation, and parasitism.  And they all drive evolution to differing degrees in different species.  People often think of evolution as being driven solely by competition - the struggle for survival.  And perhaps that's what Victor has in mind when he assumes that evolution must entail slavery.  But that's a naive view of the scientific theory.  While it is possible that competition (or parasitism) between humans could have been the dominant evolutionary force in the development of our morality, the resulting morality would have looked much different from what we actually have.  But Darwin discussed the cooperative social interactions of man that produced our instinctive senses of sympathy, empathy, and conscience.  In fact, cooperation has been the dominant evolutionary force in the development of our innate morality.

That's not to say that innate moral instincts constitute the totality of human morality.  There are shorter-term cultural norms and variants, and it's quite true that some cultures have practiced slavery.  Some cultures condone "honor killings", human sacrifice, and various other practices that are not conducive to long term survival.  But these cultural variants eventually die out for precisely that reason (and possibly arise again in another culture).  Cultures come and go.  But the core cooperative instincts that form the basis of our morality are deeply embedded within the human species.

It is probably because morality is instinctive that many people believe it comes from God.  The scientific reality is that God has nothing to do with it.  It is a long-term biological strategy for survival, that manifests itself as instincts that influence human behavior.  Despite Victor's naive understanding of evolution, the scientific theory of evolution does a much better job of explaining human morality than any theistic theory.  And cultural variations explain the existence of slavery, while theism has no answer for it at all.

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