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books based on the newsletters are available: Creating an Appropriate 21st Century
Education and Common Core
State Standards for Education in America. This newsletter is the last of a series of five on recent
research developments on the culturally important issue of morality.
Morality is a human issue because we are a social species. The articles
explore the issue of whether morality is something that emerged as
mammals discovered the values of cooperative behavior, or if it emerged
only when humans evolved into a social species.
on Consciousness and Morality
Emeritus Professor of Theology
Concordia University Portland
The previous articles in this series reported that neurobiology
continues to explore the intricacies of the human brain in its search
for a further understanding of such higher functions as the genesis of
morality. Their basic argument is that scientific evidence suggests
that morality gradually evolved from basic elements of physics into
complex neuronal networks that process consciousness, social awareness,
and moral behavior.
This article takes an alternative perspective, that human morality is
sufficiently different from related mammalian behaviors so that human
versions should be viewed as basically separate phenomena. It will
argue this perspective from the basis of traditional philosophical and
theological studies of the phenomena.
Patricia Churchland’s Book
A major focus of the content of IAE Newsletter Issue #112 (see http://i-a-e.org/newsletters/IAE-Newsletter-2013-112.html)
is the materialist worldview presented by Patricia Churchland
throughout her book, Braintrust:
What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality (2012). She and
her husband Paul have long advocated a philosophical theory called
“eliminative materialism” (Palmer, 2011). In this perspective, common
prescientific “folk psychology” explanations of conscious mental
phenomena (as in “James is possessed by ‘demons’”) can be reduced
either to neurobiological explanations or can be shown to refer to
nothing (as “it” in “it is raining”). Churchland maintains that
neurobiology can provide the more fruitful answer to such issues.
She suggests that morality originates within the neurobiology of
attachment and bonding. It emerges out of the actions of selected
mammalian hormones and neural networks that combine to get us beyond
concerns for self and our juveniles into complex behaviors that manage
an extended and appropriate social life. She thus argues that strong
evidence exists for a powerful non-spiritual biological base for
mammalian and human morality (Churchland, 2012).
It is significant that Churchland juxtaposes a “non-spiritual” base for
morality over (against) traditional “spiritual” foundations. In her
dichotomy, morality is either part of how the human brain functions, or
it is a spiritually imposed metaphysical phenomenon (Churchland, 2012).
She acknowledges that religion has provided moral authority within
various cultures, but that the religious belief that spiritual forces
communicate appropriate moral decisions arose from human doubts that
the brain can biologically care about or value someone else. She thus
“eliminates” the spiritual answer by reducing it to neurobiological
processes; we behave as our brain determines. Her book explicates how
the brain arrives at acceptable and unacceptable moral decisions
without any need for spiritual support. Morality is thus about the
biology of empathy rather than about a set of spiritually imposed codes.
Problems with Churchland’s Approach
A number of problems are inherent in Churchland’s approach to
consciousness, spirituality, and morality. First, the issue of
“consciousness” (or mental self-awareness) has recently
experienced a renaissance in the philosophy of mind. Although most
philosophers of mind agree with Churchland that some form of
materialism must exist, not all agree that some form of materialist or
physicalistic reductionism is necessary. The most attractive theory
explaining the phenomenon of mind without positing a substance dualism
seems to be “functionalism,” an approach growing out of the field of
cognitive science, which synthesizes philosophy, computer science, and
neurology (Palmer, 2011). Taking advantage of the insights of all three
fields, this model views mental functions somewhat like computer
software programs. The mind in this model is not an independent
substantive “thing” but rather a system, an assemblage of parts with a
function. The function is the job that the system accomplishes. In this
model “minds” mainly do computer-like computations. According to this
approach not only humans, but other lower animals such as jellyfish,
can have “minds” and are capable of thinking. The brain relates to its
mental events in the same way that a computer relates to its
But some philosophers and scientists are convinced that mental
properties are irreducibly distinct from physical brain properties,
even though these mental properties depend upon the physical brain for
their continued functioning. The individual neurons, with their dynamic
interaction and networking, are the base for conscious thought,
self-awareness, and intention. At the same time, these subjective
thoughts and intentions have a certain “autonomy.” They practice
“top-down causation,” or mental downward causation, understood as “the
effects on components of organized systems that cannot be fully
analyzed in terms of component-level behavior, but instead require
reference to the higher-level system itself” (Templeton, 2010).
The distinguished philosopher Thomas Nagel in his classic article “What
Is It Like to Be a Bat?” (Oct. 1974) argues that the subjective mental
state of self-consciousness of what it is like to be human is not
reducible to brain states, though it is dependent upon those material
brain states. Philosophers like Nagel, Colin McGinn, and David Chalmers
contend that we have yet to see a meaningful theory of consciousness
and the psychophysical laws that bridge between the mental properties,
such as intentionality, and the physical brain (Palmer, 2011). McGinn
even questions whether an adequate theory can be found, or whether we
are dealing with an irreducible mystery (McGinn, 1999).
Barbara Given’s two IAE Newsletters
propose the polyvagal theory as the way the evolution of the vagus
nerve impacts human behavior (Given, 2013). The third evolutionary
stage moves beyond the freeze, fight, or flight responses of the first
two stages, providing for positive social interaction without
traumatizing fear. She proposes that third-stage self-talk is indeed
effective in overriding the more primitive first and second stage
responses. This would seem to corroborate the top-down nature of
non-material self-talk modifying physiological responses.
David Eagleman's Incognito (2011)
similarly concludes that reductionist materialism cannot explain the
phenomenon of “emergence,” where the whole becomes something greater
than the sum of its parts. He uses the example of the many parts of an
airplane; the individual parts certainly cannot fly, but what emerges
from them properly fit together is the reality of flight. Likewise the many neurons
and synapses that make up the brain do not individually possess
anything like “mind,” but from them compositely emerges the phenomenon
of self-conscious thought and intention. Eagleman’s book stresses the
huge significance of neurobiology for understanding human behavior, yet
he does not conclude that our conscious deliberative choices are only a
matter of biology and environment.
As for evidence of animal “morality” existing already in the
social-empathic behaviors of chimpanzees and bonobos (humanity’s
closest relatives), naturalist scientists such as Churchland and Frans
de Waal posit a fundamental continuity between primate social-empathic
behavior and human empathy, which they consider the basic root of
morality. This supports their contention that human morality has
evolved naturally, with no need for spiritual input at the human level.
But humanly observed correlations between human and non-human empathy,
fairness, and compassion still do not provide sufficient evidence for a
fundamental continuity between bonobo behavior and human morality, nor
for a purely materialistic explanation of moral causation. Philip
Kitcher and Christine Korsgaard in response to de Waal (de Waal, 2006)
argue for a sharp distinction between animal behavior motivated by
emotion, such as empathy, and human morality based on rational
self-consciousness, reflecting on the propriety of a possible course of
action weighed against normative moral standards. Since this latter
level of self-consciousness is uniquely human, so far as we know,
morality in the proper sense is only attributable to humans.
Theology in the western religious tradition of
Judaism/Christianity/Islam presupposes the basic goodness of the
material realm as the creation of a good God—in contrast to much
eastern religious thought, which views the material world primarily as
an illusion (Hinduism) or as the source of pain and suffering
(Buddhism). The western theological tradition maintains that human
uniqueness lies in its “imago dei” or image of God, particularly the
unique ability of humanity to comprehend the moral law of God and
rationally to decide to obey or disobey it.
Humans may indeed be created originally “good” (de Waal, 2006), but
whereas the other animals’ “goodness” persists in their naïve,
instinctive obedience to the creator’s loving intent for them, humans
alone among all animals can and regularly do choose to act contrary to
their divinely intended goodness. Human brutishness equated with the
survival behaviors of other animals actually dishonors the other
animals. In this sense one might consider the other animals to be far
more “moral” than humans, who are so inconsistent in living out their
creator’s intention for them, compared with the other animals.
Eliminative Materialism as a Metaphysical Faith
Churchland’s investigations fail to recognize that an
eliminative materialist philosophy, which holds that only the material
is real and rejects any “spiritual” reality, is itself a metaphysical
belief, not just a rational scientific assessment of the physical
world. Evolutionary theory per se works strictly within the physical
realm of secondary causations and begs the question of metaphysical
beliefs regarding the totality of reality, the ultimate context within
which evolution occurs.
Thomas Nagel, in his book Mind
and Cosmos (2011), reflects the same misconception as
Churchland. He sees Neo-Darwinism maintaining, or at least implying,
that the origin of history and life can be explained completely by
materialistic means. The history of biological life on earth was
“shaped by a combination of random mutations and natural selection.
This process has no foresight: natural selection responds only to the
present environment and evolution cannot, therefore, be aiming for any
goal. This, says Nagel, is ‘almost certainly false’” (Orr, 2013).
Yet Nagel, like Churchland, fails to acknowledge that evolution
is not atheistic per se; the metaphysical stance of atheistic
evolution is a faith assertion regarding ultimate reality, just as the
metaphysical stance of theistic evolution is a faith assertion
regarding ultimate reality. Both beliefs go beyond the evidence to
claim the superiority of their answers to the ultimate questions of
reality over the alternative; neither can prove to the other’s
satisfaction that its belief is true and the other position is
Creation through Evolution
Theistic evolution claims that evolutionary theory explains how the
ultimate spiritual reality is working out its creative purposes in and
through, not above and apart from, nature and history. This
metaphysical position asserts that while chance and randomness
characterize the evolutionary process, it is also possible to view
these within an overarching divine intent or “telos.” (Any suggestion
that this injects an “interest” or “agenda” into “objective”
evolutionary science is specious, since all human investigation
involves some interest or agenda; see Habermas, 1971.)
A theistic evolutionist might answer the seeming contradiction between
the predominance of negative mutations and extinctions in nature on the
one hand (presumably evidence against an intelligent, designing
creator), and the assertion of an intentional, designing creator God on
the other hand, by suggesting the model of a creative writer or artist.
Consider how many attempts are thrown away before an author or artist
achieves a working concept. Creativity as we know it necessarily
involves the possibility of failed attempts and false starts before a
successful outcome is achieved.
This could very well be how God is creating through evolutionary
processes. God certainly has an intention in his creative work, namely
an ultimate fulfillment and completion of all things. Interestingly,
Thomas Nagel, while an atheist, thinks that the materialist view
espoused by science since the 17th century is radically
incomplete, and must be supplemented by something else in order to
enfold ourselves and our minds fully into our science. His best guess
at that “something else” is “teleology,” a tendency of the universe and
nature to aim for certain goals as it unfolds through time (Orr, 2013).
This accords with the theological position of Christianity (the
dominant religious influence within our western culture) that claims
that the provisionality of our present world and life implies an
ultimate completion and fulfillment of all things, a “telos.” This is
the divine intent and final goal in the Kingdom of God—the subject and
heart of Jesus’ proclamation and action (Mark 1:14; Colossians 1:15-20;
From this theological perspective there need be no disconnect between the findings of neurobiology and the spiritual character of morality. Continuing research can help us understand the neurobiological foundations for moral and even spiritual reasoning and behaviors. Western theology can accept God working through the processes of nature, preparing humans for their uniquely moral and spiritual experiences and functions. Their distinctive human capabilities (the”imago dei”) set the stage for the history of their relationship to God and God’s successive revelations, culminating within Christianity in the personal self-revelation of God in Jesus of Nazareth.
This Christian perspective thus argues that God used the human platform of Jesus to give the world the fullest revelation of his saving intention, namely the gift of salvation in the coming Kingdom. Through Christ, God revealed human morality as living in anticipation for the Kingdom, the divine “telos,” by doing now the things that are fitting for that coming Kingdom: forgiving, healing, reconciling (Peters, 2000). Biology and spirituality are thus ineluctably interwoven, but morality is perceived as a uniquely human phenomenon.
Chalmers, D. (1996). The conscious mind: In search of a
fundamental theory. Oxford: Oxford University.
Churchland, P. (2012). Braintrust: What neuroscience tells us
about morality. Princeton: Princeton University.
deWaal, F. (2006). Primates
and philosophers. Princeton: Princeton University.
Eagleman, D. (2011). Incognito: The secret lives of the brain.
New York: Vintage.
Norman Metzler is Emeritus Professor of Theology at Concordia
University, Portland, OR. He received his Master of Divinity at
Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, MO, and completed his doctorate in
theology with Prof. Wolfhart Pannenberg at Ludwig-Maximilians
University, Munich, Germany. He has taught for many years in theology,
philosophy, and ethics, and did his doctoral thesis on the relationship
of ethics and eschatology (the Christian doctrine of the last things).
A practicing Lutheran Pastor, Metzler resides in Vancouver, WA, with
his wife, Mary, a nurse. They have two grown sons.
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