Information Age Education
   Issue Number 114
May, 2013   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by Dave Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education project.

All back issues of the newsletter and subscription information are available online. In addition, two free 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.

Philosophical/Theological Perspectives
on Consciousness and Morality

Norman Metzler
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 computations.

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 therefore false.

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; Pannenberg, 1998).

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.


References

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.

Given, B. (2013). “The intriguing educational applications of Polyvagal Theory. Parts 1 and 2.” Information Age Education Newsletter. Issues #110 & #111. Retrieved 4/22/2013 from
http://i-a-e.org/newsletters/IAE-Newsletter-2013-110.html and
http://i-a-e.org/newsletters/IAE-Newsletter-2013-111.html.

Habermas, J. (1971). Knowledge and human interests. Boston: Beacon.

McGinn, C. (1999). The mysterious flame: Conscious minds in a material world. New York: Basic.

Nagel, T. (2011). Mind and cosmos: Why the materialist neo-Darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false. Oxford: Oxford University.

Nagel, T. “What is it like to be a bat?” Philosophical Review, Oct. 1974.

Orr, H.A. “Awaiting a new Darwin,” The New York Review of Books, Feb. 7, 2013.

Palmer, D. (2011). Does the center hold? 5th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill.

Pannenberg, W. (1998). Systematic theology. Vol. 3. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans.

Peters, T. (2000). God–the world’s future. 2nd ed. Minneapolis: Fortress.

Schick, T., and Vaughn, L. (2006). Doing philosophy. 3rd ed. Boston: McGraw Hill.

Sylwester, R. (Apr. 2013). “The neurobiology of morality.” Information Age Education Newsletter. Issue #112. Retrieved 5/15/2013 from http://i-a-e.org/newsletters/IAE-Newsletter-2013-112.html.

Sylwester, R. (May 2013). “Moral behavior in bonobos and chimpanzees.” Information Age Education Newsletter. Issue #113. Retrieved 5/15/2013 from http://i-a-e.org/newsletters/IAE-Newsletter-2013-113.html.

Templeton, J. (Sept. 2010.) “‘Top-down causation,’ a humble approach initiative.” Retrieved 5/15/2013 from http://humbleapproach.templeton.org/.


Norman Metzler

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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Information Age Education is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving education for learners of all ages throughout the world. Current IAE activities and free materials include the IAE-pedia at http://iae-pedia.org, a Website containing free books and articles at http://i-a-e.org/, a Blog at http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog.html, and the free newsletter you are now reading.