January 16, 2008

In the NY Times, the always provocative Steven Pinker has an extended, very interesting analysis of the evolving science of evolutionary psychology. Or should I say “philosophy,” since in the essay he’s looking for biological roots that underlie the phenomenon of conscience. Biologists, it seems, are using brain scans to determine the sites in the cortex and elsewhere that the brain registers the mind’s response to moral dilemmas. (Note the non-reductive way I phrased that—which is important. The mind decides, the brain follows suit. Any other construction just feeds into the notion that we have no free will.)

Pinker is utterly secular, a kind of neo-sociobiologist. But he denies that he’s a relativist. He describes the quest of scientists to find a common substrate of agreement on moral matters that crosses cultures, and ground it in man’s biological nature. Now, it’s easy to see this in a reductionist light—to disdain any discussion of morality in the light of the “survival” tactics of a creature, a species, or (most alarming) some clumps of “selfish DNA.”

But I think there’s something useful here. The Christian tradition—right up until the Nominalists who influenced Luther and Calvin—held that Natural Law, written in every human heart (and occluded by Original Sin and its variegated cultural effects), was part not of Revelation but of Creation. Indeed, Catholic theology defines Natural Law as those moral precepts which are available, at least in principle, to any thinking human being who reflects on questions of right and wrong. These precepts find echo in the Covenant of Noah—which is the moral code by which Jews traditionally have held that Gentiles are bound. (Relax, folks—it does allow for crawfish.) THAT was an act of Revelation, but it only reaffirmed what had been implanted in man at Creation. In other words, what was hard-wired into him. With St. Thomas’ appropriation of Aristotle, the Christian tradition began to take very seriously man’s biological nature, and to look to it for clues about divine intention. This long history leads, ultimately, to the somewhat ironic events of 1968—when Pope Paul VI used his authority as interpreter of divine Revelation to teach, in Humanae Vitae, that the evil of contraception could be known by reason alone! This isn’t the first time that Church authority was invoked to defend a particular chain of reasoning; at Vatican I, the council fathers declared infallibly that the existence of God could be known… by reason alone!  Lots of fun to be had here, but it’s actually reassuring to see the Church committing herself so profoundly to the centrality of reason. This commitment was reaffirmed by John Paul II in Fides et Ratio, and Benedict XVI in his Regensburg Address.

But back to Pinker: While it may be unsettling to confront the evidence of biological science which suggests just how LITTLE human beings across culture have in common when it comes to specific moral precepts, it’s important to engage these issues. We need not concede the point that our Natural Law conclusions are false, and mere rationalizations for Revealed truths, just because Trobriand Islanders (for instance) might not have reached the same results. One must take seriously the fact that Original Sin distorts and occludes—without vitiating—reason. That human flaw (was it a sort of moral mutation?) set in motion long chains of cultural cause and effect which produced results as varied as the ancient Athenians, and the cannibalistic Aztecs.  No doubt, we can see the hand of Providence in the fact that the Mediterranean world was prepared by centuries of reverence for reason for the preaching of the Logos among the Gentiles. Eric Voegelin went a step further (and MAYBE crossed the line into heresy…) when he mused that the philosophy of Greeks was infused, in some sense, with a kind of “natural revelation.” But there’s some sense in which this idea seems unavoidable.

Pinker’s reasoning and conclusions aren’t exactly reassuring. He suggests that the moral intuitions which apply across cultures cannot be boiled down to specific precepts (as Natural Law theory argues), but rather come down to a series of “themes.” He lists them:

* Harm (avoiding it, to self and others)
* Fairness (maintaining it, if only to also benefit from it)
* Community (preserving it)
* Authority (respecting it)
* Purity (maintaining it—avoiding objects and practices which are perceived as contaminating)

Pinker cites a researcher who opines that “liberals put a lopsided moral weight on harm and fairness while playing down group loyalty, authority and purity. Conservatives instead place a moderately high weight on all five.” (I always knew that we took a more balanced view than the liberals!)

I wish I had the funds to hire a solidly Thomist moral theologian, and set him to work exploring how these cross-cultural observations can be reconciled with the traditional idea of Natural Law. Maritain would have been up to the task; in his Introduction to Philosophy, he took seriously the latest findings of the anthropologists of his time. (By contrast, Teilhard de Chardin took these findings as if they were very large hits of LSD.)

The closest thing I know of to a Natural Law response to the serious work being done by sociobiologists is Thomas Fleming, in his extraordinary The Politics of Human Nature,  which I highly recommend.

I agree with Steve Sailer that conservatives (and I’ll add Christians) have to engage, if skeptically, the theories emerging from the sciences. If we really believe that man is a mixture of body and soul—and not a ghost trapped in a machine—we know we’ve nothing to fear.


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