Monday, May 28, 2007

Biology and Morality: Neuroscience the Next Front in the Religion vs. Science Wars?

Digby linked to an article in the Washington Post today titled "If It Feels Good to Be Good, It Might Be Only Natural" that presages what I believe will be the next major cultural conflict between science and religion: neuroscience.

Grafman and others are using brain imaging and psychological experiments to study whether the brain has a built-in moral compass. The results -- many of them published just in recent months -- are showing, unexpectedly, that many aspects of morality appear to be hard-wired in the brain, most likely the result of evolutionary processes that began in other species.

No one can say whether giraffes and lions experience moral qualms in the same way people do because no one has been inside a giraffe's head, but it is known that animals can sacrifice their own interests: One experiment found that if each time a rat is given food, its neighbor receives an electric shock, the first rat will eventually forgo eating.

What the new research is showing is that morality has biological roots -- such as the reward center in the brain that lit up in Grafman's experiment -- that have been around for a very long time.

The more researchers learn, the more it appears that the foundation of morality is empathy. Being able to recognize -- even experience vicariously -- what another creature is going through was an important leap in the evolution of social behavior. And it is only a short step from this awareness to many human notions of right and wrong ...

You would be hard pressed to find a subject most people would consider more firmly entrenched in the religious magisteria than morality. Why we should act the way we do is, I would argue, just about the most fundamental question religion can answer, at least in terms of its practical impact on everyday life. And now science is beginning to tell us that it has something to say on the subject after all.

Eventually, as research into the biological foundations of human behavior and thought continues, we'll probably end up right where we are today with evolution. There will be a few religious fundamentalist holdouts who reject everything science has to teach us about the world. There will be a few atheists who loudly trumpet this as evidence that God does not exist. And the vast majority will simply shrug their shoulders, understanding that no matter what we learn about the workings of the universe, we're not going to change our minds about what it all means anyway. Theistic moderates will simply claim that "This is how God chose to do it", and atheist moderates will say "Yet again we see that God is not necessary to explain anything, but feel free to believe that if it makes you feel better."

And somewhere, Ken Ham will open an "Anti-Neuroscience Museum", bilking his gullible followers out of millions. THAT you can bank on.


Anonymous said...

I went to the Wash Post and read the replies to the article -- they were quite intelligent and were all over the moral spectrum. You can see it either way, you're right, and that's the part of the equation that remains a mystery and where people take the path that makes sense to them. Either it's just science or it's the way God created us to be -- complex and full of unexplained reasons for why we do what we do. As a believer, I'd go on the side that the human brain and body is way too complex to be an accident or result of a natural phenomenon. The discovery is the real treasure, not the final knowing. But I will agree that empathy is the building cornerstone for morality -- that's why I think that Jesus became man -- not just to satisfy scripture but to truly see how a human being thought, felt, experienced dinner, looked at a sunset and experienced sorrow and love in his heart. To truly understand, he had to empathize. -- Denise

Adam H said...

"To truly understand, he had to empathize"

that means that god not only didn't understand something, but that he didn't really "get" how his creation experienced reality. so how is this god supposed to be omnipotent?

GeoPoet said...


I think your assessment is right on, and each extreme end of the belief spectum will say it fits their preconcieved notions. As I've stated on numerous occasions, nothing science postulates or theorizes could possibly prove or disprove the existance of God or His Son. For example, I would look at this as being exactly what you'd expect - God made man to be one with Himself and this is more evidence that we are made for Him. It would be a shock that we just stumble around with no concept of His nature. Atheists would see nothing but biology without the need for a God. The debate goes on, needlessly and eternally, leaving each person to make their own decision on other factors.

The more religious philosophy papers I read (thanks Denise), the more I am comfortable with the Church's teachings that science and religion (two aspects of truth) are truly and fully compatible. Yet I don't want to get too comfortable, for the journey to self discovery (which, to me, is also the rapture of God within) is a long and exciting ride.

Jeff Hebert said...

A commenter on Ed's blog a few weeks ago made a good point in reply to the discussion going on about whether atheists can be moral. He observed that it's a pointless argument, because if you believe that an innate moral sense is put there by God, then atheists are following it even though they don't know it. It is blasphemous, therefore, to say that an atheist can't be moral because you're essentially denying that God is not actually responsible for our moral sense.