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Regis Nicoll Christian Blog and Commentary

Of Blind Robots and Selfish Genes

"It begins to look as if we shall have to admit…there is something above and beyond the ordinary facts of men’s behavior, and yet quite definitely real--a real law, which none of us made, but which we find pressing on us."

- C.S. Lewis

A sense of oughtness

Why is it that we have a sense of what we ought to do, and feel a sense of guilt when we fail to do it? Why do we value things like compassion, selfless love, sacrifice, and caring for others? Why do we consider people like Mother Theresa, Albert Schweitzer, and the New York City firefighters of 9/11 true heroes?


Michael Shermer, editor-in-chief of Skeptic Magazine, believes that mankind has learned to value such virtues because they foster individual freedom and civil liberties.   According to Mr. Shermer "we run around the world overthrowing dictators because we want to help people."   Our moral notions come not from God or religion but, as Shermer stated on a PBS special, "...over the long eons of our evolutionary history, we evolved a moral sense, an empathy, or a feeling of warmth about doing the right thing..."


A skeptic's skeptic

Allow me for a moment to be a skeptic's skeptic. The evolutionary theory that self-described atheist Michael Shermer endorses is based on purely naturalistic processes. That is, through the random, undirected, and purposeless process of natural selection variations in the human genome have occurred which, after being sifted through the sieve of "survival of the fittest," have given us everything from lungs and vertebrae to rational thinking, emotions, and morality. 


There are numerous difficulties with this theory, but I will focus on only two here. First, natural selection involves natural rejection without regard to compassion, fairness, or "feelings of warmth" towards our speciel neighbors. Second, according to natural selection, the "fittest" organism is the most fruitful organism--the one that gets the most its genes into the gene pool. There are no instructions embedded in the genome to "look after the least of these." To the contrary, we are, as neo-Darwinist Richard Dawkins says, "robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes."


Thomas Huxley, an early pioneer of evolutionary psychology recognized this difficulty stating, "The practice of that which is ethically best--what we call goodness or opposed to that which leads to success in the cosmic struggle for place of thrusting aside, or treading down, all competitors it requires that the his fellows."


In other words, appealing only to the physical processes of matter and energy, we are left without a mechanism to explain one of the most universal phenomena--the moral law.


The Tao

C.S. Lewis speaks of a law (what he calls the Tao) in the core of the Jewish Decalogue that is embedded in all cultures throughout time. According to social scientist James Q. Wilson, the moral motifs of this law include sympathy, fairness, self-control, and duty. Psychologist Martin Seligman agrees. Citing a 70-nation study, Seligman notes that virtues such as wisdom, courage, love, temperance, spirituality, and transcendence span human culture from Greenland to the Masai.  


We co-habit a globe with thousands of religions and scores of governmental styles. Although we are at odds as to which of these social systems is best, we seem in unanimous agreement on a code of conduct which--contrary to the tenets of Darwinism--requires both self-restraint and self-sacrifice.   If the Tao is a merely a human convention or the product of cultural evolution, it is certainly the only standard or ideology enjoying such universal embrace.


It is important to note that this moral code is not about what men do (and for that reason it is beyond empirical observation) but what they feel they ought to do, and feel guilty when they don't. Because the Tao does not describe what men actually do, it cannot be a product of so-called naturalistic mechanisms like instinct or selfish genes.   If it were, men would have no control to resist it. And since it is hidden from direct observation, an extraterrestrial observer who wanted to know something about the Tao could not detect it from man's actual behavior.


The Illuminating Word

In the opening chapter of his gospel account, the apostle John writes about the "true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world." This light that John speaks of is Jesus, the Illuminating Word; our internal moral compass; the general revelation that fills every person with the knowledge of good and evil.


The Illuminating Word conveys data: "bits and bytes" of information concerning good, evil, and Transcendence, to a data processor: human reason programmed into the operating system of the mind for the apprehension and analysis of that data. Everything entering our mind, everything we experience, including divine revelation is processed and interpreted by that software. Although our rational agency does not give us exhaustive understanding of God's revelation, reason and logic enable us to recognize and grasp order, design, truth, Transcendence, and duty.


Nineteenth century Cardinal John Henry Newman once called conscience the "connecting principle between creature and Creator." Human conscience connects the dots between what we experience and what is. It enables us come to a knowledge of the truth, helping us to make sense out of a universe that, otherwise, would seem chaotic and purposeless. It not only teaches us that God is, but what He is. And that is a mighty powerful program!


A God who is there

The Illuminating Word reveals a God who is transcendent and immanent; a God who is infinite and personal; a God who is creator and sustainer; a God who is there...reaching out and revealing Himself to all of creation.


What this leads up to is that we HAVE been programmed; not to preserve our genes as Richard Dawkins suggests, but to apprehend the transcendent and to think of certain actions as right and others wrong. As we know from empirical evidence--wherever there is a program, there is a programmer! And for the Illuminating Word, the apostle John has disclosed its authorship.


"Our knowledge and use of the laws of nature that enable us to fly to the Moon also enable us to destroy our home planet with the atom bomb. Science itself does not address the question whether we should use the power at our disposal for good or for evil. The guidelines of what we ought to do are furnished in the moral law of God."

             -- Wernher von Braun, rocket engineer and space scientist


Regispublishes a free weekly commentary to stimulate thought on current issues from a Christian perspective. To be placed on this free e-mail distribution list, e-mail him at: [email protected].