Mid-afternoon yesterday two well-dressed men knocked on my door; my suspicion that they were Jehovah’s Witnesses was quickly strengthened when one of them asked my thoughts on the decline of our society’s morality (and confirmed when they handed me a couple issues of The Watchtower). This is an interesting question – not something most people ask when they knock at your door. They were a bit shocked when I told them I didn’t think there was a decline in morality; anyone who knows anything about history can see that sin is prevalent throughout the ages.
The timing of this question, however, was interesting, just a few days after the Virginia Tech shootings. Understandably, this raises the issue of morality and what is happening in our society; a certain amount of self-examination is probably required. Now, I’m not going to address the incident itself, but rather, something which I find much more concerning: the new materialism’s views on morality.
In the April 19 edition of the New York Times, Op-ed Columnist David Brooks wrote a column entitled The Morality Line, in which he stated:
In short, the killings at Virginia Tech happen at a moment when we are renegotiating what you might call the Morality Line, the spot where background forces stop and individual choice — and individual responsibility — begins. The killings happen at a moment when the people who explain behavior by talking about biology, chemistry and social science are assertive and on the march, while the people who explain behavior by talking about individual character are confused and losing ground. And it’s true. We’re never going back. We’re not going to put our knowledge of brain chemistry or evolutionary psychology back in the bottle. It would be madness to think Cho Seung-Hui could have been saved from his demons with better sermons.
Brooks refers to Evolutionary Psychology, which is a pseudo-science – a theoretical approach to psychology attempting to use hypotheses such as natural selection to explain our mental processes as adaptations. It’s more debated than even evolutionary biology, but it’s all the rage in some circles, including those sometimes known as the New Atheists. Morality is not, then, based on any universal, absolute morality (which could suggest the existence of a deity), but has evolved in order to best serve humanity.
Richard Dawkins, one of the more notable New Atheists, wrote an essay a couple of years ago for Edge.org’s The World Question Center in answer to the question What is your dangerous idea? A quote:
Retribution as a moral principle is incompatible with a scientific view of human behaviour. As scientists, we believe that human brains, though they may not work in the same way as man-made computers, are as surely governed by the laws of physics. When a computer malfunctions, we do not punish it. We track down the problem and fix it, usually by replacing a damaged component, either in hardware or software.
But doesn’t a truly scientific, mechanistic view of the nervous system make nonsense of the very idea of responsibility, whether diminished or not? Any crime, however heinous, is in principle to be blamed on antecedent conditions acting through the accused’s physiology, heredity and environment. …
Why is it that we humans find it almost impossible to accept such conclusions? Why do we vent such visceral hatred on child murderers, or on thuggish vandals, when we should simply regard them as faulty units that need fixing or replacing? Presumably because mental constructs like blame and responsibility, indeed evil and good, are built into our brains by millennia of Darwinian evolution. Assigning blame and responsibility is an aspect of the useful fiction of intentional agents that we construct in our brains as a means of short-cutting a truer analysis of what is going on in the world in which we have to live.
At times Dawkins sounds like a character straight out of A Brave New World, or perhaps The Matrix. If we – body, mind and [what we perceive as] soul – are simply the product of the random, materialistic process of evolution, then what do we say about morality? Sam Harris tries to argue that materialism can provide a moral foundation, but the logic breaks down. If I read Dawkins right, there is no morality, only biological, mechanical function.
A dangerous idea indeed…