Science and Scientism in Biology: The Origin of Morality

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February 25, 2013 Tags: Morality & Ethics

Today's entry was written by Sy Garte. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

Science and Scientism in Biology: The Origin of Morality
The Parable of the Good Samaritan by Jan Wijnants (1670)

Note: Today’s post, by Sy Garte, was first published in the 2013 winter edition of God and Nature magazine.

The idea that all current mysteries will eventually be solved using the scientific method has been called scientism. Stephen Barr describes scientism as the notion that “all objectively meaningful questions can be reduced to scientific ones, and only natural explanations are rational.” In biology, a subcategory of scientism is evolutionism, the concept that all biological questions (including those concerning the nature of humankind) are reducible to explanations derived from the Darwinian theory of evolution by natural selection.

One of the more outspoken proponents of this view is Sam Harris, a leading figure among the New Atheists, and a fierce antitheist. Harris has written a book and given talks on the idea that morality—broadly, the act of discerning good from bad—can be derived from science.

On the face of it, this seems strange, since the scientific consensus, especially in evolutionary biology, has always been that nature is morally neutral. We know, as scientists, that sharks are not “bad” any more than dolphins are “good.” The true evolutionary view (I always thought) was that fitness is related to success, not goodness.

The problem is that as human beings, we know that goodness exists, so it must be accounted for, and if one is a staunch believer in scientism, it must be accounted for scientifically. In some situations, this accounting seems to be possible. There is a large literature on kin selection as the basis for some kinds of altruism, and Dawkins has made the case that what he calls “misfiring of genes” for kin altruism are responsible for human goodness.

Harris claims that moral values can be based on scientific principles, and that no kind of cultural context, especially faith-based context, is necessary for humans to have a code of morals. He bases this argument on the idea that moral values are based on facts, and that these facts can be tested for their truthfulness. To some extent, this is an old idea. Murder, adultery, theft and lying—some of the best-recognized universal moral prohibitions, all tend to destabilize the coherence of social groups and would therefore be selected against in all societies.

But Harris goes much further, using arguments and examples that are anything but scientific. Since Harris is a leader of the antitheistic movement, and is interested in finding examples of religious practices that he believes can be scientifically proven to be immoral. He cites the abusive treatment of women in Islamic societies as a main example, and he mentions corporal punishment of children as a slap at Christianity.

So how does Harris prove scientifically that forcing women to cover their bodies, and hitting school children with rulers are morally wrong? He doesn’t. Here is what he actually says:

But we can ask the obvious question: Is it a good idea, generally speaking, to subject children to pain and violence and public humiliation as a way of encouraging healthy emotional development and good behavior? Is there any doubt that this question has an answer, and that it matters?

Harris clearly believes the answer to that question is no, and I agree with him. But where is the science here? Has he data to show that children who were subjected to corporal punishment had worse emotional development and behavior than children who did not undergo such punishment? No. He has no such data, and in fact while he considers the wrongness of corporal punishment to be an obvious fact, there are millions of people who consider it to be just the reverse. There is no science here; there is simply a basic underlying moral idea, which Harris shares with others.

Harris touts the evils of Islamic fundamentalism as morally indefensible from a scientific point of view. But what kind of fact is it to say that making women cover their bodies is wrong, other than the “fact” that Harris thinks it is? Is there a science for determining the optimal way to treat women? If there is, it isn’t mentioned by Harris. 

While it may seem obvious that the oppression of women is morally wrong, proving scientifically that its disadvantageous to the thriving of our species is more tricky. In fact, the moral values of Harris, which are typical Western Judeo-Christian values, are largely counter-evolutionary. What we see when we look at history or sociology, is a background of true selection-positive behavior—indiscriminate killing of enemies, sexual aggression, concentration of power in a dominant faction—on which has been superimposed a moral code, followed and enforced despite its anti-evolutionary tendency. The real question to ask is: How is it that humans obey any of these moral codes that do not help them survive as individuals or as members of a culture?

In truth, there is no science at all behind Harris’s grand claim of factual moral values, (beyond such obvious things as it isn’t a good idea to add cholera germs to the water supply). He even admits this by stating:

Now the irony, from my perspective, is that the only people who seem to generally agree with me and who think that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions are religious demagogues of one form or another.

Of course that is correct, because both Harris, and the people whom he calls “religious demagogues,” have formulated moral codes that they hold to in the absence of any “scientific” data. 

The argument that morality is outside the scope of science is not a hard one to make, but it isn’t only morality that must be excluded from the domain of science. The more important argument is that very few of the ideas of evolutionism are based on anything remotely scientific. This is because the evolutionism paradigm includes many distortions of Darwin’s great theory, and too many of these distortions have become accepted by an antitheistic academic culture without proper rigorous analysis. 

Like Steven Jay Gould, I see no evidence that the biological mechanisms of evolution by natural selection can be extrapolated beyond the bounds of biology. Gould devotes several chapters in The Richness of Life to attacking the “adaptationist paradigm,” which is a central part of evolutionism. In responding to Daniel Dennet’s assertion that adaptation and selection explain just about everything, Gould says:

The fallacy of Dennet’s argument undermines his other imperialist hope that the universal acid of natural selection might reduce human cultural change to the Darwinian algorithm as well … The chief strategy proposed by evolutionary psychologists for identifying adaptation is untestable and therefore unscientific.

Cunningham has also explored this issue in Darwin’s Pious Idea. Social Darwinism, eugenics, evolutionary psychology, sociobiology, mimetics and other nonbiological applications of Darwin’s theory are not rationally consistent with the fundamental properties of evolution by natural selection. 

Evolutionism has been used to “explain” all sorts of dynamics in culture, using evolutionary concepts. But, while the evolution of devices that play music (as an example) might bear a resemblance to the evolution of carnivores, it is a superficial resemblance. Devices do not replicate themselves, so they cannot be the target of selection. 

Scientism is a failed philosophical approach to the pursuit of universal truth. Its failure should be evident especially to scientists who, more than most, understand the limits of their fields of study, as well as the enormous effort it takes to wrest nuggets of pure truth from nature. We must, as previous generations of enlightened thinkers have done, admit that issues of morality, beauty, thought, love, art, and culture are not approachable by scientific methodology or tools, or we risk losing a huge part of our human endowment of special (if not divine) genius.


Dr. Sy Garte earned his biochemistry from the City University of New York, where he also holds a bachelor’s of science degree in chemistry. In addition to publishing more than 200 scientific publications in genetics, epidemiology, the environment and other areas, Dr. Garte is the author of Where We Stand: A Surprising Look at the Real State of Our Planet (Amacom) and Genetic Susceptibility to Environmental Carcinogenesis (Kluwer) and is co-editor of Molecular Epidemiology of Chronic Diseases (Wiley). He has been a Professor of Public Health and Environmental Health Sciences at New York University, UMDNJ, and the University of Pittsburgh. He currently works as a science administrator.

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Chip - #76888

February 25th 2013

Given standard evolutionary assumptions, I agree with what Garte calls the “true evolutionary view… that fitness is related to success, not goodness.”  Natural selection (or any other evolutionary mechanism you care to name) has no basis for determining that altruism is “better” than rank self-centeredness.  All it cares about—all it can care about—is whether, and the extent to which the organism in question can survive and reproduce.  If heroic self-sacrifice and murder are both on the table, it will select the one that produces the most and the healthiest offspring.  And nothing else enters into the equation. 

What doesn’t make sense is that he can follow this very consistent statement with an immediate nod to Dawkins.  Is he seriously going to give any credence to the view that the “’misfiring of genes’ for kin altruism are responsible for human goodness?”

But then again, I don’t want to be close-minded.  So instead, I’ll thank the random chance of murky evolutionary history, and its handmaid blind natural selection for the “misfiring of genes” that allows me to care about my kids….

sy - #76891

February 25th 2013

Hi Chip,

Thanks for the comment. I actually do not give credence to Dawkins’ idea of misfiring of genes as an explanation of altruism. If it seemed that I giving a nod to him, its only because, unlike Harris, at least Dawkins seems to have given the problem some thought, and come up with a hypothesis. He claims that since the human population was so small during much of human evolution, it was likely that if two humans encountered one another, they were most likely kin, and therefore the genetic tendency to good to others was established by natural selection. I consider this argument (and I expect you agree) to be extremely speculative, based on no evidence, and not worthy of serious consideration. So, I apologise if I gave the impression that I give any credence at all to this quite “murky” explanation.

beaglelady - #76892

February 25th 2013


Don’t worry—you certainly didn’t seem to be giving any credence for the view of the Dawks.   You merely said that he made a case for his views, not that he made a good case that should be taken seriously.

Chip - #76901

February 26th 2013

I consider this argument (and I expect you agree) to be extremely speculative, based on no evidence, and not worthy of serious consideration.

I do indeed agree.  Thanks for the clarification. 

Chip - #76902

February 26th 2013

Hello Sy,

Thanks for the previous clarification. 

If I may, and if I understand you correctly, I might suggest that a better title for the piece is What the Origin of Morality Isn’t.  You seem to be arguing that standard evolutionary mechanisms can’t explain morality.  And again, I completely agree.  

But having established that, (and I know it’s a huge topic), what does explain morality and what is its source?  I’ll leave the question open-ended and thank you in advance for your reply. 


sy - #76917

February 26th 2013


Again thanks for commenting, and I wish I felt I deserved your advanced thanks, but I dont, because, of course, I cannot answer your question. I do feel, as a Christian, that we have been granted souls from our creator, and that somehow, the moral law which seems to be a part of every human being’s soul is also derived from that same source. More than that, as a mere scientist, with scant theological knowledge, I cannot say.

Jon Garvey - #76904

February 26th 2013

Excellent piece, Sy.

Chip is right, of course, to ask whence comes morality if not from evolution - and we have to explain both actual moral content (eg murder, theft etc being generally thought wrong), and also the propensity we have to care that things are wrong, even when there is variation in that content.

It doesn’t seem that evolution could produce the sense of outrage that in one society is sparked by slavery and in another by dishonour - chimps don’t get outraged by anything except immediate pain or loss.

Another question that’s important for theistic evolution, if morality is admitted to be non-evolutionary, is what other human attributes didn’t evolve, and where they came from in a scientifically-viewed Universe.

sy - #76918

February 26th 2013


Thanks, I’m glad you like the piece. To elaborate a bit on the answer I gave just above to Chip, it is my belief, as a matter of faith, that while human bodies are a direct result of evolution (and that includes our brains) and that in that sense we are indeed part of the biological tree of life, our souls did not arise from any natural process. We cannot even define, in any scientific sense what human consciouness is, and extreme atheists like Dennet, even deny the reality of consciousness.

I believe that whether you call it a soul or consciousness, it is real, not an illusion, and along with it comes everything from beauty, to the internet. Our intelligence might be an evolutionary trait. I doubt that our goodness, our compassion, our artistic genius, or our tendency to try to convince people of our scientific and philosophical viewpoints, by typing words on a screen, is. As for where that came from, I accept the idea that we were made in the Image of God, and that our transcendental qualites are gifts from our Creator.

Jim Clark - #76906

February 26th 2013

I guess I’ll have to tell my many colleagues in psychology who study love, moral development, and the like using scientific methods (i.e., non-experimental and experimental studies) that they should just forget about it.  A biochemist has decided that these activities are nothing more than false scientism.  The narrow-mindedness of some natural scientists is quite scary.

Merv - #76907

February 26th 2013

Insisting that natural phenomena do not tell the whole story isn’t the same as insisting that natural phenomena can’t show any of the story.  The objection to scientism here is in what has been called its “nothing buttery” approach:  that the pastors and spiritual counselors should just forget it because psychologists and biologists [scientists generally] have everything covered and no knowledge outside their domain is legitimate.  We can rightly dismiss this philosophy without dismissing science.  I.e. We don’t have to swing from one “nothing buttery” extreme to the other.  There is a vast middle ground here.


Jim Clark - #76908

February 26th 2013

Here’s the closing statement from the article: “We must, as previous generations of enlightened thinkers have done, admit that issues of morality, beauty, thought, love, art, and culture are not approachable by scientific methodology or tools, or we risk losing a huge part of our human endowment of special (if not divine) genius.”  To say that something is “not approachable” by scientific methodology or tools does not, in my view, translate into a statement about science not being “the whole story,” as Merv claims, but rather asserts that such matters are outside the purview of science.  Moreover, until scientists have made advances in some area (e.g., love), how do we know that there is anything left over?  Finally, something being beyond the ken of science does NOT mean that there are other routes to valid knowledge (e.g., by pastors and spiritual counselors).

beaglelady - #76910

February 26th 2013

Right, it’s not either/or.  Most likely it’s both. 

Merv - #76912

February 26th 2013

Actually—I do make the claim—  (my claim, not necessarily the author’s, though I think my understanding is probably closer to what Sy meant than his words here convey).  I wouldn’t have used the words “not approachable” since that leads to exactly the kind of confusion Jim is discussing.

Theologians aren’t making the strong claim that their approaches to knowlege are comprehensive, relegating all other approaches irrelevant or invalid.  Nor do they even make the strong claim that the subject of their discipline is “knowable” in the same way that empirically measureable things are knowable.  Only militantly atheistic scientists are making such strong claims on behalf of science.  Since they are making the claims, they are the ones who should back them up with science ...   which they can’t do because the question itself is outside the purview of science and always will be.   In short, your colleagues can study away all they want and hopefully make lots of useful progress.  But if they claim that their approach alone is the only valid way to learn or know about love, beauty, etc. or that mechanical aspects represent *the whole* of all there is to know about these things  then they are making a faith statement that goes well beyond any science they have to support it.  Many other thinkers think otherwise while recognizing the faith nature of such an assertion.

Sy does well to point to the intellectual incoherence of scientism as a system trying to make strong claims that it can’t back up.


sy - #76920

February 26th 2013

Jim raises a very good point, and I will admit that I used the wrong language in a mood of thoughtless exuberance, (probably much like Harris did, in some of his statements.) Merv is exactly right. In fact I do not at all believe that human characteristics are not approachable by science. What I do believe is pretty much what Merv wrote, so I won’t repeat it here. Despite being a biochemist, I do not look down on any field of science, including the social or behavioral sciences, but recognize that many real truths about the nature of humanity can and should be pursued by those sciences. But, (as Merv says) I wanted to make the point that it is unlikely that science will gain the entire truth about love, humor, beauty and hope.

I will go even further, (and perhaps stimulate a lot more discussion) by saying that I am not convinced that scientific methodology can uncover the entire truth about anything, even what we tend to think of as the province of the natural sciences, matter, energy, life. That is a very radical view, and I’m not sure its correct, but I do have some philosophical leanings toward the idea that there may be many things that might surpass human understanding (using the tools we now have) at their deepest levels.

Ed - #76922

February 26th 2013

My issue with an article such as this is that it is a one-sided attack on scientism/evolution.  The article only points out the weakness of scientism for reaching answers, without pointing out the weakness of religion/philosophy in reaching those same answers.  It is as if by weakening science, one strengthens religion by default.


I am a scientist who believes in scientism, but my position is slightly more subtle than the one attacked by this article.  I would argue that science is the best and most consistent approach to finding truth.  In other words, when one can reach a conclusion scientifically, it is much more likely to be correct than any alternative approach that relies on holy books or human intuition.  Of course, the power of science is clear in relation to so-called “scientific questions”.  We know that the scientific method is more reliable at curing disease or explaining the motion of celestial bodies than any current holy book.  Science is of course less effective at answer more philosophical questions, but does that really mean that religion is somehow better?  We already know that religion and ‘feelings’ are rather bad at answering the empirical questions, so why would one suddenly trust these approaches for the non-empirical questions? 


Take the question: Where does love come from?  First, religion has many answers that are at times contradictory.  So, which do you pick?  Let’s take the Christian position that true love comes from God’s Spirit at work in us.  How do we test this?  Let’s compare that anwer to the scientific answer that loves is the product of complex neurochemical events within our brain?  I can provide some evidence that non-humans exhibit behaviors consistent with rudimentary love, even though most would argue they do not contain a holy spirit.  I can also show that by giving neurally active chemicals, or damaging the brain, I can disrupt what we call love.  So, at this moment, I am going to trust the scientific evidence. Its proven reliable and consistent so far.


Ultimately, my point is that some questions are easy, and some questions are hard.  The easy questions continually get answered by ‘science’, often in a way that contradicts previous religious positions.  The remaining hard questions are pushed into the domain of philosophy and religion.  Admittedly, there are many questions that science has a difficult time answering at present.  But just because science has not provided a clear answer for human altruism or morality does not mean that the answers offered by religion are somehow more accurate or reliable.   Lack of progress in science is not necessarily a win for religion. 

sy - #76923

February 26th 2013


Your comment contains a lot of material for discussion, but I would like to focus on two parts of it. First, is your assumption that there is a competition between science and religion to see which is right, and therefore the other is wrong. I, and I believe most of Biologos, do not agree with that assumption. As Beagle lady so cogently summarized above, it isnt either/or. What we are trying to say is that science and religion are not opposed to each other, or at least they shouldnt be. They are both valid and useful ways to arrive at truth. Using different methods, and different assumptions, and (yes this is true) different articles of faith. But still, God speaks to us through his holy Book of words, as well as through his works of nature, and it is our task to learn how to read both books in a way that provides us with a unified view of the truth.

sy - #76924

February 26th 2013

The second point I would like to make relates to your third paragraph. When you write

Let’s take the Christian position that true love comes from God’s Spirit at work in us. How do we test this? Let’s compare that anwer to the scientific answer that loves is the product of complex neurochemical events within our brain? I can provide some evidence that non-humans exhibit behaviors consistent with rudimentary love, even though most would argue they do not contain a holy spirit. I can also show that by giving neurally active chemicals, or damaging the brain, I can disrupt what we call love. So, at this moment, I am going to trust the scientific evidence. Its proven reliable and consistent so far.

You are making my point concerning the weakness of scientism. There is no doubt that complex neurochemical events within our brains are involved with feeling of love, and that disruption of such events can destroy that feeling. But what does that “prove”?  It isnt an explanation of love. Its equivalent to the famous answer given by John Polkinghorne to the question of why is the water boiling in the kettle. The answer could be: because the temperature of the water has reached the point where the molecules of H2O are moving so fast that there is a phase transition from liquid to vapor and the result of this is boiling. But the real answer is that the reason the water is boiling is because I am making some tea.

Mechanism is not the same as cause, or agency. The neurosciences can teach us a lot about the workings of the brain, and how things like love and appreciation of beauty, hope and humor, musicophilia and so on, work. But the real questions are why do they exist, what is their purpose, what is all this human stuff for?

Your comment about non humans is also an illustration of the perils of scientism. I would maintain that “behaviors consistent with rudimentary love” while interesting, is not love. This does not mean to assert that other animals feel nothing. I have also had pets. But they do not approach the level of human feelings. And to extrapolate from such observations to a conclusion that we have now settled the question of where human spiritual characteristics come from, is exactly what I mean by the scientific fallacy of scientism. Such extrapolation based on such flimsy evidence would not be tolerated in studies of enzyme kinetics, particle physics or chemical equilibrium, and should not be tolerated when it comes to study of the reality of human life.  

Ed - #77004

March 1st 2013

I agree here as well, to an extent.   I certainly agree that the neurological mechanism for love is poorly defined, despite the strong evidence for that love (which is just a word we use) has a strong neurological basis.  

But if we agree that the scientific study of love is incomplete, let us turn that around.  How strong is the religious claim regarding love. Is there any evidence at all?  I love, therefore God?  I am not dismissing out of hand any religious explanation for love.  I am only asking why I should believe such claims, and the relative power of those claims? For instance, my religion teaches that love derives solely from lovatrons released by invisible winged cupids that hover in our atmosphere. That truth has been clearly revealed to me by the Great Cupid who governs all love. We love because the Great Cupid wills it to be so.  On what basis can one disprove or validate my religious claim?  

Ed - #77003

March 1st 2013

I am sorry for taking so long to respond, and I also appreciate you responding to comments.

My question here is: If religion is a valid and useful way to arrive at truth. How does one validate the truth claims of religion?  Is there a universally accepted approach to identify religious claims that are true, and those that are not?


Ultimately, I here what you are saying and agree to an extent.  I also find the tone of Sam Harris to be irritating, and his conclusion regarding morality unconvincing.  But I do believe that science is a fastly superior and more reliable way to arrive at truth than religion.  Perhaps that makes me a believer in scientism.  I also balk when individuals use the weakness of science in certain areas as a reason to trust in religion.  Religion should be trusted based on its own explanatory power, hence my question above.

GJDS - #76925

February 26th 2013


An interesting article and thought provoking discussion; I would however ask one question, “What is morality?” This is not a superficial question, but instead it is asked nowadays because so many people have their own particular views on this. We may extend this to include views by scientists on what is good and bad. I think we may get a range of answers, many of which would overlap, and I will go so far as to suggest that such an overlap would be found from answers given by atheists and theists.

Religion provides a basis for belief which includes a moral code and a behaviour that we claim would meet with God’s approval. Our conduct however, can vary from person to person. These remarks perhaps may also be taken to show that an evolutionary outlook regarding morality would be very difficult to articulate; some may argue for a social context in which some type of morality may be rationalised as ‘consistent with survival’, but such a basis can be used to rationalise almost any activity, and leaves the question ‘up in the air’.

I agree with the outlook that we can study human behaviour systematically and use various tools the sciences have created, in gaining a better understanding. I do not think that this in itself will provide us with a basis for morality. Finally, I include the human attribute of wishing and trying to become better human beings, as a spiritual aspect of goodwill – this is an intangible attribute that may be discussed, but rarely pinned down to a formula. 

sy - #76929

February 27th 2013


You wrote “but such a basis can be used to rationalise almost any activity…” referring to a purely evolutionary explanation. This point was part of SJ Gould’s attack on the adaptationist paradigm, Gould, an ardent believer in Darwin’s great theory (as am I) clearly felt that arguments of the type that claim “evolution did it” were facile, unscientific, and demeaned the actual theory of natural selection. One can always make an argument (as you point out) for a selective advantage for any trait, or indeed for any event or change, based on selection. Often such statements are based only on a logical inference (like Dawkins misfiring of genes hypothesis), or on nothing at all (Harris’ factual morality idea) with no evidence, and no consideration of counter arguments. What theists need to do, is not accept these pronouncements as the latest findings of science, but recognise them as faith based statements of atheists with a very clear, and non scientific agenda.  

I have often thought that if Steve Gould were still with us, his voice would be greatly welcomed in this arena, since, although an atheist, his honesty and deep scientific convictions would not allow him to join in the anti theistic chorus that has falsely assumed the mantle of true science.


Aniko - #76926

February 26th 2013

Sy, I’ve seen this essay before on God and Nature, but it is still a favorite, because its line of thought matches some of the steps I took on my journey from atheism to faith. As an atheist, I would typically insist that atheism was simply the default, and there was no specific reason for me not to believe - I just lacked faith, that was all. But the truth is that at the same time I thought (and often said) that the world was a terrible place, full of suffering; a place where violence, selfishness, and dishonesty were often rewarded. And like Harris and many of the “new atheists”, I figured morality was just another evolved feature. Hey, you could even see the signs of its messy origin: how the idea of noble behavior and higher social status are linked in every cultural tradition; how high and clean are good and low and dirty are bad; how easily we confuse our disgust with valid ethical reasoning. Our morality is as bad as the rest of the sorry mess - red in tooth and claw, with a thin veneer of civility and empathy, and a whole lot of hypocrisy to cover the cracks as needed. How could it come from a higher source like God?

It was at that point that a friend stopped me, and asked a simple question I hadn’t thought about, and I hadn’t seen in any of the clever discussions I’d read, either. When I’m making that judgment about our evolved morality, he asked, and I’m saying how it doesn’t measure up, what is it that I’m comparing this morality to? What is this standard that it falls short of? I think you’re calling Harris (who is much farther out than I used to be) on the same thing: where do his obviously very strongly held convictions come from, if there is nothing else in the picture but whatever ensures evolutionary success?

sy - #76927

February 26th 2013


Great point. I suppose we could say that the Golden Rule is the Gold standard. But how did that get to be? Where did that come from? Why in fact, should there be any standard at all? Thanks for the comment.

Bill H - #76963

February 28th 2013


Many/most/all of the world’s religions have some version of the Golden Rule.  (As an aside, could that fact be an example of convergent evolution or of Dawkin’s meme concept?)  An idea I’ve been toying with is- among animals that exhibit social behavior, the Golden Rule could have developed from one person figuring out that the reason he shouldn’t harm another person is because that person’s kin will come back and harm him in retaliation.  If so, that’s causality, which is the basis of scientism.  And if causality is the basis of the Golden Rule, then that is a naturalistic explanation for morality.  If morality has a naturalistic explanation, then it can be argued that religion is a natural emergent property of cognitive social creatures.  It is also a fact that humans aren’t the only animals on this planet with self-consciousness and intelligence.  Accordingly, some form of what we call altruism will be exhibited in non-human critters as well as in humans (which is the case).  This suggests (to me) that humans are a part of the natural world and that our sense of morality is a natural (emergent) property of intelligence and consciousness.  If one agrees with this line of reasoning, then the bottom line is that an explanation for morality does not require the hypothesis of God.  This is not to say that God does, or does not exist, however.  It can just mean that if God does exist, he/she/it embedded the physical laws (that we term evolution) into the fabric of the universe (like the ‘law’ of gravity) and that it is an emergent property that manifests when a conducive environment (i.e. cognitive social critters) develops/evolves. 

Chip - #76965

February 28th 2013

the Golden Rule could have developed from one person figuring out that the reason he shouldn’t harm another person is because that person’s kin will come back and harm him in retaliation.

Yes, and ethnic cleansing could have developed from one person figuring out that if the harmed person’s kin will come back and harm him in retaliation, he should just wipe out the whole tribe. That too is “causality, which is the basis of scientism.” 

And, given evolutionary assumptions, what basis do we have for considering “love thy neighbor” as ethically superior to mass murder?  Answer: we don’t.  Both were (ostensibly—note that there’s no science here—but let’s accept Bill’s assumptions for the sake of argument) selected by the same amoral blind watchmaker for exactly the same reason:  they helped a given individual (or tribe) survive and reproduce.  In such a model, there is no “morality.”  There is only unthinking pragmatism. 

Jon Garvey - #76966

February 28th 2013

Hey, you’re on to something, Chip. If the ethnic cleansers then realise the survivors are likely to nuke them, there’s a clear selective advantage in negotiating an arms reduction treaty… and also for banding together to chant “We shall overcome.”

Nothing in politics makes sense apart from evolution…

Bill H - #76970

February 28th 2013

Well Chip, in the natural world, species exhibit both cooperation/mutualism and direct competition.  With non-self conscious critters we could call it “unthinking pragmatism” and self-conscious critters could develop what we call laws, ethical codes, and morality.  My point is that morality (as evidenced by the Golden Rule) could be a natural emergent property.  Humans use both unthinking pragmatism and thoughtful cooperation.  Both are useful and effective but I suspect that as our species evolves, we will find cooperation to be the more sustainable approach.

GJDS - #76977

February 28th 2013

The Golden rule and similar statements are a maxim that summarises core beliefs and teachings. The line of reasoning (Christian) is that God exists and our faith is founded on this; what follows is the attributes the faith teaches are acceptable to God.

It is obvious that if one were to commence with another basis (i.e. God does not exist), that one would be compelled to provide another line of reasoning. Your comments appear to point more to providing compelling arguments for a hypothesis one may select, (or reject) rather than commence with given positions of faith people may adopt.

Faith is not (or at least Biblically) something someone selects from a range of hypotheticals and than comes to a view that satisfies an individual. Faith however requires reflection and reasoning to ensure we understand what it is that we believe. I would say that even then, faith without a display of good character/morality/good works, is an empty thing. (I hope there are not too many errors in this post as it is typed in this small window).

If a person does not have such faith, it follows that he/she would adopt another view.

Jon Garvey - #76986

March 1st 2013

Does not evolution explain what is, rather than what ought to be? “If doing unto others…” were strongly selectable, it wouldn’t be part of morality, but of biology. No moral teachers have arisen to exhort people to eat or run away from wild animals.

sy - #77175

March 6th 2013


That brief comment you just made is, possibly, brilliant to the point of paradigm shifting. I think you might be on to a whole new methodology of how to sort out advantageous behaviors from non evolutionary ones. Or alternatively, you have given us the definition of theology. Either way, thanks, I am glad I finally had time to come back here.

Greg - #77288

March 8th 2013


I realize that the discussion here has largely ended, but I wanted to chime in and tell you that this is one of the best articles I’ve read on here in a long time (and I love the articles on here). You fantastically showed the flawed thinking behind scientism and evolutionism.

Your article inspired me to watch Harris’s TED Talk on this subject. He does the same thing there as described in your article and defines morality as whatever promotes “human flourishing” (which has a different definition to many people). He doesn’t seem to realize that given a different evolutionary past, “human flourishing” would mean something entirely different, which mean morality would change (even though morality, by definition, doesn’t change), which would mean he accepts relativism, which is a laughable ethical theory among philosophers.

Thank you for your insight!


Chip - #76931

February 27th 2013

Nice.  Reminded me C S Lewis’ generally parallel transition from atheism to faith: 

My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in such a violent reaction against it?... Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if i did that, then my argument against God collapsed too—for the argument depended on saying the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my fancies. Thus, in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist - in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless - I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality - namely my idea of justice - was full of sense. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never have known it was dark. Dark would be without meaning.

Aniko - #76937

February 27th 2013

Thanks, Sy. Yes, that’s what I mean. The question is not only why a standard seems to exist, but why do we all (well, almost all) feel that it should? (And why we apply one subconsciously even when we claim none exists, which I find happens all the time.)

Chip, that was certainly the starting point, but it was that argument by Lewis (which I was familiar with and quite annoyed by back then) that I was responding to when I raised the objection that our sense of justice and our morality seemed to be themselves flawed, subject to the same “crookedness” as the rest of the universe. I thought I was quite smart there, until I was asked where that second standard, the one by which I declared the first one flawed, had come from. I realized I would either end up with an infinite regress of evolved standards or admit that I had no idea, and I did the latter. In retrospect, I probably just didn’t get Lewis’s argument completely. (I still prefer N.T. Wright’s formulation in Simply Christian.)

Merv - #76941

February 27th 2013

Sy, thanks for sharing you column and responses.  I don’t know if Jim or Ed are still around, but the brief exhanges they have above inspired me to try my hand at cartooning.  Here is a link to my home-spun theology cartoon; I don’t know how else to share it but to make it a public file in Google docs that should open if you click this link:

Make sure you then click the icon to make it full resolution so you can read it.   Then tell me what you think.


sy - #76944

February 28th 2013


I like the cartoon. I think the addition of those ladders is nice touch. They remind me of the famous staircase image, which once you start down (by agreeing with evolution, for example) inevitably is supposed to lead to atheism and worse. Thanks for the link. I think your point is very well made by the cartoon, and its is a good starting point for discussion.

sy - #76945

February 28th 2013


I like the cartoon. I think the addition of those ladders is nice touch. They remind me of the famous staircase image, which once you start down (by agreeing with evolution, for example) inevitably is supposed to lead to atheism and worse. Thanks for the link. I think your point is very well made by the cartoon, and its is a good starting point for discussion.

Merv - #76946

February 28th 2013

My artistry obviously left much to be desired.  Those weren’t supposed to be ladders.  I was trying to portray fences (in process).  Whether in the process of being built or in the process of being removed would reveal something about the outlook of the reader. 

I also wondered about several different captions for it.  My phrase above “there IS a vast middle ground here” was what I most wanted to portray.

Your ladder interpretation is a wholly unintended, yet interesting direction to take.


Jon Garvey - #76947

February 28th 2013

The devil of the staircase is in the detail, surely Sy.

If for example ones take on evolution is that it does, or must, explain all life without remainder, one might well  say of morality (or anything else), “Evolution explains morality completely without remainder - and if not then we must anyway assume it will do so in future or close the door on rational enquiry. Therefore I have no need of the god hypothesis.”

One could avoid that by, for example, saying, “Although evolution explains everything satisfactorily, I still believe Christ is in my heart…” which is no more than fideism: living in two separate magisteria. Francis Schaeffer would have stuff to say about that contra Stephen Gould.

Better solutions would seem to require either some kind of nuanced critique of the dominant naturalistic evolutionary schema or radical reformulation of theology so that there is no dissonance with ET. Historically, it seems, the latter solution has often tended towards statistical deism or other “off-centre” schemes like Process Theology or Open Theism ... or sometimes a kind of soup of ideas taken from them piecemeal, perhaps because ET is taken as inviolable.

To set up a mediating tribe in the middle Merv’s island requires the serious work of selecting the best customs of each, or else (a) there will be some kind of genocide in the new colony at some point or (b) it will just become a third kind of kooky tribe at war with the other two.

I think I’ve mixed enough metaphors for one post.

beaglelady - #76951

February 28th 2013

I really like it. I wouldn’t be surprised if BioLogos asks permission to use it  (if they are actually reading comments here, that is).

Consider putting it on Flickr for others to use.

Merv - #76980

February 28th 2013

Thanks, Beaglelady.  It was fun to draw it up anyway.

GJDS - #76942

February 27th 2013

Reply Sy #76929 (my reply line does not work)

I too am struck by the honesty displayed by atheists, some of whom I regard as my colleagues - I am not overlly impressed with evolution but I understand that many regard it as the paradigm for the bio-sciences. This does not bother me, as I do not use this in my research - the overeach and often infantile way it is discussed, however (both by militant atheists and theists) leaves a great deal to be desired. Modifying theology to make it ok for evolution is just not right!

My major point on morality is along the lines of this discussion, to point out that people of good will display (dare I say it) an innate sense of morality (be they of faith, or atheists) that reflects their character and social context. I think Peter in Acts was reminded that pagans appeared to him as ‘godless’, but God may have seen them in another light. The question of morality is a wide ranging one that deals with what and who we human beings are, and I think ‘evolutionists’ or ‘scientism’ should stay out of this area of discussion.

Merv - #76950

February 28th 2013

Jon, you wrote: 

Better solutions would seem to require either some kind of nuanced critique of the dominant naturalistic evolutionary schema or radical reformulation of theology so that there is no dissonance with ET.

And you find many such attempts unsatisfactory for their Deistic or Open Theism leanings.  Do you propose any ‘reformulations’ that seem to you to preserve the valuable core of orthodoxy?  I haven’t yet read Ted’s new post on Polkinghorne, and maybe some of this discussion will go there (if it hasn’t already); but does Polkinghorne venture too far into some of these danger areas you mention?


Jon Garvey - #76957

February 28th 2013

Hi Merv

I have only Polkinghorne’s own affirmation that he espouses Open Theism (and Ted’s word, if I remember aright, that he doesn’t want to follow him in that particular direction). So I won’t venture an opinion - but there are others who do “venture too far”.

I’d be more confidently hesitant (!), based on what Ted’s new post says, about Polkinghorne’s taking his stand on natural theology, because I think that has quite limited capability - it can give evidence in favour of God, but takes risks when it tries to say much about his character: only God can reveal that.

The path I’ve found most fruitful, personally, isn’t a radical new departure but a radical old one: classical theism, or to be more precise historic Christianity as reflected in historic Catholicism, Orthodoxy and, particularly, historic Reformed theology. It’s the way the Fathers and the scholastic philosophers and theologians saw things through most of the history of the Church.

The emphasis there is on God’s sovereignty in all things (as opposed to a creation set loose from its Creator - there’s the radical theological bit in today’s democratic climate), and thus his immanence in, as well as his transcendence over, Creation. So, as one sees it in Thomas Aquinas, for example, it refuses to separate absolutely the “natural” and “supernatural”, for God’s guiding providence oversees both intimately (and not just at the moment of creation: he’s a chef, not a re-heater of ready-meals).

All that happens in nature, therefore, whether by law, “chance” or even through volitional acts, is subsumed within his will, active or permissive, but always determining. So whereas in much thinking now the finding of efficient causes, like those in evolution, fills a supernatural “gap” with a natural explanation, I see each efficient cause working teleologically towards his specific purposes. All outcomes are, therefore, finally his outcomes. That way he doesn’t have to play catch-up come the parousia.

That includes what seems evil to us (so parasites or death aren’t evidence that God’s free creation is wandering from his will, but that his ways are often not clear to us). At the very least any system capable of error (such as people) is turned to good by God - or strictly by Christ, through whom and for whom it was all made, and who - if the ascension happened - is Lord over every power and authority.

Many Christians believe in God’s guidance anyway, but they often seem to lack a coherent way of tying it in to scientific reality - basically, I think, because they are unhappy to accept God’s actually making a difference: in other words, they deny “final causation” aka “external teleology” aka “design”. There are exceptions, like R J Russell and even, I understand, Polkinghorne who will positively assert God’s sovereignty over at least some quantum events. Polkinghorne also at one stage, at least, held out  for God’s guidance of chaotic events too.

But the details are less important than the core: if God clothes the lilies, that did not happen through an undirected, or even a free or self-creating, process, though in classical theism it could easily have arisen through mutations and natural selection - if you see the distinction. That’s, however, where it critiques contemporary science, because faced with two simultaneous phenomena - the appearance of superb design and the  appearance of accidental errors - it prioritises the first rather than the second in its metaphysical understanding.

One more word: if that theological picture is right, the efficient causes must be sufficient. To say, for example, that God brings about his purposes through natural law alone is incoherent because law is statistical and orderly, not informational and flexible. So if one’s evolution has no sure mechanism to bring about mankind, it cannot be the complete answer to the creation of man - because classic theism rejects the idea of God hanging around in the hope that something intelligent will turn up that will do well enough.

too long for a post - too short for an answer ... sigh.

Merv - #76981

February 28th 2013

“he [God] is a chef, not a re-heater of ready-meals.”

I LOVE that, Jon.     

Regarding the “Lillies of the field problem” (and yes, I do consider it a problem from within theology) I already wrestle with this particular teaching from Jesus since He also teaches us that the grass of the field (and Lillies!) is here today and gone tomorrow—-  well, obviously, clothing the lilly wasn’t a promise of immortality to it.  So it’s going to die (and probably sooner rather than later).  So theology alone delivers us this double whammy:   don’t worry about life;  and oh, by the way, you’re gonna die anyway.  In the end this life isn’t something for me to frantically cling to (which is my uneasy resolution of this paradox, but I still look both ways before I cross the road.)


Jon Garvey - #76985

March 1st 2013


The “chef/read-meal” analogy was a deliberate ploy to show how fatuous that polemic Van Till line of theologising is. “Is God a coercive control-freak? No, he generously allows his creation freedom…” could be rephrased: “Is God a caring, involved Father? No he lets his affairs go to pot.” The truth must come from revelation, not rhetoric, though rhetoric’s very persuasive, as one can tell by the way it’s endlessly recycled as truth.

I was replying specifically to that common one: “Are you suggesting that God is so incompetent that he has to keep adjusting his creation after he makes it?” Pure polemic: and nonsensical at all kinds of levels from God’s working in eternity (and so not privileging t0 unduly) to his being a caring and relational person. Remember that God actively sent his Son “just at the right time” ... was he so incompetent that he had to “interfere” with his salvation plan…?

The resolving background to your double whammy is, of course, the promise of eternal life (to us - the lilies aren’tso  twitched about eternity). But I take Jesus’s teaching to be that our inevitable death will come “just at the right time”, like the poor little sparrow’s fall. So if I happen foolishly not to look both ways one day, God will be gathering me to himself within his providential will rather than wringing his hands because he’d planned for me to save the world the following week.

Specifically, he was encouraging the disciples to be bold in testifying, because their end would come in his time, not Rome’s or the Sanhedrin’s. But that requires us, again, to go with the biblical flow that God takes away as well as giving - rather than get into knots trying to remove all the unpleasant things in the world from his control - so it feeds back into the natural evil question too.

jack stephens - #76955

February 28th 2013

All social animals evince behavior which seems to be the result of some sort of moral sense. This type of behavior is necessary for any social organization to succeed so it would be heavily selected during the evolutionary process leading to socialization.

Thus what we call morality might just be another example of this phenomena.


Jon Garvey - #76958

February 28th 2013

Just So.

sy - #76987

March 1st 2013


Certainly social behavior didnt start with man, and i’m sure that some aspect of what we call moral behavior has its roots in social behavior which becomes more and more advanced as we get closer to humans. There is a huge literature on altruism and human like morality in chimps and other primates. But human morality is different. Many animals communicate, but human communication is different. And so on. So, you do have a point, but the problem with your comment, I feel, is the use of the word “just”. What we call morality appears to be a lot more than “just another example”. To label it that way is a good example of scientism, meaning a dismissal of an interesting and complex phenomenon based on an essentially faith based notion that it has already been fully explained, when in fact it hasnt. Evolution did it. Nothing  more to say. Sound familiar?

Zachary Stansfield - #76961

February 28th 2013


You’ve taken the time to criticize what I think are obviously fallacious arguments (i.e. Harris’ claim that we can derive morality from empirical evidence, absent any premises), but what is not clear to me is how you get around the criticism of your own position.

Namely, what is this thing you call a “soul” and how does it add anything meaningful to the conversation? It might not be possible to provide valid empirical evidence that morality is explained by our current body of scientific knowledge, but this in no way implies that we must add something extra on top. In other words, it’s unclear how your own position survives the very criticism you apply to Harris: you don’t provide us with a concept endowed with any explanatory power.

While I enjoy making hypotheses as much as the next fellow, what I don’t see mentioned here or elsewhere is that the null in all of these cases is simply that something is unexplained when we don’t have the data or knowledge to explain it. I imagine that writers like Dawkins, Harris and Dennett recognize this, and take for granted the potential that their speculations might be wrong when they try to extend this knowledge beyond that subset of reality we are capable of studying currently. Thus, it is easy to criticize their arguments based upon either the improbability that their inferences are correct or because they over-reach when, for example, Harris tries to apply scientific methods to the purpose of deriving moral precepts.

My understanding of religious dogma is that it does not even accept that such things could be unexplained—rather, they are the work of God. I cannot disprove this position scientifically because, well, it’s just extraneous. If science has not and possibly cannot explain certain aspects of reality it is reasonable for humans to apply other methods to derive truth, but when these methods produce conclusions which are indefensible, they should be abandoned. I certainly hope Harris will abandon his “scientific morality” folly, just as I hope that religious folk will accept that many (albeit, not all) religious beliefs set out by the major religions are simply implausible.

sy - #76988

March 1st 2013


There are several ways to anwer your comment. I criticise Harris because his argument is science based, and there is no science behind it, or it is deeply flawed science. Faith based arguments can also be criticized, (and they are, constantly) based on what some consider to be flawed theology. The huge debate that is going on at this web site and throughout te Christian world, on interpretation of parts of the Bible is an example.

I believe its a mistake to use words like indefensible and implausible to describe theological arguments based on science, and vice versa. My belief in Jesus Christ as personal savior and redeemer is not something that is subject to scientific plausibility, and the reality of evolution and mutation is not subject to theological interpretation.

I am not defending NOMA here. I do think that with enough work and struggle it is possible to discover a unified view of reality that is both scientifically and theologically consistent. But such a view will need to “evolve” from much better interpretations of both nature and holy scripture than we have now. What is not helpful to this effort are pseudo-scientific statements that derive from scientism, rather than actual science.

Zachary Stansfield - #76996

March 1st 2013

Thanks for responding Sy,

I agree with your criticism of Harris (i.e. that he purports to argue from scientific authority without utilizing legitimate scientific evidence).

Just to clarify, my use of terms such as “indefensible” and “implausible” really only apply to theological claims about reality which clearly conflict with scientific evidence or reasonable philosophical inferences based such evidence.

So, for example, I accept that, given the constraints of current scientific knowledge, we must infer the existence or potential existence of a more extensive reality than can be known by any person at this moment. If a given individual wishes to fill in this metaphysical and epistemological unknown with specific theological interpretations that is of course a legitimate, personal choice, but it seems to me that any specific interpretation is very likely to be at best inaccurate and at worst misleading. Nonetheless, speculation can be a critical and healthy part of human life.

But even from this perspective, I don’t see why theological beliefs are more relevant to defining moral behaviour than is scientific knowledge. Yes, Harris’ interpretation is flawed, because he derives a number of claims which do not actually rely upon such knowledge. When you call scientism “a failed philosophical approach to the pursuit of universal truth”, do you mean by this to imply that there are other sources of such universality? My reading of this (which may be inaccurate) is that you wish to fill in the void between scientific knowledge about reality and prescriptions about moral behavior by relying upon some sort of universal theological truth. It seems to me much more reasonable that we ought to forsake the quest for universality (which is a ridiculously difficult concept to define, much less to demonstrate) and accept that our moral laws are flawed human prescriptions, as always in need of rectification to changes in human needs.

Aniko - #77022

March 2nd 2013

Zachary, if I understand Sy’s focus well, his objective is not to compare the relative values of Harris’s “scientific” explanation for moral behavior with religious explanations. His criticism goes more to the essence of scientism - the claim that only scientific explanations can be valid in answer to any question, ever. This idea, when seen in the light of the vast complexity of human experience, is patently absurd: it relies on either dismissing questions that virtually everyone considers important as meaningless, or on watering down or even making a mockery of what a scientific explanation means. (Or on both, alternating as convenient.) The irony of the latter case - when what is offered doesn’t hold up by the very standards for which exclusive validity is claimed - is what is illustrated in the analysis of Harris’s fallacies.

As Merv also observes above, there is really no equivalent to the exclusivist claims (the “nothing-buttery”) of scientism from the side of religious thinkers - there are some  who reject particular well established scientific theories (and BioLogos is here to address that problem), but virtually none who declare science an invalid way of learning things about the world. (Similarly, we rarely hear that only art or literature or music or philosophy can tell us anything valuable about anything.)

Chip - #77107

March 4th 2013

Hi Zachary,

If it’s true that “we must infer the existence or potential existence of a more extensive reality than can be known by any person at this moment,”—and this certainly applies to all of us, not just the theologically-inclined—if I may, what is your basis for such an inference?     

While I agree with you that a more extensive reality is a fact, I have a hard time seeing how such can be reduced to the level of “flawed human prescriptions, as always in need of rectification to changes in human needs.” The sequester (to take a currently-relevant example) is a flawed human prescription.  Are you really going to argue that my love for my wife, my kids, many others—indeed, is yours for your loved ones— just a flawed human prescription, subject to revision and/or dismissal?   

Chip - #76962

February 28th 2013

Hello again Sy:

I wonder if you could elaborate on the Gould quotation: 

The fallacy of Dennet’s argument undermines his other imperialist hope that the universal acid of natural selection might reduce human cultural change to the Darwinian algorithm as well … The chief strategy proposed by evolutionary psychologists for identifying adaptation is untestable and therefore unscientific.

What chief strategy is he referring to here, and why (exactly) is it untestable/unscientific? 

sy - #77041

March 2nd 2013


The chief strategy used by evolutionary psychologists to identify adaption, according to Gould (pages 460-461) in The Richness of Life is called “Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation (EEA)” which refers not to modern utility of behavior, but to a supposed ancient behavior that might have been advantageous, or adaptive during some period of time (usually not specified in the distant past, during the evolution of man. Gould says about this strategy “But how can we possibly know in detail, what small bands of hunter gatherers did in Africa two million years ago?...But how can we possibly obtain the key information that would be required to show the validity of adaptive tales about an EEA?”

In other words, Gould is stating what none of the anti theists ever mention. Their so called science is simply hypothesis, without any intention of finding evidence or testing for validity. As a paleobiologist, this drove Gould to actual anger. Dawkins, of all people, a great evolutionary biologist, should know better (and to be fair, his own pronouncements are far more tempered than those of non experts such as Dennett and Harris).

melanogaster - #77364

March 11th 2013

Sy, while you make many good points, I have to take issue with this:

“Since Harris is a leader of the antitheistic movement, and is interested in finding examples of religious practices that he believes can be scientifically proven to be immoral.”

“So how does Harris prove scientifically…”

‘Science can’t prove X’ is one of the worst pseudoscientific parlor tricks.

I think you know full well that the power of science comes from the fact that nothing is EVER considered to be proven—that all conclusions are tentative. So why are you misrepresenting the most basic premise of scientific epistemology in an article aimed at laypeople—about epistemology?

Does Harris actually misrepresent science in that way, or are you being even more irresponsible by putting the words in his mouth?

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