Morality and Human Nature: Why Atheists Get It Right and Wrong (Part 1)

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I thought you might be interested in these quotes concerning morality:

The first principle of morality is that “one ought always to choose … in a way that is compatible with a will towards integral human fulfillment…. Our integral good includes not only our bodily well-being but also our intellectual, moral, and spiritual well-being …. Principles of practical reason direct us to act or abstain from acting in certain ways out of respect for the well-being and legitimate interests of persons whose legitimate interests may be affected by what we do.

Sound familiar? It might have that ring if you’ve read Samuel Harris’s The Moral Landscape. It might also sound familiar if you’ve been reading comments here on this blog lately.

Sam Harris identifies human morality with acts, intentions, etc. that maximize human well-being. More locally, commenter David_P has staked his moral claim on meeting human needs, as we understand them through the practice of empathy with others and even with ourselves. For example he writes (speaking specifically of gay “marriage,” but with an obvious broader application),

The [ethical] model is in terms of these types of fundamental human needs we all share. The aim is to achieve them for everyone, based on the realization that helping others helps us because we are all connected. If part of society feels their needs are not being met, this will sooner or later have negative consequences for the rest of society.

Surprised?

David_P is (as far as I can determine) an atheist. Sam Harris is emphatically an unbeliever. So it may come as some surprise that the opening quotes come from Robert George, in his new book Conscience and Its Enemies: Confronting the Dogmas of Liberal Secularism. Dr. George is a Roman Catholic thinker. He was the co-author with Chuck Colson and Timothy George (no relation to Robert) of the controversial Manhattan Declaration, and he also co-wrote the strongest book-length defense of man-woman marriage to date, What Is Marriage?

What business does Robert George have agreeing with Sam Harris or David_P? What business do I have, for that matter, in agreeing with them? For I have critiqued Harris strongly, and I cannot claim much common ground with David_P.

Morality and Human Nature

Sam Harris, David_P, Robert George, Robert George, and I all agree that humans have needs, and that (with careful thought and proper qualifications) the demands and obligations of interpersonal ethics can be summed up in the idea of doing what we can to maximize everyone’s well-being.

What Robert George knows, however, and Sam Harris and David_P do not, is that we have these human needs by virtue of the nature of being human. It is of the essence of humanness that we need to love and to be loved. It is of the essence of humanness that it is good for us to be rational creatures, to be creative, to live in safe and mutually caring communities, to manage and enjoy the benefits of our property, to share with others from that property. This is all part of what it means to be human. It is our nature.

Explaining Human Nature

When George says that, he does so out of a well-established intellectual tradition going back to Aristotle and Aquinas, and (crucially) closely connected to the Bible. The philosophers discovered and discussed the idea of a nature in the sense of a fundamental essence, the what-ness of what it means to be something — humans in this case. They showed how we could learn what human nature is, and that it is distinctly human.

The Bible brings in the essential additional information that human nature comes by way of our being created in God’s image, unlike all the rest of God’s creation. We’re different from the animals, for reasons that can be known and explained. Being made in God’s image means that we share (imperfectly, incompletely, and probably analogically, though that’s a technical discussion) God’s relational, loving, rational, acting, creating, and moral nature.

So when we ask, what is it to be morally good on the person-to-person level, one way to state it goes like this: we ought to live to maximize in others, as in ourselves, the fulfillment of what it means to be human, because God created us for that. It’s not far off from the Golden Rule, is it?

(Note that I am only speaking of the person-to-person level: I do not want to miss the crucial fact that he created us preeminently for relationship with him; but this post is about how we are to act in relation to each other. Think of this as being about the latter six or seven of the Ten Commandments rather than the first three or four.)

Human Nature and Naturalistic Evolution

Now I admit I am not up to speed on contemporary metaphysics, in that I don’t know who has identified what concerning the reality of human nature, or even whether anyone is talking about such a thing today, apart from Aristotelians and/or theists. I do know, however, that for writers like Sam Harris, and possibly also David_P, who consider humans to be the product of unguided, naturalistic evolutionary processes, the idea of human nature cannot be justified. Human nature (in the relevant sense here) could not exist. It’s impossible.

Nevertheless if Robert George is right and human nature is real, then Sam Harris and David_P partake in human nature whether they can explain its existence or not. They know — by direct experience — what’s true about humans. They know that part of what it means to be human is to live ethically with one another, and that this means something like maximizing human well-being. And so based on their direct experience of life they arrive at the right answer, or at least part of it.

But this answer for them is as solid as stepping out of a hot-air balloon onto a cloud, because they cannot justify or explain the distinctiveness of human nature: why our humanness as such explains morality. On their theory there cannot be any such thing as humanness as such. There cannot be a distinct human nature. Therefore even though everyone knows these moral facts are true, from within their framework they couldn’t be true. They make no rational sense.

Tomorrow I will explain why I say so. Update: find it here.

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106 Responses to “ Morality and Human Nature: Why Atheists Get It Right and Wrong (Part 1) ”

  1. @Tom Gilson:

    There cannot be a distinct human nature.

    This argument is essentially due to Crawford Elder:

    (1) If there is no distinct human nature, there is no-one or nothing that can count as being essentially human, since having a nature is *at least* the possession of some properties, essential properties, the loss of which entails the end of the existence of said human.

    (2) If nothing or no-one can count as being essentially human, there are no human beings — apart from arbitrarily labeling such and such particulars as human beings.

    (3) If who or what counts as a human being is at best, a product of human conventions, then a claim like “killing an innocent human being is wrong” is also a product of human conventions, because there is no such thing as a “human being” outside of human conventions.

    (4) But then the particular individuals who are the convention-makers (e.g. human beings) is itself determined by a matter of human convention. So we cannot even specify who are the convention-makers that determine what the convention is unless there is already some prior convention in place by which we can identify the convention-makers.

    (5) Contradiction.

  2. On naturalism and atheism do good and evil really exist? For some naturalists and atheists apparently not. Here are some of David P’s comments from the “The Fourth — or First — Reason for Religious Freedom” thread:

    David P @ #57: Talking in terms of good and evil will get nowhere because each “side” has its own definitions. That is why I suggest thinking in terms of basic human needs – something that all sides can agree on – and finding ways forward where everyone’s needs can be met.

    David P @ #108: I judge a person’s actions “good” or “bad” in terms of the consequences on the fundamental desires of everyone affected by it.

    SteveK @ #119: On your worldview, this rule of yours is NOTHING more than an expressed human desire – one of many. That’s it. Your notion of “good” is ultimately grounded in your desire to live your life a certain way – and your hope is that most people will agree. The idea that there actually IS a wrong way to live has NO CONNECTION to the reality that you subscribe to, none.

    David P @ #120: Steve, you seem to believe there is an objective definition of good and bad. How do you know? I mean, how do you know that your brain is not deceiving you? This is not a rhetorical question. I would be interested to know your answer.

    Notice how David P as well as some “new” atheists like Sam Harris have to define good by using other terms. In other words, for some reason, they cannot define “good” as simply good.

    G. E. Moore argued that when one tries to explain what we mean by good in the moral sense reductively he commits what Moore described as the “naturalistic fallacy.” What we call good according to Moore is “one of those innumerable objects of thought which are themselves incapable of definition, because they are the ultimate terms by reference to which whatever is capable of definition must be defined.”

    The Christian theist position is that God has created man with a moral conscience (Romans 2: 14-15). In other words, good and evil are ideas that we were designed to know. The fact that some people have different definitions of good and evil does not change the fact goodness exists transcendentally… The idea of human rights on a global scale would not be possible if this were not true.

  3. Tom,

    Thanks for writing this post. Before your next post you might want to watch this TED video on animals showing cooperative behavior and empathy. http://www.ted.com/talks/frans_de_waal_do_animals_have_morals.html

    Humans are not the only animals with moral behavior traits. There are evolutionary reasons for working together and looking after each other – such as “safety in numbers”, working together to catch prey, giving our offspring more of a chance in life. All of these can improve the odds of surviving long enough to pass on genes to the next generation.

  4. JAD,

    How do the Department of Motor Vehicles determine a good driver from a bad driver? Did they seek God’s guidance on the matter or did they just use their common sense? If the latter, and the driving test is essentially subjective, does that mean it is completely useless?

  5. RE #4: Of course they use common sense — along with informed standards of good and bad driving! Who would think there would be any other answer?!

  6. You see, what I’m saying in this post is that you don’t have to be a theist, and you don’t need to read the Bible or pray, to be a human being with a human nature as God made us to have. And that human nature is sufficient to lead us toward certain good moral beliefs.

    I will argue in forthcoming posts that human nature apart from theism lacks rational grounding for morals. By nature we lack the power to live consistently according to what we know is good, and we can become very confused with respect to some of our knowledge concerning what is morally true. But that doesn’t obviate what we do all know about morality and ethics as humans.

  7. I think it counters your claims that there is no rational basis for morality and that human nature is somehow completely distinct from other animals.

    It shows that empathy, reciprocation, and collaboration are not just restricted to humans. We may have bigger brains and verbal reasoning to build more elaborate moral frameworks, but the basic building blocks of moral behaviors are found in many animals. This can be explained in terms of improving the chances of survival and hence passing on genes. In some environments, those animals that did not collaborate were more likely to perish and their genes would not be passed on.

  8. Do animals engage in moral reflection?

    Does successful reproduction completely explain all of human morality? (Careful: you’ll probably want to claim that it does, if you’re like most naturalistic evolutionists. There’s a very, very deep trap there. Think it through first. Fair warning.)

  9. Oh, and by the way: if you claim that successful reproduction doesn’t explain all of human morality, there’s a trap there, too, for naturalistic evolutionism.

    I urge caution.

  10. @chapman55k

    It is an analogy. The point is we use subjective measures and common sense to determine good and bad all the time. Why can’t we use subjective measures and common sense to assess human actions?

  11. Do animals engage in moral reflection?

    I do, and most humans do. I don’t know about other animals. From what I’ve heard about dolphins and apes, it wouldn’t surprise me if they did.

    In any case, I am not arguing that humans are no different to other animals.

    Does successful reproduction completely explain all of human morality?

    Yes, to the extent that it has given us our big thinking brains and moral instincts. I believe our ability to communicate thoughts verbally and in other ways between generations can explain the full complexity of human morality that we see in the world.

  12. David P

    There are evolutionary reasons for working together and looking after each other – such as “safety in numbers”, working together to catch prey, giving our offspring more of a chance in life. All of these can improve the odds of surviving long enough to pass on genes to the next generation.

    You have an anti-realistic view of evolution. The evolutionary process has no purpose, no goal, no intent.

    I deplore using the sort of language you are using, but if you insist on using it, don’t forget that there are “evolutionary reasons” for being selfish, working alone and manipulating / deceiving others so you’ll have more. I understand why you’d want to overlook this – it ruins your argument.

  13. Genes that aren’t passed on to the next generation die out. Those that are passed onto the next generation survive.

    In some circumstances, an animal is more likely to survive and pass on its genes if it lives on its own. In other environments, with different pressures, the animal is more likely to pass on its genes if it collaborates with others.

    That is as matter of fact as I can make it.

  14. Charles Darwin was one of the earliest scientists to suggest that morality and ethics could be determined scientifically. His good friend and co-evolutionist Thomas Huxley begged to differ. His reasoning I think is quite revealing.

    “The thief and the murderer,” Huxley writes, “follow nature just as much as the philanthropist. Cosmic evolution may teach us how the good and the evil tendencies of man may have come about; but, in itself, it is incompetent to furnish any better reason why what we call good is preferable to what we call evil than we had before.”

  15. Re: Tom Gilson @#8:

    … human nature is sufficient to lead us toward certain good moral beliefs.

    Thank you. I agree. But:

    … human nature apart from theism lacks rational grounding for morals.

    I think you have that the wrong way around. Theism per se does not and cannot provide a rational grounding for morals (if indeed it can provide a rational grounding for anything), for the simple reason that its sole basis is a presumption of divine authority, wielded on behalf of an invisible, supernatural being.

    This of course dates back to the Euthyphro dilemma: if it’s true that morals have any rational basis at all, then that basis exists independent of any supernatural creator, cannot be the arbitrary design of that creator, and can be discerned and understood by humans without reference to any supernatural being. If you want to assert that the Christian God (or specifically the Catholic God) escapes this dilemma because he is intrinsically rational (or created reason, or something to that effect), you’ll have a real problem reconciling that with both the scriptural and historical record regarding what God’s laws were vs. are (e.g. as enforced by the Israelites, or by the Catholic church, over time).

    I think you might be able to make a case for an argument like “human nature apart from theism lacks an absolute authority to enforce any given set of rules as morals.” That may be the one thing that theism is uniquely suited to provide.

    Whether or not such absolute authority to enforce is something that ought to be provided is a separate question, and is, in effect, the real question in this debate. Personally, I prefer a secular, evidence-based system of justice that grants all individuals equal protection and due process under a set of secular, evidence-based laws.

    By nature we lack the power to live consistently according to what we know is good and true. But that doesn’t obviate what we do all know about morality and ethics as humans.

    Change “we lack the power” to “we have a limited and imperfect ability”, and you have my total agreement (as well as better consistency with your own earlier statement, quoted at the start of my reply). If we lacked the power, we never would have existed as a species in the first place.

    Whether or not we’ve been getting better (less imperfect) over the millennia is a matter on which people will hold different opinions, depending on which evidence they choose to look at. Certainly, whatever progress we’ve made needs to be actively defended – there’s never any guarantee against regression to a worse state of affairs, and we must consistently exert personal and social effort to establish and maintain a better one.

  16. Otto,

    You might want to do a bit more reading on Christian morality before you state your disagreement with it.

    I think you have that the wrong way around. Theism per se does not and cannot provide a rational grounding for morals (if indeed it can provide a rational grounding for anything), for the simple reason that its sole basis is a presumption of divine authority, wielded on behalf of an invisible, supernatural being.

    That is incorrect. God provides a plausible account of human nature and purpose which are not solely human conventions. See comment #1 for the problems inherent in that position.

    If you want to assert that the Christian God (or specifically the Catholic God) escapes this dilemma because he is intrinsically rational (or created reason, or something to that effect), you’ll have a real problem reconciling that with both the scriptural and historical record regarding what God’s laws were vs. are (e.g. as enforced by the Israelites, or by the Catholic church, over time).

    Here is one answer (from a Catholic) to the Euthyphro dilemna FYI: http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com.au/2010/10/god-obligation-and-euthyphro-dilemma.html.

    Specific laws for specific communities in specific times pose no problem to the Christian understanding of morality.

  17. JAD

    How many murderers do you know personally? I personally don’t know any (as far as I’m aware). I know they do exist, but they are hardly the rule!

    In general the people I know cooperate and live reasonably harmoniously.

    There are criminals, but if you ask them, they’ll probably give you reasons. Typically they are caught in a dilemma.

    Human life is a lot more complicated than just following our evolutionary instincts. The brain can consciously override a natural instinct and we can even create habits to do the same thing subconsciously. The secret service bodyguards repeatedly practise blocking the president from the line of fire until it becomes a habit that happens automatically.

    We educate children in a host of habits from an early age, and we label some kids “bad” and teach them to feel shame and guilt.

    None of this human behavior negates evolution as a source for fundamental morality. Huxley is wrong, in my view, if he makes that claim.

    Personally, I’m not particularly bothered where morality – in terms of empathizing and cooperating to satisfy human needs – came from. I’m just glad that we have it!

  18. David P,

    I think it counters your claims that there is no rational basis for morality and that human nature is somehow completely distinct from other animals.

    Could you explain how you think the observation of moral-seeming behaviours in animals provides a rational basis for morality?

  19. Frans de Waal’s research may tell us how morality has evolved (in animals and humans) but it doesn’t tell us what morality is or why something is moral. He himself concedes this point:

    While I do consider religious institutions and their representatives — popes, bishops, mega-preachers, ayatollahs, and rabbis — fair game for criticism, what good could come from insulting individuals who find value in religion? And more pertinently, what alternative does science have to offer? Science is not in the business of spelling out the meaning of life and even less in telling us how to live our lives. We, scientists, are good at finding out why things are the way they are, or how things work, and I do believe that biology can help us understand what kind of animals we are and why our morality looks the way it does. But to go from there to offering moral guidance seems a stretch.*

    Even the staunchest atheist growing up in Western society cannot avoid having absorbed the basic tenets of Christian morality. Our societies are steeped in it: everything we have accomplished over the centuries, even science, developed either hand in hand with or in opposition to religion, but never separately.It is impossible to know what morality would look like without religion.* It would require a visit to a human culture that is not now and never was religious. That such cultures do not exist should give us pause.

    http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/10/17/morals-without-god/?_r=0
    (emphasis added)

  20. JAD

    That sounds pretty in line with what I’m saying. Morality in humans is complicated because we can think and communicate ideas and override our nature based on them. Religion is definitely one of those ideas deeply embedded in our culture.

    Where he and I seem to differ is that I believe we can use a model of human needs and the consequences of actions to offer moral guidance, particularly for matters in which different groups strongly disagree.

  21. @David P

    I believe we can use a model of human needs and the consequences of actions to offer moral guidance, particularly for matters in which different groups strongly disagree.

    So, you’re trying to create a “new” morality from scratch? What qualifies you to do something like that? Secondly, why?

  22. As I said, I’m trying to find a model that helps people find solutions to difficult issues, such as when different groups disagree. Nothing qualifies me, other than my interest. I don’t think it’s a “new” morality. I see it as the one we’ve already got, just expressed without any religious words or specific religious rules. I want to avoid tying it to any particular religion (or any religion) to keep it simple and make it as widely acceptable as possible.

  23. This is why I’m not really bothered about how it came to be. I don’t really want to fight about that. Atheists can believe it was evolution or some other reason. Christians can believe it was God. Muslims can believe it was their concept of God etc. The human model of morality at its core is pretty much the same across all groups, with some differences in its specific implementation.

  24. David_P @#27: I want to explore here more on what difference it makes where morality came from. I take it you believe that it comes entirely out of evolutionary roots. Let me ask you a couple questions:

    1. Do you really believe that evolution constitutes the entire explanation for where morality came from?

    2. What is evolution competent to accomplish, in general?

    Thank you.

  25. You say the human model of morality is pretty much the same at its core across all groups. That’s one thing I said in the OP here, and plan to come back to it again in my next post on this topic — in case it might interest you to know that.

  26. David P,

    This is why I’m not really bothered about how it came to be. I don’t really want to fight about that. Atheists can believe it was evolution or some other reason. Christians can believe it was God

    The question isn’t “how it came to be” but rather are my beliefs and experience of morality consistent with my view of reality and metaphysics. Maybe you aren’t concerned about whether your beliefs accurately reflect any external reality, I am.

  27. My second question in #29 may have been too vague and broad, so I’ll tell you what I think is the answer. Evolution (the naturalistic kind) is capable of:
    establishing the continuing existence of unintended and purposeless organismal variations, either physiological or behavioral, which lead to relatively greater success for these variations’ possessors than for other organisms sharing space in the relevantly same or similar ecological niche, in producing offspring that produce offspring.

    I can’t think of anything else that naturalistic evolution is competent to accomplish. Can you?

  28. Atheists can believe it was evolution or some other reason. Christians can believe it was God. Muslims can believe it was their concept of God etc.

    Believe all the contradictory things you wish to believe. The one thing you cannot do is reasonably conclude they are all true.

    This is why I’m not really bothered about how it came to be. I don’t really want to fight about that.

    You’ve demonstrated this to be false. You are arguing here on this blog about who is correct and who is not.

  29. SteveK,

    I apologize if I have done that. I felt that I’ve argued for my beliefs only in as much as people have asked me questions, misconstrued or misrepresented my beliefs. I don’t really want to argue because I believe it tends to dig both sides deeper into their positions. I have several times, on this site, said that I defend your right to believe in God. I sincerely mean that.

    Tom,

    It seems important to you too know morality’s roots. You ask my view, I believe its basic manifestation in certain animals comes from evolutionary processes, combined with environmental interactions and pressures, that have in many cases caused cooperative behaviors to be selected over uncooperative behaviors. I believe that that there may be “laws of nature” underpinning it – laws about how the participants in a system should behave individually in order to bring excellent results to the group as a whole. Evolution didn’t create these laws so-to-speak but may have unwittingly “discovered them” and thus made it easier for us (and religions) to discover them.

  30. David_P, the reason I’m interested in the questions I am is because where we come from tells us who and what we are. It’s also because, in my strong opinion, you are giving evolution credit for something it’s impossible for evolution to have done.

    Evolution has a certain limited competence, which I’ve stated above. What’s not included in that competence are things like creating or even recognizing such things as progress, goodness, badness, justice, fairness, fulfillment, thriving, or anything at all you might associate with morality.

    Evolution can cause variations in physiology or behavior to be perpetuated in populations if (and only if!) they contribute to relative success in producing offspring that produce offspring.

    Those variations are themselves merely blind, unguided, unintentional, purposeless, and devoid of all moral categories. As far as natural selection is concerned (forgive the anthropomorphism) the only thing of interest in any such blind variation is whether it contributes to reproductive fitness.

    So what is morality? It’s not a physiological feature. Evolution can only work with physiology and behavior, so it’s a behavior. I think we can fairly describe it as a labeling behavior.

    Where did that labeling behavior come from? If it came from naturalistic evolution, then it came from purposeless, unguided, amoral variations that were associated with humans making more babies that made more babies.

    What other qualities did that labeling behavior acquire on the way? Did it become more than a baby-making-supporting, blindly acquired, otherwise purposeless labeling behavior?

    Think a moment how important this question is. If the answer it is no, then “Treat the orphan with justice” is a labeling behavior whose only purpose is to support the making of more babies that make more babies; for (again, if the answer to that question is no) it started out as a labeling behavior for that purpose, and it remains nothing but that.

    Another crucial question: is it good for humans to make babies that make more babies? In other words, is there any moral value to reproduction? If so, when and how did that happen? How did goodness enter the picture? Can evolution make goodness? No! It’s not anywhere in its competence!

    So what you have in, say, “Treat the orphan with justice,” is a labeling behavior which, if it is good, acquired its goodness from something other than naturalistic evolution. Where did that goodness come from? It’s nothing but an impossible mystery, on naturalism.

    So what I’m saying, David_P, is that if you think that naturalistic evolution explains morality, then you are wrong. You have reached a false conclusion. Evolution cannot explain morality. You will need to search for something else to explain it.

    That’s why the origins question matters.

  31. Melissa,

    My desire is to help myself and others improve our quality of life (quality in a purely subjective sense as signaled by our feelings). I am not concerned with metaphysics unless it has a significant practical benefit in taking me towards my goal. Currently it looks to me like a sinkhole for my time.

    Chapman55k

    It is only an equivocation if you treat the system of morality as absolute/objective. That is your assumption about it. It is not mine. If, like me, you treat it as subjective with an arbitrary, though widely-accepted goal, then it is no different from the driving example.

  32. @David P:

    I don’t really want to argue because I believe it tends to dig both sides deeper into their positions.

    Argument is the lifeblood of intellectual life; it may not be possible to convince the other that our position is the right one, as the pragmatics of belief involves more than just mere assent to a set of propositions, but argument has as first aim the clarification of the issues that divide us. So if you do not want to argue, then why are you here?

    Not that you have argued anything. In fact, that is precisely what you do *not* do: present arguments. It almost seems that you do not know what an argument is or can even recognize one as you do not engage or respond to other people’s arguments. You vent your claims with abandonment but never back them up with evidence. Maybe you are in love with the sound of your own voice, but to repeat myself, if you are not here for a *dialogue* then why are you here? As things stand, discussing with you is an exercise in masochistic futility. Witness post #26 (any other could be picked). We find: “I said”, “I’m trying”, “I don’t think”, “I see”, “I want”; that is 5, five uses of the pronoun “I”. Now, maybe I am reading too much into it, but this is not a dialogue, but a monologue, an emotional outpouring of your personal preferences — and frankly, and this is just my personal opinion so it is worth very little, if I want to read a monologue I prefer mine cooked Beckett’s way.

    I am trying hard not to sound unduly harsh or unfair (and most probably have failed), but as I said above, as things stand, having a dialogue with you is just an exercise in frustration (and thus a waste of time) because of your consistent refusal not only in arguing your position but *actually* paying attention to and tackling other people’s arguments.

  33. Evolution has a certain limited competence.

    If humans came about through the process of evolution and if humans can think about morality and model morality. Then evolution can do these things (albeit indirectly).

    I am not claiming absolute morality. I am suggesting that within a specified system, with a specified goal there are rules / heuristics that improve the chances of achieving that goal. Like roads are safer and traffic moves more smoothly when cars all drive on the same side of the road. It’s not an absolute requirement and indeed if a child runs out into the road you may be better swerving to avoid them.

    G Rodrigues

    You are arguing with a strawman. That is why I have not engaged. You have not shown understanding of my point of view. I am not claiming absolutes, it is subjective hence all the “I” statements.

  34. Let me add this to that if I may. David_P, I wouldn’t want you to think I feel harmed by your style of response. My last comment was practice: it’s a short form of an article I’m working up for a journal. I didn’t mind writing it. I’m not frustrated then, as G. Rodrigues is.

    No, the person you’re hurting (in my view) is yourself, if you won’t take the arguments here for what they are: reasons for you to re-think your position. If our arguments have merit, then that means it’s time for you to have a serious talk with yourself. If not, then I’d love for you to explain why, in terms other than your feelings and opinions, which have no purchase upon my logical and/or feelings-based beliefs.

  35. If humans came about through the process of evolution and if humans can think about morality and model morality. Then evolution can do these things (albeit indirectly).

    Wow.

    Do you realize how you’ve sidestepped everything here? Do you realize the magic you have invoked? I have carefully described what evolution can do. Now you tell me that it can do something else, too, and the only reason you provide for it is, “then evolution can do these things.”

    Here’s why I say that’s the only reason. What I’m saying is that either evolution is false, or else humans cannot think about and model morality. What we can do is participate in labeling behaviors with content we have labeled “moral,” which is devoid of any actual goodnesss, badness, progress, or any such thing.

    Deal with it, would you, please? Your invocation of magic is not seemly for a Western naturalist.

  36. What you say about the consequences of that thought are exactly what I believe. I believe there is no good and bad, only human desires and thinking make it so.

  37. I’m off on vacation now (on the plane about to take off!) so unfortunately I may not be able to respond so quickly in the next week.

  38. @David P:

    I am not claiming absolutes, it is subjective hence all the “I” statements.

    Why should anyone other than yourself care about your *personal*, *subjective* *opinions*?

    This (rhetorical) question aptly summarizes my case. I rest it now.

  39. Let me restate my conclusion: on naturalistic evolution, the statement “this is good” is a shorthand heuristic labeling behavior, substituting for “this behavior will contribute to making babies that make more babies.”

    On evolution (based on my argument above), there is nothing else it could signify.

    Nothing.

    There is no good, only baby-making.

    This is what I have argued. Am I wrong? Where? Am I right? Then you have some thinking to do.

  40. That was the wrong question.

    Why do you choose to erase and eliminate from your beliefs/awareness all the goodness that is really in the world?

  41. Final question for now:

    I hear contemporary naturalists emphasizing evidence and reasoning. They say that theists are unreasoning.

    Here, however, I have presented to you a chain of reasoning, and you have responded to it without reasoning.

    I could be wrong in my reasoning: I could have introduced false premises or followed faulty logic. If so, then I would certainly welcome correction.

    But would you do yourself the favor of participating in the reasoning process?

    So far you have not. You have only presented personal prejudices without any evidence of reasoning.

    Does that seem fitting for one who holds your position?

  42. I hear contemporary naturalists emphasizing evidence and reasoning. They say that theists are unreasoning.

    Here, however, I have presented to you a chain of reasoning, and you have responded to it without reasoning.

    Taking this to the logical conclusion, reasoning itself is shorthand for “this capacity we call reason will contribute to making babies that make more babies.”

  43. The goal of all human behavior is that humanity continues. Sounds like a worthy enough goal to me.

  44. Goal? Where did that concept come from? Evolution has no goals, or any means to cause them to come into being.

    What makes humanity worth preserving, other than unreasoning sentiment?

    Why is it not a better goal to replace humanity with some other species, more evolutionarily fit than us?

    How would one even decide which goal would be better or worse?

    Please provide reasons, not prejudice or sentiment. Or if not, please acknowledge that you have adopted prejudice or sentiment as your preferred mode of thinking.

  45. Please see the discussion above about “good,” too. The word does not mean what you think it means. At least, noting naturalistic evolution is true.

  46. SteveK –

    You have an anti-realistic view of evolution. The evolutionary process has no purpose, no goal, no intent.

    A process or phenomenon doesn’t have to have a goal to produce consistent effects. Gravity doesn’t have a goal, but it produces orbits, falling, sore feet, etc.

    Evolution doesn’t itself have to have a purpose to produce beings that have goals, desires, and needs – and hence develop purposes.

  47. Tom,
    You can object to my use of the word “goal,” but you yourself said that the only thing evolution is capable of is ensuring that more babies are produced. I’m only agreeing with that, and asking why it’s not enough for you?

  48. Nothing makes humanity any more worth preserving than any other species, but our own feelings about ourselves.

  49. Ray,

    A process or phenomenon doesn’t have to have a goal to produce consistent effects. Gravity doesn’t have a goal, but it produces orbits, falling, sore feet, etc.

    Evolution doesn’t itself have to have a purpose to produce beings that have goals, desires, and needs – and hence develop purposes.

    Really?? You mean that human development and behavior aren’t under the control of the evolutionary process today – that we’ve somehow escaped the process entirely and are now operating independently from it, producing behaviors that aren’t attributed to the evolutionary process?

    When did we break away from evolution? I have never read about this in any of the science papers but maybe I missed it.

  50. Ray,

    Gravity doesn’t have a goal, but it produces orbits, falling, sore feet, etc.

    Evolution doesn’t itself have to have a purpose to produce beings that have goals, desires, and needs – and hence develop purposes.

    Gravity has it within its power, its essence, its competence, to produce orbits, given other necessary conditions.

    Evolution does not have it within its power to produce purposes. That’s been shown here. Your analogy fails unless you can show that evolution has that power, or that having such power is irrelevant. Your non-analogous analogy does not accomplish that for you. At this point your argument stands rebutted.

  51. OS

    You can object to my use of the word “goal,” but you yourself said that the only thing evolution is capable of is ensuring that more babies are produced. I’m only agreeing with that, and asking why it’s not enough for you?

    Because goals, purposes, and good and bad are all a vapor, a fake, nothing but a labeling behavior.

    That’s not enough for me because I know that I live in a world where goals, purposes, and good and bad are real.

    So do you. The only reason you would say otherwise is because you have to, in order to preserve a very difficult and tenuous naturalism.

  52. @SteveK,

    Given that morality is subjective and mankind is its own god, why not imbue it with the power to create purpose ex nihilio?

    The comments above bring to my mind Judges 17:6. To paraphrase: “In these days there is no God and everyone does what is good in their own eyes.”

  53. Tom Gilson –

    Evolution does not have it within its power to produce purposes. That’s been shown here.

    Actually, not quite yet. I’m assuming your case is currently incomplete, since you say, “Tomorrow I will explain why I say so.”

    Until then, I don’t see why I should devote a lot of time to tackling it. Especially given your touchiness lately, I want to see your complete case before I do much commenting. You’ll note I was replying to SteveK, not you. Speaking of…

    SteveK –

    that we’ve somehow escaped the process entirely and are now operating independently from it, producing behaviors that aren’t attributed to the evolutionary process?

    Not “entirely“, any more than we’ve escaped the process of gravity, but we are able to do things besides take part in evolutionary processes: http://theconversation.org/archive/bigbrains.html

  54. Ray, the case I have yet to give is on a different track entirely. I’ve shown here already that evolution does not have it within its power to produce purposes.

    I hope you won’t be touchy about my responding to what you say to SteveK. I want to know how you think we’re able to do things besides take part in evolutionary processes. Sure, Dawkins observes that we can do it. But it’s not the only time he’s lost track of the problems of causal closure, viz., if evolution is the only force that causes physiology or behaviors to arise in organisms, how can we jump aside from it? What cause can cause us to be able to do what evolution doesn’t cause? “Big brains”? Sure. Evolution produced them, says Dawkins. But that’s hardly any explanation for big brains that can step outside evolution’s causal stream.

    If naturalistic evolution is true, and if it constitutes the only cause for physiology or behavioral phenomena, then we can’t do anything besides taking part in evolutionary processes. That’s just logic, Ray.

  55. My follow-up post is proving more complex than I expected. I’m trying to decide whether to bring in the realist/nominalist problem. If so, then it will complex indeed. I may not get it posted today as expected.

  56. Ray,

    Not “entirely“, any more than we’ve escaped the process of gravity, but we are able to do things besides take part in evolutionary processes:

    The opinion of Dawkins wasn’t quite what I was looking for. Got any science papers on this subject?

    If it’s true as you claim, that humans have somehow escaped the evolutionary process (in part), then it’s true that evolution alone doesn’t explain how human beings progressed from “mud to man” over millions of years. In other words, if what you are saying is true, human beings came to exist the way they are today because of Evolution Plus+. I’ve not heard about the Plus+ part before.

    Hmm…perhaps ID theory has some validity to it after all.

    On the other hand, if the evolutionary process fully explains the ability of humans to create with intent, then we have an example of contradictory magic – a process without intent creating with intent.

    Is there a third option?

  57. Yes, and what’s wrong with that?

    I assume you are referring to my post on reason.

    If reason is merely a way of contributing to making babies, then why should we be able to use reason for things other than making babies? Is it just accidental that our reason was also able to formulate the standard model of particle physics? Why should we think reason even results in anything coherent other than “must make babies”?

    In fact why aren’t we just meat machines that reproduce without thinking at all?

  58. bigbird,

    “Making babies” simplifies things a bit, doesn’t it? If you think instead of ensuring the continuation of the human species, then the benefit of reason is clearer, I think. Perhaps reason will enable us to establish colonies on some other planet, when we exhaust the resources of this one–won’t then the ability to use reason to formulate scientific theories be contributing to the continuation of the species?

  59. Tom @ 62:

    The only reason you would say otherwise is because you have to, in order to preserve a very difficult and tenuous religious belief system.

  60. os,

    No, no, no, and if you thought a moment you would recognize the answer is (again) no.

    There is at least one other reason I would believe that good and bad are real. It’s because virtually everyone in history, from all philosophical persuasions except philosophical naturalism, has recognized it to be so. We experience it. We speak of it. We build justice systems on it. We parent with good and bad in mind. We use the concepts in education and in commerce and in sports and in every area of human life.

    Similar things could be said of goals and purposes.

    So no, I do not believe it simply in order to prop up my religious beliefs.

    That tu quoque, my friend, was not only fallacious in form, it had the appearance in its content of being nothing better than an act of desperation on your part.

    When, oh when oh when, will the atheists here quit making such palpably unreasoning statements?

  61. @ordinary seeker

    “Making babies” simplifies things a bit, doesn’t it?

    Yes, of course – as Tom pointed out I was referring to the previous comments. I think we all understand continuing the species involves more than “making babies”.

    Perhaps reason will enable us to establish colonies on some other planet, when we exhaust the resources of this one–won’t then the ability to use reason to formulate scientific theories be contributing to the continuation of the species?

    Perhaps it will. But I assume that you aren’t seriously suggesting that evolution can select (or is selecting) for ability to use reason to establish colonies on other planets?

  62. Bigbird,
    No, of course not. Evolution has no ability to select for anything other than continuation of the species. What I am saying is that reason–or problem-solving–is vital to that continuation, in ways we can’t predict.

  63. What I am saying is that reason–or problem-solving–is vital to that continuation, in ways we can’t predict.

    Probably, but I’m not sure what this has got to do with why evolution has selected for reason.

  64. Bigbird,
    Are you saying that reason is not the same as the ability to solve problems, or you really can’t see why evolution would select for the ability to problem solve?

  65. Tom Gilson –

    I’ve shown here already that evolution does not have it within its power to produce purposes.

    We’ve been talking about erosion in the other thread. Does erosion have the power to produce a nuclear reactor?

    I’m not mocking you; that’s a serious question. The answer is yes – it can and did just that. Water running through an underground uranium deposit acts as a neutron moderator, enabling a fission reaction, until the heat builds to the point where the water turns to steam. The reaction damps, the cave cools, and then the reaction starts up again.

    Erosion is a mechanical and chemical process. But demonstrably it can set up conditions that spark processes on a whole other level – the nuclear level.

    Evolution operates on the level of effect and tendency. But – if consciousness can arise naturalistically – then it can set up the conditions where consciousness can arise. And consciousness produces the level of need, desire, intent, and purpose.

    If naturalistic evolution is true, and if it constitutes the only cause for physiology or behavioral phenomena

    Who says that? Here’s P.Z. Myers, a guy who’s frequently considered to be, um, excessively gung-ho about evolution, explicitly denying that not two days ago.

  66. Ray wrote:

    Evolution operates on the level of effect and tendency. But – if consciousness can – then it can set up the conditions where consciousness can arise. And consciousness produces the level of need, desire, intent, and purpose.

    So what is you argument here, Ray?

    “If consciousness could arise naturalistically, then it does” (?)

  67. Ray,
    I could have sworn I posted this comment earlier today, but I don’t see it. Good thing I saved it 🙂

    Who says that?

    Looks like you’re saying that option #2 is what happened. If evolution isn’t the only reality responsible for humans becoming what they are today then, in your opinion, what else might be going on?

    From a naturalistic perspective, if human behaviors are not the result of our genes and our adaptive environment, what are they the result of?

    I would think that most naturalists would say naturalistic evolution actually IS completely responsible for who we are today, however we just don’t have every detail figured out. In other words, we don’t know everything there is to know about evolution, but if we did, it would completely explain everything. Is that your position, Ray?

    I’m seriously asking because I have no idea how a naturalist would respond. I have no idea what else they can draw upon as an explanation besides evolution.

  68. Tom,

    I have just read through these messages and want to check my understanding of your point of view.

    (1) You believe that going from the arrangement of physical matter to consciousness requires a step that natural evolution, in your view, can’t take and to claim that it can is to claim that it has magical powers.

    (2) In addition, since evolution has no goals, it therefore, in your opinion, cannot by itself abide by a system of morality which is inherently goal-oriented.

    (3) You believe it is possible to know some things for sure. Some knowledge, such as that there is absolute good and evil in the world, is so obvious that it cannot be in any doubt whatsoever. It’s not just your subjective opinion, it’s an absolute fact.

    Is that a fair summing up of your thoughts on the matter to this point?

  69. JAD –

    So what is you argument here, Ray?

    I’m trying to point out some different premises, some divergences in worldview here.

    If one accepts that consciousness can arise naturalistically, then the case that ‘no purposes could exist if evolution is true’ falls apart. It has to do with different conceptions of the origins and nature of ‘purpose’.

    Now, you can take a step back and try to tackle those conceptions (naturalistic consciousness, purposes relative to the purposers) but that’s a different argument than the one above.

  70. Ray,

    I’m trying to point out some different premises, some divergences in worldview here.

    If one accepts that consciousness can arise naturalistically, then the case that ‘no purposes could exist if evolution is true’ falls apart. It has to do with different conceptions of the origins and nature of ‘purpose’.

    I think it’s quite clear from the context of the discussion that Tom was referring to purposes that are not just an expression of an individual’s personal preference. The goals, intents or desires that arise in individuals are not sufficient to lift morality above the level of human convention which is required if we are going to make moral judgements of others that don’t just amount to a manipulative power ploy to achieve our own preferences.

  71. Further, Ray, it’s not that easy to establish that consciousness can arise naturalistically; nor is it obvious that purpose flows automatically from conscience. You would have to establish both of those as possibilities. The first has been tried by many; many have given up. See for example Sam Harris and Thomas Nagel. The second would be a nice project for you to take on. Think in terms of problems related to free will, for one thing.

  72. David P,

    You believe it is possible to know some things for sure. Some knowledge, such as that there is absolute good and evil in the world

    I would be careful interchanging objective and absolute – they are not the same thing.

  73. Could you outline the differences? Off the top of my head I would think that an absolute refers to something we can’t reasonably expect to find another outcome to that which is dictated by the absolute. Objective, such as objective truths, may not be immediately apparent and we can act against them, albeit ultimately unsuccessfully.

    Close or missing the mark?

  74. Melissa –

    I would be careful interchanging objective and absolute – they are not the same thing.

    A good point. (According to Relativity, there’s no absolute difference between ‘a car moving at 80mph hitting stationary me’ and ‘me moving at 80mph hitting a stationary car’. But either way, it’s objectively true that if I come into contact with a car at a relative velocity of 80mph, it’s going to hurt.)

    So one could imagine objective facts about how humans could best relate to each other; even if those facts are relative to how humans think and feel and don’t absolutely apply to any possible being.

  75. Melissa –

    The goals, intents or desires that arise in individuals are not sufficient to lift morality above the level of human convention

    In light of the objective/absolute distinction, we could imagine morals that are both relative to human “goals, intents or desires” and yet objective, could we not? Such that they would be more than just a convention?

    which is required if we are going to make moral judgements of others that don’t just amount to a manipulative power ploy to achieve our own preferences.

    You’re assuming that it’s not possible to establish that cooperation with others could be in one’s self-interest.

  76. Tom Gilson –

    Further, Ray, it’s not that easy to establish that consciousness can arise naturalistically;

    We’ve been around the consciousness block before. I think we can agree that nobody has a deep understanding of what consciousness is and how it works. (Yet?) I would say that neither supernatural nor naturalistic accounts of consciousness are ruled out yet.

    And it took us, oh about a hundred thousand years of being human before we got a deep understanding of lightning, biological reproduction, and suchlike. I’m perfectly willing to believe that there are problems that are both currently unsolved and yet solvable.

    nor is it obvious that purpose flows automatically from conscience.

    How could something have a purpose simpliciter? Someone has a purpose for something. We’ve been around the teleology block too. Intentions and purposes are inherently tied into the intender or the purposer. A purpose can’t just float around unsupported.

  77. Re: consciousness arising naturally, Ray, recall the context. You wrote, “If one accepts that consciousness can arise naturalistically.” I wrote to remind you that accepting that possibility is very difficult. I don’t think you’re disagreeing with me on that now. Thank you.

    Your thoughts on teleology are really calling for G. Rodrigues to jump in. (I need to correct what I wrote: consciousness, not conscience!) But before our friend tells us about final causes and what it takes for them to be, on a Thomistic rather than Aristotelian understanding, let me ask you this: why did you even write that last paragraph? Whether you’re right or wrong, either way I can’t figure out what it has to do with the discussion.

    Erosion does not have the power to produce a nuclear reactor. I still think you need to quit thinking it does. What did erosion supply there? Could you really, honestly, equate that with “the power to produce”?

  78. David_P @84, that’s a fair summation, I think, other than the correction on absolute vs. objective.

    The problem with “absolute” is that although there is absolute good (God), there is no absolute evil; evil is not a substantive existent that could be absolute. It’s the privation of good. For evil to be absolute, it would have to be a total (absolute) privation of all good, which is beyond impossible.

    In the world of human experience, nothing we can describe is either absolutely good or absolutely evil. Each is tinged with the other; for our experience of absolute good is incomplete and marred by our own flaws, and (again) absolute evil doesn’t exist in the first place.

    But what is good is actually, objectively good, and what is evil is actually, really evil; even if neither is absolutely good or evil.

  79. Ray,
    My #83 got stuck in the spam filter but is now visible. Take a look and reply to my question if it interests you. Thanks.

  80. Ray,

    In light of the objective/absolute distinction, we could imagine morals that are both relative to human “goals, intents or desires” and yet objective, could we not? Such that they would be more than just a convention?

    We could imagine many things but the question is do these things have any connection to reality. Let’s ignore the major problems intentionality poses for naturalism for the purpose of this discussion and consider the kinds of goals that you say we have – I’ll refer to them as felt goals. Clearly we can objectively judge some actions as good or bad in relation to felt goals, but unless humans have identical felt goals we cannot build a universal, objective morality from these.

    One way around this problem is to propose that some felt goals are more fundamental than others – but on what criteria? You’ve got nothing that is “essentially” human on naturalism so there is no reason to favour those felt goals that are shared by all humans above those that are only felt by a few.

    We are also still a long way off “treat others as you want to be treated yourself”. Granted in many cases this is in our own self-interest but that is dependent on the relative power of the individuals involved and in many cases if self-interest is defined as satisfying my felt goals (which is all you have on naturalism) then often it will not be in our own self-interest.

  81. Billy Squibs,

    Moral absolutism holds that actions are good or bad independent of the context, whereas objective morality is universal but contextual.

  82. SteveK –

    From a naturalistic perspective, if human behaviors are not the result of our genes and our adaptive environment, what are they the result of?

    What do you mean by ‘adaptive environment’? I mean, biological evolution isn’t responsible for the sun, but is responsible for plant tropisms that track the sun.

    Not every trait is ‘selected for’. Indeed, a whole lot of traits aren’t selected for or against at all. Did you read the P.Z. Myers link in #80? Search for the phrase “components of the spleen” and check that and the next paragraph. (Though the whole thing is worth reading.)

    Chance and contingency and history has a big effect. But humans are also creatures with goals and the ability to think and plan. We are capable of a foresight unique on Earth, with all of the feedback loops that implies.

    Erosion does not have the power to produce a nuclear reactor. I still think you need to quit thinking it does. What did erosion supply there?

    The ore deposit, the cave, the water? All the necessary conditions for a nuclear reaction?

    Erosion didn’t supply radioactivity and nuclear physics, sure. But that’s kinda the point I’m making to SteveK, too. Consciousness is a game-changer. It’s not something that’s directly attributable to evolution, but evolution can set up the necessary conditions for it to arise.

    why did you even write [A purpose can’t just float around unsupported]

    You said, “nor is it obvious that purpose flows automatically from [consciousness].” I was pointing out that, rather, purpose can’t possibly flow from anything else. Purpose presupposes consciousness.

  83. Melissa –

    We could imagine many things but the question is do these things have any connection to reality.

    Tom Gilson is putting forward what I take to be a logical proof. “If naturalism, then no morality.” If I can point out a potential case not covered in the proof, then the proof is flawed. So putting forward a case not accounted for is sufficient.

    You can read more about such a case here, but since Tom started Part II the next steps in this conversation should logically go there.

  84. Ray @98

    What do you mean by ‘adaptive environment’? I mean, biological evolution isn’t responsible for the sun, but is responsible for plant tropisms that track the sun.

    Your example of the latter is what I mean.

    Not every trait is ‘selected for’. Indeed, a whole lot of traits aren’t selected for or against at all.

    Not disagreeing. The not “selected for” part is either part of the evolutionary process or it it not. If it’s not part of the evolutionary process to not be “selected for” then what else is responsible?

    Chance and contingency and history has a big effect. But humans are also creatures with goals and the ability to think and plan. We are capable of a foresight unique on Earth, with all of the feedback loops that implies.

    Similar response as above. Either these things are part of the evolutionary process or they are not.

    You hinted in #65 and again in #80 that evolution doesn’t entirely explain how we ended up as the human beings we are today. I’m asking you what other explanatory options are out there?

  85. Ray, putting forward a case not accounted for is only sufficient if the case is possibly true. If it’s not possibly true, then it’s a waste of breath to speak it.

    Imagining the kind of morality you spoke of in #91 is a start. Showing that it has some connection to reality is also required. Otherwise we could imagine anything and call it a refutation of anything. Not very smart, right?

  86. Ray,
    Perhaps this will make my question more clear. It seems to me these are your options as a naturalist.

    (a) If the evolutionary process fully explains the human ability to think and plan then the evolution process fully explains the expression or carrying out of those plans (computers, art, cars,)

    (b) If the evolutionary process doesn’t fully explain the human ability to think and plan, then what else might explain those things?

    (c) If the evolutionary process fully explains the human ability to think and plan but not the expression or carrying out of those plans, then what else might explain those things?

    If I missed something, or have somehow made an error feel free to correct me.

  87. Tom Gilson –

    Ray, putting forward a case not accounted for is only sufficient if the case is possibly true.

    So… that is what we’re discussing, right? And have discussed? I still think it’s (more than) possible. So your case fails for me, at least.

  88. SteveK – I had a response all typed up, and lost it. So I’ll do what I can to reconstruct the gist of it.

    The “evolutionary process” has two components – variation, and selection. Selection is a filter – things aren’t ‘selected for’ so much as ‘not selected against’. But evolution per se doesn’t govern variation – variation is an input. If there’s, say, elevated cosmic rays, that’ll increase mutations and thus variation… but evolution didn’t cause or explain that elevation in cosmic rays.

    You can go panning for lead as easily as gold. Panning ‘filters out’ lighter stuff, leaving the heavier stuff behind. Whether you get gold or lead (or nothing) depends on what was in the pan to start with. What will be left will just be more dense than the rest.

    And when a process (like erosion) kicks off a process on a different level (like a nuclear reaction), you can’t say that erosion ‘completely explains’ that process. It can explain how it got started, not how it operates and what it produces. For that, you have to look at nuclear physics.

    Similarly with evolution and cognition. Evolution can explain how it got started (at least, arguendo), but that doesn’t mean it explains computers, art, and cars. For that we have to look at, e.g., cognitive psychology and all the various fields we have for understanding human thinking. (Which, of course, are still being developed.)

  89. Ray,
    I see what you are saying. The word evolution is so, so slippery. If I’m understanding you correctly, you’re saying that people are technically wrong when they say that evolution explains how humans came from insects (or whatever they came from) because evolution is only part of the explanation.

  90. SteveK – “Wrong” is rather too strong. At worst, it’s incomplete. Why is there a beach next to the ocean? “Erosion” is a perfectly true answer, but it doesn’t explain, say, the uplift of the continent, or the presence of enough liquid water for there to be an ocean, etc.

    It depends a lot on what the purpose of the explanation is. What question is it answering?

  91.