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The Imagination Needed for Naturalism to Work

I am far from the first person to get into a boxing match over the subjects of religion and evolution. While there are several reasons for this, I can summarize my objections to this conversation by highlighting how it is really like comparing apples and oranges. Any meaningful religious system is a comprehensive (philosophical, epistemological, emotional, existential, etc.) way of viewing the world. Evolution is simply a theory of origins; on its own, it provides no instruction for how or why we should view the world. The deeper conversation to be had is one of theism and naturalism. This is where we can actually engage in meaningful dialogue and get to the heart of how and why individuals may view the world differently.

This is especially important to remember when we start to get into a conversation about ethics. The naturalist movement has produced several different theories to account for ethical and moral standards for our society without transcendence in the picture, and it’s not my task to go through all of them in this post. In recent years, there have been two views of ethics in particular that I have seen gaining traction. The first is one which says the proper moral and ethical choice in any situation is that which alleviates the most suffering. Of course, one of the obstacles of this view is trying to account for what suffering is and why it is wrong.

The other view is one which tries to reinterpret the process of evolution itself to account for morality and ethics as a key piece of how we became the dominant species on the planet. In his recent talk at Google, Dr. Tim Keller gives a very brief presentation that gets into this subject of ethics from a theistic or secularist point of view. One of the last questions from the audience comes from an employee who I think really captures this new take on evolution well (around the 45min mark):

It seemed to me like a lot of your argument against secularism, or humanism, was predicated on this idea that human evolution…is sort of Hobbesian and ruthless. And I’m wondering how you would respond to an alternative hypothesis which is that humans – like some other species – actually evolved having a lot of benefit of social cooperation and in-group goal setting?

To be honest, this view sounds really nice on paper. Unfortunately it is an intellectually dishonest view which doesn’t square with the dominant views of how evolution – and human society – have really worked. This is one of the reasons why I have loved Yuval Noah Harari’s work in Sapiens. He is honest about human history from a naturalist perspective in such a way that he says the only way to account for ethics and meaning is through the power of your own imagination. In other words, everything that you think is meaningful and special in this life is completely made up.

By Coexisting or Replacing?

One of the important things to keep in mind about evolutionary theory and the human (Homo) species is that it did not occur on a linear track, beginning with some kind of ancient descendant of Homo Sapiens and then slowly evolving into the species we are today. This just simply isn’t the case, as Harari points out:

It’s a common fallacy to envision these species as arranged in a straight line of descent, with Ergaster begetting Erectus, Erectus begetting the Neanderthals, and the Neanderthals evolving into us….The truth is that from about 2 million years ago until around 10,000 years ago, the world was home at one and the same time, to several human species (pg. 8).

So the dilemma for evolutionary scientists is trying to determine why we (Sapiens) survived but other species (Erectus, Neanderthals, etc.) did not. There are two prevailing theories that account for the dominance and survival of Sapiens. The first is known as the Interbreeding Theory. According to this view, Sapiens merged with other species through mating and living together. This theory would be the backbone to the reinterpretation of evolution and ethics that we are seeing today. If the Interbreeding Theory is correct, then it may be possible to derive some kind of “ethics as part of evolutionary process” view.

The problem, Harari says, is that the evidence simply doesn’t line up with the theory. While there may be some small genetic evidence that Neanderthal and Denisovan DNA is present in our present-day genome, “…it is impossible to speak of a ‘merger’ between Sapiens and other human species (pg. 16).

The dominant view is not one of merging but of replacing. The Replacement Theory says that different human species remained distinct, and other species (Neanderthal, Erectus, etc.) were either killed off or starved to death due to competition of resources.

Tolerance is not a Sapiens trademark. In modern times, a small difference in skin color, dialect or religion has been enough to prompt one group of Sapiens to set about exterminating another group. Would ancient Sapiens have been more tolerant towards an entirely different human species? It may well be that when Sapiens encountered Neanderthals, the result was the first and most significant ethnic-cleansing campaign in history (pg. 18).

Not only is the evolutionary narrative one of wiping out other human species, but it is one of violence between Sapiens as well. Much later in the book, Harari explains that evolution has made the human species a xenophobic creature:

Evolution has made Homo sapiens, like other social mammals, a xenophobic creature. Sapiens instinctively divide humanity into two parts, ‘we’ and ‘they’. We are people like you and me, who share our language, religion and customs. We are all responsible for each other, but not responsible for them. We were always distinct from them, and owe them nothing. We don’t want to see any of them in our territory, and we don’t care an iota what happens in their territory. They are barely even human (pg. 196).

The truth is, the history of Homo Sapiens is one that is burdened with bloodshed. Coexisting has never been a fruitful virtue of Sapiens. While there may be some tales of cooperation and survival between different tribes, there is plenty of historical and archaeological evidence that shows war and murder is a staple of our species. In fact, Harari says, “Most human cooperation networks have been geared towards oppression and exploitation (pg. 104).

Our relationship with the natural world never faired any better, either. Over 10,000 years before the Industrial Revolution and the catastrophic results of pollution and toxic waste, Homo Sapiens completely devastated everything they touched:

The historical record makes Homo sapiens look like an ecological serial killer… Homo sapiens drove to extinction about half of the plant’s big beasts long before humans invented the wheel, writing or iron tools… Don’t believe tree-huggers who claim that our ancestors lived in harmony with nature. Long before the Industrial Revolution, Homo sapiens held the record among all organisms for driving the most plant and animal species to their extinctions. We have the dubious distinction of being the deadliest species in the annals of biology (pgs. 67, 72 and 74).

No matter how you slice it, the story of evolutionary history says that we Sapiens are all like King Midas. We destroy everything we touch because of our greed, selfishness, and thirst for dominance.

The only thing you can measure from evolutionary theory is the success of a species. Evolutionary Success measures the number of DNA copies of a given species. The more DNA copies there are, the more “successful” that species is – from a biological perspective. The problem with this measurement is that “it judges everything by the criteria of survival and reproduction, with no regard for individual suffering and happiness (pg. 93).” The trend for every evolutionary success story is that the more copies of their DNA there are, the more miserable they come (think of domesticated cows or chickens as an example).

The Imagination Station

So how do we measure a standard for ethics and morality from a purely naturalist perspective? We make it up. Everything we hold dear in our lives is a complete figment of our imagination. Our lives are like The Matrix but without the cool bullet-time action scenes. Harari makes his view plain from the beginning of the book,

None of these things (laws, justice, human rights) exists outside the stories that people invent and tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings (pg. 28).

Everything from theism to capitalism, Christianity to humanism, liberalism to conservativism – it’s all made up. This is what Harari calls an imagined order: a way of being in the world, complete with values, meaning and ethics, all of which is a myth.

This is exactly what I mean by ‘imagined order’. We believe in a particular order not because it is objectively true, but because believing in it enables us to cooperate effectively and forge a better society (pg. 110).

Is this what you believe? That nothing in your life objectively matters, that it is all made up, that there’s no such thing as real goodness or justice, and that you have little meaning outside of what you construct for yourself?

While I have applauded many of Harari’s views for being remarkably consistent and thorough, ultimately they are problematic on several levels. I want to touch on a few of them below.

Back to Reality

The first problem is that nobody really lives their life in this way. Nobody look out at their beloved children playing in the front yard and says, “I’m so happy that the love I feel for my children is all completely made up and in my own head.” Nobody looks at their dying spouse as a person who has no value other than what they ascribe to them. There is a sense in which, to live in a naturalist world, that you must divorce reality from your imagination. The only way to jump from nihilism (everything is objectively meaningless) to a values based system is with an incredible amount of faith in the power of one’s own imagination.

The second problem is the massive societal implications that come from this view. If there really is no objective standard outside of our own imaginations, then there really is no basis to determine whether an oppressive system is better or worse for our species. Harari himself admits that we have come to see that the fundamental values of equality and freedom are at odds in every human culture (pg. 165). I could have more individual freedom if I oppressed the sense of equality of another person or people group. Under what standard would such a system be wrong? For this reason, many scientists have avoided the Interbreeding Theory for fear that genetic evidence supporting this theory would quickly lead to racialized social practice. Why would that be wrong, unless somewhere deep down in our bones we recognized that individuals have inherent dignity and value which should not be suppressed?

Third, the theory itself relies on some very improbable math and assumptions. In order for imagined orders to work, they must be an inter-subjective order. In other words, the imagined order must not only exist in my own imagination but also in the shared imagination of thousands, millions or billions of other people (pg. 117). So how did deeply held shared values (do not steal, do not murder, etc.) translate consistently from groups of small hunter-foragers to an interconnected network of 7+ billion people, in only the matter of a few thousand years? There may be answers, but we will never truly know.

That is because everything we believe about how Sapiens think – and have evolved to think – is an assumption (from an evolutionary perspective). Theories on how ancient foragers treated and thought about each other are ultimately “castles in the air, connected to the ground by the thin strings of meagre archaeological remains and anthropological observations of present-day foragers (pg. 58).” Moreover, “The world of thought, belief and feeling (of ancient humans) is by definition difficult to decipher (pg. 54).” Any constructive theory on how an imagined order became an inter-subjective order amongst billions of people relies on improbable and questionable assumptions.

Fourth and finally, according to this view, the view itself is a myth. If values and ethics are ultimately derived from myths we tell ourselves about the world, then how we arrive at those myths must also be subject to the same standard. This gets to the root of one of the classic problems of naturalism – the belief in the power of the rational mind is itself a belief. Exclusive rationality is an imagined order. The British mathematician and philosopher William Kingdon Clifford articulated the exclusive rationality position in his famous essay “The Ethics of Belief” in 1877. There he says that is wrong to believe in anything without “insufficient evidence,” by which he meant empirical verification.

The problem with this view of reason, as Dr. Tim Keller points out, is that it cannot meet its own standard. According to Clifford’s view, we should not believe something unless we can prove it empirically. How can you empirically prove that assertion? What if everyone does not share your standard of proof? Reason can make a case for truth only if it appeals circularly to itself. There is a reason why Clifford’s views are rarely upheld in Western philosophy today.[1]

Well, Maybe…

Now none of this in any way proves any form of theism. I am obviously writing not only from the position of a theist, but a convinced Christian who upholds all of the historic views of orthodoxy (creation ex nihilo, miracles such as the virgin birth and resurrection, the Trinity, etc.). I understand that in an increasingly scientific and secular world these ideas are more and more being perceived as crazy and outlandish.

But perhaps such quick judgment about theistic belief is naïve? After all, to live in the naturalist world one must completely adopt an imaginary way of things to account for being and living. This imaginary take is one that is fraught with inconsistencies and challenges to truly account for the way things are.

What if these very things which you so desperately want to be true – meaning, value, purpose, right and wrong, the potential for human goodness – what if they really are? Against a backdrop of naturalistic imagination, perhaps the idea that there really is a God who made you and knows you, who created you with inherent dignity and purpose, and who has entered into human history in the person of Jesus Christ – well, maybe that isn’t so crazy after all.

[1] Dr. Tim Keller, Making Sense of God, p. 33.

4 Responses to :
The Imagination Needed for Naturalism to Work

  1. Jared Reeves says:

    Very well written!

    I am not sure if this is the proper form to provide a counter-argument. If not, and you would still like to read a counter-argument, I can send you a PM.

  2. Jared Reeves says:

    Thank you for the opportunity to respond! I really enjoy reading your blog to get a different perspective on things.

    First, let me say that I am only about 100 pages into the book Sapiens. So, it is very possible that Harari contradicts some of my conclusions. (By the way, thanks for suggesting this book, I am really enjoying it.) But I think we can agree that the main focus of Sapiens is not the evolutionary origins of morality (there are some other good books on this subject, such as Righteous Mind by Johnathan Haidt).

    Next, let me explain my theory–humans evolved as social animals with some degree of innate in-group loyalty. As a naturalist, I think morality can be explained by both evolution and culture. Societies “make up” some mores, but others are influenced by our evolutionary moral instinct. For example, we dislike the sight and smell of feces because it can cause disease. Similarly, we dislike injustice, like theft, because we can feel empathy for the victim, as social animals.

    However, empathy typically only extends so far without a unifying myth or “imagined order”; and even then we typically care more about those closer to us, such as family, friends, and neighbors. For example, we would rather have a large employer create jobs in our state/region, than a different state, even though we are all Americans.

    Finally, let me explain the parts I think your arguments is missing. I don’t think Harari is arguing that we are completely Hobbesian. While he does highlight the fact that Homo sapiens were violent, both against other species and our own, he also seems to argue that we are social animals and can have strong in-group loyalty (as highlighted by your quote on pg. 196).

    Responding to “The Imagination Station”

    I also don’t think that our evolutionary moral instincts are “imagined” or “made up”. Evolution gave us instincts to aid our survival, and these instinct are fairly uniform. Moral instincts is why we love our children/spouse.

    However, the moral code/rules a society decides based on this instinct could vary to a large degree, and could possibly be called “imagined” (just like any secular law). For example, in Leviticus there were many laws on cleanliness, which was equated with immorality. It was not only unclean, but immoral to touch certain animals, or prepare foods in certain ways.

    But the moral instinct itself is very real. In this way, I would argue that our moral instincts give us a “moral landscape”; but the particular moral rules, like not to touch dead bodies, are basically “imagined” (again, like secular law).

    The fact that I love my children because evolution made me that way, does not change the significance of those feelings, to me. I don’t need an objective measurement of beauty, to decide something is beautiful, and decide its significance, to me. I know that what I find beautiful is based largely on evolution and culture, but I still find it meaningful. Likewise, I don’t think I need an objective measurement of goodness to decide whether something is good, or whether what I call good is meaningful, to me.

    Responding to “Back to Reality”

    I disagree that recognition of our moral instincts and cultural influences, which guide our feelings and sense of morality, lead per se to nihilism, since subjective values can determine significance.

    You argue that we need objective standards to determine whether an oppressive system is better or worse. I disagree. What is “better or worse” depends largely on our values, which are subjective (based on moral instinct, cultural influences, and personal preferences). Different cultures value different things, to different degrees. For example, some cultures value individuality more, and some value collectivism and hierarchy more.

    Regarding your argument of improbable math and assumptions–humans create social contracts, and as Harari puts it, “imagined order”. Again, the social contracts are based partly on our moral instinct, for example our instinct for security or property rights. This imagined order is also partly based on what a culture values, for example the right to own a gun. In trying to work together, I think most countries and cultures find their own balance of values. That is not to say that I don’t have a subjective opinion that some countries are run by terrible regimes. But it does mean that I recognize that I am biased, in thinking what is best for individuals and countries.

    Regarding your argument against Clifford’s claim that we should not believe something unless we can prove it empirically, I would amend his statement. I think we should not believe anything about ‘objective reality’ based on insufficient empirical evidence. As you pointed out, a concept or emotion cannot be empirically verified.

    To “prove” that Clifford’s (amended) statement is correct, one does not need to resort to circular reasoning. One simply has to see if it works. (For example, it isn’t circular reasoning to state that it is true that the scientific method is a better method than a Magic 8 ball for learning about objective reality. The truth value of that statement is based on which method works better, not circular logic). This gets us into a much larger issue of epistemologies for subjective vs. objective claims; and finding the truth value of a concept vs. the truth value of a claim about objective reality.

    If you want to push back against any of my conclusions, I would love to hear it! I apologize in advance if what I said wasn’t clear.

    1. Ben Hein says:

      Jared,

      Sorry this took me so long to respond to. I’ve been doing a lot of teaching lately, plus I took a short vaca last week. Anyways, glad I can finally put a few minutes into a response.

      Of course I agree about the intent of Sapiens. It is not a book about morality as such. I’m aware of the Righteous Mind, Moral animal, etc. Although I haven’t read them yet myself (I hope to eventually), I’ve had enough friends describe them to me to be familiar with them (but not enough to engage myself).

      Nevertheless, the subject of morality and ethics is incredibly important to Sapiens as a whole. As you know, every history has a bias; it is written to make a point by emphasizing certain facts, and de-emphasizing (or omitting) others. Sapiens is telling the story of how, in Harari’s view, an insignificant animal (chapter 1) became a god (epilogue). Just by combining these two chapter headings, we can see all kind of moral, ethical and epistemological assumptions. For example, he is putting forward the idea that humans are no different from other animals except, now, by way of our capacities and faculties.

      In order to tell his story (pun intended), Harari makes all kinds of de facto statements about ethics and morality along the way. I appreciate his telling of history because, even though I disagree with many of his assumptions and assertions, he is to a great degree internally consistent. It is these statements and ideas that I was trying to interact with in my few blog posts: the world as Harari says it is. Through this interaction, I was trying to point out that naturalism isn’t as much of a slam dunk worldview as some people think it is. This isn’t to say that theism is a slam dunk either; that wasn’t the point of my posts. Countless books have been written on that subject, many more helpful than others. The intent of these short posts was in some way to show that it’s difficult to make sense of the world for all of us, regardless of where we’re coming from.

      Regarding your theory on morality, please keep in mind that I do not in any way think naturalists are immoral (unless it’s over an issue that I would consider immoral such as adultery). We have talked about this before. Christians and atheists can find a lot of common ground on morality, even if we get there in different ways.

      Your theory on morality is fine. However, I don’t find it to be rationally satisfying. It sounds good, maybe it makes sense of the way things are today. But, ultimately, it rests on a lot of assumptions.

      Take poop, for example, as the one you brought up. Do we really know why we dislike its smell and sight from an evolutionary perspective? No. For that matter, there are a lot of things that might fit in this theory, but ultimately we don’t know. Going back to Harari, we simply don’t know the world of thought, feeling and belief of Sapiens before the Agricultural revolution (pgs. 54, 58). For that matter, we don’t know a ton about thought, feeling and belief prior to recorded history, which we can really only piece together back a few thousand years. Did hunter/gatherer’s dislike poop? Maybe. But it’s also just as likely that they just took a squat in the woods and moved on. Other animals don’t seem to give a crap about crap, as evidenced by my dog who has been known to eat poop from time to time. So why should we?

      Perhaps this is why you amended Clifford’s statement by saying what’s important is whether “it” (whatever is being evaluated) works. In this case, does your theory work? Yes, to a degree. Does that make it true? No. I could come up with a fun theory about the domestication of chickens and our love for chicken wings being the leading cause of the Agricultural revolution. It would fit with what we know, but that doesn’t make it true.

      Ultimately, I think many of the naturalist models that have been drawn up for ethics and morals (and there have been many) come from a deeper sense of we want a story, we want meaning, purpose and ethics to be true, and we’re willing to accept something that makes us comfortable with our desires (subjective reality) even if it isn’t absolutely true (objective reality). Of course, I would say that this leads to the concept of the image of God in man…but I’m not going to stray from the topic here.

      I agree with you regarding the significance of feelings/beauty/etc. to you. I wouldn’t want to take the significance of those feels away from anyone, far from it. I want to expand those feelings by grounding it in something concrete, something true, something bigger than ourselves.

      And while I agree that the feelings you have are significant to you, I think that this is an unworkable model for society. I pointed out a few reasons why in the post. You brought up another when you rightly pointed out how different cultures value different things to different degrees. True. So when one culture encounters another, who is to say what is actually morally best for the world? Neither side can rightly claim true morality. So, for one culture to inflict their morality on another is nothing short of the kind of nasty imperialism we have seen throughout human history.

      Last point, I want to return to the subject of in-group loyalty, the nature of our species, etc. I agree that I don’t think Harari is saying we are completely Hobbesian (sorry if I implied otherwise). Is there some evidence of in-group loyalty? Yes, amongst small tribes (which increased in size during the Agricultural Revolution). But there is also a mass of evidence of violence; violence against the environment (ecological serial killers, in Harari’s words), against other species (apparently we put countless species to extinction every time we show up), and against ourselves. In Harari’s words, we are xenophobic creatures with little room for “tolerance.”

      Now, if all of this is true (and for the sake of argument I am saying that it is), then while this doesn’t necessarily lead to nihilism, it also doesn’t lead to virtue and ethics, either.

      I would agree with Harari that Sapiens are xenophobic creatures, in fact I would say xenophobia is one of the first consequences of sin on the world (which we see in Cain’s murder of Abel). But in my understanding of history, I have a reason for denouncing xenophobia (it violates and oppresses the image of God in man), and I know that it is not representative of the ethics of the Kingdom of God which are breaking into the world (the parable of the Good Samaritan, the torn divide between Jew/Gentile, etc.) nor the renewal of the fallen image of God in man. This history gives me an “ought,” a “should,” a telos; an end of things that tells me where we’ve come from, why things suck right now, but also a satisfying rational/emotional/experiential/etc. reason for why I have strong longings for a world that is better.

      Harari’s take on history, while enlightening, at times very helpful, and as internally consistent as it is, ultimately is not satisfying nor as workable as we might like to think. Will recently shared the article in our Facebook group about living with contradiction. While there are some things as a Christian I have to admit I don’t know, the number of contradictions required to accept the naturalist framework are just too daunting for me to accept.

      Hope that helps. I’m grateful for your pushback. Your comments and perspective, both here and in our several in person meetings, have deeply sharpened me and made me a better conversationalist and a better person.

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The Imagination Needed for Naturalism to Work

by Ben Hein time to read: 10 min
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