The Story of Evolution, Reason and Morality
Evolution and Empirical Reasoning
Reason developed as a part of evolution to make sense of the sensory data from our environment. A dog is also getting sensory information about the world, and it can see, hear and smell danger approaching, and behave accordingly. But its ability to make sense of its environment is not as good as that of humans, who have evolved more in this ability. This sort of ability to reason, to makes sense of the physical world, definitely has a huge survival advantage. Making sense of the sensory data such that it corresponds with the environment as it actually is, appears to be the defining requirement of this survival advantage. And even though an absolute correspondence cannot be established, but one can say that to a particular degree and extent, our empirical reasoning does correspond with the way things are. And as far as this empirical reasoning goes, science has become the epitome of such a way of reasoning.
This making-sense-of-the-world happens at two levels: a Descriptive level and an Explanatory level. The descriptive level of empirical reasoning is concerned with the correct description and integration of what we perceive through our senses. The descriptive reasoning creates a picture of the world around us, so that we can interact with it in a better way (and hence the survival advantage). The Explanatory level is concerned with explaining the gaps in the Descriptive reasoning; things that we observe, but we have no way of accounting for them while remaining in that level of descriptive reasoning. For example, we see that all things fall to the ground. Descriptive reasoning tell us that when you drop a ball from a hand, it falls down, but there is really no explanation for that, as to why it happens that way. So, our empirical reasoning works at its explanatory level and posits that there is a mysterious force called Gravity by which Earth attracts the objects on its surface. An explanation has been put forth, and this explanation is further tweaked and refined as more observations are made (for instance, we can now say that it is not just the Earth that attracts the ball, but the ball also attracts the Earth).
However, there is a crucial difference between Descriptive level of Empirical Reasoning and the Explanatory level. Whereas the Descriptive reasoning is concerned with making sense of perceptions such that it forms a picture that corresponds to as things are, the Explanatory reasoning is merely concerned with providing the best possible explanation of what Descriptive reasoning cannot account; Explanatory reasoning is not concerned with as-things-are, but with providing a model with the most explanatory power. As such, they do not possess any 'truth'.
It does happen that the models provided by Explanatory reasoning can be confirmed or refuted by an extension of the Descriptive reasoning. For example, there was a time when "Earth is round" was just at an explanatory level, a theory proposed to explain certain observations that could not be accounted for by a flat Earth. However, when a sailer sailed around the world in a complete circle or when Astronomers traveled into space and saw that Earth is a sphere, the Round Earth Theory no longer remained an explanation; it become a descriptive fact. What was initially at an Explanatory level came up on Descriptive level. Similarly, the Holocentric model was once just a good explanation. With the advent of telescopes by which one could monitor the motion of planets and sun, it became a descriptive fact.
So, this is how science has progressed: by refining and tweaking its Explanations to fit the observations, and by turning Explanations into Descriptions using better and better scientific equipment. However, there is a limit to what can be brought to Descriptive level from Explanatory level. Our physical senses are limited and so are our scientific instruments. That means that there is a whole explanatory world-view that can be refined and tweaked, but can never be definitely confirmed or proved by bringing it to descriptive level. For example, consider gravity. In 19th century we had a Newtonian theory of gravity, and it worked well-enough till we discovered certain observations that it couldn't account for. So it was super-ceded by a better explanation, the Einstein's General Relativity. But this is what General Relativity remains: an explanatory model that has superior powers of explanation than Newtonian model, and that's all. It cannot claim any Truth in the descriptive sense. Even if science arrives at a Unified Theory of Everything that perfectly explains ALL our observations, it would still not be able to claim any Truth. It would remain what it is: an unproved perfect explanatory model.
And this is not something that I am proposing. Even the scientific community accepts such a view of science, which was most prominently presented by Karl Popper. The famous astrophysicist Stephen Hawkings explains this view in this manner:
“…a scientific theory is a mathematical model that describes and codifies the observations we make. A good theory will describe a large range of phenomena on the basis of a few simple postulates and will make definite predictions that can be tested. If the predictions agree with the observations, the theory survives that test, though it can never be proved to be correct. On the other hand, if the observations disagree with the predictions, one has to discard or modify the theory.” [The Universe in a Nutshell]
“Any physical theory is always provisional, in the sense that it is only a hypothesis: you can never prove it. No matter how many times the results of the experiments agree with some theory, you can never be sure that the next time the result will not contradict the theory. On the other hand, you can disprove a theory by finding even a single observation that disagrees with the predictions of the theory.” [A Brief History of Time]
In the light of this understanding, let us now look at the theory of Evolution:
There are again two level at which we can see the matter. The Descriptive level and an Explanatory level. On the descriptive level, what we observe is a succession of fossils of various species, and biological, cytological, biochemical and genetic evidence of linkage of all life forms. Therefore, this much is certain: Evolution happened. Species emerged on Earth in succession in a determinable pattern, and we can see on the Descriptive level. However, there is an Explanatory level below this Descriptive level, which attempts to explain how this evolution happened. And the best scientific explanation currently is the theory of biological evolution by means of natural selection. Even if the theory of natural selection could explain everything that we observe regarding evolution (which it doesn't), it would still remain an explanatory model, the best available scientific model, but nevertheless a model; unprovable and without any rightful claim to Truth.
So while naturalism assumes the truth of biological evolution, it also, by the nature of its very reasoning, demonstrates that the truth of biological evolution is essentially unprovable. Perhaps it is not self-contradictory, but it is definitely self-deficient.
This was the story of Empirical Reasoning, which is about making sense of sensory data, but there is another type of reasoning, a purely Conceptual reasoning, which is about making sense of concepts itself. And the distinctive difference is that conceptual reasoning provides its own truth. It provides us with 'knowledge' that we can immediately see as being 'true'. [Yes, this is my way of describing the a priori/a posteriori distinction] We don't have to resort to any empirical verfication or any experiment to determine its truth. We can just see for ourselves. Yes, it is true that this conceptual reasoning can be applied to the things in physical world, but this application is not what provides the truth of it. Its truth is independent of empirical reasoning. The field of symbolic deductive logic and mathematics comprise the conceptual reasoning.
'All Xs are Ys' is true if X = Y. We don't need to do any experiment to determine that. This symbolic truth is independent of all experience; it would even be true if there was no physical world. We can "see" that it is true, as if by means of some automatic rational intuition. Such is its distinct nature.
The big question in front of us is that how did this conceptual a priori reasoning develop? This sort of reasoning has no clear cut survival advantage, and any advantage it may have is so abstract that we cannot expect it to influence the survival of the fittest gene pool competition from which the Empirical reasoning developed. So where did it come from? Did Conceptual reasoning develop because Empirical reasoning is impossible without it? Is Conceptual reasoning a sort of by-product of Empirical reasoning? A sort of unintended effect that tagged along with the evolution of Empirical reasoning? If so, do we have any reason to accept the Truth of this mode of reasoning? Perhaps it is illusory, and the only thing we can determine for sure is what corresponds to our descriptive experience? Or perhaps it does exist objectively, with a metaphysical existence of its own, which we have come to perceive.
The philosophical nature of mathematics and symbolic logic is a whole debate in itself, and there are attempts at an empiricist explanation of mathematics, but none of them seem to explain the seemingly a priori nature of mathematics, its apparent infallibility in stark contrast to the fallible nature of empirical reasoning.
If conceptual reasoning is a priori, then how is this a priori nature justified? Either it exists independently and objectively, perhaps as platonic ideals, or it is a way of thinking that has been hardwired in our brains during evolution through some as yet unaccountable way. In either way, we are believing in a form of realism: conceptual reasoning has an objective grounding, whether it is Platonic or biological.
The Nature of Morality
Morality, as we humans perceive it, is very muddled up. We all have a moral sense, an inner voice of conscience telling us what is moral and what is not, but this moral sense is greatly influenced by upbringing, personality, intellect, experiences and religious beliefs. People growing up in different societies and cultures have different moral beliefs explainable in terms of their cultural and social practices. However, it appears that there is a central core of morality which depends upon intuitions that are independent of all these things, intuitions which are determinable not simply by virtue of their universality, but by their seemingly a priori nature. Amidst the moral disagreements and differences, we intuit certain things about morality, which can however still be suppressed by belief. As mathematics and logic need to be learned, and a clarity of reasoning is required, even though their truth is recognized by intuition, in the same way some moral truths have to be learnt and a certain clarity is required before we are able to see the moral intuitions distinct from the emotions and beliefs clinging to them, but once done so, their truth is recognized by intuition. Not all moral claims are intuitive; moral claims are often expressions of emotions, biases and acquired beliefs. However, there are at least some moral claims that I believe are intuitive, a priori, objective.
I quote from Stanford Encyclopedia:
"Another realist reply to the epistemic challenge is to argue that mathematics and logic, not science, are the right models of moral theory. Neither mathematics nor logic, some maintain, rely on experience for their confirmation. They are, instead, supportable a priori by appeal to the nature of the concepts they involve. On this view, a sound defense of the principles we need to ground moral arguments can be found in a suitably subtle and careful bit of conceptual analysis. In light of Moore’s Open Question Argument, those who advocate and epistemology of conceptual analysis acknowledge that the correct analysis, whatever it is, is likely not at all obvious. And, they point out, this means that people who are genuinely competent with the relevant concepts might themselves not recognize the correct analysis as correct. Nonetheless, the analysis might be correct. If there is some such analysis to be had, and if it is rich enough to provide the sort of substantive principles needed to underwrite our various particular judgments, realism will have met well its epistemic burden. Of course putting things this way assumes we have a good epistemology of conceptual analysis, which might well be called into question. But worries about conceptual analysis are not specific to morality. And if they prove decisive, then those worries leave mathematics and logic, no less than morals, in need of some grounding or other. Whatever might be advanced on behalf of mathematics and logic, many think, should work as well for morality."
Yes, the burden of proof is still on the realists to prove that such intuitive a priori moral truths exist, but there is no real objection against it to show that they cannot exist.
As a preliminary attempt, I had presented a two degree structure that at least some moral claims based upon moral intuitions have:
First Degree: It is wrong to do X/right to do X, unless there are good reasons to do otherwise.
Second Degree: The intuitions regarding what those good reasons are or are not.
First Degree: It is wrong to inflict cruelty, unless there is a good reason to do so.
Second Degree: Inflicting cruelty as a punishment for crimes is a good reason.
First Degree: It is wrong not to save the life of a person one can save, unless there is a good reason to do so.
Second Degree: Hatred of a person is not a good reason to let that person die.
The First Degree Intuitions are almost universal, while the Second Degree Intuitions are not quite universal (though they can be) and genuine disagreement can exist.
However, it must be noted that even if such intuitions exist, they are still vulnerable to suppression by non-moral emotions and ideas. For instance, in example 2, a person may allow his hatred of a person to dominate his moral intuition, and let that person die, and then he may even try to justify that he did nothing wrong. Similarly, a person who intuitively feels that every person has a right to life may still support the murder of an apostate because his faith dictates so. Such distortive effect of emotions and beliefs is perhaps what accounts for the wide disagreement on morality, and what makes discovering the objective a priori moral truths a tremendous difficulty. Nevertheless, just as in discovering rational a priori truths, the answer lies in rigorous analysis to free the mind of prejudice as much as possible. If such a priori moral truths are demonstrable, we would have a basis for moral realism, with an objective grounding for moral truths, whether it is Platonic or biological.