The Christian apologist William Lane Craig says that one of his most popular arguments against atheism is that it is morally repulsive. If there is no God, they think, then there’s ultimately no right or wrong. Everything’s allowed. Without morality, we’d have free-reign to be totally selfish without consequence; we’d treat each other like wolves.
Professor Eric Steinhart has a response to Craig’s moral argument: “that’s not how wolves treat each other.”
The idea that the most advantage goes to the most selfish individuals is an overly simplistic understanding of evolution. It ignores the fact that cooperation makes us mighty. Group bonds, coordinated action, social norms, allegiance, respect, reciprocity, all of this and more make wolf packs — and human groups — more resilient than they could ever be on their own.
In other words: morality arises naturally, and it does not require an Abrahamic God.
Cells Have Morals, Too
In a recent piece, I spoke about positive nihilism as a potential avenue to a sort of atheistic saintliness. I argue that the goal of positive nihilism isn’t to leave everyone in a state of despair and moral free-for-all but rather, similar to Greek Skepticism, to attain an imperturbable tranquility. If we cannot ascertain anything as definitely true, then we can give up trying to be “right” and instead exist without fear about, attachment to, or false pretensions of knowledge. As Socrates said: “I am the wisest of all men because I know that I know nothing.”
Steinhart takes a different approach, arguing that maybe we can know: that there are in fact natural and universal moral principles.
“Things that seem uniquely human typically emerge far earlier than humans,” wrote Steinhart in an email. “Morality emerges with the first cooperators capable of cheating — already with unicellular life. From there, it all just gets greater in degree, not in kind.”
Morality is not exclusive to humanity, says Steinhart. It’s something that emerges out of necessity when lifeforms begin to cooperate and rely on one another for survival. When groups of unicellular organism start banding together to increase their odds of surviving in a harsh landscape, they have to figure out how to work together. They might share resources, protect one another, take on different roles in order that the group will survive. A single cell’s prerogative is to replicate, replicate, replicate. But when cells exist in the context of a body (such as a human body) that kind of unencumbered growth is called cancer. Cells have mechanisms to prevent this run-away replication because it harms the greater whole. There is a cellular morality at play. The cells aren’t conscious about these processes, but they have evolved moral patterns that better ensure survival through cooperation and even self-sacrifice for the good of the whole. Philosopher Dan Dennett calls this “competence without comprehension.”
We see similar types of moral patterns among species and a recent New York Times Magazine article outlined the social lives of forrests and the many ways trees cooperate with one another. Human morality, Steinhart argues, comes much later. But it’s not fundamentally different than the other forms of morality that emerge in nature. What’s different is that we are conscious of our own morality.
Started from the Bottom…
What Steinhart and other moral naturalists are getting at is that we don’t need a God to explain why we’re moral. We don’t need a God to stay moral, either. Morality arises out of necessity. And more fundamentally, says Steinhart, its roots go back even further than living things to the foundations of our universe.
In a recent piece for the Spiritual Naturalist Society, Steinhart argues that a kind of pre-morality begins to emerge with the smallest building blocks of our universe: atomic quarks, and the ways in which they are obligated to bond and interact. An atom is made up of protons, neutrons and electrons. Protons and neutrons are themselves made out of bound quarks. From that same email, Steinhart writes: “Quarks aren’t interacting morally (morality comes much later), they are self-regulating axiologically. The deontic logic comes first. Then it’s a very long path to life and humans.”
Deontic logic is “the logic of the forbidden and the obligatory,” writes Steinhart. From quarks to galaxies: physical objects are obligated to act according to the laws and structure of the universe. Why the universe has this particular structure, laws, and constants, isn’t known. But the assumption that the fine-tuning of our universe’s nobs and levers is the only one that would support complex structure and beget life is faulty. “There are many different ways a universe could work and still support life, not just the physics of our own,” says Alex Howe, a theoretical astrophysicist at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor
More importantly, disbelieving in a God, maintaining agnosticism, or simply affirming naturalism does not mean we can avail ourselves of our worst impulses and most selfish desires. We are each part of a larger moral order, one that extends throughout human society and maybe beyond the human. If we ignore and desecrate our most basic moral intuitions, we may be ignoring deep-seated wisdom, eons in the making. In doing so, we risk destroying our relationships both to one another but to the planet from which we arose.
Practice: The View From Above
The Spiritual Naturalist Society provides a collection of practices and meditation techniques. One that’s stuck with me is an excerpt from Philosophical Regimen (1900) by the third Earl of Shaftesbury inspired by the Stoics. It was a common Stoic and Platonic exercise where the goal is to think about the world from above, as if seeing it with the eyes God.
View the heavens. See the vast design, the mighty revolutions that are performed. Think, in the midst of this ocean of being, what the earth and a little part of its surface is; … place thyself in the midst of the Divine architecture. Consider other orders of beings, other schemes, other designs, other executions, other faces of things, other respects, other proportions and harmony. … And now, in this disposition, and in this situation of mind, see if for a cut-finger, or what is all one, for the distemper and ails of a few animals, thou canst accuse the universe. (p. 19)
Consider the several ages of mankind; the revolutions of the world … first desert, then cultivated, and then desert again; from woods and wilderness, to cities and culture, again into woods; one while barbarous, then civilised, and then barbarous again; after, darkness and ignorance, arts and sciences, and then again darkness and ignorance as before. Now, therefore, remember whenever thou art intent and earnest on any action that seems highly important to the world, whenever it seems that great things are in hand, remember to call this to mind: that all is but of a moment, all must again decline. … What is there here but what is natural, familiar, and orderly, and conducing to the whole? Where is the tragedy? Where the surprise or astonishment? Are not these the leaves of the wood carried off with the winter blast, that new ones may in the spring succeed? Is not the whole surface of the earth thus? and are not all things thus? … The sum of all this is, that be this what season soever of the world, be it the very winter that thou livest in, or be it in the spring, all is alike. (pp. 70–71)
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