Wishful Thinking about Wishful Thinking

Cameron Harwick discusses an apparent relationship between “New Atheism” and group selection:

Richard Dawkins’ best-known scientific achievement is popularizing the theory of gene-level selection in his book The Selfish Gene. Gene-level selection stands apart from both traditional individual-level selection and group-level selection as an explanation for human cooperation. Steven Pinker, similarly, wrote a long article on the “false allure” of group selection and is an outspoken critic of the idea.

Dawkins and Pinker are also both New Atheists, whose characteristic feature is not only a disbelief in religious claims, but an intense hostility to religion in general. Dawkins is even better known for his popular books with titles like The God Delusion, and Pinker is a board member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

By contrast, David Sloan Wilson, a proponent of group selection but also an atheist, is much more conciliatory to the idea of religion: even if its factual claims are false, the institution is probably adaptive and beneficial.

Unrelated as these two questions might seem – the arcane scientific dispute on the validity of group selection, and one’s feelings toward religion – the two actually bear very strongly on one another in practice.

After some discussion of the scientific issue, Harwick explains the relationship he sees between these two questions:

Why would Pinker argue that human self-sacrifice isn’t genuine, contrary to introspection, everyday experience, and the consensus in cognitive science?

To admit group selection, for Pinker, is to admit the genuineness of human altruism. Barring some very strange argument, to admit the genuineness of human altruism is to admit the adaptiveness of genuine altruism and broad self-sacrifice. And to admit the adaptiveness of broad self-sacrifice is to admit the adaptiveness of those human institutions that coordinate and reinforce it – namely, religion!

By denying the conceptual validity of anything but gene-level selection, therefore, Pinker and Dawkins are able to brush aside the evidence on religion’s enabling role in the emergence of large-scale human cooperation, and conceive of it as merely the manipulation of the masses by a disingenuous and power-hungry elite – or, worse, a memetic virus that spreads itself to the detriment of its practicing hosts.

In this sense, the New Atheist’s fundamental axiom is irrepressibly religious: what is true must be useful, and what is false cannot be useful. But why should anyone familiar with evolutionary theory think this is the case?

As another example of the tendency Cameron Harwick is discussing, we can consider this post by Eliezer Yudkowsky:

Perhaps the real reason that evolutionary “just-so stories” got a bad name is that so many attempted stories are prima facie absurdities to serious students of the field.

As an example, consider a hypothesis I’ve heard a few times (though I didn’t manage to dig up an example).  The one says:  Where does religion come from?  It appears to be a human universal, and to have its own emotion backing it – the emotion of religious faith.  Religion often involves costly sacrifices, even in hunter-gatherer tribes – why does it persist?  What selection pressure could there possibly be for religion?

So, the one concludes, religion must have evolved because it bound tribes closer together, and enabled them to defeat other tribes that didn’t have religion.

This, of course, is a group selection argument – an individual sacrifice for a group benefit – and see the referenced posts if you’re not familiar with the math, simulations, and observations which show that group selection arguments are extremely difficult to make work.  For example, a 3% individual fitness sacrifice which doubles the fitness of the tribe will fail to rise to universality, even under unrealistically liberal assumptions, if the tribe size is as large as fifty.  Tribes would need to have no more than 5 members if the individual fitness cost were 10%.  You can see at a glance from the sex ratio in human births that, in humans, individual selection pressures overwhelmingly dominate group selection pressures.  This is an example of what I mean by prima facie absurdity.

It does not take much imagination to see that religion could have “evolved because it bound tribes closer together” without group selection in a technical sense having anything to do with this process. But I will not belabor this point, since Eliezer’s own answer regarding the origin of religion does not exactly keep his own feelings hidden:

So why religion, then?

Well, it might just be a side effect of our ability to do things like model other minds, which enables us to conceive of disembodied minds.  Faith, as an emotion, might just be co-opted hope.

But if faith is a true religious adaptation, I don’t see why it’s even puzzling what the selection pressure could have been.

Heretics were routinely burned alive just a few centuries ago.  Or stoned to death, or executed by whatever method local fashion demands.  Questioning the local gods is the notional crime for which Socrates was made to drink hemlock.

Conversely, Huckabee just won Iowa’s nomination for tribal-chieftain.

Why would you need to go anywhere near the accursèd territory of group selectionism in order to provide an evolutionary explanation for religious faith?  Aren’t the individual selection pressures obvious?

I don’t know whether to suppose that (1) people are mapping the question onto the “clash of civilizations” issue in current affairs, (2) people want to make religion out to have some kind of nicey-nice group benefit (though exterminating other tribes isn’t very nice), or (3) when people get evolutionary hypotheses wrong, they just naturally tend to get it wrong by postulating group selection.

Let me give my own extremely credible just-so story: Eliezer Yudkowsky wrote this not fundamentally to make a point about group selection, but because he hates religion, and cannot stand the idea that it might have some benefits. It is easy to see this from his use of language like “nicey-nice,” and his suggestion that the main selection pressure in favor of religion would be likely to be something like being burned at the stake, or that it might just have been a “side effect,” that is, that there was no advantage to it.

But as St. Paul says, “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.” Yudkowsky believes that religion is just wishful thinking. But his belief that religion therefore cannot be useful is itself nothing but wishful thinking. In reality religion can be useful just as voluntary beliefs in general can be useful.

Zeal for God, But Not According to Knowledge

St. Thomas raises this objection to the existence of God:

Objection 2. Further, it is superfluous to suppose that what can be accounted for by a few principles has been produced by many. But it seems that everything we see in the world can be accounted for by other principles, supposing God did not exist. For all natural things can be reduced to one principle which is nature; and all voluntary things can be reduced to one principle which is human reason, or will. Therefore there is no need to suppose God’s existence.

He responds to the objection:

Since nature works for a determinate end under the direction of a higher agent, whatever is done by nature must needs be traced back to God, as to its first cause. So also whatever is done voluntarily must also be traced back to some higher cause other than human reason or will, since these can change or fail; for all things that are changeable and capable of defect must be traced back to an immovable and self-necessary first principle, as was shown in the body of the Article.

The explanation here is that things do have their own proper causes, but these proper causes do not have the properties necessary to be a first cause. Likewise, the very distinction of these proper causes from one another shows that they must be reduced to a one single principle.

This response is correct, but it is difficult for people to understand. People tend to assume that the objection is fundamentally valid, given its premises. Thus many atheists believe that they have a very good argument for their atheism, and many theists assume that there must be falsehood in the premises. And the ordinary way to assume this is to say that we do see things in the world that cannot be accounted for by other principles.

This leads to an undue zeal on behalf of God, of the sort mentioned in the previous post. There is the desire to say that something was done by God, and only by God; not by anything else. In this way the premise that “everything we see in the world can be accounted for by other principles” would turn out to be false. The Intelligent Design movement provides an example of this desire. The linked Wikipedia article approaches this with a very polemical point of view, but I am not concerned here with the scientific issues. It is very evident, in any case, that there is the idea here that it would be good to prove that something was done by God alone, and not by any secondary causes. In this way people are jealous on behalf of God: if it turns out that it was done by secondary causes, that takes something from God, and in particular it makes it less likely that God exists.

The truth is mostly the opposite of this. Although nothing can be taken from God, the purposes of creation are better obtained if created things contribute whatever they can to the production of other things. Thus the world is more ordered, and so more perfect simply speaking.

As an example, consider the case of the origin of life. Unlike the process which gave rise to the origin of species, abiogenesis is not an established fact. What would be best, were it the case? I do not speak of the truth of the matter, nor what we might wish to believe about it, but which thing would be better in itself: is it better if life arises from non-living things, or is it better if life is directly created by God? For someone jealous for God in this way, it seems better if life were directly created, in order better to prove that God exists. In reality, however, it is better if life comes to be in a certain order, with a contribution from non-living things, to whatever degree that this is possible.

This is not just a matter of wishful thinking, in one direction or the other, although that can be involved. Rather, in cases of this kind, the fact that one thing is better is an argument, although not a conclusive one, for its reality.

There are many other ways in which this kind of undue zeal influences human opinions, and recognition of the truth of this matter has many consequences. But for the moment we are on another path.

If At First You Don’t Succeed

Suppose you have a dozen problems in your life that you are trying to solve. And suppose that whenever you try to solve one of them, you almost always fail. Is there a chance that a time will come when you have solved them all?

There is such a chance, of course. You almost always fail, but if you continue to try other possible solutions, you might hit on a solution sooner or later. And then you will have only 11 issues remaining, and you can continue from there, working on the next one.

And even after more or less resolving one problem, you might later discover a still better solution. Thus for example I discussed a certain solution to time management here, but my current solution is substantially better, although including important elements of that one.

In a similar way, I discussed the general idea of progress in the posts here, here, and here. A very simple summary of the ideas argued there is that people are trying to make things better for themselves and others, and even if they do not always succeed, they sometimes do. And for the reason assigned above in this post, you do not have to succeed in solving your problems all of the time, or even most of the time, in order to generally make progress.

In economics, there is a similar reason for the fact that markets do as well as they do, and in biology, why natural selection works as well as it does, despite the fact that a majority of individual changes either do nothing or are actively harmful.

 

My Morals and Your Morals

The last two posts have explained the changeableness in ethics as a result of the nature of the moral object, and as a result of evolution and human nature in the concrete. Still a third kind of flexibility results from individual differences.

Aristotle, as we saw, affirms that happiness and virtue consist in performing well the function of man. So insofar as people have human nature in common, their happiness and virtue will be the same. One might suppose that it follows that human happiness and virtue must be entirely the same in all, but this is a mistake. For the nature of virtue in the concrete follows not only from an abstract idea of a “rational animal,” but from the condition of the human animal taken much more concretely. This follows from the last post, where we saw that moral principles, even ones which we currently understand to be universal principles, could have been otherwise, had the circumstances of the human race been otherwise.

One might respond that this makes no difference, since all of us are members of the human race in the concrete, and consequently we must share the same concrete virtue and happiness. This does follow to some extent, just as does the general argument that all humans possess human nature. But it does not follow perfectly.

It does not follow perfectly, that is, it does not follow that our virtue and happiness is the same in every respect. If ethics were simply a logical deduction from an abstract idea like that of “rational animal,” then one might reasonably suppose that virtue and happiness would be entirely the same in all. But in fact ethics also results from facts that are intrinsically changeable, namely facts about what promotes the flourishing of the human race.

Although these facts are intrinsically changeable, one will not expect them to change from person to person in a random manner. It is not that for some, killing the innocent is harmful for human flourishing, while in others, it is beneficial. Instead, it is harmful for all.

But the fact that we are speaking of intrinsically changeable things does mean that we will have a certain amount of variation from one individual to another. There are facts about human beings that result in moral norms. But these “facts about human beings” may vary, e.g. in degree, from one human to another. Alexander Pruss, discussing the origin of Bayesian priors, makes this remark:

Let me try to soften you up in favor of anthropocentrism about priors with an ethics analogy. If sharks developed rationality, we wouldn’t expect their flourishing to involve quite as much friendship as our flourishing does. Autonomy and friendship are both of value, and yet are in tension, and we would expect different species to resolve that tension differently based on the different ways that they are characteristically adapted to their environment. This is, indeed, an argument for a significant Natural Law component in ethics: even if values are kind-independent, the appropriate resolution of tensions between them is something that may well be relative to a kind.

But just as sharks would have less need for friendship than human beings have, so one human being might have less need for friendship than another.

Aristotle discusses virtue as consisting as a mean between opposed vices:

Since, then, the present inquiry does not aim at theoretical knowledge like the others (for we are inquiring not in order to know what virtue is, but in order to become good, since otherwise our inquiry would have been of no use), we must examine the nature of actions, namely how we ought to do them; for these determine also the nature of the states of character that are produced, as we have said. Now, that we must act according to the right rule is a common principle and must be assumed-it will be discussed later, i.e. both what the right rule is, and how it is related to the other virtues. But this must be agreed upon beforehand, that the whole account of matters of conduct must be given in outline and not precisely, as we said at the very beginning that the accounts we demand must be in accordance with the subject-matter; matters concerned with conduct and questions of what is good for us have no fixity, any more than matters of health. The general account being of this nature, the account of particular cases is yet more lacking in exactness; for they do not fall under any art or precept but the agents themselves must in each case consider what is appropriate to the occasion, as happens also in the art of medicine or of navigation.

But though our present account is of this nature we must give what help we can. First, then, let us consider this, that it is the nature of such things to be destroyed by defect and excess, as we see in the case of strength and of health (for to gain light on things imperceptible we must use the evidence of sensible things); both excessive and defective exercise destroys the strength, and similarly drink or food which is above or below a certain amount destroys the health, while that which is proportionate both produces and increases and preserves it. So too is it, then, in the case of temperance and courage and the other virtues. For the man who flies from and fears everything and does not stand his ground against anything becomes a coward, and the man who fears nothing at all but goes to meet every danger becomes rash; and similarly the man who indulges in every pleasure and abstains from none becomes self-indulgent, while the man who shuns every pleasure, as boors do, becomes in a way insensible; temperance and courage, then, are destroyed by excess and defect, and preserved by the mean.

But not only are the sources and causes of their origination and growth the same as those of their destruction, but also the sphere of their actualization will be the same; for this is also true of the things which are more evident to sense, e.g. of strength; it is produced by taking much food and undergoing much exertion, and it is the strong man that will be most able to do these things. So too is it with the virtues; by abstaining from pleasures we become temperate, and it is when we have become so that we are most able to abstain from them; and similarly too in the case of courage; for by being habituated to despise things that are terrible and to stand our ground against them we become brave, and it is when we have become so that we shall be most able to stand our ground against them.

Aristotle may be making more or less the same point as this post (and the previous two) when he says that “matters concerned with conduct and questions of what is good for us have no fixity, any more than matters of health,” and likewise when he says that “the agents themselves must in each case consider what is appropriate to the occasion.” Virtue consists in a mean, not too much of something and not too little. But where exactly this mean falls will differ from one individual to another. The case of friendship mentioned above is an example. As Pruss says, “Autonomy and friendship are both of value, and yet are in tension,” and since those values will affect different people differently, we can expect differently people rightly to resolve that tension in different ways, just as Pruss says we could expect different species to resolve it differently. Naturally, we might expect the difference between species to be greater than the difference between individuals. But there will be differences in each case.

So in order to arrive at the mean of truth, there are two opposite errors to be avoided here. One is the Equality Dogma. The other would be the supposition that the differences between individuals might be more or less the same as differences between species. Ian Morris, in his book Why the West Rules–for Now, remarks,

This technical debate over classifying prehistoric skeletons has potentially alarming implications. Racists are often eager to pounce on such details to justify prejudice, violence, and even genocide. You might feel that taking the time to talk about a theory of this kind merely dignifies bigotry; perhaps we should just ignore it. But that, I think, would be a mistake. Pronouncing racist theories contemptible is not enough. If we really want to reject them, and to conclude that people (in large groups) really are all much the same, it must be because racist theories are wrong, not just because most of us today do not like them.

One of the arguments of the book (best understood by reading the book) is that “people (in large groups) really are all much the same,” and that the causes of the differences between West and East were not primarily differences between peoples, but differences of other kinds such as differences of geography.

 

Morality and Evolution

Some days ago, I stated that ethics is more flexible than many people suppose. One reason for this is the nature of the moral object. I tried to explain how this works in the last post; more detail is found in the comments there. A second reason is that human nature itself is less fixed than many people suppose. This follows from the theory of evolution.

This issue is related to a post by Alexander Pruss, where he raises the question of why immoral behavior is not necessary for human flourishing:

Andrea Dworkin argued that sexual intercourse between a man and a woman is always wrong because it involves a violation of the woman’s bodily integrity. She concluded that until recent advances in medical technology, it was impossible for humans to permissibly reproduce. The antinatalists, on the other hand, continue to hold that it is impossible for humans to permissible reproduce. Such views lead to an incredulous stare. It is very tempting to levy against them an argument like this:

  1. Coital reproduction is necessary for the minimal flourishing of the human community under normal conditions.
  2. Whatever is necessary for the minimal flourishing of the human community under normal conditions is sometimes permissible.
  3. Coital reproduction is sometimes permissible.

The condition “under normal conditions” is needed for (2) to be plausible. We can, after all, easily imagine science-fictional scenarios where something immoral would need to be done to ensure the minimal flourishing of the human community.

Reproduction is not the only case where issues like this come up. For instance, the destruction of non-human organisms, say plants, seems necessary for our flourishing. And I suspect that under normal conditions the killing of non-human animals is necessary, too (if only as a side-effect of plowing fields, say). Taxation may be another interesting example.

I have heard it argued that (2) is in itself a basic moral principle, so that killing non-human animals as a side-effect of vegan farming is permissible because it is permissible to ensure minimal human flourishing. But that seems mistaken. Rather, while (2) is true, it is not a moral principle, but a consequence of a correlation between (a) fundamental facts about what moral duties there are actually are and (b) facts about what is actually needed for minimal human flourishing under normal conditions.

This leads to an interesting and I think somewhat underexplored question: Why are the moral facts and the facts about actual human needs so correlated as to make (2) true?

Theists have an elegant answer to this question: God had very strong moral reason to make humans in such a way that, at least normally, minimal flourishing of the community doesn’t require wrong action. Non-theists have other stories to tell. These stories, however, are likely to be piecemeal. For instance, one will give one evolutionary story about why we and our ecosystem evolved in such a way that eating persons wasn’t needed for our species’ survival, and another about why we evolved in such a way that morally non-degrading sex sufficed for reproduction. But a unified answer is to be preferred over piecemeal answers, especially when the unified answer is compatible with the piecemeal ones and capable of integrating them into a single story. We do, thus, get some evidence for theism here.

I tend to agree with Pruss here on a certain level. Thus I have argued myself that the fact that the world is good implies that its principle is good. However, his argument is more particular than that. He is claiming that principle (2) could have failed to be true empirically , and consequently that there was a need of some special effort to make sure that it did not fail to be true. He is presumably not rejecting the theory of evolution, but he is arguing that God needed to take special care to ensure that evolution did not follow certain paths where (2) would have ended up being false.

In contrast, I would argue that (2) could not possibly have failed to be true. This follows from an Aristotelian view of ethics and from the nature of moral obligation. Virtue simply means those habits that lead to human flourishing, and moral obligations are simply those things which are necessary for the human good. So it is evident that there was no need for any special measures to prevent immorality from being necessary for human flourishing. Whatever was necessary would have been moral.

Pruss gives examples: why isn’t eating persons necessary for survival, and why isn’t morally degrading sex necessary for reproduction? (In the comments he gives rape as an example of morally degrading sex.) As Pruss points out, a reasonable evolutionary account can be given for each thing of this kind. Generally speaking, prey populations must significantly outnumber predator populations for stability, and this implies that even if it is possible for some species to prey on itself to some extent, as in cannibalism, it is not likely to be necessary; most of the nourishment must come from elsewhere.

Similarly, given the nature of rationality, it would be highly unlikely for lack of consent to be necessary for a reproductive process between two individuals. One could imagine its necessity: perhaps reproduction only happens when hormones are present in the blood which are only emitted in circumstances of distress and unwillingness. But the fact that this might be possible in principle does not make it a likely thing to evolve; to the extent that a rational party is unwilling to reproduce, reproduction is unlikely to happen at all. So this kind of situation is likely to lead either to extinction, or to a new situation where lack of consent is no longer necessary.

Pruss’s response is that “a unified answer is to be preferred over piecemeal answers.” But this only works if it is in fact true that (2) would have been false if eating persons had been necessary for survival, or if lack of consent had been necessary for reproduction.

I would respond to Pruss in two ways. First, as I have already stated, (2) could not have been false, and would not have been false even in Pruss’s imaginary scenarios. Second, human life as it actually is has properties which directly suggest that no special effort has been taken to avoid such things. These two claims might seem inconsistent. I will explain their consistency when I come to the second point.

Regarding the first point, suppose eating persons were necessary for the survival of the human race. Let’s say that when someone reached the age of 15, it was necessary for him to eat an older person or die of a fatal disease. This would be part of the human growth process.

It is obvious, and Pruss concedes that it is true, that if this were the case, all humans would agree that it was morally acceptable for the 15 year old children to eat the older adults. This would presumably have some concrete social arrangement, perhaps with the very oldest being eaten. They might not like the fact, but even the ones being eaten would presumably accept the necessity of the situation, and in most cases consent to it. Pruss simply claims that despite the fact that all humans would agree that the behavior was moral, it would be objectively wrong.

This seems to me to deserve the “incredulous stare” that positions like Andrea Dworkin’s and the antinatalists’ receive. What could even be meant by the supposed objective wrongness in that situation? And if there is such a thing, perhaps many things that we do in everyday life are objectively wrong as well, and we simply don’t know it, in the same way those people would not.

Again, consider the idea that non-consensual sex might have been necessary for reproduction. This situation seems even more unlikely than the previous, for the reasons given above, but given that it were an actual situation, again, virtually all humans (possibly with exceptions like Andrea Dworkin) would agree that reproduction was moral. Lack of consent would no more make reproduction immoral, in that situation, than the fact that children do not consent to much of the treatment they receive from their parents means that raising children is immoral.

This point is in fact a good transition to my second claim. Human life requires that children receive a good deal of treatment to which they do not consent, and with which they often strongly disagree. There is nothing great about this situation, but it is inevitable. And this kind of point illustrates my claim that no special effort has been taken to avoid such situations. If eating people had been necessary for survival, or non-consensual sex had been necessary for reproduction, we might very well have recognized that these things were unfortunate necessities, but we would not have concluded that they were immoral, and in fact they would not have been immoral, given those circumstances.

We could find other examples of “unfortunate” situations in human life as it is:

1) Breastfeeding tends to space births by preventing conception. But there is some evidence that occasionally it can cause an abortion, or at least contribute to causing one. Alan McNeilly says regarding this point:

The foregoing discussion has made it clear that suckling is the key to the suppression of fertility. The variable return of ovarian activity is related to the variable pattern of suckling input and how fast the baby feeds. It is known that conception rates in women who are still breastfeeding but have resumed menstrual cycles are lower than those in women who have resumed menstruation after stopping contraception. The reason for this has now become clear. When ovulation occurs during lactation, it is often associated with reduced or inadequate corpus luteum function, resulting in reduced progesterone secretion [23-25]. The implication is that conception in a number of cycles can occur, but inadequate luteal function prevents continuation of the pregnancy.

Some people would argue that this definitely cannot happen, using an argument somewhat analogous to Pruss’s own argument that God makes sure to avoid such unfortunate situations. Thus someone says on the Catholic Answers forum,

You have to be careful about the crazy things that are put out there. Where did you read this?

Surely you’re not suggesting that breastfeeding is a sin?

Breastfeeding does NOT hinder implantation. It really wouldn’t make sense for G-d to give us the ability to lactate for which to feed our children while potentially destroying fertilized eggs by preventing their implantation

Naturally, nothing is settled by this argument. But the commenter here is right about one thing: we already know that breastfeeding is not immoral. And that fact is not going to change, not even if we discover that it frequently causes abortions.

2) The headship of the man in a family is arguably necessary for human flourishing, or at least was in the past, but the resulting subjection of the woman seems somewhat unfortunate, even though (by my own argument) not wicked. Even the book of Genesis suggests that something is not quite right there, by making it a consequence of original sin.

3) Religion and philosophy are arguably necessary for human flourishing. But it is difficult to know the truth about these matters, and humans tend to hold positions regarding them for social reasons. And if we suppose that we personally possess some part of the truth about these matters, it follows that most of those in the past were substantially mistaken about them, given the extent of human disagreement in such matters. This is not merely a question of lacking the good of truth. Rather, the fact that people do not naturally care much about that truth seems to be an unfortunate moral situation, much like the imaginary situations invented by Pruss.

Finally, we can consider one more imaginary situation. Suppose that the real world turned out to be like the world of Horton Hears a Who! Suppose that every time you took a step, hundreds of tiny rational creatures were killed. No normal human would lie down and die after discovering this fact. Pruss, I think, would assert that it would be the right thing to do, but he would be in a tiny minority. Most people would change nothing, and I would agree with them. I would respond that 1) the situation would not change the moral object of any human action, which would mean that anything we are justified in doing now, we would remain justified in doing; and 2) the population comparison involved implies a vastly higher economic value to normal human beings, which would imply that we would remain justified in living normal human lives even after considering the secondary consequences of our behavior.

The arguments of this post imply that in principle morality could have been somewhat different, depending on the details of how human life evolved. But the arguments imply not only that it could have been different, but that it remains changeable in some ways, because the process of evolution does not come to an end, since it is a necessary result of imperfect copies. Naturally, this kind of change should be expected to take place mainly over very long periods of time, but this will not necessarily prevent it from happening.

Newman and Darwin

In an ebook Another Look at John Henry Cardinal Newman, Richard Sartino discusses Newman’s view of Darwin:

Darwin’s theory did not shock Newman; he told a correspondent he was willing “to go the whole hog with Darwin.”

It is important to understand Newman’s frame of mind concerning the false theories of evolution in order to understand his notions of development. Darwin’s book, Origin of Species, appeared in 1859, a time when educated men and society in general scoffed at the idea of human evolution, leaving such notions to the few mad scientific theorists, but Newman’s empirical mind and distrust of rational philosophy disposed him to accept whole-heartedly the notions of evolution. He had been contemplating the evolution, not of man, but of religion, long before the appearance of Darwin’s book; his first sermon on the development of Christianity was preached in 1843 while he was still an Anglican and within two years the Development of Christian Doctrine was published, with Newman entering the Church at the same time.

He goes on to compare Newman’s theory with the theory of evolution:

Newman was a pioneer of this new doctrine which shocked both Anglicans and Catholics alike. Theologians until then had never considered his ideas of development, although many before him justly contemplated the mystical and supernatural increase of the treasures of the Church. The difference between Newman and earlier theologians in this matter is that Newman considered only the material aspect of the Church’s growth, not going beyond the temporal history of Her life on earth. Earlier theologians, on the other hand, had considered the formal aspect of the Church, a viewpoint which is vital to the believer who is obliged to view things with a supernatural eye.

Newman saw the Church in the light of history, whereas Catholics see history in the light of the Church. Immersed in an academia of the staunchest historicists whose scepticism imbued the thinkers of that time, Newman followed their lead and often kept up a correspondence with the worst of them, as Dollinger and Acton. Their position confined the Church to Her history, and Her history to their sceptical and critical minds. For these men the work of the Catholic mind is not to meditate upon and adore Christ in the eternal truths of the Church but to subject these truths to historical analysis. What is important for them is not the Incarnation but the development of the idea of the Incarnation. All this, of course, is nothing but that age-old pride whereby the mind of man becomes the measure of religion.

With this in mind we can understand why Newman accepted so easily the errors of Darwin, for there was nothing incompatible between the evolution of man and the evolution of religion and doctrine. On the contrary, both complement one another to form a harmonious view of the whole of creation. In fact, just as all errors begin in the highest part of the soul before they exercise their universal influence on the subordinate faculties and sciences, thus does the evolution of eternal doctrine precede the less radical errors about the evolution of man and social institutions. It is understandable, and appropriate, therefore that Newman’s novel thesis should have preceded Origin of Species by sixteen years. As long as the mind of man is firmly rooted in the immutable and eternal truths of the Faith the occasion will never arise to fall into any kind of evolutionary errors.

Several authors bear testimony of Newman’s evolutionary ideas. A certain Mark Pattison who knew Newman said he saw the whole development of human reason from Aristotle to Hegel as a closed book, and in Studies in Modernism Alfred Fawkes also believes that the essay on Development “is a striking anticipation of the Evolution philosophy; the application of this to theology marked a turning-point in religious thought.”

And another author, Percy Gardner in Modernism in the English Church, asserts that “it shows the greatness of Newman, that before Darwin had set forth his theory of evolution, a foretaste of it appears in Newman’s Development of Christian Doctrine.” So serious were Newman’s aberrations that one of the greatest living Roman theologians at that time, Fr. Franzelin, S.J., wrote an entire treatise, De Divina Scriptura et Traditione, in order to combat what he considered Newman’s departure from the Faith.

He then discusses Newman’s theory directly:

The full force and implication of Newman’s thinking are found in his doctrine known as Development of Christian Doctrine. Characteristic of his personal qualities and life, this specific teaching of Newman contains his ambiguity and ambivalence, in toto, so much so that it allures the most opposed camps of thinkers. Its appeal is universal; to liberals and orthodox, to Protestants and Catholics, to believers as well as infidels. Men of every persuasion find their opinions voiced in this doctrine, for it is as pliable and flexible as Newman’s supposedly transcendent and personal logic.

The essence of Newman’s position consists in reconciling two contradictory propositions: first, that Christianity is unchanging, and second, that Christianity is changing. Apparent contradictions can always be reconciled by a legitimate rational distinction, but Newman does not attempt to do this. His Doctrine of Development does not assert that Christianity is unchanging in one respect, and changing in another, and then delineate the consequent differences and properties from the various distinctions. On the contrary, Newman’s position admits simultaneously and in the same respect that Christianity is changing and unchanging. To accomplish such a formidable task is not really very difficult, at least for a mind enamoured with concrete living experience.

Of course, Newman says no such thing. Rather, he asserts that there have been various changes in Christianity throughout history and it is a question of explaining them. He says, as we quoted earlier:

Here then I concede to the opponents of historical Christianity, that there are to be found, during the 1800 years through which it has lasted, certain apparent inconsistencies and alterations in its doctrine and its worship, such as irresistibly attract the attention of all who inquire into it. They are not sufficient to interfere with the general character and course of the religion, but they raise the question how they came about, and what they mean, and have in consequence supplied matter for several hypotheses.

Of these one is to the effect that Christianity has ever changed from the first and ever accommodates itself to the circumstances of times and seasons; but it is difficult to understand how such a view is compatible with the special idea of revealed truth, and in fact its advocates more or less abandon, or tend to abandon the supernatural claims of Christianity; so it need not detain us here.

A second and more plausible hypothesis is that of the Anglican divines…

It is worthwhile considering the hypothesis that Newman passes over here, that “Christianity has ever changed from the first and ever accommodates itself to the circumstances of times and seasons.” Why is it difficult to understand how such a view is compatible with the special idea of revealed truth? Basically, the position in question is that everything in Christianity is changeable. Christians currently believe that Christ is God, but a thousand years from now, they may all believe that Christ was a mere man. The difficulty is, of course, that both of these cannot be true, so that if the belief of Christians varies from time to time in this way, then the beliefs of Christians cannot be believed to come from divine revelation.

In fact, this position would not be entirely inconsistent with the idea of a particular revelation, but such a revelation would be more like the kind that the Catholic Church considers to be a private revelation. In other words, one would say that the true beliefs, when they are present, are ones that came from a revelation, but that God does nothing to prevent people from abandoning these beliefs and adopting other ones. In this case, of course, the problem would be that there does not seem to be a good way to distinguish between beliefs that are actually revealed, and others which are not. It would be for this reason that people holding this position would “abandon, or tend to abandon the supernatural claims of Christianity.” Consequently, since Newman is not here attempting to argue for the truth of Christianity, he does not care to give this particular theory any lengthy treatment.

We should notice the order of evidence here: changeableness without any limit would be good evidence for an absence of revelation, and for a similar reason, complete absence of changeableness would be good evidence for the presence of a revelation. Newman acknowledges the presence of some changeableness, and he does this without demonstrating the existence of any limit on this changeableness, but only assuming it.

It seems to me that we can see here the reason for Sartino’s rejection of Newman’s theory. Newman certainly does not hold that Christianity is both changeable and unchangeable in the same respect. He simply admits that it is changeable to some extent, and wishes to explain this. But for Sartino, this is a problem in itself, because it opens the door to the possibility that there is no real divine revelation. If Christianity is changeable to some degree, and we have not yet shown that there is any limit on this, then the first rejected hypothesis might turn out to be true, and Christianity might not be supernatural.

The problem with Sartino’s thinking is the same one I pointed out earlier. If Christianity is changeable in some ways, that may leave the door open to the possibility that Christianity is false, and may make this more likely relative to the situation where Christianity is actually unchangeable in every way. But you cannot change these facts by asserting that Christianity is actually unchangeable, because asserting something does not make it so. Both the evidence and the facts will remain just as they are, regardless of what you say about them. In this way, it makes sense that Sartino rejects both Newman’s theory of development and Darwin’s theory of evolution. He is using the same strategy in each case, one which seems to him to make his religion more certain to be true, but which actually has no effect whatsoever.

In reality, Darwin was not responsible for the theory of evolution. The facts were responsible, and as I noted here, if Darwin had not come up with his theory, others would have. In a similar way, the Catholic Church accepted Newman’s theory of development because it was necessary in order to account for the facts of history, and some such theory would have been developed and accepted even if Newman had never existed. You can ignore history just as you can ignore the rocks, but ignoring things does not change them. Newman noted, in fact, that certain real facts tended to open the door to the possibility that his religion was in error, saying, “Not only has the relative situation of controversies and theologies altered, but infidelity itself is in a different,—I am obliged to say in a more hopeful position,—as regards Christianity.”

Ross Douthat, commenting on the recent controversy over the possibility of communion for the divorced and remarried, says:

When this point is raised, reformers pivot to the idea that, well, maybe the proposed changes really are effectively doctrinal, but not every doctrinal issue is equally important, and anyway Catholic doctrine can develop over time.

But the development of doctrine is supposed to deepen church teaching, not reverse or contradict it. This distinction allows for many gray areas, admittedly. But effacing Jesus’ own words on the not-exactly-minor topics of marriage and sexuality certainly looks more like a major reversal than an organic, doctrinally-deepening shift.

At which point we come to the third argument, which makes an appearance in your letter: You don’t understand, you’re not a theologian. As indeed I am not. But neither is Catholicism supposed to be an esoteric religion, its teachings accessible only to academic adepts. And the impression left by this moving target, I’m afraid, is that some reformers are downplaying their real position in the hopes of bringing conservatives gradually along.

What is that real position? That almost anything Catholic can change when the times require it, and “developing” doctrine just means keeping up with capital-H History, no matter how much of the New Testament is left behind.
As I noted earlier, the columnist’s task is to be provocative. So I must tell you, openly and not subtly, that this view sounds like heresy by any reasonable definition of the term.

Now it may be that today’s heretics are prophets, the church will indeed be revolutionized, and my objections will be ground under with the rest of conservative Catholicism. But if that happens, it will take hard grinding, not just soft words and academic rank-pulling. It will require a bitter civil war.

And so, my dear professors: Welcome to the battlefield.

What Douthat calls the “real position” of the reformers, of course, is exactly the first hypothesis which Newman dismisses. It seems to me that there can be no reasonable doubt that this is in fact the position of many, although they might wish to conceal it, in order to better bring about the ends that they seek. Whether or not they therefore abandon the idea of special revelation is unclear, but it would seem the most reasonable position for someone who believes that there is no limit to the changeableness of the Church.

Neither Newman in the text cited, nor Douthat here, say that they can disprove the first hypothesis, but that they do not accept it, because of the implication that there is no real revelation. But they both recognize that they live in the real world, where there is evidence against what you believe, and where you might actually be wrong. Richard Sartino, on the other hand, seems to live in an imaginary world.

Zimmerman’s Response to the Catechism

As I suggested previously, it is possible that the statement on original immortality in the Catechism was directed against Zimmerman’s opinion. Whether or not the authors of the Catechism intended this explicitly, Zimmerman surely noted the conflict with his own views. Wishing to remain an orthodox Catholic, he substantially toned down his opinion in a subsequent work. He discusses the text of the Catechism in chapter 7 of his book Evolution and the Sin in Eden: A New Christian Synthesis:

Today the Church goes ones step further than Trent by the teaching in CCC 1008 and again in 1018 that physical death was brought about by original sin: “As a consequence of original sin, man must suffer ‘bodily death, from which man would have been immune had he not sinned'” (CCC 1018, cf. GS #18).

The CCC is “a sure norm for teaching the faith and thus a valid and legitimate instrument for ecclesial communion… This catechism is given to (the Church’s pastors and the Christian faithful) that it may be a sure and authentic reference text for teaching doctrine and particularly for preparing local catechisms” (Apostolic Constitution on the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, John Paul II, October 11, 1992).

Despite the refusal of the Council of Trent to define the doctrine that Adam would have been immune from physical death if he had not sinned, the Church today proclaims it as part of its catechesis. Actually, Trent did not oppose the common belief, and only refused to make it binding once and for all.

The CCC’s inclusion of the doctrine is of great teaching value to dramatically emphasize the evil of sin, of disobedience to God. Death follows sin, so beware! Genesis certainly does the same by pairing death with sin. This is an excellent teaching aid, already begun in Genesis, now continued in our Catechism.

There may be theological reasons of great depth in the teaching that bodily death is a consequence of original sin, aspects of a truth which remains to be mined and discovered. Sin is moral corruption of the sinner’s soul, and corruption of the body through death may be mystically associated with sin in the eyes of God as well as of man.

While apparently accepting the teaching of the Catechism here, Zimmerman may be implicitly questioning it in the last paragraph, suggesting, “Perhaps the teaching is there not because it is true, but because of another truth that we haven’t yet made explicit.” In any case, he continues to recognize that there is some evidence against the claim, and consequently remains dissatisfied with the teaching of the Catechism:

Are we puzzled by the fact that our present cosmos is not designed for human life which is immune from physical death? One response to the puzzle can be that God already foresaw that Adam would commit original sin, hence there was no need for God to design the cosmos for a condition which would never become real. I confess that this solution, although proposed by some people, does not please me.

Other considerations remain to be solved. We note that the CCC does not state that Adam was already immune from physical death before he sinned. Nor does it teach that he enjoyed perpetual youth and freedom from various natural hardships during his life before sin. Many things remain unsaid and unresolved, if man’s natural condition of dying a biological death began only after original sin.

A number of reasons converge to indicate that man’s immunity from bodily death, as taught in GS 18 and the CCC, has the fuller meaning of eternal death of body and soul. The context of GS 18 is about man’s yearning for eternal life, not for mere biological continuity on earth. Furthermore, footnotes 14 and 15 of GS 18 refer to biblical texts that pertain to spiritual death invoked by evil deeds; they do not treat about biological death. Finally, the Council of Trent yolked together death from original sin and captivity under the power of the devil. But saints who die a bodily death in holiness are not captives of the devil. GS 18 and CCC 1008 therefore point more plausibly to eternal death than to temporal biological death. If that is correct, then neither Genesis, nor the rest of the Bible, nor Trent, nor Vatican II, nor the Catechism of the Catholic Church indicates with certainty that man was ever immune from natural biological death before original sin. However, I remain open for correction on this point.

Of course, his opinion here is not plausible at all, if he means to suggest that this might have been the actual intention of the authors of the Catechism. That intention was obviously to refer to biological death. However, the opinion is not necessarily completely unreasonable from the point of view of development of doctrine.

In any case, Zimmerman remains dissatisfied with the teaching. The teaching of the Church may prevent him from asserting as a positive opinion that man would have died even without sin; but it cannot prevent him from noticing that there is evidence in favor of this.