If We Had a Natural Explanation for Morals, Would that Mean Morals Aren’t Objective?

Oxford Mathematician John Lennox uses an example in his lectures to illustrate the fact that an event can have more than one explanation without creating a contradiction. He asks why does water boil? I might answer that heat energy is transferred to the molecules of water, which begin to move more quickly. Eventually, the molecules have too much energy to stay connected as a liquid. When this occurs, they form gaseous molecules of water vapor, which float to the surface as bubbles and travel into the air. (HT: Wonderopolis.com for that wording).

Alternatively, I might answer that the water boils because I want a cup of tea.

Both answers are correct. The first answer is scientific in that it explains the physics that leads water to boil. It is what Aristotle would have called the "material cause" for the water boiling. The second is just as correct, but it isn’t a scientific explanation at all; rather, it provides an explanation in terms of purpose or end, i.e., that for the sake of which a thing is done. Again, Aristotle would have called this "the final cause" for the water boiling.

If one looks around, we can see hundreds of examples where there can be both a scientific answer and a purpose answer where both answers are correct and not contradictory. What this teaches us is that the scientific cause can be completely correct, but to rely upon the scientific explanation as the only correct explanation fails to acknowledge that there can be multiple other explanations for the event not explained by science. In other words, while science can provide us an excellent, detailed explanation of “how” something happens, it does not always provide the only possible explanation of “why” something happens in the sense of purpose or end.

Over at Patheos, John Mark N. Reynolds poses an interesting question: Does the answer to the question of how we got morals change the nature of morals? In other words, if we had a scientific explanation of “how” morals came to be through science, does that necessarily eliminate the possibility that a purpose or end exists that is separate from the process?

Dr. Reynolds approaches the question by asking the reader to imagine that a bunch of brilliant people (I'll refer to them as a bunch of Einsteins) developed “a full naturalistic account of how humans developed our present moral sense.” In other words, suppose that these Einsteins used their dizzying intellect to find what does not presently exist: a purely natural cause for our belief that, for example, murder is wrong. Dr. Reynolds then asks: Does that count out the existence of God as the source for morality? His answer, “By no means.”

First, he notes that a moral truth that arises even through an evolutionary process does not have to have been created by that process; it could have been “identified.” Dr. Reynolds writes:
Suppose I came to a moral truth through purely natural means. That would be possible if moral truths were objective (independent of my mind) or subjective. One reason evolution (to give one natural mechanism) could have produced moral reasoning would be that a being should conform to reality generally. Since moral truths are real, organisms that recognize those truths do better than those that do not.
What Dr. Reynolds is identifying is the distinction between the “material cause” and the “final cause.” Even if science were to provide a very clear answer as to how moral beliefs came to be through natural processes (e.g., brain functions, etc.), it would not necessarily answer the means or purpose question. Identifying the naturalistic process could lead one to believe that moral truths do not exist outside of the naturalistic evolutionary process, however, that is not an necessary conclusion to reach. One could just as rationally accept that the moral beliefs we hold evolved as they did because there are true moral truths that exist outside the process and were only recognized by the process because correctly discerning moral truths gives us an evolutionary advantage.

Thus, the existence of a scientific explanation (the “how” answer) does not necessarily answer whether morality is purely natural (the “why” answer). So, why believe that morality is objective and given by an outside lawgiver? Dr. Reynolds gives two arguments on the side of objective moral truth.
First, we talk as if the moral truths exist. We say “that is good” . . . Not “I am feeling good about that.” Life keeps suggesting the moral truth is out there, not just inside. Second, if we think that other metaphysical beings exist (God, numbers, ideas), then the moral truths are not strange at all. Nature may have shown me the “good,” but the nature got her lesson in what to teach me from reality!
If a mechanic somehow manages to successfully explain the workings of a fuel injector engine to a mechanical dope like me, knowing how the car works may disabuse me from notions that the car runs on methane, but understanding how the car works should never lead me to conclude that my driving the car to the store is a purely naturalistic act without an intelligent actor behind it.

Personally, I will enjoy my hot tea knowing that there is both a material and final cause for the drink I am enjoying without sustaining any cognitive dissonance.


The Pixie said…
"If We Had a Natural Explanation for Morals, Would that Mean Morals Aren’t Objective?"

I think those are two different things. We have evolved the ability to understand morality, just as we have evolved the ability to reason, or to understand what a rock is. Rocks were around long before we evolved to understand what they are; I would suggest morality and the laws of logic, though abstract, are the same.

[Just to be clear, I am agreeing with your conclusion!]

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