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Does Conscience Point Towards the Existence of God?

Throughout the wide world of creation God has left all sorts of signs that point right back at him. Often these clues tell us more than that a divine being exists; they often tell us what kind of divine being exists. Some of these clues lie right before our nose in the world around us, whereas others lie deep inside of us at the level of immediate subjective experience. Among these interior signs is the conscience, which points not merely toward the existence of God but the existence of a personal God.

In his Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, John Cardinal Henry Newman sets out to demonstrate how we come to approve or “assent” to the reality of God. Newman does this by appealing to the human conscience, demonstrating the significance of this mysterious interior faculty and showing how its presence and effect upon us suggest the reality of a divine moral legislator. Newman writes:

Conscience is a law of the mind; yet [Christians] would not grant that it is nothing more. . . . [Conscience] is a messenger of him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by his representatives. Conscience is the aboriginal vicar of Christ (Letter to the Duke of Norfolk).

But where does our conscience come from?

The Absolute Authority of Conscience

The Catechism tells us that conscience is “a judgment of reason by which the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act” (1796). It is a rational human faculty, agrees Newman, like memory, reason, and the sense of beauty; yet it also has a moral sovereignty over us. We often find ourselves going where we do not want to go, doing what we do not want to do, or saying what we do not want to say; our conscience informs us of this.

“There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right,” affirmed Martin Luther King Jr. in his famous speech, “A Proper Sense of Priorities.” Truly, the conscience demands unconditional obedience, respect, and loyalty—often at a cost. Yet to disobey our conscience is often the more immediately painful option, at least on an emotional level. Strangely, in a culture so averse to moral authorities, despite the potential consequences of choosing the right decision over the popular decision, almost no one would say it’s okay to disobey one’s own conscience. It may not even be possible to say “It’s okay to disobey your conscience” without disobeying your conscience. But where on earth does such firm and unshakable authority over humanity come from? Philosopher Peter Kreeft writes:

Conscience has absolute, exceptionless, binding moral authority over us, demanding unqualified obedience. But only a perfectly good, righteous divine will has this authority and a right to absolute, exceptionless obedience. Therefore conscience is the voice of the will of God (Argument from Conscience).

Newman draws the same conclusion when he calls conscience the “aboriginal vicar of Christ.” He too was in awe of the mysterious authority of the conscience and believed the best explanation behind it was a supreme and authoritative personal authority, which he characterizes powerfully in this reflection:

Man has within his breast a certain commanding dictate, not a mere sentiment, not a mere opinion or impression or view of things, but a law, an authoritative voice, bidding him do certain things and avoid others . . . what I am insisting on here is this, that it commands; that it praises, blames, it threatens, it implies a future, and it witnesses of the unseen. It is more than a man’s own self. The man himself has no power over it, or only with extreme difficulty; he did not make it, he cannot destroy it (The Argument from Conscience to the Existence of God according to J.H. Newman).

Feelings and Conscience

It is a common mistake to equate feelings with conscience, but feelings and conscience are not the same thing. Feelings (unless bridled according to right reason) are often fleeting, impulsive, and irrational. Conscience on the other hand is abiding, authoritative, and reasonable. These distinctions are key. Kreeft points out, “If our immediate feelings were the voice of God, we would have to be polytheists or else God would have to be schizophrenic” (Argument from Conscience). Feelings may accompany our conscience but they are not synonymous with it.

Newman suggests that such a relationship between conscience and the feelings it potentially invokes only make sense if there is a personal explanation behind it. He wrote,

“If, as is the case, we feel responsibility, are ashamed, are frightened, at transgressing the voice of the conscience, this implies that there is One to whom we are responsible, before whom we are ashamed, whose claim upon us we fear” (An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent).

Through our conscience we discern not only a moral law but a moral lawgiver. When we transgress our interior moral compass, we feel a genuine sense of guilt as though we have let someone down. On the other hand, when we obey our conscience we feel invigorated—particularly if such obedience requires great courage—as though we have been praised by another. But merely impersonal objects like brains neither praise nor blame. The feelings we experience when we respond to our conscience are distinctlyrelational and point to a personal being who is holding us accountable for our actions.

Where Does Conscience Come From?

“There is no moral authority outside of oneself,” asserts the spirit of the age. Yet despite this popular attitude, there is a common human experience of something dangerously akin to moral obligation. There does seem to be a “right way” to act, regardless of our personal opinion; there does seem to be an interior voice within us that commands us to do good always and to avoid evil.

Some write off conscience as a natural phenomenon, an evolutionary instinct. Our inclination to do what is right, they say, exists in order to keep the peace among the human species. The compulsion to do good is required in order to have a society where survival and reproduction are optimized.

But conscience is different from instinct. My instinct in the middle of the night when my two-year-old daughter wakes up crying is to ignore the commotion and keep sleeping, but my conscience tells me to overrule my instinct and tend to my child. The moral choice may be more evolutionarily undesirable; yet in such cases conscience still tends to overrule instinct. But even in cases where there may be natural advantages to following our conscience, this does not rule out God as evolutionarily obsolete. As philosopher Mitch Stokes reflects in his book, How to Be an Atheist: Why Many Skeptics Aren’t Skeptical Enough:

I have no doubt that our moral code(s) provide survival advantage over many of the alternatives. But this biological benefit does not in itself imply that our ethics developed naturalistically. It may be, for example, that a divine Lawgiver hardwired us with knowledge of moral laws, and one of the benefits of following them is that things will generally go better for us, as well as for others.

So the naturally advantageous results of following our conscience may be the result of God’s genius and careful planning.

It might be tempting to reach for Ockham’s razor at this point. Perhaps this just sounds like we’re superfluously adding God into the picture.  But that is not the case at all. The unique and unbending authority of the conscience must come from somewhere, and as we have noted, there is good reason to believe a personal agent is behind it all. But the only kind of personal agent that could have such absolute authority over humanity is a divine lawgiver; so from this we are reasonable to conclude that the authoritative personal lawgiver behind the irrepressible “law written on our hearts” is God (Rom. 2:15)

Matt Nelson

Written by

Matt holds a B.Ed from the University of Regina and a Doctor of Chiropractic degree from the Canadian Memorial Chiropractic College in Toronto, Canada. After several years of skepticism, he returned to the Catholic Church in 2010. Now alongside his chiropractic practice, Matt is a speaker and writer for FaceToFace Ministries and Religious Education Coordinator at Christ the King Parish. He currently resides in Shaunavon, SK, with his wife, Amanda, and their daughter, Anna. Follow Matt through his blog at ReasonableCatholic.com.

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  • It's frequently argued in modern psychology and neuroscience that we have different decision making "subsystems" that evolved at different times, an older, instinctual system and a more recently evolved introspective, deliberative system. I think the interplay of these systems can adequately account for the phenomenon of "conscience".

    Looking at the total evidence, it's obvious that not all people have this "conscience" to the same degree or capacity: sociopaths, psychopaths and politicians come to mind. This is expected on naturalism, as the expression of traits vary across a population, but surprising on theism. Ad-hoc postulations like "a fallen world" can be invoked, but that only serves to lower the posterior probability of Theism.

    • Jim (hillclimber)

      I agree that studying the interplay of multiple brain components will probably tell us something -- has already told us something, I suspect -- about the way that conscience works.

      Be that as it may, I think it is still noteworthy that our conscience (whatever that is) judges us. I don't have to obey my conscience, but I can't escape its judgement.

      I suspect that some of the more vociferous critics of the Church know this as well as anyone. Even if "just playing along" with Catholicism made their family lives easier, or conferred some social advantage, or whatever, they know that they could never silence the voice of their conscience that tells them that such accommodation would be just plain wrong. They are following their consciences, and good for them for doing so. (Even if I think they are wrong on many counts).

      So, if it is true that the deliverances of my conscience are arising from one part of my brain, it is interesting that I don't identify that part of me with, well, me. Somehow it stands outside of me and judges me. Maybe part of my brain isn't "me"?

      • Maybe part of my brain isn't "me"?

        As I understand it, the people heavily into meditation are actively seeking that experience

      • So, if it is true that the deliverances of my conscience are arising from one part of my brain, it is interesting that I don't identify that part of me with, well, me. Somehow it stands outside of me and judges me. Maybe part of my brain isn't "me"?

        Isn't there a long tradition of identifying that part of your brain with societal conditioning? One term is collective consciousness; another is the collective unconscious. One could then argue that social animals require a way to simulate how other members of the family/​clan/​tribe view them. But there is no imperative to obey such simulation; Jesus himself "despis[ed] the shame". Society can be wrong; its norms can be evil.

        I suspect that it will always be possible to tell two different stories about matters such as the conscience; either God could be trying to tell us something from it, or it is merely our evolutionary past plus societal conditioning. This is one way to understand Paul:

        For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. (Romans 1:21–23)

        The challenge for the Christian is to show that foolishness to be foolishness and the light that they have to offer to be light. After all, the atheist need not be insulted by the above passage; [s]he can simply respond with the next chapter:

        You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law. For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” (Romans 2:22–24)

        In other words: "You say that there is a better way, but your actions demonstrate that to be false. You say God speaks to humankind and yet you betray no superiority whatsoever. Either this God doesn't speak to you, or what he says is distinctly unimpressive."

        • Jim (hillclimber)

          Always humbling to be reminded of that!

          OTOH, with apologies to Paul, comparing Christians to non-Christians has never been the right way to address the causal question anyway. For that, the proper comparison would be the counterfactual one, comparing Christians to the people that they would be if they weren't Christian, ceteris paribus :-)

          • My mentor called it the "Romans 1–2 punch". The idea is that Paul was buttering up his hearers with the second half of chapter one, only to smack them with the first half of chapter two.

            Now, there is a degenerate version of what you describe which matches up perfectly with those Enlightenment philosophes who thought that maybe religion will be required for the … struggling performers. It expects no particular excellence from Christians; it merely expects to bring them up to societal par. I expect more from God than that.

            BTW, I don't think you're disagreeing with Paul. The Romans 2:22–24 passage I quoted judges the Jews by their own, ostensibly better standards, and finds them to fall short. Analogously, the atheist is welcome to laugh at the Christian's claim that [s]he knows a better way.

    • neil_pogi

      at least, humans have consciense. i don't know how matter derives its conscience without the outside source of it!

  • What appears to be being discussed here are moral intuitions. Humans seem to have strong intuitions about right and wrong.

    I don't agree at all that moral intuitions have any authority, much less absolute authority. They seem to be very subjective and change upon the slightest difference in facts. We have strong and weak moral intuitions and none on some issues. But yes when we have a strong moral intuition it is very strong.

    I don't think moral intuitions are distinct from emotions. They seem to be inherently tied to the primary emotion of shame. We find something we do morally problematic when we feel shame, and in others when we empathize shame for them. Every moral incursion is shameful.

    Through our moral intuitions we discern moral law and a lawgiver? Not in the slightest, we are constantly confronted with different people with different intuitions that vary wildly on the same subject. Moral intuitions suggest to me that they are intensely personal and subjective. They argue against any external law or lawgiver.

    Brains are not impersonal objects, they appear to be the source of personhood and they blame and praise all the time.

    "There
    does seem to be a “right way” to act, regardless of our personal
    opinion" Again, quite the opposite, our personal opinion, informed by our moral intuition is what we think is the right way to act. You've got it entirely backwards.

    "Some
    write off conscience as a natural phenomenon, an evolutionary instinct." Why would you characterize such conclusions as "writing them off?" We don't "write off" lightning when we discover it isn't caused by Zeus, we write Zeus off, which I expect is the real bee in your bonnet.

    "My
    instinct in the middle of the night when my two-year-old daughter wakes
    up crying is to ignore the commotion and keep sleeping" Sure, but to you not also have an immediate concern for her well being? What we call them doesn't matter, but both are non-rational inclinations, one for your own preservation, one for your child's. It is exactly what we would expect to find if they evolved. You would need both. Cats need both.

    "Conscience still tends to overrule instinct" meaning what? You are saying that your intuition to care for others tends to overrule your care for yourself? This is demonstrably not the case. There are many examples of studies where humans consider morally equivalent situations completely differently. Take the issue of "do I spend $500 to save a human life? What does this universal divine conscience say? Well it depends if the $500 is to replace a pair of ruined shoes by diving in a lake to save a child, in which case the conscience says "do it!". But if it is write a cheque to Oxfam, the conscience says, "not my problem". This is the opposite of what we would expect if the "conscience" or moral intuitions is from a divine objective source, but completely consistent if our moral intuitions are evolved and hugely dependent on our immediate circumstances.

    "So
    the naturally advantageous results of following our conscience may be
    the result of God’s genius and careful planning." Or the designers of the Matrix, but I wouldn't jump to that conclusion. To me the evidence suggests our moral intuitions are a result of evolution.

    "Perhaps
    this just sounds like we’re superfluously adding God into the picture" it is exactly what it sounds like.

    "The
    unique and unbending authority of the conscience must come from
    somewhere, and as we have noted, there is good reason to believe a
    personal agent is behind it all"

    It isn't unique, it is completely bending and it came from evolution I expect. To the contrary, there is good reason to believe no personal agent, certainly not one that is like the description of a Catholic God, would be behind it.

    • Through our moral intuitions we discern moral law and a lawgiver? Not in the slightest, we are constantly confronted with different people with different intuitions that vary wildly on the same subject. Moral intuitions suggest to me that they are intensely personal and subjective. They argue against any external law or lawgiver.

      Ahh, you've encountered significant numbers of people who think that cowardice is morally praiseworthy? What you seem to be arguing is that there is no Natural Law, or to use a term from C.S. Lewis' The Abolition of Man, no Tao. Or to use a term from anthropology, there are no human universals. Would that be correct? From that link, according to anthropologist Donald Brown, "there are many universals common to all human societies". Steven Pinker lists those universals in an appendix to his The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. So, I take it that you're disagreeing with both of them?

      • OverlappingMagisteria

        Here's a link to Donald Brown's list of human universals that you refer to: http://joelvelasco.net/teaching/2890/brownlisthumanuniversals.pdf

        The vast majority of them have nothing to do with morality or conscience (ex: all human cultures have the concepts of black and white) so they aren't really relevant to this topic.

        The items that, according to that list, all cultures agree on the morality of:
        --- Incest is prevented or avoided, and taboo/unthinkable between mother and son
        --- Murder proscribed
        --- Rape proscribed

        However rape and murder are not so clearly in the "morally wrong" category since many cultures did not have a problem with raping or killing other tribes. And in either case, this list is about cultural beliefs. For the OP argument to work, they would need to be held by each individual, not each culture. You can certainly find individuals who do not have a problem with rape, killing, or incest.

        • For the OP argument to work, they would need to be held by each individual, not each culture. You can certainly find individuals who do not have a problem with rape, killing, or incest.

          Do you really think that just one person having an evil conscience falsifies the entire OP?

          • Do you really think that just one person having an evil conscience falsifies the entire OP?

            Certainly OverlappingMagisteria never said that, although if conscience is the internal voice of God, why should even one person have an "evil conscience"? The point is that many people (psychopaths) have no conscience at all, and people from different cultures experience different (and incompatible) demands of conscience.

          • Psychopaths really have zero conception of right vs. wrong to which they feel any pull whatsoever? Again, I distinguish this from being social or anti-social. I wouldn't be surprised if abolitionists were considered anti-social.

            Incompatible consciences are only problematic if, when they are truly followed, there is no convergence. We could imagine there being many different paths that science could have taken, which nevertheless converge. I see no reason the same thing couldn't happen in the moral/​relational domain.

          • No, psychopaths tend to lack the ability to empathize. They have little if any inherent ability to feel what it is like in another's shoes, so they just don't care what happens to others, so some just don't feel anything is wrong in harming or killing others.

            So they have very different intuitions, maybe more like a solitary predator would, rather than a social animal. Essentially that there is no value in others beyond their use to the self. Psychopaths are highly intelligent and manipulative.

            The question is why would a good god create such deficits in so many people?

          • No, psychopaths tend to lack the ability to empathize.

            Exactly what does this mean? For example, are you saying that psychopaths are physiologically unable to simulate what other people are going through? Or is it that the simulation is not as automatic as it is for many people? Because if in fact simulation is possible, but harder—well, that could form part of an antidote to evil society. Unless you think society is never evil?

            They have little if any inherent ability to feel what it is like in another's shoes …

            Or is it the case that the ability doesn't automatically develop in them, like most people? Failure to socialize [easily] is only necessarily a bad thing if society is necessarily good.

          • Do you really think that just one person having an evil conscience falsifies the entire OP?

            I won't presume to speak on behalf of OverlappingMagisteria.

            I don't see anything in the OP that would be falsified by the existence of one person with an evil conscience. But, I take it to be the OP's primary argument that our moral instincts are inexplicable, or not plausibly explicable, on any naturalistic worldview. Evolutionary psychology, though, which is naturalistic, does explain what we observe about our moral instincts, including the existence of some people who seem not to have any. Any defense of the OP would therefore need to include a demonstration of why that explanation is implausible.

          • Evolutionary psychology, though, which is naturalistic, does explain what we observe about our moral instincts, including the existence of some people who seem not to have any.

            I'm not going to pay evopsych too much attention until it makes statements which are properly falsifiable. As far as I know, it is currently too easy to tell too many different stories. That may simply be the best that evopsych can do at this point, but if so, its utility in conversations like these is quite limited.

          • I'm not going to pay evopsych too much attention until it makes statements which are properly falsifiable.

            Can you give me an example, typical in your judgment, of a statement made by its proponents that cannot be falsified even in principle?

          • I'm not concerned with mere in principle unfalsifiability; I'm interested in whether evopsych is at the stage where it can make reasonably precise predictions about what scientists will go on to find and not find, which can be used to test its claims to have provided more than just-so stories.

          • I'm interested in whether evopsych is at the stage where it can make reasonably precise predictions about what scientists will go on to find and not find, which can be used to test its claims to have provided more than just-so stories.

            Fine. That sounds just like in-principle falsifiability to me, allowing for the possibility that you and I might differ as to how precise a prediction needs to be in order to provide a valid test. Newton never predicted anything about finding new planets, but the discovery of Uranus is often touted as a strong vindication of his theory of gravity. A bit more relevant to the present issue: Darwin made no predictions specifically about the mechanism of inheritance. He was unaware of Mendel’s work, and he couldn’t have had a clue about DNA. But virtually every advance made in the field of genetics since Darwin’s time has had the potential to falsify his theory of natural selection.

            Evolutionary psychology is just the extension of that theory to an explanation of human behavior that rests on the following assumptions. (As such, evolutionary psychology predicts, at the very least, that no discovery is going to falsify natural selection.)

            1. Human beings are neither more nor less a product of natural selection than any other species of animal. And, natural selection works on populations of organisms, not on individual organisms.

            2. Mind-brain dualism is false. The mind is just what we call a certain subset of the brain’s activities.

            3. The brain is an organic computer. Its overall function, for any animal, is to regulate behavior in such a way as to maintain differential reproductive fitness. For some individuals of some species, this fitness can entail the survival of conspecifics rather than the survival or reproduction of those individuals.

            4. We are unaware of most of the data processing done by our brains: the existence of the subconscious mind is one thing Freud got right.

            5. The selective pressures that produced our brains were those that existed tens to hundreds of thousands of years ago. During that entire time, we were all hunter-gatherers living in groups small enough for everyone to be acquainted with everyone else. There has not been enough time, since the beginning of modern civilizations, for natural selection to have modified our brains to any significant degree. In short, our brains are adapted for an environment in which nearly all of us no longer live.

            And so, observations such as the following could be taken to falsify evolutionary psychology.

            1. Any fact inconsistent with our non-human ancestry.

            2. Any human mental activity for which no neurophysiological explanation is possible.

            3. Proof of the impossibility of constructing a self-aware computer.

            4. Any fact demonstrating that our brains do no data processing of which we are unaware.

            5. Proof that there is no difference between the modern world and our ancestral environment that is relevant to how we should behave in order to ensure the survival of our species.

          • That sounds just like in-principle falsifiability to me, allowing for the possibility that you and I might differ as to how precise a prediction needs to be in order to provide a valid test.

            On the contrary: we appear to both require concrete falsifiability, but disagree on how to draw the lines. Your second 1.–5. allow for an incredible amount of latitude, especially given the difficulty of proving impossibility. (It's rather like theists asking atheists to prove that God does not exist.) I'm reminded of Luboš Motl on what would falsify string theory and the responses he got.

            The vagueness of your first 1.–5.—vagueness which would be immediately clear when trying to connect concrete pieces of data to those generalities—makes them out to be something more like a creed than scientific claims. Moreover it is an inconsistent creed, because (i) it purports to be about what is true; (ii) it only explicitly mentions truth-agnostic and truth-antagonistic causal powers. If I say something only because it will enhance the differential reproductive of sufficiently many of my genes, then why think it to be true? And yet, if enough human activity is the result of activities which prefer truthfulness over differential reproductive success, your first 1., 3., and 5. are problematic.

            Your understanding of evolutionary psychology simply does not permit truth to matter overmuch. And yet, the OP surely includes truth as a key aspect to conscience; surely conscience is to be impartial with respect to genetic makeup, thus telling differential reproductive success to go jump in a lake. If too much of human culture is founded upon such a thing—say, modern democratic liberalism over against aristocracy and tribalism—then evolutionary psychology will be unable to satisfactorily model major aspects of reality as we experience it.

          • I'm reminded of Luboš Motl on what would falsify string theory and the responses he got.

            Which of those responses exemplifies the point you’re trying to make?

            The vagueness of your first 1.–5.—vagueness which would be immediately clear when trying to connect concrete pieces of data to those generalities—makes them out to be something more like a creed than scientific claims.

            They look scientific enough to me. What do you think is the difference between a creed and a scientific claim?

            (i) it purports to be about what is true; (ii) it only explicitly mentions truth-agnostic and truth-antagonistic causal powers.

            I believe the first statement is incorrect; I have no idea what the second statement means.

            If I say something only because it will enhance the differential reproductive of sufficiently many of my genes, then why think it to be true?

            That question is irrelevant to this discussion. The behavior of no particular organism of any species, human or other, is determined by the definitive genetic characteristics of that species. The theory of evolution is not about what happens to any individual organism or the behavior of that individual organism. It is about what happens to the gene pool of whatever species that individual belongs to.

            if enough human activity is the result of activities which prefer truthfulness over differential reproductive success, your first 1., 3., and 5. are problematic.

            I don’t see why.

            Your understanding of evolutionary psychology simply does not permit truth to matter overmuch.

            The entire scientific enterprise presupposes certain notions of truth. Whether those notions are correct, or are merely permissible or are mandatory, is an issue for the philosophy of science, not science itself.

            surely conscience is to be impartial with respect to genetic makeup, thus telling differential reproductive success to go jump in a lake.

            Nothing about evolutionary psychology predicts that no people will decide against reproducing. Still less does it predict anything about why they might make such a decision. What it does purport to do is explain (a) why we have moral instincts, (b) why we should expect those instincts to have facilitated our survival over most of human history, and (c) why we should not be surprised if some of those instincts might now be threatening our survival.

            If too much of human culture is founded upon such a thing—say, modern democratic liberalism over against aristocracy and tribalism—then evolutionary psychology will be unable to satisfactorily model major aspects of reality as we experience it.

            It is not supposed to model modern society. It is supposed to model one portion of our genetic history—the portion that produced our brains. Modern society has not existed for enough time to have significantly affected that history.

            It seeks to explain why we are the way we are, but has nothing to say about whether we might have good reason to change the way we are. At the same time, though, if we decide for any reason that we should make certain changes, it does predict that those changes might be extremely difficult to make in a society committed to personal liberty.

          • Which of those responses exemplifies the point you’re trying to make?

            The first comment suffices:

            By saying this: "By mapping the whole landscape, calculating the predictions of each vacuum for the particle physics, and by showing that none of them is compatible with the experimentally measured parameters of particle physics; this route to disprove string theory is hard but possible in principle, too". You're basically saying, "we've created a model with a huge number of parameters, and we've found a great fit!". And string theory is qualitatively different from Relativity and QM, as the latter two theories have made predictions that were tested, not just satisfied consistency tests. (Jerry Schirmer)

            They look scientific enough to me. What do you think is the difference between a creed and a scientific claim?

            Creeds are vague enough so that it is incredibly difficult to falsify them with evidence. They may be in principle falsifiable, but they will have a habit of adapting to whatever the evidence ends up being and so stay unfalsified. Scientific claims can be falsified without passing ridiculously high bars—like proving something to be impossible.

            LB: (i) it purports to be about what is true;

            DS: I believe the first statement is incorrect;

            Do please explain that one. Are you saying that your first 1.–5. purports to be about what is true?

            LB: If I say something only because it will enhance the differential reproductive of sufficiently many of my genes, then why think it to be true?

            DS: That question is irrelevant to this discussion.

            Your first 1.–5. purports to cover human behavior and specifically conscience; are you saying that conscience has nothing to do with truth?

            The behavior of no particular organism of any species, human or other, is determined by the definitive genetic characteristics of that species. The theory of evolution is not about what happens to any individual organism or the behavior of that individual organism. It is about what happens to the gene pool of whatever species that individual belongs to.

            This is tantamount to saying that to model society (an aggregate), one need not take into account what is true. Do you really want to commit yourself to that stance? If you did, you'd be self-contradictory:

            LB: Your understanding of evolutionary psychology simply does not permit truth to matter overmuch.

            DS: The entire scientific enterprise presupposes certain notions of truth. Whether those notions are correct, or are merely permissible or are mandatory, is an issue for the philosophy of science, not science itself.

            But your 1.–5. seems 100% blind to such "truth". Do you see no problem with that? Do you think, for example, that conscience is orthogonal to the successful execution of science, or at least any part of science having to do with said "certain notions of truth"?

            Nothing about evolutionary psychology predicts that no people will decide against reproducing. Still less does it predict anything about why they might make such a decision. What it does purport to do is explain (a) why we have moral instincts, (b) why we should expect those instincts to have facilitated our survival over most of human history, and (c) why we should not be surprised if some of those instincts might now be threatening our survival.

            You seem to have rather dialed back your claims from:

            DS: Evolutionary psychology, though, which is naturalistic, does explain what we observe about our moral instincts, including the existence of some people who seem not to have any. Any defense of the OP would therefore need to include a demonstration of why that explanation is implausible.

            There, you were saying that evolutionary psychology explains so much that if the OP is to work, it must refute some interesting chunk of evopsych. But your most recent version seems to say that evopsych can explain some things, critically excluding anything truth-directed. Well, which is it?

            [Evolutionary psychology] is not supposed to model modern society. …

            It seeks to explain why we are the way we are …

            If evopsych cannot suffice to model modern society, then it cannot suffice to explain why we are the way we are. Surely it can tell us some things, but apparently it is not sufficient. And yet, you painted it as such when you said that the OP necessarily must reckon with evopsych.

          • You're basically saying, "we've created a model with a huge number of parameters, and we've found a great fit!". And string theory is qualitatively different from Relativity and QM, as the latter two theories have made predictions that were tested, not just satisfied consistency tests. (Jerry Schirmer)

            Consistency is just a failure of falsification. The problem with unfalsifiability is that it, in effect, rules out any possible inconsistency by declaring all possible observations consistent. Whether string theory does that, I am incompetent to say, but Motl is saying, No, it doesn’t, and so Shirmer’s objection, as stated, is invalid.

            What do you think is the difference between a creed and a scientific claim?

            Creeds are vague enough so that it is incredibly difficult to falsify them with evidence.

            You’re being semantically idiosyncratic again. The Oxford English Dictionary mentions no such distinction. It lists five definitions in current usage. Four stipulate a specifically religious context. The fifth is simply: “transf. A system of belief in general; a set of opinions on any subject, e.g. politics or science.”

            Scientific claims can be falsified without passing ridiculously high bars—like proving something to be impossible.

            To my knowledge, no scientist has ever said that or anything like it.

            Are you saying that your first 1.–5. purports to be about what is true?

            That depends on your intended meaning of “what is true.” We all, including scientists, think we’re trying to find the truth, and so any statement any of us makes is construable as being “about what is true.” But the question “What is truth?” is a philosophical question, not a scientific one.

            Your first 1.–5. purports to cover human behavior and specifically conscience; are you saying that conscience has nothing to do with truth?

            Whatever our moral standard, whether we behave rightly or wrongly according to that standard in a given situation depends on how we perceive that situation. If our perceptions are incorrect, then our behavior will not be correct by that standard.

            This is tantamount to saying that to model society (an aggregate), one need not take into account what is true.

            Nonsense. We judge models according to their fit with reality.

            But your 1.–5. seems 100% blind to such "truth".

            They don’t mention truth. That doesn’t mean they’re blind to it. Newton’s axioms of motion don’t mention truth, either. Neither do Euclid’s axioms, nor Hilbert’s.

            you were saying that evolutionary psychology explains so much that if the OP is to work, it must refute some interesting chunk of evopsych. But your most recent version seems to say that evopsych can explain some things, critically excluding anything truth-directed. Well, which is it?

            The OP, as I understood it, claims that no non-theistic worldview can account for the human conscience. I offered evolutionary psychology as a counterexample to that particular claim and no other. For the OP to work, it must demonstrate that evolutionary psychology is not actually a counterexample, and to do that, it must demonstrate the implausibility of evolutionary psychology.

          • Let's cut to the chase:

            LB: Are you saying that your first 1.–5. purports to be about what is true?

            DS: That depends on your intended meaning of “what is true.” We all, including scientists, think we’re trying to find the truth, and so any statement any of us makes is construable as being “about what is true.” But the question “What is truth?” is a philosophical question, not a scientific one.

            You're dodging: your first 1.–5. explains everything, statistically, as the enhancement of the differential reproductive success of sufficiently many of an agent's genes. (Any less kludgy and I fear you will be pedantic.) And yet, scientists are a sufficiently large group of people that the failure of [your notion of] evopsych to explain their seeking the truth means that [your notion of] evopsych is a woefully insufficient explanation. Now, could the same be the case with moral reasoning? Let's see:

            LB: Your first 1.–5. purports to cover human behavior and specifically conscience; are you saying that conscience has nothing to do with truth?

            DS: Whatever our moral standard, whether we behave rightly or wrongly according to that standard in a given situation depends on how we perceive that situation. If our perceptions are incorrect, then our behavior will not be correct by that standard.

            This is another dodge. Your notion of evopsych is blind to truth. And yet you claim that your notion of evopsych suffices to explain so much of the OP's material that if the OP cannot refute evopsych, it is done for. That's only correct if truth doesn't matter when you get to the statistical, aggregate moral behavior of sufficiently large groups of people. Well, does it not matter in those conditions?

            They don’t mention truth. That doesn’t mean they’re blind to it. Newton’s axioms of motion don’t mention truth, either. Neither do Euclid’s axioms, nor Hilbert’s.

            Oh give me a break, Newton's axioms of motion are 100% blind to truth. Your first 1.–5. say that the only causal power which is relevant is the differential reproductive success of sufficiently many of an agent's genes. Truth doesn't show up because truth is irrelevant in that understanding.

          • Oh give me a break, Newton's axioms of motion are 100% blind to truth.

            Is that a problem for them? Does it mean we're not justified in believing them?

          • DS: They don’t mention truth. That doesn’t mean they’re blind to it. Newton’s axioms of motion don’t mention truth, either. Neither do Euclid’s axioms, nor Hilbert’s.

            LB: Oh give me a break, Newton's axioms of motion are 100% blind to truth. Your first 1.–5. say that the only causal power which is relevant is the differential reproductive success of sufficiently many of an agent's genes. Truth doesn't show up because truth is irrelevant in that understanding.

            DS: Is that a problem for them? Does it mean we're not justified in believing them?

            You're straying from the topic. It's a problem for you if you think that your first 1.–5. accounts for truth in moral reasoning (the conscience acting). And yet if you don't think your first 1.–5. accounts for truth in moral reasoning, then your objection to the OP on the basis of evopsych is undermined. Well, unless you think truth just doesn't play a role in matters of the conscience.

          • if you don't think your first 1.–5. accounts for truth in moral reasoning, then your objection to the OP on the basis of evopsych is undermined.

            Why?

          • Because you claimed that evospych sufficiently explains conscience such that any explanation the OP might have is thereby superseded. And yet, it's not at all clear that evopsych can say anything about matters of truth. What it can talk about is matters of increasing one's differential reproductive advantage—with respect to sufficiently many of one's genes. But this is not the same as pursuing truth—is it?

          • But this is not the same as pursuing truth—is it?

            I seem to have missed the part of the OP that talked about pursuing truth. Could I bother you to quote it?

          • Truth is obviously relevant to the following distinction in the OP:

            It is a common mistake to equate feelings with conscience, but feelings and conscience are not the same thing. Feelings (unless bridled according to right reason) are often fleeting, impulsive, and irrational. Conscience on the other hand is abiding, authoritative, and reasonable. These distinctions are key.

            What else is authoritative other than truth?

          • What else is authoritative other than truth?

            I have not agreed that conscience is authoritative.

          • Perhaps because you do not believe it has anything to do with truth?

          • Perhaps because you do not believe it has anything to do with truth?

            Not for that reason. I gave my reason when I critiqued the entire article.

          • Do you think conscience has anything to do with truth? Or perhaps more poignantly, do you think that conscience can fight appreciably with the drive to enhance the differential reproductive success of enough of its genes? The second question avoids the problem of truth mattering as hypothetical imperative, but not categorical imperative.

          • Do you think conscience has anything to do with truth?

            Every decision we make has something to do with truth.

            do you think that conscience can fight appreciably with the drive to enhance the differential reproductive success of enough of its genes?

            Any trait that is normally adaptive can be maladaptive in some situations.

          • LB: do you think that conscience can fight appreciably with the drive to enhance the differential reproductive success of enough of its genes?

            DS: Any trait that is normally adaptive can be maladaptive in some situations.

            Ahh, but do you think that the maladaptive aspect (note that "favoring egalitarianism" is maladaptive for those with better genes) can become so prominent that evopsych is no longer up to the task of comprehensively modeling what's going on?

          • but do you think that the maladaptive aspect (note that "favoring egalitarianism" is maladaptive for those with better genes) can become so prominent that evopsych is no longer up to the task of comprehensively modeling what's going on?

            That probably depends on what you are calling "better genes." Evolutionary psychology tries to explain, among other things, why human nature includes certain characteristics that seem maladaptive in the modern world by claiming that they were not maladaptive in the world where we evolved.

          • BCE

            No
            Evopsych treats behavior similar to physical traits.
            Mutation, persistence
            It can be relatively benign, so pose no disadvantage
            somatic, not passed
            is a disadvantage but not fatal before reproductive age
            can be fatal, but might be recessive, sex linked, multi alleles
            effects limited members, so there are sufficient healthy members to maintain a viable population
            The sickle cell theory is not applied to all traits
            Evolutionary biologists might ask....so do warts serve any purpose, or
            could they have? But the conclusion is not foregone.
            Mutation serve an evolutionary purpose but not necessarily a benefit to a species

          • Evopsych treats behavior similar to physical traits.

            How do you know that? Have read any of the literature written by scientists who accept evolutionary psychology?

          • BCE

            Yes,
            Fisher, Hamilton Kin selection, Wilson Group fitness, CH and RD better known now and to teens

          • LB: do you think that conscience can fight appreciably with the drive to enhance the differential reproductive success of enough of its genes?

            DS: Any trait that is normally adaptive can be maladaptive in some situations.

            LB: Ahh, but do you think that the maladaptive aspect (note that "favoring egalitarianism" is maladaptive for those with better genes) can become so prominent that evopsych is no longer up to the task of comprehensively modeling what's going on?

            DS: That probably depends on what you are calling "better genes." Evolutionary psychology tries to explain, among other things, why human nature includes certain characteristics that seem maladaptive in the modern world by claiming that they were not maladaptive in the world where we evolved.

            When I said "better genes", I meant in an evolutionary sense: natural selection selects for "better genes".

            Your answer makes no sense to me: either you're saying that "favoring egalitarianism" is maladaptive in the modern world or you've lost track of the conversation. What I'm saying is that evopsych, as you've defined it, is constitutionally unable to explain "favoring egalitarianism". The reason is that "favoring egalitarianism" is not purely the output of evolution. Nor, for that matter, is modern science. In both cases, mind—which plans ahead—is an active, relevant causal power.

          • In both cases, mind—which plans ahead—is an active, relevant causal power.

            You and I have already debated the existence of causal powers. I am disinclined to repeat that conversation.

          • Unless you flat out deny causation, I'll bet my use of "causal power" can be appropriately translated. If you deny causation of any kind, please be quite clear about it.

          • I'll bet my use of "causal power" can be appropriately translated.

            The only appropriate translation of anything you say is one that conveys your intended meaning.

            If you deny causation of any kind, please be quite clear about it.

            I don't deny its existence. I deny that it is what Aristotle seems to have thought it was.

          • Yeah I don't see how I'm relying on Aristotle. The point is that there are many things we are told evolution does not do—like plan for the future—which humans and cultures can do and frequently do. Evolution is unguided. Evolution is mindless. Evolution does not do science; humans do science. Evolution does not do egalitarianism; humans do egalitarianism—at least they attempt.

          • Yeah I don't see how I'm relying on Aristotle.

            You seem to be using something like his notion of potential and actuality.

            The point is that there are many things we are told evolution does not do—like plan for the future—which humans and cultures can do and frequently do.

            Evolution doesn't fly, either, but it produced organisms that and and do fly.

          • You seem to be using something like his notion of potential and actuality.

            How?

            Evolution doesn't fly, either, but it produced organisms that and and do fly.

            If you think that egalitarianism is so much like flying that your analogy is apt, then I think we're done.

          • You seem to be using something like his notion of potential and actuality.

            How?

            If you actually disagree with Aristotle about causation, just say so and I'll retract my objection.

          • I haven't ironed out exactly what I think about Aristotle and causation. Please either substantiate your claim—"You seem to be using something like his notion of potential and actuality."—or retract it and move on in light of that retraction.

          • I haven't ironed out exactly what I think about Aristotle and causation.

            So, at this point, you neither agree or disagree with him?

          • I don't know how "his notion of potential and actuality" is relevant to the current tangent. Apparently, neither do you.

          • If you think that egalitarianism is so much like flying that your analogy is apt, then I think we're done.

            The form of your argument was: Evolution cannot do X, but humans can do X, therefore evolution cannot have caused X. If you're going to claim that the argument is valid only in the case of our mental abilities, it's up to you to explain why. Otherwise, you're just engaging in special pleading.

          • LB: The reason is that "favoring egalitarianism" is not purely the output of evolution. Nor, for that matter, is modern science. In both cases, mind—which plans ahead—is an active, relevant causal power.

            LB: The point is that there are many things we are told evolution does not do—like plan for the future—which humans and cultures can do and frequently do. Evolution is unguided. Evolution is mindless. Evolution does not do science; humans do science. Evolution does not do egalitarianism; humans do egalitarianism—at least they attempt.

            DS: The form of your argument was: Evolution cannot do X, but humans can do X, therefore evolution cannot have caused X.

            No, it wasn't. The form of the argument is that evolution is not a sufficient explanation for the operations of mind. This is like saying that the physics and chemistry of individual H2O molecules is not sufficient to predict wetness of water. If you require rigor, consult Massimo Pigliucci's Essays on emergence, part I, where he discusses singularities in mathematical equations which point to order which exists in the emergent plane which cannot be purely explained from the substrate.

            In contrast, flying does not seem to require anything in addition to evolution.

            By the way, if you use evolution to explain everything, then what you believe is not what is true, but merely what evolution would have you believe. If you fall back on statistical arguments, then either you have no explanation for why you believe what you do when it is not merely the result of evolution, or you have another causal power at play. Maybe it's mind.

          • The form of the argument is that evolution is not a sufficient explanation for the operations of mind.

            And your attempted proof was a reference to something the mind can do that evolution cannot do.

            This is like saying that the physics and chemistry of individual H2O molecules is not sufficient to predict wetness of water.

            But they are sufficient. The property we call wetness is a direct and predictable consequence of the physics and chemistry of H2O molecules.

            In contrast, flying does not seem to require anything in addition to evolution.

            Neither does the mind. You have said it does, but you have yet to present a cogent argument for that assertion. Evolution cannot fly, but it can produce physical structures enabling organisms to fly. Why can it not produce physical structures that do what our brains do?

            if you use evolution to explain everything, then what you believe is not what is true, but merely what evolution would have you believe.

            In the first place, I’m not trying to explain everything with evolution. This thread is about whether the human moral instinct is inexplicable without affirming God’s existence. I’m arguing for a negative response to that question, nothing more.

            In the second place, it does not follow from my hypothesis that our minds would be indifferent to truth. In metaphorical intentional terms, evolution would indeed have me believe the truth—not invariably, but in a large category of situations.

            If you fall back on statistical arguments, then either you have no explanation for why you believe what you do when it is not merely the result of evolution, or you have another causal power at play. Maybe it's mind.

            In metaphysics, the cause of any effect is any sufficient condition for its having obtained, with the understanding that no condition can be sufficient if it does not in some way entail all necessary conditions.

            The mind, as I perceive it, is just an effect of the brain. As such, when you’ve explained the brain, you’ve explained the mind.

          • And your attempted proof was a reference to something the mind can do that evolution cannot do.

            Again, you're changing the framing of my argument, from "Evolution is insufficient to explain X" ("not purely the output of evolution") to "Evolution cannot do X, but humans can do X, therefore evolution cannot have caused X."

            The property we call wetness is a direct and predictable consequence of the physics and chemistry of H2O molecules.

            Are you able to demonstrate this?

            LB: In contrast, flying does not seem to require anything in addition to evolution.

            DS: Neither does the mind.

            The existence of some large category of configurations able to perform mind-like operations is what I'm granting that evolution can explain. That is very different from the specific operations of mind—such as "favoring egalitarianism". The question at hand is whether evolution constrains development to our specific morality, or actually a great number of widely varying moralities.

            LB: if you use evolution to explain everything, then what you believe is not what is true, but merely what evolution would have you believe.

            DS: In the first place, I’m not trying to explain everything with evolution. This thread is about whether the human moral instinct is inexplicable without affirming God’s existence. I’m arguing for a negative response to that question, nothing more.

            You are not clearly allowing for anything which evolution cannot explain, which could possibly be relevant to the OP.

            In the second place, it does not follow from my hypothesis that our minds would be indifferent to truth. In metaphorical intentional terms, evolution would indeed have me believe the truth—not invariably, but in a large category of situations.

            In saying this, you're redefining "truth" to whatever promotes differential reproductive success of sufficiently many genes.

            The mind, as I perceive it, is just an effect of the brain. As such, when you’ve explained the brain, you’ve explained the mind.

            We have hardly "explained the brain". If we had, there would be no discussion to be had.

          • Again, you're changing the framing of my argument, from "Evolution is insufficient to explain X" ("not purely the output of evolution") to "Evolution cannot do X, but humans can do X, therefore evolution cannot have caused X."

            My apologies for not being clearer. I was accepting your correction from “cause” to “explain.” Having done that, I believe my objection to your argument still stands.

            The existence of some large category of configurations able to perform mind-like operations is what I'm granting that evolution can explain.

            OK.

            The question at hand is whether evolution constrains development to our specific morality, or actually a great number of widely varying moralities.

            The question at hand is whether evolution can, plausibly, explain what we observe about human morality. If it can, then the OP’s argument fails. Your argument that it cannot is, thus far, uncogent, in my judgment.

            You are not clearly allowing for anything which evolution cannot explain, which could possibly be relevant to the OP.

            My argument is that it can explain human morality. Whether there is something else that it cannot explain is irrelevant to the OP unless that failure also falsifies the basic theory of evolution on which evolutionary psychology depends.

            In saying this, you're redefining "truth" to whatever promotes differential reproductive success of sufficiently many genes.

            I’m doing nothing of the sort.

            We have hardly "explained the brain".

            I say we have explained some of it. I’m not saying we have completely explained it. I am denying the claim that we cannot explain it without affirming God’s existence. And I will not accept any counterargument to the effect that “not yet done” implies “not doable.”

          • I was accepting your correction from “cause” to “explain.” Having done that, I believe my objection to your argument still stands.

            Then how about you explain how evolution went about promoting egalitarianism? You seem to reject my claim that ""favoring egalitarianism" is not purely the output of evolution". Well, how does evolution push toward something that seems entirely against "survival of the fittest"?

            LB: The question at hand is whether evolution constrains development to our specific morality, or actually a great number of widely varying moralities.

            DS: The question at hand is whether evolution can, plausibly, explain what we observe about human morality. If it can, then the OP’s argument fails. Your argument that it cannot is, thus far, uncogent, in my judgment.

            Then please explain how evolution explains our valuing egalitarianism. Unless you think that's really just a farce, a new opium for the masses?

            My argument is that it can explain human morality.

            To pull from a previous discussion, your conception of "explain" is rather broad:

            DS: As I have already noted, I am not claiming that natural selection can account for any particular moral rule. All that I think it needs to explain is that every human society has a moral code of some kind.

            To me, that sounds like evolution partly explains human morality.

            DS: In the second place, it does not follow from my hypothesis that our minds would be indifferent to truth. In metaphorical intentional terms, evolution would indeed have me believe the truth—not invariably, but in a large category of situations.

            LB: In saying this, you're redefining "truth" to whatever promotes differential reproductive success of sufficiently many genes.

            DS: I’m doing nothing of the sort.

            Wait, are you saying there is an aspect to understanding truth and acting on it which is not purely the output of a mechanism which functions solely to reward differential reproductive success of sufficiently many genes?

          • Then how about you explain how evolution went about promoting egalitarianism?

            It didn’t promote egalitarianism any more than it promoted the fundamental theorem of calculus. It promoted the development of brains capable of the kinds of thinking that could produce such ideas.

            Well, how does evolution push toward something that seems entirely against "survival of the fittest"?

            Evolution pushed toward brains that could make choices. If we collectively choose to live by an ethical code that leads to our extinction, then evolution will have made another mistake, as it did with over 99 percent of every species that has ever existed.

            Then please explain how evolution explains our valuing egalitarianism.

            I haven’t said it does. It explains why, throughout human history, most people have not valued it and why, in modern times, it has become a little less unpopular.

            To pull from a previous discussion, your conception of "explain" is rather broad:

            DS: As I have already noted, I am not claiming that natural selection can account for any particular moral rule. All that I think it needs to explain is that every human society has a moral code of some kind.

            To me, that sounds like evolution partly explains human morality.

            Evolution can explain why we’re capable of building cities without having to explain why New York City got built on Manhattan Island.

            are you saying there is an aspect to understanding truth and acting on it which is not purely the output of a mechanism which functions solely to reward differential reproductive success of sufficiently many genes?

            Truth is a property of statements. Statements represent ideas in our minds. Those ideas may or may not correspond to reality. Those that do correspond are true. For any given idea, such a correspondence might or might not obtain, and evolution itself, being mindless, cannot detect the difference. But the survival of an organism with a mind that has those ideas and acts on them will depend in many situations on whether the correspondence obtains. To the extent that true ideas will facilitate survival, natural selection will favor brains that generate true ideas.

          • LB: Then how about you explain how evolution went about promoting egalitarianism?

            DS: It didn’t promote egalitarianism any more than it promoted the fundamental theorem of calculus. It promoted the development of brains capable of the kinds of thinking that could produce such ideas.

            Ok, so your argument that evolutionary psychology "explains" morality is rather like saying that Microsoft "explains" some software I wrote recently. After all, Microsoft made the computer and programming environment I used to write that software. And yet, I suspect many people would take serious issue with this use of "explains". Why you don't see the problem here is enigmatic to me.

            The OP explicitly goes beyond the bland observation that we are social animals. And yet, all you have ever held, apparently, is that evolutionary psychology explains our being social animals. You've constructed a straw man. This, despite the fact that the OP admitted that the straw man would defeat the main thesis:

            [OP]: Some write off conscience as a natural phenomenon, an evolutionary instinct. Our inclination to do what is right, they say, exists in order to keep the peace among the human species. The compulsion to do good is required in order to have a society where survival and reproduction are optimized.

            But conscience is different from instinct.

          • The OP explicitly goes beyond the bland observation that we are social animals.

            It claims in effect that our being social animals is irrelevant because "conscience is different from instinct." I am denying that distinction. The feelings to which we apply the label "conscience" are just instincts.

          • Despite the fact that you have no idea how evolutionary psychology could possibly explain the "instinct" (read: not an instinct) of egalitarianism.

          • Despite the fact that you have no idea how evolutionary psychology could possibly explain the "instinct" (read: not an instinct) of egalitarianism.

            I've tried to explain why it doesn't need to. Egalitarianism is not among the instincts collectively referred to as "conscience." It is a product of the interactions between those instincts and various social forces that have been operating in recent human history.

          • Egalitarianism is not among the instincts collectively referred to as "conscience." It is a product of the interactions between those instincts and various social forces that have been operating in recent human history.

            Well, it's hard to falsify that one. Any aspect that someone might tie to conscience, you will tie to moral instincts (explained by evolutionary psychology) mixed with "social forces" (not explained by evolutionary psychology).

          • Well, it's hard to falsify that one.

            Any evidence that humans have always been as averse to inequality as they have been to murder might do the trick.

          • Ok, so your argument that evolutionary psychology "explains" morality is rather like saying that Microsoft "explains" some software I wrote recently.

            No, that is what your argument claims that mine ought to do. The analogy to mine would be an explanation of why people can and do write any software at all, in response to somebody claiming that the invention of software required divine inspiration.

          • The property we call wetness is a direct and predictable consequence of the physics and chemistry of H2O molecules.

            Are you able to demonstrate this?

            Me demonstrate it? Hell, no. I don't know anywhere near enough chemistry. I got that by reading someone who does know enough. I think it was Isaac Asimov.

          • If I recall correctly, you have never admitted a claim of mine that was merely an appeal to authority.

          • And you don't have to admit anything now. If you think Asimov was mistaken, then on this particular issue, we're at an impasse.

          • That may simply be the best that evopsych can do at this point, but if so, its utility in conversations like these is quite limited.

            Until someone presents a cogent argument for its implausibility, it is as useful as it needs to be in this context. Your not being convinced doesn't equate to implausibility.

          • When it comes to explanations purporting to be scientific, I believe the starting point is implausibility. Until certain bars have been passed, you don't know whether what you have is anything more than a pleasant just-so story.

          • I believe the starting point is implausibility. Until certain bars have been passed, you don't know whether what you have is anything more than a pleasant just-so story.

            In other words, you don't need a reason to doubt, you need a reason to believe. Is that what you're saying?

          • For claims purporting to be scientific, yes.

          • But for claims of other kinds, belief should be the default?

          • Were I to require everything my wife says adhere to the rigorous standard of scientific claims, I'd be sleeping on the couch, permanently. Now, can we get back to whether those evopsych claims are scientific or [at best] prescientific?

          • Your domestic issues, as well as my own, are irrelevant to my epistemology. I think the proponents of evolutionary psychology have made a scientifically cogent argument for the plausibility of their claims.

          • Your domestic issues, as well as my own, are irrelevant to my epistemology.

            Oh good grief, can you not take a humorous joke which also happens to bear on the current discussion? (Your question, "But for claims of other kinds, belief should be the default?", did not clearly apply only to your epistemology.)

            I think the proponents of evolutionary psychology have made a scientifically cogent argument for the plausibility of their claims.

            And yet you seem to have no response to: "it is currently too easy to tell too many different stories". You're picking one particular story—which you cannot show to have been rigorously vetted via standard empirical practices of prediction & attempted falsification—and attaching the label "science" to it.

          • Oh good grief, can you not take a humorous joke which also happens to bear on the current discussion?

            I got it that you were joking. I assumed that the joke was intended to make a point. If that was not your intention, then you were evading the point.

            (Your question, "But for claims of other kinds, belief should be the default?", did not clearly apply only to your epistemology.)

            Oh, but it does. Or at least it would, if I were epistemologically perfect, which no human can be.

      • No, but yes, scores of people who view the same action completely differently in moral terms, and who would see the same conduct as both cowardly and heroic, moral and immoral.

        Depends what you mean by "natural law", and "universals". But yes I can agree that humans have moral intuitions and that these are generally similar. I've read only Steven Pinker's book, that you refer to and I find it interesting and well referenced.

        What I do not accept is what is advanced in this piece that the existence and content of moral intuitions implies a source that is anything like the Catholic god. Quite the opposite.

        • I do not know how to reconcile the following two statements from you:

          BGA: Through our moral intuitions we discern moral law and a lawgiver? Not in the slightest, we are constantly confronted with different people with different intuitions that vary wildly on the same subject. Moral intuitions suggest to me that they are intensely personal and subjective. They argue against any external law or lawgiver.

          BGA: But yes I can agree that humans have moral intuitions and that these are generally similar.

          • David Nickol

            BGA can speak for himself, but it seems to me that human "moral intuitions" are broadly similar—e.g., they are about justice, fairness, ownership, truthfulness, and so on—but such broad principles are applied very differently from one age to another, one culture to another, and even one person to another. So, for example, in the 18th and 19th century, we had some passionately defending slavery as God's will and others passionately opposing it.

            I can no longer find anything to document the following, but I remember hearing or reading that during the Civil War, a large proportion of letters to the editor, both pro- and anti-slavery, were written by the clergy. From Wikipedia:

            At some point after the start of the slave trade in the United States, many Protestant denominations began teaching the belief that the mark of Cain was a dark skin tone, although early descriptions of Romani as "descendants of Cain" written by Franciscan monk Symon Semeonis suggest that this belief had existed for some time. Protestant preachers wrote exegetical analyses of the curse, with the assumption that it was dark skin. In America, the idea that the mark of Cain was black skin was popularized through Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism.

          • BGA can speak for himself, but it seems to me that human "moral intuitions" are broadly similar—e.g., they are about justice, fairness, ownership, truthfulness, and so on—but such broad principles are applied very differently from one age to another, one culture to another, and even one person to another.

            Sure. But why do we even value justice, fairness, etc.? If you've watched Star Trek, you know that the script writers play with alien cultures having very different moral notions. Notably, the Romulans and Cardassians do not seem to care much for truthfulness. It is in no way a priority for them as far as the viewer can tell. With truthfulness goes justice, and this is also shown very starkly in Star Trek. And yet, these cultures seem to be able to do plenty of science and engineering to stay militarily competitive with Gene Roddenberry's.

            BTW, if I were to respond to the OP on this point, I would ask whether there was always at least a small remnant which cared about truth over power. One possibility is that had Jesus not come, we would have nothing like what we do now. For example, perhaps the individual would always be under society' thumb. I know this possibility won't be palatable to atheists, but my audience here is Catholic. How would their arguments about conscience fare if that were true?

          • If you've watched Star Trek, you know that the script writers play with alien cultures having very different moral notions.

            Star Trek's writers quite often disregarded good science for the sake of good stories.

          • How is that relevant to precisely the point being discussed?

          • It means it isn't a good idea to rely on Star Trek for data about what evolution is or isn't capable of.

          • As far as I know, scientists have no idea whether the Romulans and Cardassians are plausible outputs of evolution (plus culture, which is not necessarily merely a product of evolution). Given that, I have no idea why you've piped up.

          • I have no idea why you've piped up.

            I piped up because you wrote:

            But why do we even value justice, fairness, etc.? If you've watched Star Trek, you know that the script writers play with alien cultures having very different moral notions.

            You thus implied that you think Star Trek scripts contain data relevant to the question of why we human beings have certain values.

          • You thus implied that you think Star Trek scripts contain data relevant to the question of why we human beings have certain values.

            Of course I implied that. That's because I don't think we have any science which indicates "whether the Romulans and Cardassians are plausible outputs of evolution (…)". If you are aware of any, please share. Otherwise, your "disregarded good science" would appear to be completely irrelevant to how I used Star Trek.

          • I don't think we have any science which indicates "whether the Romulans and Cardassians are plausible outputs of evolution (…)".

            And how was that relevant to a debate about whether evolution can account for human ethics?

          • It's relevant to whether evolutionary psychology can really predict that our ethics would turn out as it did, and not as Star Trek scriptwriters portrayed the Romulans and Cardassians.

          • How is anything in an imaginary universe relevant to what we should believe about the real universe?

          • In doing her research, my wife made a computer simulation of nucleosomes and how they might be moved by a particular molecular motor. The model is quite simple; it is a little imagined universe. It was obviously heavily inspired by our own, but there are major fictional elements to it. On your reasoning, should we believe that nothing from her computer simulation is "relevant to what we should believe about the real universe"?

          • On your reasoning, should we believe that nothing from her computer simulation is "relevant to what we should believe about the real universe"?

            No, my reasoning does not entail that conclusion. On my reasoning, what we can learn, if anything, about reality from any particular model depends on many things including the purpose for which the model was constructed and the assumptions encoded into it. The purpose for which the Star Trek universe was designed was not scientific research, and its writers made a few assumptions about human nature that I believe were incorrect.

          • The purpose for which the Star Trek universe was designed was not scientific research …

            Show me scientific research which explores possible alternative moralities which could evolve. If you can't, then show me scientific research which shows that the morality we currently have is the only one evolution would bring about. If you can't, then we have to do with something of lower quality than scientific research. Or, perhaps some incredibly complex issues can only really be explored by the arts, and not by scientific research—at least for any given level of scientific development & complexity of issue.

            … its writers made a few assumptions about human nature that I believe were incorrect.

            Romulans and Cardassians aren't humans. Unless you think the incorrect assumptions about human nature somehow taint the Romulan and Carassian natures we see portrayed?

          • Show me scientific research which explores possible alternative moralities which could evolve.

            Could evolve on worlds other than this one? I haven't heard of any.

            If you can't, then show me scientific research which shows that the morality we currently have is the only one evolution would bring about.

            I haven't made that claim, and I don't know anyone who has.

            … its writers made a few assumptions about human nature that I believe were incorrect.

            Romulans and Cardassians aren't humans

            The writers had no model but human nature to work from. They seem to have assumed, like most good liberals, that human nature is a purely social construct and thus more or less infinitely malleable. If you were to ask most of them about evolutionary psychology, I suspect they would condemn it for what they perceive as its justification for racism and other injustices. If I'm correct and they did believe that about us, they'd have believed the same about all other humanoid species.

          • LB: Show me scientific research which explores possible alternative moralities which could evolve.

            DS: Could evolve on worlds other than this one? I haven't heard of any.

            A world very much like this one. If the starting conditions were very slightly perturbed, does evolutionary psychology predict that the resultant morality would be pretty much the same as what we observe? For reference, cosmology knows how to think about such perturbations, such that fine-tuning is a thing.

            LB: If you can't, then show me scientific research which shows that the morality we currently have is the only one evolution would bring about.

            DS: I haven't made that claim, and I don't know anyone who has.

            There are three claims:

                 (1) "evospych sufficiently explains conscience such that any explanation the OP might have is thereby superseded"
                 (2) evopsych is sufficient to explain the morality we currently have
                 (3) we have "scientific research which shows that the morality we currently have is the only one evolution would bring about"

            I take you to have entailed (1). I claim that (1) presupposes (2) and (2) presupposes (3). That is, if you want (1) to be a scientific claim.

            The writers had no model but human nature to work from. They seem to have assumed, like most good liberals, that human nature is a purely social construct and thus more or less infinitely malleable. If you were to ask most of them about evolutionary psychology, I suspect they would condemn it for what they perceive as its justification for racism and other injustices. If I'm correct and they did believe that about us, they'd have believed the same about all other humanoid species.

            That's an interesting hypothesis; do you think the Klingons fit it? The Vulcans?

          • That's an interesting hypothesis; do you think the Klingons fit it? The Vulcans?

            My hypothesis is not about Vulcans or Klingons. It's about the mindset of their creators, Star Trek's writers.

          • DS: … If I'm correct and they did believe that about us, they'd have believed the same about all other humanoid species.

            LB: That's an interesting hypothesis; do you think the Klingons fit it? The Vulcans?

            DS: My hypothesis is not about Vulcans or Klingons. It's about the mindset of their creators, Star Trek's writers.

            I picked out two humanoid species who don't seem to be portrayed as pure tabula rasa. You said that if you're correct, then there would be no such humanoid species in Star Trek.

          • I picked out two humanoid species who don't seem to be portrayed as pure tabula rasa.

            How would they have been portrayed differently if, in the writers' minds, they had been pure tabula rasa?

          • Vulcans wouldn't necessarily experience pon farr.

            Klingons wouldn't necessarily have a violent aspect which must be kept in check (at least if they're in Starfleet). You see two very different natures show up in the Voyager episode Faces.

          • Vulcans wouldn't necessarily experience pon farr.

            I'll concede that one. The writers seem to have allowed some role for natural selection there.

          • Let's pursue this further. Why must Vulcans suppress their emotions, if tabula rasa is true for them?

          • Why must Vulcans suppress their emotions, if tabula rasa is true for them?

            Some of the writers who worked with Gene Roddenberry might know what he was thinking. I don't. I have some speculations, though. Do you want to hear them?

          • I want you to explain how you think the writers believed tabula rasa and yet portrayed the Vulcans this way.

          • Why must Vulcans suppress their emotions, if tabula rasa is true for them?

            Some of the writers who worked with Gene Roddenberry might know what he was thinking. I don't. I have some speculations, though. Do you want to hear them?

            I want you to explain how you think the writers believed tabula rasa and yet portrayed the Vulcans this way.

            My speculation is that the writers, probably at Roddenberry's urging, were interested in exploring the possible implications or potential consequences of suppressing one’s emotions in order to allow logic to dominate one’s thinking. That they thought this consistent with tabula rasa was made explicit as the series evolved. It was stated that the Vulcan people, at a certain point in their history, made a collective decision to adopt a philosophy that valued logic and scientific thinking over emotion. They decided, as a society, to use logic to control their emotions insofar as they could. In some situations, such as the pon farr, they couldn’t, but that doesn’t contradict any version of the tabula rasa hypothesis held by any real person.

          • If what you said were true, Vulcans wouldn't have to constantly meditate to keep their violent natures under control. That, or I haven't a clue as to what you really mean by tabula rasa. Perhaps you could show how the Vulcans would have to be tweaked in order to move away from whatever you do mean by tabula rasa.

            As it stands, I don't see how the choice to pursue political liberalism in real life is all that different from the choice to pursue logic in Star Trek.

          • If what you said were true, Vulcans wouldn't have to constantly meditate to keep their violent natures under control. That, or I haven't a clue as to what you really mean by tabula rasa.

            I didn't introduce the term. When you did, I assumed you were referring to a point of view that evolutionary psychologists usually call the standard social science model,
            defined here:
            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Standard_social_science_model.

          • That link isn't particularly helpful. What would be more helpful is your response to the following:

            LB: Perhaps you could show how the Vulcans would have to be tweaked in order to move away from whatever you do mean by tabula rasa.

            If that's too narrow, feel free to offer some other tweak to Star Trek which would bring it more in-line with what you think is the best science on the matter.

          • I was only trying to give you a clue as to what I meant by tabula rasa. You have yet to satisfactorily explain why anything in Star Trek has any relevance to my position regarding the OP.

          • Your position is other than what I originally took it to be. When you said the underlined—

            LB: The question at hand is whether evolution constrains development to our specific morality, or actually a great number of widely varying moralities.

            DS: The question at hand is whether evolution can, plausibly, explain what we observe about human morality. If it can, then the OP’s argument fails. Your argument that it cannot is, thus far, uncogent, in my judgment.

            —I took it to mean the kind of specifics that the OP picks out. After all, the OP attempts to deal with very specific aspects of morality. Without them, it admits that it fails (in the way you say it does!). However, it is now apparent that you meant to communicate nothing of the sort:

            LB: Then how about you explain how evolution went about promoting egalitarianism?

            DS: It didn’t promote egalitarianism any more than it promoted the fundamental theorem of calculus. It promoted the development of brains capable of the kinds of thinking that could produce such ideas.

            Given this, my bringing up Star Trek is moot, because you don't have evolutionary psychology explaining why we ended up with human morality instead of pretty much any other morality we see portrayed on Star Trek.

          • you don't have evolutionary psychology explaining why we ended up with human morality instead of pretty much any other morality we see portrayed on Star Trek.

            That is correct. We're making some progress.

          • LB: you don't have evolutionary psychology explaining why we ended up with human morality instead of pretty much any other morality we see portrayed on Star Trek.

            DS: That is correct. We're making some progress.

            Oh give me a break. You could have conceded that point in your response here:

            LB: It's relevant to whether evolutionary psychology can really predict that our ethics would turn out as it did, and not as Star Trek scriptwriters portrayed the Romulans and Cardassians.

            DS: How is anything in an imaginary universe relevant to what we should believe about the real universe?

            But you didn't. Why?

          • You could have conceded that point in your response here:

            LB: It's relevant to whether evolutionary psychology can really predict that our ethics would turn out as it did, and not as Star Trek scriptwriters portrayed the Romulans and Cardassians.

            DS: How is anything in an imaginary universe relevant to what we should believe about the real universe?

            But you didn't. Why?

            I didn't get that point from you at that time.

          • You see two very different natures show up in the Voyager episode Faces.

            There are not many people whose ideologies are perfectly consistent. To my knowledge, nobody in this debate claims that anything about our behavior is determined solely by our genes or solely by our environment.

            That noted, I don't agree that the sort of duality hypothesized in that episode is either philosophically or scientifically coherent. "We can imagine it happening" does not imply "It could happen."

          • Ummm, the point is that the episode is inconsistent with tabula rasa.

          • I have already stipulated that nobody actually believes that our behavior is determined solely by our environment.

          • I'm afraid your actual position remains rather opaque to me, then.

          • To a first approximation, my position is summarized in Wikipedia's article on the computational theory of mind: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Computational_theory_of_mind.

          • Ummm, the point is that the episode is inconsistent with tabula rasa.

            So be it. I think it's inconsistent with a bunch of stuff I think I know about reality. I don't watch Star Trek to learn science. I watch it to be entertained. My favorite series of the franchise was Deep Space Nine, and it was chock full of plot elements that I regarded as scientific rubbish.

          • Have I ever suggested that I turn to Star Trek for scientific knowledge?

          • You've been talking about it as if it were relevant to a discussion of what evolution is capable of.

          • You seem to have forgotten that I wrote the following:

            LB: Show me scientific research which explores possible alternative moralities which could evolve. If you can't, then show me scientific research which shows that the morality we currently have is the only one evolution would bring about. If you can't, then we have to do with something of lower quality than scientific research. Or, perhaps some incredibly complex issues can only really be explored by the arts, and not by scientific research—at least for any given level of scientific development & complexity of issue.

          • You seem to have forgotten that I wrote the following:

            LB: Show me scientific research which explores possible alternative moralities which could evolve. If you can't, then show me scientific research which shows that the morality we currently have is the only one evolution would bring about. If you can't, then we have to do with something of lower quality than scientific research. Or, perhaps some incredibly complex issues can only really be explored by the arts, and not by scientific research—at least for any given level of scientific development & complexity of issue.

            The present discussion is about whether evolution is capable of producing the moral instincts we now observe in human societies, and I am responding to the specific claim that it is not capable of doing that. Whether it is capable of producing the instincts characteristic of another species of sentient beings that exist solely in the imaginations of artists employed by the entertainment industry is of no relevance that I can discern.

          • The present discussion is about whether evolution is capable of producing the moral instincts we now observe in human societies …

            Right, because the OP doesn't contain the sentence "But conscience is different from instinct."

          • Right, because the OP doesn't contain the sentence "But conscience is different from instinct."

            I addressed that claim in my original critique of the OP.

          • You mean this comment, which is nowhere in this tree of discussion, in its own tree in which I never participated?

          • You mean this comment, which is nowhere in this tree of discussion, in its own tree in which I never participated?

            I have no way of knowing what you've read or haven't read. Anyway, it's in this tree now.

          • I have no way of knowing what you've read or haven't read.

            Irrelevant. You know what I should have read. That comment wasn't included. Tell me, are there any other things you've said which I'm supposed to magically know to read, outside of this tree and that comment?

          • I intended no disparagement of your attentiveness, but you seem to have construed my statement as conveying such an intention. Perhaps I was careless. If so, I apologize.

          • (1) "evospych sufficiently explains conscience such that any explanation the OP might have is thereby superseded"
            (2) evopsych is sufficient to explain the morality we currently have
            (3) we have "scientific research which shows that the morality we currently have is the only one evolution would bring about"

            I take you to have entailed (1).

            I have not. The OP offers an explanation of conscience in theistic terms. I have made no attempt to challenge that explanation. What I have challenged is the assertion that no other explanation is possible.

          • Ahh, you did not disagree with (1) when I first stated it. I stand corrected.

          • Glad we cleared that up.

          • If the starting conditions were very slightly perturbed, does evolutionary psychology predict that the resultant morality would be pretty much the same as what we observe?

            I don't know. I do think that chaos theory is in general quite relevant to evolution, but I have no good guesses about how sensitive our moral instincts would have been to slight variations in our initial environmental conditions.

            That noted, I find it hard to imagine an environment in which a social species like ours could have survived without something akin to empathy. And, given empathy, it seems to me that a few other basic moral instincts have to come along for the ride.

          • Empathy for blood relatives and "us" in situations of "us vs. them" is a far cry from what Catholics consider "morality".

          • If morality is, by definition, just whatever Catholics say it is, then I'll concede right now: Evolution couldn't have had anything to do with it.

          • humans generally have the same moral intuitions, which we would expect if they are the result of evolution or culture, but lack the consistency we would expect if they were from god.

            If god existed we would expect no psychopaths who simply lack moral intuitions.we would expect no disputes about what is right or wrong.

          • If god existed we would expect no psychopaths who simply lack moral intuitions.we would expect no disputes about what is right or wrong.

            You appear to be moving the goalposts, from: "no commonality" to "any variation whatsoever". Is that correct?

          • No. I didn't move any goalposts. This isn't complicated. Frankly, I feel you are playing gotcha here. I'm happy to discuss and debate with you if you want to support This piece or dispute what I've said.

            Make your point.

          • Brian, you're simply making your position rather hard to understand. You originally said that incredible variation argues against the OP's position:

            BGA: Through our moral intuitions we discern moral law and a lawgiver? Not in the slightest, we are constantly confronted with different people with different intuitions that vary wildly on the same subject. Moral intuitions suggest to me that they are intensely personal and subjective. They argue against any external law or lawgiver.

            When I pressed you on the validity of that "vary wildly", you backed off:

            BGA: But yes I can agree that humans have moral intuitions and that these are generally similar.

            However, you maintained your position by switching from "vary wildly" → "vary at all":

            BGA: If god existed … we would expect no disputes about what is right or wrong.

            Why should anyone accept your new position? It paints a frightening picture of God, as someone who cannot tolerate anyone meaningfully disagreeing with him.

          • I do not recall being "pressed" on, or understand what you mean by the validity of vary wildly or vary at all.

            I did not back off on anything. I do not know what position you are attacking.

            I am not advocating anyone accept my position. I am disputing Mr Nelson's position.

            I do not believe any gods exist, so I am untroubled by the picture my comments might be interpreted to paint. If you are troubled by the world we observe being very different than what we should observe if a Christian God existed, I am sorry.

            You haven't defended Mr Nelson's argument or opinions and you haven't identified any inconsistencies with mine.

          • I am not advocating anyone accept my position.

            Well, if the following is wrong—

            BGA: Through our moral intuitions we discern moral law and a lawgiver? Not in the slightest, we are constantly confronted with different people with different intuitions that vary wildly on the same subject. Moral intuitions suggest to me that they are intensely personal and subjective. They argue against any external law or lawgiver.

            —and nobody is supposed to accept the replacement—

            BGA: If god existed … we would expect no disputes about what is right or wrong.

            —then it seems you have no case against the OP.

          • I made my case, you haven't argued against it.

            The rhetorical games you are playing are far too transparent for me to bother anymore, come back if you are interested in an actual discussion.

          • I am happy for readers to determine who in fact made/​defended arguments and who is playing rhetorical games.

          • Again if you have a comment of substance, please make it.

          • I believe I have, while you believe I have not. I will let others adjudicate and chime in if they would like.

          • I restated my position five days ago.

            "humans generally have the same moral intuitions, which we would expect if they are the result of evolution or culture, but lack the consistency we would expect if they were from god.

            If god existed we would expect no psychopaths who simply lack moral intuitions.we would expect no disputes about what is right or wrong."

            You didn't counter argue. you didn't suggest anything different.

            You accused me of moving the goalposts, of backing off, being inconsistent, being invalid, being hard to understand, of having no case.

            Again, if you have anything of substance to contribute. Just say it.

          • BGA[A]: If god existed [1] we would expect no psychopaths who simply lack moral intuitions. [2] we would expect no disputes about what is right or wrong.

            [1] I chose to temporarily ignore this with you. FYI, I deal with the psychopath argument starting in this response to David.

            [2] I responded to this:

            LB[B]: Why should anyone accept your new position? It paints a frightening picture of God, as someone who cannot tolerate anyone meaningfully disagreeing with him.

            Your response to that included:

            BGA[C]: I am not advocating anyone accept my position.

            And then you said:

            BGA[D]: I made my case, you haven't argued against it.

            I have no idea how to reconcile [B] + [C] + [D]; there seems to be a contradiction. How [B] avoids being an example of "counter argue" to [2] is an absolute mystery to me. I have absolutely no idea what you would consider "anything of substance to contribute", given our conversation to-date.

          • The reconciliation is easy. [B] You asked why anyone should accept my new position, to this I understood you to mean my own personal understanding of what a conscience is and so on [C] I answered that I am not advocating this, but rather arguing that Matt Nelson's position should not be accepted. I made my case for why he is wrong and [D]noted this in a comment.

            "How [B] avoids being an example of "counter argue" to [2] is an absolute mystery to me. "

            I can't help you with this, as both [B] and [2] appear to be your comments.

            There are a number of substantive issues with Mr Nelson's argument, what is a conscience, is it unique, is it authoritative, the consistency in human consciences, the difference between, conscience and instinct, ultimately whether it is possible to have the experience of conscience that we do absent any gods existing.

            I see nothing in your comments about really anything to do with these substantive issues, or my rebuttals to them. Rather you seem obsessed with me being inconsistent in my criticisms.

            You started off with a sarcastic substantive remark "you've encountered
            significant numbers of people who think that cowardice is morally
            praiseworthy" which I rebutted and you did not comment further on.

            You seem, rather, to believe you got me in an inconsistency about whether I was advancing a position or not. But whether you succeed or not in demonstrating such an inconsistency, it tells us nothing about the argument Mr Nelson advanced, or of any of many other criticisms.

            There are many substantive questions we could debate, what are moral intuitions, what variety of them do we find in humans, how present to they seem to be in animals, are there outliers in humanity such as psychopaths with no moral intuitions?

            But I actually think you do not agree with Mr Nelson, that you do not believe the "conscience" is an indicator of God. That you accept humans have some basic general intuitions about protecting ourselves and similar entities.

          • You asked why anyone should accept my new position, to this I understood you to mean my own personal understanding of what a conscience is and so on [C] I answered that I am not advocating this …

            When I said "your new position", I meant precisely [A] and for the moment, [2]:

            BGA[A]: If god existed [1] we would expect no psychopaths who simply lack moral intuitions. [2] we would expect no disputes about what is right or wrong.

            That is your [2], not my response to your [2].

            There are many substantive questions we could debate …

            Are your [1] and [2] examples of "substantive questions"? Or do you require that they be taken for granted?

            But I actually think you do not agree with Mr Nelson, that you do not believe the "conscience" is an indicator of God. That you accept humans have some basic general intuitions about protecting ourselves and similar entities.

            I leave open the possibility that God can tug at our consciences in a way that is antithetical to the forces of evolution. Evolution culls the weakest; the Bible throughout calls on followers of YHWH and Jesus to protect and love the weakest. If evolution can explain everything, it explains nothing. But after opening up the possibility that God could actually pull at our consciences, we must then go on to work out how this might happen. Critically, I think we must grapple with whether we expect God to reveal anything new to us, or whether we're just supposed to adhere to some already-communicated standard. The latter is suspiciously like the wizard in the Wizard of Oz.

          • You're still not engaging with the issue, which is, is there anything about our experience of having a conscience that is evidence of a god?

            It seems you are saying that if a god exists he could tug at our conscience and so on. Well I can agree with that. I could also agree if a god exists he could be entirely responsible for our conscience. Or he could not tug or interact with it at all. Or he could not exist at all.

            What I am saying is that the attributes of conscience asserted by Mr Nelson to not imply the existence of anything I would call a deity.

          • You're still not engaging with the issue …

            I see. So then may I consider the following permanently stricken from the record:

            BGA[A]: If god existed [1] we would expect no psychopaths who simply lack moral intuitions. [2] we would expect no disputes about what is right or wrong.

            ? Admittedly, this would seem to damage one's ability to understand just what "anything [you, BGA] would call a deity", but I have ceased to try to make that kind of sense of your words.

          • "I see. So then may I consider the following permanently stricken from the record"

            There is no record, this is a com box discussion.

            I said " If god existed we would expect no psychopaths who simply lack moral intuitions."

            You have said nothing to dispute this and I have said nothing inconsistent with this.

            "? Admittedly, this would seem to damage one's ability to understand just what "anything [you, BGA] would call a deity", "

            This doesn't make any sense.

          • There is no record, this is a com box discussion.

            You are mistaken; what you have said previously in a discussion is part of the record, unless it is clearly stricken from the record. I will indeed now consider "If god existed … we would expect no disputes about what is right or wrong." stricken from the record, because you refuse to address my response to it.

            I said "If god existed we would expect no psychopaths who simply lack moral intuitions."

            You have said nothing to dispute this and I have said nothing inconsistent with this.

            Curious; I recall responding this way:

            BGA[A]: If god existed [1] we would expect no psychopaths who simply lack moral intuitions. [2] we would expect no disputes about what is right or wrong.

            LB: [1] I chose to temporarily ignore this with you. FYI, I deal with the psychopath argument starting in this response to David.

            Did you even look at what I said to David?

            This doesn't make any sense.

            Then you are welcome to provide a definition of "anything [you, BGA] would call a deity". I was led to believe that your [1] and [2] are part of that, but you're making me doubt at least [2].

          • Again, you have presented no argument, position, nor disputed anything I have said. I take it you agree with me then.

          • Again, you have presented no argument, position, nor disputed anything I have said.

            That is getting dangerously close to a lie.

          • "That is getting dangerously close to a lie."

            So what? What does my consistency or honesty have to do with whether "conscience" points to a god?

            Again I take it you agree that it does not.

          • So what? What does my consistency or honesty have to do with whether "conscience" points to a god?

            It has to do with whether I continue discussing with you.

            Again I take it you agree that it does not.

            It is despicable for you to try to put words in my mouth this way.

          • Right, well if you want to discuss the subject matter of the OP I am here.

          • BCE

            Hi Luke
            I'm not taking a position on god
            BGA talks about psychopaths.
            He is suggesting a psychopath has a great barrier to making a moral choice....agree.
            which proves to him there are not only impediments( to an informed conscience) but those impediments prove an unjust god.
            why create a conscience, and then allow pathology, a brain that
            can't use it.
            Theologically do any acts without knowledge and will, condemn?
            So, with a Christian God, there is more mercy then among people and
            most principalities.

            He isn't really arguing the article, or conscience and psychopaths but
            that god isn't good. He'd say the same about intelligence, why does god allow down syndrome.

          • BCE

            Why stop at psychopaths?
            Atheists don't agree there are morals. Others can't agree what is moral.
            Sociopaths can't always effectively reason, in fact most people will
            experience some impairment to forming sound judgement.
            An informed conscience might be just as impossible for someone who was a poor, neglected, abused kid, as the psychopath. Or those with a low IQ.. any disparity gives some a potential advantage and others a clear barrier.
            From your position why have conscience at all when it can't be equally accessed, or why have humans who can't effectively and consistent tap into it?

          • I think from the very beginning of the discussion (including the OP) there has been a failure to define conscience adequately. I raised the question about psychopaths because it seems to me that the OP (and the Catechism of the Catholic Church) imply that every individual has a conscience. For example, we have the following from the Catechism:

            1779 It is important for every person to be sufficiently present to himself in order to hear and follow the voice of his conscience. This requirement of interiority is all the more necessary as life often distracts us from any reflection, self-examination or introspection:

            Return to your conscience, question it. . . . Turn inward, brethren, and in everything you do, see God as your witness.

            Luke Breuer (as I interpret him) seems to think of conscience as something that is an aspect of humanity collectively rather than of each person individually. I think the Catechism has passages that can be read this way as well, for example the following:

            1776 "Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment. . . . For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. . . . His conscience is man's most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths."

          • BCE

            there are implications conscience is not feeling.
            Conscience, is most like, the law (written in ones heart)
            but is one set of laws. Why Luke might describe it as a human aspect.
            An analogy might be....
            As if when conceived given a law library, everyone gets the same set of books, so in that regard it is a set of laws for humanity.
            As an infant, you have no demands to go to those books.
            As you mature you do.
            However each person is body and mind. So though you might be
            20, if your intellect is that of someone 6, then that means the expectations placed on you, to use and understand those laws, are for that of someone age 6.
            The demands placed on you, to be informed, are always moderated by circumstance.
            If you are mentally ill, a psychopath, then you have a diminished capacity, you're not faulted. The law (conscience)may say ...stealing is a disorder act... but you're mentally ill, so in practice you won't be held guilty.
            You are to use your capacity(reason), reference your conscience (search the heart) but any diminished capacity, pathology, poverty, fear, low IQ etc is always a mitigating factor.

          • It is difficult for me to conceive of what conscience could possibly be without feelings. Isn't it conscience that threatens to cause feelings of guilt when a person considers doing something wrong? Conscience itself may not be feelings, but it certainly makes itself known and has whatever effects is has through means of feelings.

            Just knowing that something is considered morally wrong is not conscience. That's just knowledge. It seems to me that conscience (if there is such a "thing" as conscience) does its work by way of feelings. Someone (a Mormon, say) who feels guilty about drinking alcohol experiences the guilt because of conscience. But a Catholic certainly can't agree that the Mormon's feelings of guilt over drinking alcohol are because God has instilled in humanity the knowledge that it is wrong to drink alcohol.

            Conscience, it seems to me, has to be defined in such a way to allow for it to be wrong. If conscience works by using knowledge instilled by God, then how can the fact that conscience can make a person feel guilt for something that is not wrong in and of itself, but only believed by a specific individual to be wrong?

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            David, I wonder if you have seen this essay by then-Cardinal Ratzinger:

            http://www.catholiceducation.org/en/religion-and-philosophy/faith-and-reason/conscience-and-truth.html

            It notes how our single word "conscience" is doing double-duty for (at least) two different concepts: anamnesis / synderesis, and conscientia. I think the distinction is relevant to some of the comments and questions that you have raised.

            As I understand it (but please read the essay and judge for yourself), anamnesis is an inherent love of truth & goodness and a repugnance with respect to falsity / evil (and so, I think, anamnesis cannot be erroneous, by definition), whereas conscientia involves recognizing / judging what particular things are good or evil (and we can of course fail to recognize / judge incorrectly, so conscientia can indeed be errant).

            The essay also includes some interesting remarks as to the relation between papal authority and conscience.

          • Sure atheists agree there are morals. Often there is disagreement on what is moral, but in my experience there is also great agreement.

            I don't think it is at all true that socio-paths can't use reason effectively. I think it is quite the opposite.

            Sure people can and do have impaired judgment, but we aren't discussing that, we're discussing conscience.

            I don't know what you mean by informed conscience.

            Are you saying that immoral behavior is actually not immoral if an individual lacks the information or ability to act morally? This would sound like my position, and not what we would expect if we were granted insight into the correct moral position through some kind of God-given moral intuitions. If god existed we would expect the uninformed or highly pressured individual to have and undeniable feeling of what is right despite the info available to her.

            Why have a conscience at all? I think there are good evolutionary reasons for us to develop basic moral intuitions as social animals that depend on collective security to pass on genes.

          • BCE

            You used psychopaths, I'm saying what psychiatrists say, emotional conflict can impair judgment(discerning an appropriate response)(Sociopaths often lack impulse control. Both psychopaths and sociopaths can use reason, but might not reason(discern appropriate response) pathology and distress can all cloud ones judgement, or moral intuition,
            Theists agree, knowledge and intent matter, social conscious matters and allowances must be made for circumstances.

            Not always and everywhere have people had writing, constitutions and laws, but (written in the heart) they have a moral intuition to guide
            them toward the good. There can be unjust written constitutions and laws, and no written laws, however we consult our moral intuition
            What ever you think is deficient you can only blame the Universe, biology, chemistry etc. And it's only if there is a god can you transfer your disapproval on to him. It's not ..if god existed *we would expect...
            But, if there were a god, what *you would expect
            You are never really arguing the topic, but rather consistently
            ...if god were good then he should

            You are being unfair to Luke
            You know Boolean axioms...If god exists..
            can't be refuted by those not familiar with this method.

          • It is very difficult to follow you train of thought here.

            I am saying that if a god exists, the god of Catholicism, and this god conveys moral imperatives by way of a conscience, we would not expect to find people like psychopaths, who lack empathy, and whose "conscience" is of no guidance to what the rest of us would consider obviously tragically immoral.

            For example, in Jon Ronson's book The Psychopath Test, he describes an individual who after years of treatment went out and stabbed a young girl in the stomach. When asked why he did it, he said "just to know what it would feel like"

            I find it very difficult that such a person would have an "authoritative" conscience telling him not to do that, but rather one telling him, "you can do what you want"

          • David Nickol

            I don't believe we have heard from you what you think conscience is or what it does? Is it direct knowledge, infused by God, of what is right and wrong? Is it a human capability to do moral reasoning that depends on correct information to arrive at a correct conclusion? Is it somehow a mix of the two, with God helpfully putting his thumb on the scale when sincere people weigh one option against another?

            What (if anything) is the meaning of the "moral sovereignty" of conscience? Certainly it can't mean that everyone is compelled to act according to the dictates of his or her conscience.

            I find the Catholic concept of conscience (as I learned it in Catholic school) is a bit murky. On the one hand, Thomas Aquinas spoke of the primacy of conscience and said that it would be better to be excommunicated from the Church rather than violate one's own conscience. On the other hand, there is the concept of a "well formed conscience," which taken to an extreme (as it seems to me it often is) requires one's conscience to be formed according to the dictates of the Church. To that way of thinking, following a "well formed conscience" is simply accepting the teachings of the Church and obeying them.

            I think also you have said too little about conscience and feelings. Do feelings of guilt come from the conscience? I would say that in many ways, guilty feelings are what conscience is all about, but as has been noted quite a few times, feelings of guilt are not particularly reliable as an indication of what is right and wrong.

            I think the "other side" seems to rely too heavily on conscience as a product of evolution. There is some indication that some extremely basic feelings are innate, and that would be a result of evolution. But surely the conscience of any human being raised by other human beings as a member of any particular society would largely be determined by the culture of that society, not by evolution. There may, for example, be some kind of innate human concept of fairness, but different cultures might have very different ideas about what is fair. For example, in a culture in which slavery was taken for granted, there would be a rationale for why some people were masters and others slaves, and the concept of fairness would apply very differently to people who were "supposed" to be masters and those who were "supposed" to be slaves.

            One might, at the most basic level, raise the question of whether such a "thing" as a conscience actually exists. Conscience is a concept that is applied to certain familiar phenomena, but does it actually exist? Or is it just a handy way of organizing observations about human feelings and behavior?

          • I think the "other side" seems to rely too heavily on conscience as a product of evolution.

            Any theory can be oversimplified, and if the theory is about human behavior, some people -- among its supporters as well as its detractors -- will oversimplify it.

            There may, for example, be some kind of innate human concept of fairness, but different cultures might have very different ideas about what is fair.

            That would be consistent with what evolutionary psychologists are claiming.

          • BCE

            Not exactly.
            Evolutionary psychology is "evolutionary" and much less cultural.
            Evolution selects for optimums. So not killing and eating all your children
            is optimum regardless of culture. But the environment changes, available food, shelter, mates, helpers etc change.
            That might appear as though the optimum changed. It didn't.
            That culture may be headed toward extinction. All adaptations are not equal. Some tribes thrive, others struggle.
            If you think culture and biologic evolution are equal, they are not
            Seeking some objective good through biologic evidence seems a reasonable
            response

          • Evolutionary psychology is "evolutionary" and much less cultural.

            Evolution is about interaction between biology and environment. So is culture, which is why culture itself can evolve.

            Evolution selects for optimums.

            It selects for whatever facilitates the survival of populations. Human judgments about optimality are irrelevant, except insofar as natural selection will favor brains that make judgments consistent with survival.

            All adaptations are not equal. Some tribes thrive, others struggle.

            Yes, exactly as evolutionary theory predicts.

          • BCE

            So are you saying you support BGA's position?
            His idea that with God, there must be more consistency(then with evolution)
            and no guilt when doing what's right.

            I'm not defending the article or god, but as I stated BGA's claims and your nod

            Although he does not exactly set up his argument as a Boolean
            axiom, what I hear is...if god was really good, there'd be no variations in
            intellect, health, circumstance(psychopaths included) or anxiety

            Doug, surely you know this device
            BGA says....if god exists we'd expect no psychopaths....
            Do you really think he has a good point?

          • So are you saying you support BGA's position?

            I agree that it seems strange that a God-given conscience would make us feel guilty about doing the right thing.

            Do you really think he has a good point?

            I think that his point, as he stated it, was a good one.

          • BCE

            Disappointed

          • Conscience is a concept that is applied to certain familiar phenomena, but does it actually exist?

            The phenomena exist. Conscience is a label we apply to them.

          • I haven't advanced my understanding of conscience partly because I don't see it as necessarily relevant to the OP or discussions thereof and partly because it is not a well-developed theory. I will say that I am skeptical of the conscience as merely a producer of guilt for when rules are transgressed. Given stuff like WP: Catholic guilt, that view does not surprise me—but just like making beautiful music requires much more than following a set of explicable rules, being beautiful to other humans requires much more than following a set of prohibitions.

            I'm curious; do you think that the OP is contradictory with the following state of affairs:

            Woe to those who call evil good
                and good evil,
            who put darkness for light
                and light for darkness,
            who put bitter for sweet
                and sweet for bitter!
            (Isaiah 5:20)

            We can throw in Ezek 5:5–9 and if a post-Jesus example is required, there's the church in Ephesus having "abandoned the love [it] had at first" (Rev 2:1–7). To answer one of your questions, I see the heart and mind as equal contributors in the whole enterprise—whether in sin or righteousness.

            If that isn't the problem, then perhaps you would like some sort of accounting of how God alters one's conscience—to correct it and/or enhance it. I doubt there is a [human-knowable] comprehensive answer, but I'd like to suggest that one can do interesting things by combining the "still small voice" of 1 Kings 19:9–18 with the "new heart" of Jer 31:31–34 and Ezek 36:22–32. That is, I think that God wishes his voice to be quieter than our own and the voices of other humans. In a day and age when we won't even listen to fellow humans who differ from us, how could we hear God? Only when we are willing to quiet ourselves ("be still and know that I am God") and be humble enough to admit that (i) we may have erred; (ii) we may have more to learn, can God interact with us in freedom. Otherwise, it'd just be God reprogramming us.

            Sorry I don't have a better answer/any kind of answer at all. I don't want to say that modernity is more screwed up than the medieval ages as is popular among some Catholics and Protestants; I suspect the Enlightenment was precisely "I will break the pride of your power" being done to what then passed for "Christianity". What does characterize modernity and the secular nature of most knowledge ("God is dead") is that it is closed to the transcendent. Epitomizing this is Francis Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man. Events will still happen he says, but we have discovered the final form society and politics will take—the best form. We are closed to anything truly new, closed to theōsis. We are so closed that few seem to have any conception of what it would mean to be open to the transcendent, other than something New Age-y.

  • George

    last week when I heard Trent Horn on Catholic Answers Live, he failed to engage with evolutionary theories of moral intuitions, and the only thing he wanted listeners to settle for, was: "God has written it on our hearts." Very disappointing. I felt a great sense of futility and depression that many folks will forever settle for that. Correcting the record with facts and refutations of lies takes too much time, and the news cycle moves on without you.

    • Rob Abney

      George,
      Could you please explain evolutionary moral intuition? On first glance it seems as though it may rely on an "intuition" that is inherent or "written on our hearts".

      In defense of Trent, if his audience was Christian then he expects his audience to be familiar with this precept as revealed knowledge such as the prophet Jeremiah provided: "But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days," declares the LORD, "I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people."
      Its unfortunate that you feel a sense of futility and depression, many of us who believe such revelations can provide good reasons for our faith, Trent Horn certainly can also but a radio talk show necessarily has limitations.

  • Steven Dillon

    Ultimately, I think this sort of argument is on the right track. But, I think it suffers from a couple of problems, some of which include: 1. Compunction is often described in exaggerated terms, as if there were categorical oughts, 2. It rarely addresses Natural Law theory, according to which moral clout is just how laws of nature feel.

  • Throughout the wide world of creation God has left all sorts of signs that point right back at him.

    Like most apologetics, this essay seems to be addressed less to skeptics than to believers in need of some reassurance that they should pay no attention to skeptics.

    The Catechism tells us that conscience is “a judgment of reason by which the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act” (1796).

    So what? To whom is this statement addressed? We skeptics don’t care what the catechism says, and the author can’t be unaware of that.

    Newman writes:

    Conscience is a law of the mind; yet [Christians] would not grant that it is nothing more. . . . [Conscience] is a messenger of him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by his representatives. Conscience is the aboriginal vicar of Christ (Letter to the Duke of Norfolk).

    Aside from Newman’s say-so, what reason to I have to believe any of that?

    But where does our conscience come from?

    It has the same origin as all our other cognitive faculties. We call it “conscience” rather than “moral instinct” because we humans prefer to think that we, unlike other animals, don’t have any instincts.

    Truly, the conscience demands unconditional obedience, respect, and loyalty—often at a cost.

    Only people can make demands, and they do so by being in a position of power. You can demand my money by threatening me with death or severe injury if I refuse to hand it over. Otherwise, you can only request it.

    But let’s suppose the author was being metaphorical. If I disregard my conscience, I may experience severe emotional distress, and so in a figurative sense, my conscience has demanded something from me. But some people make unreasonable demands, and they should be resisted if the cost of resistance is not excessive. If I am capable of defending myself against a robber, I should do so.

    But where on earth does such firm and unshakable authority over humanity come from?

    Power is not the same as authority. Power can be obtained arbitrarily, but authority must be conferred by other authority. Anyone with a gun has the power to demand my money without my consent. Only the tax collector has the authority to do so because the government has given him that authority.

    Philosopher Peter Kreeft writes:

    Conscience has absolute, exceptionless, binding moral authority over us, demanding unqualified obedience. But only a perfectly good, righteous divine will has this authority and a right to absolute, exceptionless obedience. Therefore conscience is the voice of the will of God (Argument from Conscience).

    As a defense of theism, this is a rather blatantly circular argument. But then, assuming your conclusion is not a problem as long as the only people you’re trying to talk to are those who already accept your conclusion.

    It is a common mistake to equate feelings with conscience, but feelings and conscience are not the same thing.

    Mammals and cats are not the same thing, either, but that doesn’t contradict the assertion that cats are mammals. Conscience is a feeling. We have many kinds of feelings. Conscience is one of them, and we have no non-question-begging reason to think it is anything else.

    Newman . . . wrote,

    “If, as is the case, we feel responsibility, are ashamed, are frightened, at transgressing the voice of the conscience, this implies that there is One to whom we are responsible, before whom we are ashamed, whose claim upon us we fear”

    With all due respect to his eminence the cardinal, it implies no such thing, except in the trivial sense that if B is assumed, then A implies B for all A. If it is a fact that I was born in California, then the following statement is true by the rules of standard logic: “If Hillary Clinton is the president of the United States, then I was born in California.” But, what Newman clearly means to suggest is that it cannot be the case that (A) “we feel responsibility, are ashamed, are frightened, at transgressing the voice of the conscience” while at the same time (B) “there is One to whom we are responsible, before whom we are ashamed, whose claim upon us we fear” is a falsehood. However, no matter how many theists assert this, we atheists have seen no reason to take their word for it.

    Through our conscience we discern not only a moral law but a moral lawgiver.

    Only if we presuppose the existence of a moral lawgiver.

    But merely impersonal objects like brains neither praise nor blame.

    Right. Praise or blame must originate in a person who has a brain.

    The feelings we experience when we respond to our conscience are distinctly relational and point to a personal being who is holding us accountable for our actions.

    Or they can point to a social environment that makes us feel the way we do about certain behaviors.

    There does seem to be a “right way” to act, regardless of our personal opinion; there does seem to be an interior voice within us that commands us to do good always and to avoid evil.

    Yes, there does. But what seems to be the case is not always the actual case.

    Some write off conscience as a natural phenomenon, an evolutionary instinct.

    Some of us do think it is a natural phenomenon. We don’t think that in so doing, we devalue it.

    [Skeptics say that] The compulsion to do good is required in order to have a society where survival and reproduction are optimized.

    Calling it a “compulsion to do good” begs a few questions. It is a compulsion to comply with certain rules established by whatever society we regard ourselves as members of.

    But conscience is different from instinct.

    Only in the same way that cats are different from mammals.

    My instinct in the middle of the night when my two-year-old daughter wakes up crying is to ignore the commotion and keep sleeping, but my conscience tells me to overrule my instinct and tend to my child.

    No, you have two instincts, and they are in conflict. That happens to us humans all the time. When it happens, one instinct needs to overrule the other, but that doesn’t cause it to be something other than an instinct.

    But this biological benefit does not in itself imply that our ethics developed naturalistically.

    Right. It doesn’t. But the benefit does falsify the claim that our ethics could not have developed naturalistically.

    It may be, for example, that a divine Lawgiver hardwired us with knowledge of moral laws, and one of the benefits of following them is that things will generally go better for us, as well as for others.

    Yes, that is a possibility.

    So the naturally advantageous results of following our conscience may be the result of God’s genius and careful planning.

    It may be, yes.

    It might be tempting to reach for Ockham’s razor at this point.

    Is that a temptation we should resist? Are our consciences telling us that we should ignore Ockham’s razor?

    The unique and unbending authority of the conscience must come from somewhere

    I have yet to see it demonstrated that we should attribute any such authority to anyone’s conscience.

    • David Nickol

      Like most apologetics, this essay seems to be addressed less to skeptics than to believers in need of some reassurance that they should pay no attention to skeptics.

      I couldn't agree more. No article directed at atheists or agnostics would have an opening paragraph like the OP does. Of course, this was not written for Strange Notions but for Catholic Answers.

    • Sgt Carver

      I think you have given this OP far more attention than it deserves, but thank you, your fisking makes it worth the effort of reading.

      In Irishese... "More power to your elbow!"

    • Conscience is a feeling.

      It this an argument (that is, you've identified the major phenomena people agree are connected to "conscience" and can demonstrate/​reference a reduction of them all to "feeling") or a [contentious] definition?

      [OP]: Some write off conscience as a natural phenomenon, an evolutionary instinct.

      DS: Some of us do think it is a natural phenomenon. We don’t think that in so doing, we devalue it.

      Whether or not you "devalue" it is probably an issue of semantics, but you do deprive it of authority (because you say "authority must be conferred by other authority"). And unless feelings have authority (you also say "Conscience is a feeling."), there is no authority in this domain. According to you.

      [OP]: But this biological benefit does not in itself imply that our ethics developed naturalistically.

      DS: Right. It doesn’t. But the benefit does falsify the claim that our ethics could not have developed naturalistically.

      I doubt that the OP is talking about just any ethics. In particular, I can virtually guarantee that the OP means to exclude merely tribal ethics—where it's just fine to treat outsiders brutally. What is the "naturalistic" explanation for the transition from tribal ethics—which makes perfect sense based on kin-selection evolution—to egalitarian ethics? For reference, we can recall you said the following:

      DS: Egalitarianism is not among the instincts collectively referred to as "conscience." It is a product of the interactions between those instincts and various social forces that have been operating in recent human history.

      Given that we're talking about "ethics" and not "conscience" right here, egalitarianism seems to be in-bounds. I am interested in whether evolutionary psychology can do the work of explaining the rise of egalitarian ethics (vs. some other ethics). If it cannot, and you have no other articulated explanation, then your "naturalistically" would appear to be a promissory note rather than a demonstration, making your claim of "does falsify" false.

      • It this an argument (that is, you've identified the major phenomena people agree are connected to "conscience" and can demonstrate/ reference a reduction of them all to "feeling") or a [contentious] definition?

        Neither. It’s a characterization. A definition would explain how it differs from every other kind of feeling.

        Whether or not you "devalue" it is probably an issue of semantics, but you do deprive it of authority

        I can’t deprive it of anything that it actually has. If it has authority, then nothing I say can change that. But it seems to me that if our moral instincts are necessary for our survival, that’s putting a pretty high value on them. For us who don’t expect an afterlife, that’s about as valuable as anything gets.

        I doubt that the OP is talking about just any ethics.

        I’m responding to what he wrote as I understood what he wrote. If you think I misunderstood him, feel free to tell me what you think he meant and why you think so.

        In particular, I can virtually guarantee that the OP means to exclude merely tribal ethics—where it's just fine to treat outsiders brutally.

        The OP was talking about the origin of the human conscience. The fact that people in other societies don’t feel guilty about the same things we feel guilty about doesn’t mean they don’t have consciences.

        Egalitarianism is not among the instincts collectively referred to as "conscience." It is a product of the interactions between those instincts and various social forces that have been operating in recent human history.

        Given that we're talking about "ethics" and not "conscience" right here, egalitarianism seems to be in-bounds.

        I’m not placing it out of bounds. It is a moral principle. I’m just refusing to give it special treatment.

        I am interested in whether evolutionary psychology can do the work of explaining the rise of egalitarian ethics (vs. some other ethics).

        The changes that have occurred, since we became Homo sapiens, in our ethical principles is mostly if not entirely a matter of social evolution more than biological evolution. Obviously, our biological heritage had to make such social evolution possible, but it couldn’t specify the particular directions that our social evolution had to go in.

        • DS: Conscience is a feeling.

          LB: It this an argument (that is, you've identified the major phenomena people agree are connected to "conscience" and can demonstrate/​reference a reduction of them all to "feeling") or a [contentious] definition?

          DS: Neither. It’s a characterization. A definition would explain how it differs from every other kind of feeling.

          When a scientist presents a characterization, [s]he is often expected to argue for that characterization. But the way you speak indicates you just want people to grant you the characterization right off the bat. Can you give no reasons that conscience is fully reducible to feelings?

          But it seems to me that if our moral instincts are necessary for our survival, that’s putting a pretty high value on them. For us who don’t expect an afterlife, that’s about as valuable as anything gets.

          Ok? This is perfectly compatible with interminable war between tribes. High value is only relevant if the thing valued is good.

          [OP]: But this biological benefit does not in itself imply that our ethics developed naturalistically.

          DS: Right. It doesn’t. But the benefit does falsify the claim that our ethics could not have developed naturalistically.

          LB: I doubt that the OP is talking about just any ethics.

          DS: I’m responding to what he wrote as I understood what he wrote. If you think I misunderstood him, feel free to tell me what you think he meant and why you think so.

          Wait, so you think there is zero appreciable difference between what the OP means by "our ethics" and what you mean when you say things such as "human ethics":

          LB: I don't think we have any science which indicates "whether the Romulans and Cardassians are plausible outputs of evolution (…)".

          DS: And how was that relevant to a debate about whether evolution can account for human ethics?

          ? From our further discussion, it became clear that you meant something very generic when you say "ethics"; do you really think that the OP meant something generic?

          The OP was talking about the origin of the human conscience.

          Odd; I thought it was how the conscience came to have the characteristics the OP thinks it has now. This is much more than just origin; it is development to the particularities we observe now.

          The changes that have occurred, since we became Homo sapiens, in our ethical principles is mostly if not entirely a matter of social evolution more than biological evolution. Obviously, our biological heritage had to make such social evolution possible, but it couldn’t specify the particular directions that our social evolution had to go in.

          What is "social evolution"? Survival of the fittest … memes? I smell another promissory note which ostensibly supports "does falsify"—but with a different tense ("will falsify").

          • What is "social evolution"?

            Social change over time.

            Survival of the fittest … memes?

            I think memes are a useful concept for explaining social change, but I don't need them here. All that matters to my argument is that social change happens and that, over periods of only centuries or a few millennia, it doesn't happen because of biological change -- or at least doesn't need to.

          • In that case, "social evolution" is not an explanation.

          • In that case, "social evolution" is not an explanation.

            Why? Because it doesn't happen? Or because it happens but is inexplicable on naturalism? Or because human ethics are not a social phenomenon?

          • "change happens" is not an explanation.

          • This thread is about whether, for a particular observed phenomenon, any nontheistic explanation can be plausible.

          • Irrelevant; "change happens" is not an explanation. The entire question is whether God has had his hand in things in a way we can detect [as it being God]. There is zero need for God to have created humans with a perfect conscience from the beginning, contrary to your suggestion:

            DS: Egalitarianism is not among the instincts collectively referred to as "conscience." It is a product of the interactions between those instincts and various social forces that have been operating in recent human history.

            LB: Well, it's hard to falsify that one. Any aspect that someone might tie to conscience, you will tie to moral instincts (explained by evolutionary psychology) mixed with "social forces" (not explained by evolutionary psychology).

            DS: Any evidence that humans have always been as averse to inequality as they have been to murder might do the trick.

            Indeed, perhaps the dominant theme of the Old Testament is that God wished to lead the Israelites (and via them, the rest of the world) to a better way of life. That is, God wished to be involved in "change happens". The question would then become, "How might we detect God being involved in change?" But you have obscured this, by going no further than "change happens" (via "social evolution" = "Social change over time.").

          • The entire question is whether God has had his hand in things in a way we can detect [as it being God].

            I don't think so. The question raised by the OP, as I understood the OP, was whether a certain phenomenon referred to as the human conscience is explicable without the assumption of God's existence. Whether it is explicable with that assumption is irrelevant to my argument.

          • Oh give me a break, who's really going to be happy with "God had his hand in things" being an equally good explanation as "a completely naturalistic explanation suffices"?

          • Oh give me a break, who's really going to be happy with "God had his hand in things" being an equally good explanation as "a completely naturalistic explanation suffices"?

            I didn't say anybody would.

          • Ahh ok, so let us suppose that nobody would be happy with that. Then, it would seem that the following are really two sides to the same coin:

            LB: The entire question is whether God has had his hand in things in a way we can detect [as it being God].

            DS: The question raised by the OP, as I understood the OP, was whether a certain phenomenon referred to as the human conscience is explicable without the assumption of God's existence.

            That is, if you answer one, you've answered the other. This isn't quite correct, as perhaps human conscience just isn't explicable. But that doesn't seem to be a live option.

          • That is, if you answer one, you've answered the other.

            I don't see that at all. You have an odd way of interpreting statements made in plain English.

          • Well, you have two avenues: argue that the two possibilities on the table are not mutually exclusive, or that there are other live possibilities. Which would you like to choose and articulate?

          • Which would you like to choose and articulate?

            I articulated my position a month ago: https://disqus.com/by/disqus_fRI0oOZiFh/

          • You have merely linked to Disqus comments made by you; I'm not going to go searching for something I am virtually certain is not there. So, I will ask you to justify "You have an odd way of interpreting statements made in plain English." If in fact I cited two mutually exclusive options, with no other live options, then "the following are really two sides to the same coin" would be absolutely correct—would it not? That's basic logic.

          • If in fact I cited two mutually exclusive options, with no other live options, then "the following are really two sides to the same coin" would be absolutely correct—would it not? That's basic logic.

            Let M be the existence of our moral instincts as we observe them, and let G be God's existence. The OP, on my understanding, is arguing for (M -> G), which is equivalent to
            ~(M & ~G). I am arguing that (M & ~G) is plausible. That is the basic logic at issue here.

          • I am arguing that (M & ~G) is plausible. That is the basic logic at issue here.

            Yeah, and if the answer to "whether God has had his hand in things in a way we can detect [as it being God]" is he did, then "(M & ~G)" is implausible, if we are reasonable and reject ""God had his hand in things" being an equally good explanation as "a completely naturalistic explanation suffices"". You say that I "have an odd way of interpreting statements made in plain English", and yet you haven't shown a single flaw in my logic.

          • if the answer to "whether God has had his hand in things in a way we can detect [as it being God]" is he did, then "(M & ~G)" is implausible

            Yes.

            yet you haven't shown a single flaw in my logic.

            Perhaps you meant something by "two sides of the same coin" other than what I thought you meant.

          • Perhaps you meant something by "two sides of the same coin" other than what I thought you meant.

            What did you think I meant?

          • That there was no important difference between the two.

          • I meant that if it's heads it isn't tails, and if isn't heads it is tails. Have you never seen "two sides of the same coin" used that way?

          • Have you never seen "two sides of the same coin" used that way?

            No, I haven't. I've always seen it used to mean "In a certain important respect, they're pretty much the same thing."

          • When a scientist presents a characterization, [s]he is often expected to argue for that characterization.

            I appreciate your eagerness to educate me about scientific discourse, but I learned how to do it by reading scientists. You seem to have learned by reading philosophers of science.

            Of course characterizations, like any other assertions, have to be defended—when they are challenged. When biologists characterize evolution as descent with modification from common ancestry, they don’t have to defend that characterization when talking among themselves.

            Can you give no reasons that conscience is fully reducible to feelings?

            “Fully reducible” is your characterization, not mine. All I said was that conscience is a feeling. Are you claiming that it is something else?

            But it seems to me that if our moral instincts are necessary for our survival, that’s putting a pretty high value on them. For us who don’t expect an afterlife, that’s about as valuable as anything gets.

            Ok? This is perfectly compatible with interminable war between tribes.

            And therefore, what? Just because we value something doesn’t mean we always get it.

            High value is only relevant if the thing valued is good.

            To value something is to judge it to be good. If you don’t think it’s good, then you won’t value it. That doesn’t mean nobody else will. Humans have always disagreed about their values. That doesn’t mean they haven’t had values.

            From our further discussion, it became clear that you meant something very generic when you say "ethics"; do you really think that the OP meant something generic?

            I have already stipulated that if the OP intended his argument to be only about Christian ethics and was assuming there can be no other ethics, then I have no rebuttal. I can still, however, deny the assumption that Christian ethics are the only ethics requiring any explanation.

            The OP was talking about the origin of the human conscience.

            Odd; I thought it was how the conscience came to have the characteristics the OP thinks it has now.

            I thought he stated his thesis in the opening paragraph:

            the conscience . . . points . . . toward the existence of God [and] the existence of a personal God.

            In the next paragraph he endorses Cardinal Newman’s “appealing to the human conscience, demonstrating the significance of this mysterious interior faculty and showing how its presence and effect upon us suggest the reality of a divine moral legislator.” And then after quoting Newman, he asks rhetorically: “But where does our conscience come from?” The remainder of the essay is clearly meant to defend a particular answer: It must have come from God because it cannot have come from nature.

            This is much more than just origin; it is development to the particularities we observe now.

            Unless some particularities are inconsistent with naturalism, the claim that a natural origin is impossible is falsified.

          • I appreciate your eagerness to educate me about scientific discourse, but I learned how to do it by reading scientists. You seem to have learned by reading philosophers of science.

            Curious, how such statements of "seem" never seem accompanied by evidence and reason. Perhaps this is another one of those "characterizations" of yours?

            Of course characterizations, like any other assertions, have to be defended—when they are challenged.

            Defended—you mean, the thing you refused to do? Or are you really playing semantic games with my use of "argument"?

            “Fully reducible” is your characterization, not mine. All I said was that conscience is a feeling. Are you claiming that it is something else?

            I don't know exactly what conscience is; in my own firsthand experience, it appears to involve feeling, reason, teleology, and probably other stuff as well. But I don't take my firsthand experience to be authoritative in this instance. So, I am curious as to why you believe what you believe—if you have reasons you're willing to let be examined.

            And therefore, what?

            You've merely repeated my "Ok?".

            I have already stipulated that if the OP intended his argument to be only about Christian ethics and was assuming there can be no other ethics, then I have no rebuttal.

            If he the OP intended "our ethics" to refer to something wider than the exceedingly narrow thing you just outlined, you would still seem to have a problem. After all, you've said that you thought you were getting at what the OP meant. I'm questioning whether you did a very good job of that at all. I doubt many would see the OP as meaning only your very generic notion of ethics—one which covers cannibal ethics just as well as egalitarianism.

            And then after quoting Newman, he asks rhetorically: “But where does our conscience come from?”

            Yeah, and the OP clearly wants to account for certain particularities of conscience observed now.

            Unless some particularities are inconsistent with naturalism, the claim that a natural origin is impossible is falsified.

            That's a ridiculously high standard. The OP merely needs to show that naturalists do not have explanations as good as the OP's.

          • The OP merely needs to show that naturalists do not have explanations as good as the OP's.

            I stand corrected. My implicit characterization of the OP was a mistake.

            The question remains whether we naturalists are justified in thinking we don't need the God hypothesis to account for what we observe of humanity's moral instincts.

          • The question remains whether we naturalists are justified in thinking we don't need the God hypothesis to account for what we observe of humanity's moral instincts.

            Ummm, the title of the OP is Does Conscience Point Towards the Existence of God?, not Do Moral Instincts Point Towards the Existence of God?. Let's recall:

            [OP]: The Catechism tells us that conscience is “a judgment of reason by which the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act” (1796). It is a rational human faculty, agrees Newman, like memory, reason, and the sense of beauty; yet it also has a moral sovereignty over us.

            DS: So what? To whom is this statement addressed? We skeptics don’t care what the catechism says, and the author can’t be unaware of that.

            You recently said, "Let me arbitrarily decide which data are relevant, and I can defend any hypothesis I like." To that I will add: "Let me arbitrarily redefine the topic of conversation and I can defend any hypothesis I like."

          • The question remains whether we naturalists are justified in thinking we don't need the God hypothesis to account for what we observe of humanity's moral instincts.

            Ummm, the title of the OP is Does Conscience Point Towards the Existence of God?, not Do Moral Instincts Point Towards the Existence of God?.

            As far as I can tell, there is no difference between our consciences and our moral instaincts. They're just different labels for the same thing.

          • Yep; as I said: "Let me arbitrarily redefine the topic of conversation and I can defend any hypothesis I like." Anything which doesn't fit (such as egalitarianism) is carefully excluded from "conscience", so that "conscience" ends up being something evolutionary psychology can handily explain.

          • Anything which doesn't fit (such as egalitarianism) is carefully excluded from "conscience",

            I haven't done that. What I have done is reject your attempt to define conscience in terms of a belief in egalitarianism.

          • Sure, you've asserted your own definitions/​characterizations with zero defense. Will that ever change? Or perhaps this is another semantic game, whereby you construe nothing I have said [on this page] in response to you as "challenged"—

            DS: Of course characterizations, like any other assertions, have to be defended—when they are challenged.

            —or "asked for a defense"—

            DS: Waiting until I’m asked for a defense is not a refusal to defend.

            ? Must I be be more explicit with you in particular?

          • What I have done is reject your attempt to define conscience in terms of a belief in egalitarianism.

            Sure, you've asserted your own definitions/​characterizations with zero defense.

            My defense is common usage. Most people, when they talk about conscience, seem to be talking about the same thing I mean by moral instinct.

          • My defense is common usage.

            Dictionaries, by definition, track common usage. So:

            dictionary.com: conscience

            1. the inner sense of what is right or wrong in one's conduct or motives, impelling one toward right action:
                to follow the dictates of conscience.

            2. the complex of ethical and moral principles that controls or inhibits the actions or thoughts of an individual.

            3. an inhibiting sense of what is prudent:
                I'd eat another piece of pie but my conscience would bother me.

            You seem to have completely ignored 2. The example sentence for 3. seems rather anti-evolutionary. I don't know of any organism other than humans which stops eating for a reason other than being full or running out of food. We could consult more dictionaries, if you'd like.

          • We could consult more dictionaries, if you'd like.

            That won't be necessary. I see no inconsistency between any of those and what I have been calling our moral instinct.

          • Fascinating. So just to confirm, you would say that "2. the complex of ethical and moral principles that controls or inhibits the actions or thoughts of an individual." is 100% compatible with "Conscience is a feeling."? Because 2. seems rather more compatible with the following from the OP:

            [OP]: The Catechism tells us that conscience is “a judgment of reason by which the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act” (1796). It is a rational human faculty, agrees Newman, like memory, reason, and the sense of beauty; yet it also has a moral sovereignty over us.

            Now, one route which is available to you is something like Hume's "Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them." (Treatise on Human Nature 2.3.3 p. 415) This would make 2. a mere rationalization for feelings. Perhaps you are enamored of that approach?

          • So just to confirm, you would say that "2. the complex of ethical and moral principles that controls or inhibits the actions or thoughts of an individual." is 100% compatible with "Conscience is a feeling."?

            I don’t know how to quantify compatibility. I would say it is consistent.

            2. seems rather more compatible with the following from the OP:

            [OP]: The Catechism tells us that conscience is “a judgment of reason by which the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act” (1796).

            Not being Catholic, I’m not obliged to accept anything the Catechism says. What the Catechism illustrates in this case is a tendency of human nature to equate any sufficiently compelling value judgment, regardless of its origin, with a deliverance of reason. We think that if we feel strongly enough that X is true, then it must be contrary to reason for anyone to doubt X. This is not unique to religion. We see it all the time in political and other secular discourse.

            Now, one route which is available to you is something like Hume's "Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them." (Treatise on Human Nature 2.3.3 p. 415) This would make 2. a mere rationalization for feelings. Perhaps you are enamored of that approach?

            I don’t agree with Hume’s statement as he worded it in the Treatise. It is an observable fact, however, that we all tend to rationalize our feelings. This doesn’t mean our feelings can never be consistent with reason. If I haven’t eaten in a week, I’m going to feel hungry, and it will certainly be rational for me to want to eat something, but that doesn’t make my hunger a product of my critical-thinking skills.

          • DS: I see no inconsistency between any of those and what I have been calling our moral instinct.

            LB: Fascinating. So just to confirm, you would say that "2. the complex of ethical and moral principles that controls or inhibits the actions or thoughts of an individual." is 100% compatible with "Conscience is a feeling."?

            DS: I don’t know how to quantify compatibility. I would say it is consistent.

            It is an observable fact, however, that we all tend to rationalize our feelings.

            Ahh, that's the key. Sometimes, a "complex of … principles" is tied to rationality. But other times, it is merely a rationalization. Suppose that the dictionary noted that 2. is not merely a rationalization. Would you then have a problem, or would you suggest that it doth protest too much?

            Not being Catholic, I’m not obliged to accept anything the Catechism says. What the Catechism illustrates in this case is a tendency of human nature to equate any sufficiently compelling value judgment, regardless of its origin, with a deliverance of reason.

            I'm not Catholic either, I'm just comparing and contrasting a dictionary definition with a snippet from the Catechism. You happen to have switched from the dictionary definition to the OP's treatment of certainty. I'm still interested in your apparent presupposition of emotivism, or something quite like it.

          • Suppose that the dictionary noted that 2. is not merely a rationalization. Would you then have a problem

            Yes, I would. The role of a dictionary is to record usage, not to validate any particular usage.

            I'm still interested in your apparent presupposition of emotivism, or something quite like it.

            I’ve never called myself an emotivist because I’ve never felt certain that the label fits me well enough. You link to Wikipedia, whose article begins with a definition that I disagree with. I don’t deny that ethical sentences express propositions. What I deny is that those propositions affirm any objective facts other than facts about the speakers’ judgments. And, I don’t think that my beliefs on this matter are presuppositions. I think they are inferences from what I’ve learned from my studies of metaphysics.

          • LB: Suppose that the dictionary noted that 2. is not merely a rationalization. Would you then have a problem … ?

            DS: Yes, I would.

            Ok. Now, why do you think it is acceptable to interpret "2. the complex of ethical and moral principles that controls or inhibits the actions or thoughts of an individual." as merely "rationalize our feelings", when the dictionary itself says no such thing? That is, can you cite anything but anecdotal personal experience?

            I’ve never called myself an emotivist because I’ve never felt certain that the label fits me well enough. You link to Wikipedia, whose article begins with a definition that I disagree with. I don’t deny that ethical sentences express propositions. What I deny is that those propositions affirm any objective facts other than facts about the speakers’ judgments.

            Alright; I personally find it hard to see much difference between WP: Emotivism and WP: Ethical subjectivism. Key to both appears to be a rooting of ethics in emotion. I have yet to see any interesting distinction between propositions about emotion and expressions of emotion.

            And, I don’t think that my beliefs on this matter are presuppositions. I think they are inferences from what I’ve learned from my studies of metaphysics.

            That was an unexpected answer, given your prior "My defense is common usage."

          • why do you think it is acceptable to interpret "2. the complex of ethical and moral principles that controls or inhibits the actions or thoughts of an individual." as merely "rationalize our feelings"

            I don’t think that, and I never said I did. You’re the one doing the interpreting. Dictionaries record usage, which is intended meaning: what people think they are saying when they use the word. This particular usage reflects certain metaphysical assumptions that I think are mistaken. I was explaining what I think this mistake consists of and how it became an established usage.

            the dictionary itself says no such thing

            It’s not the dictionary editors’ job to say such things. That is the job of philosophers.

            I personally find it hard to see much difference between WP: Emotivism and WP: Ethical subjectivism. Key to both appears to be a rooting of ethics in emotion. I have yet to see any interesting distinction between propositions about emotion and expressions of emotion.

            I have some interest in telling people what I believe and why I believe it. I have almost no interest in proving that what I say fits neatly into somebody’s philosophical taxonomy. Whether Wikipedia’s editors would classify me as an emotivist or an ethical subjectivist, I couldn’t care less.

            That was an unexpected answer

            Your expectations are a function of your personal history. I can’t do anything about that.

          • I don’t think that, and I never said I did.

            Then I don't understand your answer here:

            LB: Suppose that the dictionary noted that 2. is not merely a rationalization. Would you then have a problem … ?

            DS: Yes, I would.

            After all, "Dictionaries record usage, which is intended meaning: what people think they are saying when they use the word." Why would it matter if the dictionary noted that 2. isn't merely a rationalization? That would be more opinion which you could just steamroll over.

            At this point, I can now better understand what you meant:

            LB: Sure, you've asserted your own definitions/​characterizations with zero defense.

            DS′: My defense is common usage based on inferences from what I’ve learned from my studies of metaphysics. Most people, when they talk about conscience, seem to me to be talking about the same thing I mean by moral instinct.

            Would you be willing to articulate those "inferences" and that "seem"? (If so, please do so.) After all, to defend "I think that X" with "it seems to me that X" is not a real defense. Nor is "I have reasons to believe X" a real defense.

            I have some interest in telling people what I believe and why I believe it. I have almost no interest in proving that what I say fits neatly into somebody’s philosophical taxonomy.

            Being able to compare & contrast your own views with commonly held/​discussed views can be a very effective way of communicating. It is also rather unlikely that you deviate very much from views already held; people just tend not to innovate all that much over what has been done before. Whether or not the innovations people do make are heeded or suppressed is another matter; have I given you reason to think I'm trying to suppress your own and put you in a box? If so, I'd like to know how it appears that way.

          • Why would it matter if the dictionary noted that 2. isn't merely a rationalization?

            Because whether it is or is not a rationalization is not a lexicographical issue. It is a philosophical issue.

            Would you be willing to articulate those "inferences" and that "seem"?

            I would, if I had the time to write an intelligible articulation and if it would fit in a forum post. Neither is the case, however. Fortunately for you, whatever I can say without further argument, you may deny without further argument.

            Being able to compare & contrast your own views with commonly held/​discussed views can be a very effective way of communicating.

            It can be effective in some contexts. I believe that in most contexts, the most effective way to communicate my beliefs is just to state them, particularly when I'm using them as premises in an argument.

          • LB: Sure, you've asserted your own definitions/​characterizations with zero defense.

            DS′: My defense is common usage based on inferences from what I’ve learned from my studies of metaphysics. Most people, when they talk about conscience, seem to me to be talking about the same thing I mean by moral instinct.

            LB: Would you be willing to articulate those "inferences" and that "seem"? (If so, please do so.) After all, to defend "I think that X" with "it seems to me that X" is not a real defense. Nor is "I have reasons to believe X" a real defense.

            DS: I would, if I had the time to write an intelligible articulation and if it would fit in a forum post. Neither is the case, however.

            Ah, so you teased me with what seemed awfully like promises to articulate—

            DS: Of course characterizations, like any other assertions, have to be defended—when they are challenged.

            +

            DS: Waiting until I’m asked for a defense is not a refusal to defend.

            —and now have refused to do so. After all, merely asserting your opinion is not a defense.

          • After all, merely asserting your opinion is not a defense.

            To which particular opinion are you referring? Or are you claiming that I have defended none of them?

          • The context is clearly your claim that "Conscience is a feeling." You have definitely defended opinions of yours in the past. It just happens that you aren't willing to defend the opinion central to your objection to the OP.

          • To which particular opinion are you referring?

            The context is clearly your claim that "Conscience is a feeling. . . . you aren't willing to defend the opinion central to your objection to the OP.
            "

            The notion that you might seriously think it was something else took me some getting used to.

            One of the bases of my defense is the fact-value dichotomy, which you have rejected. You and I discussed that a great length in another thread, and we eventually discovered that you and I don’t mean the same thing when we’re using the word “fact.” That could be a partial explanation for your rejection of the dichotomy. Whatever; you and I disagree about the fact-value dichotomy. I don’t know any proof that I’m right to affirm it, but your defense of your rejection consisted mainly of quotes from a handful of philosophers who reject it for reasons that don’t appear cogent to me.

            Next: I don’t believe that any purely ethical statement is a statement of fact. Ethical principles are one of many kinds of value judgments that we make. The objection that this reduces moral disagreements to mere differences of opinion is misguided. Opinions are not by their nature either unjustifiable or trivial. Some are quite consequential in terms of the behavior that they motivate, and there is no reason their justification cannot be stated in terms of such consequences, i.e. by appealing to facts. To affirm the fact-value dichotomy is not to deny a relationship between facts and values. To say they are the same thing is not to say that one is irrelevant to the other.

            Next: Some sense of a difference between moral right and moral wrong is a part of what most of us call human nature. This means, at minimum and uncontroversially, that all people throughout human history have in some sense disapproved of some behaviors and approved of some others. The sense in question is what we call the moral sense, to distinguish it from other kinds of approval/disapproval such as what is applied to mere social manners. We can disapprove of breaches of etiquette without accusing their perpetrators of behaving immorally. We may find the distinction hard to define, but our intuition, as revealed by our actual behavior, says there is a difference. We just don’t treat people with bad manners the same way we treat people with bad morals. Possibly, in some societies, there is no useful distinction between manners and morals, but I know of no society in which there is no distinction between behaviors judged to be morally right and behaviors judged to be morally wrong.

            When it comes to particular behaviors that are so judged, humanity has exhibited a remarkable but not infinite diversity. The list of behaviors that are disapproved of by no known society is short. From this we may infer that the human mind naturally perceives some distinction between right and wrong but, with a handful of exceptions, does not naturally perceive that any particular behavior is wrong.

            Next: I have used “approved/disapproved” and “right/wrong” interchangeably for a reason. I have seen no one propose a distinction that would be useful in the present context. To disapprove of an action is to judge it to be wrong, and to judge it wrong is to express disapproval. Every proposed further distinction I have seen presupposes some form of moral objectivism. Granted, if moral objectivism is true, then my argument fails, but to prove me wrong merely by affirming moral objectivism is to beg the question.

            Next: The approval or disapproval expressed by moral judgments are feelings. We don’t form moral judgments about matters that we have no feelings about. A person’s expression of emotional indifference toward any behavior is taken to be evidence of at least their moral indifference if not their moral approval: If I say that I don’t care whether people do X, then other people will infer that I have judged X to be morally unobjectionable.

            Next: The question: Are people referring to anything other than these feelings when they talk about conscience? The OED begins its entry for conscience thus:

            I. Senses involving consciousness of morality or what is considered right.
            1.

            a. The internal acknowledgement or recognition of the moral quality of one's motives and actions; the sense of right and wrong as regards things for which one is responsible; the faculty or principle which judges the moral quality of one's actions or motives. Now also in weakened sense: one's awareness of what is advisable or acceptable for one to do.

            Opinions as to the nature, function, and authority of conscience are widely divergent, including that it is: (i) practical reasoning about moral matters, which, though fallible, must be obeyed (Aquinas); (ii) the understanding which distinguishes between right and wrong and between virtue and vice; (iii) an infallible, God-given guide of conduct; (iv) a sense of personal or individual morality as opposed to customary or social morality (Hegel); (v) a sense of guilt and unworthiness which arises when aggressive impulses are denied external expression (Nietzsche); (vi) an aspect of the superego, the internal perception of the rejection of a particular wish (Freud).

            That is a lot of nuance, but for an inquiry into general usage, I think we can focus on (i) - (iii).

            The answer to my question, “Are people referring to anything other than these feelings when they talk about conscience?” seems to be: They think they are. That is to say, “My conscience tells me so” is the answer people give when asked, “How do you know that X is wrong?” and they clearly don’t think they’re saying nothing more than “I don’t approve of X.” They are saying that, but they intend to be saying something else besides, because most people get it that “I don’t like X” is not a sufficient reason for moral condemnation of X. They intuit the necessity of appealing to some faculty of their minds that perceives whatever it is about X that justifies their moral disapproval—the particular kind of disapproval applicable to moral judgments as opposed to mere social or personal judgments. But this intuition presupposes the existence of that “whatever it is,” because otherwise there would be nothing for that mental faculty to perceive. And what shall we call that faculty? Most English speakers call it their conscience. Thus I interpret the OED.

            Next: This is all consistent with my initial response to the OP, provided I am not mistaken in rejecting moral objectivism. A naturalistic explanation of conscience need not presuppose that its “nature, function, and authority” are what people think they are, particularly when (as the OED informs us) they don’t agree among themselves about what they are.

            A possible objection may remain: The faculty that I have labeled “conscience” might produce feelings, but that doesn’t mean the faculty itself is a feeling. That would indeed be a good distinction to make in some contexts. But in the more general context of explaining why we have such a faculty and how we came to have it, my argument is that, having explained the relevant feelings, we have explained the conscience.

          • Thank you for saying more about your position.

            I don’t know any proof that I’m right to affirm [the fact–value dichotomy] …

            Granted, if moral objectivism is true, then my argument fails, but to prove me wrong merely by affirming moral objectivism is to beg the question.

            These two bits seem contradictory: to merely affirm the fact–value dichotomy allows your argument to proceed, but merely affirming it is to beg the question. But perhaps you think you're walking a middle path between "merely affirming" and "proving"?

            Next: The approval or disapproval expressed by moral judgments are feelings. We don’t form moral judgments about matters that we have no feelings about.

            I don't see why anyone would accept this; scientists don't expend years of time investigating phenomena they have no feelings about. I'm not sure how you're adding anything substantial to your original "Conscience is a feeling."

            The answer to my question, “Are people referring to anything other than these feelings when they talk about conscience?” seems to be: They think they are.

            You've said as much already; the question is why such people ought to believe they are wrong. You've pointed out disagreement as to what conscience is, but there is also disagreement about scientific realism vs. scientific anti-realism—so we have to be very careful about what we do with the bare fact of disagreement.

             
            I would like to work with a modified version of what you said above:

            DS: We don’t form moral judgments about matters that we have no feelings about deem [completely] unimportant.

            Before I do so, would you agree or disagree with that modification?

          • You seem to have learned by reading philosophers of science.

            Curious, how such statements of "seem" never seem accompanied by evidence and reason.

            If you tell me I’m mistaken, I’ll see what I can do. I cannot include a proof of every sentence I write in these posts.

            Defended—you mean, the thing you refused to do?

            Waiting until I’m asked for a defense is not a refusal to defend.

            Are you claiming that it is something else?
            I don't know exactly what conscience is;

            OK. I think I do.

            in my own firsthand experience, it appears to involve feeling, reason, teleology, and probably other stuff as well. But I don't take my firsthand experience to be authoritative in this instance.

            I’m not claiming to be authoritative. I’m claiming no more than to have a justified opinion.

            I am curious as to why you believe what you believe—if you have reasons you're willing to let be examined.

            Your implication that I have so far offered up no reasons for your examination is a gratuitous insult. You can reject my reasons all you like and for any reason you like. You can say they’re not good enough. You can say they’re the purest nonsense. But that doesn’t mean I’m not offering any.

            After all, you've said that you thought you were getting at what the OP meant. I'm questioning whether you did a very good job of that at all.

            I would not expect you to think I ever do a good job of anything.

            I doubt many would see the OP as meaning only your very generic notion of ethics

            Others who think I’ve misunderstood the OP are as welcome as you are to join this discussion.

            and the OP clearly wants to account for certain particularities of conscience observed now.

            Let me arbitrarily decide which data are relevant, and I can defend any hypothesis I like.

          • If you tell me I’m mistaken, I’ll see what I can do. I cannot include a proof of every sentence I write in these posts.

            Your second sentence is a non sequitur; I have never asked you to do it or anything like it. You have a brain; you have an idea of which statements cry out for justification whether pre-emptive or immediately upon request. Here are two examples:

            DS[1]: Conscience is a feeling.

            +

            DS[2]: I appreciate your eagerness to educate me about scientific discourse, but I learned how to do it by reading scientists. You seem to have learned by reading philosophers of science.

            The second is more egregious (you're clearly trying to discredit things I claim about science), but there is still the following problem with the first:

            DS: Conscience is a feeling.

            LB: It this an argument (that is, you've identified the major phenomena people agree are connected to "conscience" and can demonstrate/​reference a reduction of them all to "feeling") or a [contentious] definition?

            DS: Neither. It’s a characterization. A definition would explain how it differs from every other kind of feeling.

            According to a scientist I just consulted, there is little difference between an argument and a characterization. She said that if she could offer characterizations without defending them with argument (see the underlined parenthetical), she could have dozens of papers published by now. But instead of defending your point of view, you've (i) played semantic games; (ii) insulted my knowledge of how science is actually done. And yes, when it comes to "Conscience is a feeling.", you have "so far offered up no reasons".

            Now, maybe DS[1] and DS[2] are each "a justified opinion". But I don't see reasoning or evidence behind either. Perhaps I never will, since you've spun a tale of me having impossibly high or otherwise irrational standards. ("I would not expect you to think I ever do a good job of anything.")

          • You have a brain; you have an idea of which statements cry out for justification whether pre-emptive or immediately upon request.

            I have some opinions on the matter. If they differ from your opinions, that is not a surprise and I'm not going to lose any sleep over it.

  • Short version.

    This is a version of the moral argument for the existence of God.

    1) Moral intuitions ("conscience") can only come from a personal God.

    2) We have moral intuitions

    3) Therefore a personal God exists.

    I don't accept premise 1. Moral intuitions could be the result of evolution like our other intuitions.

    • Does the OP argue that just any old moral intuitions can only come from a personal God?

      • Does the OP argue that just any old moral intuitions can only come from a personal God?

        I didn't get that impression. I got the impression that he was arguing that there are some moral intuitions that can only come from a personal God.

        • That certainly doesn't come through in @briangreenadams:disqus' version—which is admittedly a "Short version." But it would appear too short.

      • Certainly the OP would not accept any intuitions that don't come from God being moral as presumably all good morality has God as its source.

        And if good moral conscience can come from some secular source, then why assume any come from such an absurd source.

        • Ahh, so you meant:

          BGA′:

          1) Good Moral intuitions ("conscience") can only come from a personal God.

          2) We have good moral intuitions

          3) Therefore a personal God exists.

          ? Of course, there is a question of how "good" functions in the above discussion—if it adds anything at all. The Christian could say that "good" only has a sense other than "what I like" if a personal god exists. This can split into two forms: (i) we couldn't have a conception of goodness that is other than tribal if a personal god did not exist; (ii) it is exceedingly improbable that reality could allow for [non-tribal] goodness to exist and spread arbitrarily far, without a personal god. To see (ii) in action, examine where realpolitik is practiced. For example, perhaps the pathetic conscience-salving efforts Peter Buffett describes in his 2013 NYT piece The Charitable–Industrial Complex are all that we humans can do. Perhaps anything more is just a pipe dream. I mean, we're just evolved primates.

          Now, is what I said above nonsensical? I find it curious that in your original version, it couldn't be stated.

  • OverlappingMagisteria

    For the main point, I agree with others here that consciousness does not have absolute authority. This idea certainly was not demonstrated.

    But as a side note, Mr. Nelsons understanding of evolution makes a common mistake. Evolution is geared toward the survival of the species, not just the individual. Mr. Nelson gives the crying child example:

    My instinct... is to ignore the commotion and keep sleeping, but my
    conscience tells me to overrule my instinct and tend to my child. The moral choice may be more evolutionarily undesirable; yet in such cases conscience still tends to overrule instinct.

    Caring for your child is evolutionarily desirable: it helps the species survive.

  • David Nickol

    If conscience is from God, there are a number of questions that need to be answered. As someone has already noted, there exist psychopaths who do not seem to have consciences. According to one estimate I have seen, a quarter of inmates in maximum security prisons are psychopaths. Why did God give some people consciences and others none?

    Why, also, do we have the opposite of psychopaths—people who have excessively harsh consciences? (From Wikipedia: "Scrupulosity is characterized by pathological guilt about moral or religious issues. It is personally distressing, objectively dysfunctional, and often accompanied by significant impairment in social functioning.") If conscience is from God, why can it go so disastrously wrong?

    Why do we have such things as survivor guilt? [From Wikipedia: Survivor guilt (or survivor's guilt; also called survivor syndrome or survivor's syndrome) is a mental condition that occurs when a person perceives themselves to have done wrong by surviving a traumatic event when others did not.]

    Why do we make allowances for those who are from different times and different cultures. Why, for example, don't we condemn the Founding Fathers and others who owned slaves instead of judging them by the standards of their own times?

    If conscience is from God, why do we in the present day have disagreements about what is right and wrong? Shouldn't your God-supplied conscience come to the same conclusion as my God-supplied conscience? Why do some religious groups condemn all gambling and other religious groups (you know who you are) raise money from Bingo?

    It seems rather clear to me that the "conscience" of most individuals is a result of their upbringing. The general outlines of moral development are reasonably well understood by the social sciences. To put it very briefly, correct behavior is enforced by adults on very small children who gradually internalize the standards they are taught so that what Freud called the superego is relegated to a certain degree to the unconscious. (It is not necessary to invoke Freud and psychoanalysis, but it seemed handy here.)

    I take issue with the idea that my conscience, or your conscience, or anybody's particular conscience "evolved." It seems to me that what evolved in human beings is the mechanism by which external codes become internalized. It would be impossible to have much of a human society if codes of behavior had to be enforced by continuously monitoring behavior and punishing transgressors. It seems quite reasonable to me that the mechanism of internalizing codes of conduct is what evolved, but the particular codes of conduct as human societies developed were a product largely of culture, not of evolution.

    • Very interesting. Another good question might be: why do we feel guilty for doing the right thing? E.g. killing someone in self-defence, or firing an incompetent person with a family.

      • Rob Abney

        Your conscience is your guide, it helps you to apprehend the truth but your judgement still has to determine which path to act upon. For difficult decisions you have to rely on a fully formed conscience.
        Killing in self-defense involves a good action, defending against injustice but also an evil action, killing someone.
        Firing an incompetent sole breadwinner involves caring for another family and caring for your business interest.
        How do you, yourself, decide?

        • So actions can be both good and evil? So is it right or wrong to kill in self Defence? The conscience seems to be no guide in that circumstance. But if a God exists and is responsible for our conscience as a moral guide I don't see any reason why the feelings of conscience would not be attuned only to the right choice.

          I choose with great difficulty, on many questions I don't think there is a correct moral choice. But I'm not asserting there is a god-given law and guiding conscience.

      • Another good question might be: why do we feel guilty for doing the right thing? E.g. killing someone in self-defence, or firing an incompetent person with a family.

        Because even in the moral sphere, there is no free lunch. Morals are about values, and sometimes our values are in unavoidable conflict.

        • On a secular system, sure. But in theism we should not expect to feel bad by doing the right thing.

          • Good point. I suspect the apologetic response will have something to do with our fallen natures.

          • No doubt. But they can't have it both ways. You can't have an authoritative inherent guiding conscience that sometimes guides you to do the wrong thing or regret the good thing.

          • BCE

            BGA's point is not good. I'm not defending there is a god, but
            bad rebutal.

          • Go back to how an ethologists/evolutionary psychologist might think of why there are "bad" feelings (anxiety, fear, guilt) even when you do the right thing. ok in a secular system but not in theism?

            Science makes no judgment about whether it is OK. It only explains why we should not be surprised when it happens.

            There is a term for the argument that something is OK if it is natural. It's called the naturalistic fallacy, and competent scientists try to avoid it.

          • ClayJames

            I don't see how this is true. This would only be true if our feelings were informed purely by our god given conscience. Ignatius' teachings on discernment would be applicable in these cases.

          • Other than "conscience" what moral intuitions or moral feelings are there?

          • ClayJames

            You can have a god given conscience and then you can have other feelings that may interfere, contradict or can even be confused for this moral conscience. These other feelings might be a byproduct of evolution, culture, environment, flawed mental states, etc.

            So you can have a god given conscience that is often at odds with other feelings that might be interpreted as part of that conscience when in reality they are not.

    • As someone has already noted, there exist psychopaths who do not seem to have consciences. … Why did God give some people consciences and others none?

      Is there any evidence that it is harder for psychopaths to be moral than non-psychopaths? It is very important to distinguish between "moral" and "socially integrated"; the latter is consistent with slavery and genocide. Admittedly I know very little about psychopathy, but it seems to me that psychopaths would be less likely to be automatically morally programmed by society—the moral instruction would have to be explicit. But is it so bad that we be explicit with some small fraction of society? Sometimes, the act of articulating reasons shows those reasons to be bunk. Going with the flow is not always moral.

      If conscience is from God, why can it go so disastrously wrong?

      Isn't this tantamount to asking, "Why does God permit sin?" After all, how much wrong does it have to be for it to be disastrously wrong? I can certainly think of things being more wrong than they are—some more nuclear devastation would suffice.

      Another way of asking the question—which puts more on us than God—is to ask why God gives us so much responsibility, so much rope with which we can hang ourselves. The only response I know of is that of theōsis: God wants us to grow to ultimately understand everything. We would then be driven to ask whether there was maybe an easier way to understand this stuff which we repeatedly ignored, resulting in us having to do it the hard way. If we cannot find anything plausible, my hypothesis would be thrown into doubt, or at least God would appear to be a very harsh teacher.

      It seems rather clear to me that the "conscience" of most individuals is a result of their upbringing.

      Meh, don't embrace the tabula rasa fallacy; some is nature and some is nurture. Surely you've encountered Paul Bloom's 2010 NYT article The Moral Life of Babies?

      • Is there any evidence that it is harder for psychopaths to be moral than non-psychopaths?

        Yes, it seems to me that the hallmark of being a psychopath is that the feelings that reinforce moral behavior are absent. Here's one list of the traits of psychopaths from a Wikipedia article:

        Machiavellian Egocentricity: A lack of empathy and sense of detachment from others for the sake of achieving one's own goals

        Social Potency: The ability to charm and influence others

        Coldheartedness: A distinct lack of emotion, guilt, or regard for others' feelings

        Carefree Nonplanfulness: Difficulty in planning ahead and considering the consequences of one's actions

        Fearlessness: An eagerness for risk-seeking behaviors, as well as a lack of the fear that normally goes with them

        Blame Externalization: Inability to take responsibility for one's actions, instead blaming others or rationalizing one's behavior

        Impulsive Nonconformity: A disregard for social norms and culturally acceptable behaviors

        Stress Immunity: A lack of typical marked reactions to traumatic or otherwise stress-inducing events

        It has just this now occurred to me as I copied the above passage that one of my college roommates had many of these traits!

        Isn't this tantamount to asking, "Why does God permit sin?"

        I don't think so at all. It is an entirely different question as to why, if conscience is a God-given faculty, it is sometimes absent altogether and other times leads people to erroneous moral positions and actions. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says the following:

        "Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment. . . . For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. . . . His conscience is man's most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths."

        That seems very much to imply that moral knowledge is imparted directly to each individual by God. Is there any real-world evidence that this is the case?

        After all, how much wrong does it have to be for it to be disastrously wrong?

        I am speaking of decisions of "conscience" by individuals. The problem (I predict) is that those who want to claim conscience is the voice of God will rule out bad decisions as not being decisions of conscience. Suppose, for example, a person who believes abortion is the mass murder of innocent babies, and "executes" an abortionist to stop the slaughter. It seems to me that that would be very much a decision of conscience, but in my opinion, it would be a very bad decision.

        Meh, don't embrace the tabula rasa fallacy; some is nature and some is nurture.

        I make a point of never embracing any fallacies! To vastly oversimplify, I think nature provides a broad foundation which allows a given culture to be inculcated into individuals. It is broad enough to allow one culture to sincerely believe that slavery is right and proper and for another to believe it is intrinsically evil. Someone, I think, has alluded to the Ten Commandments. I have always found it fascinating that (according to what I have read) the commandments were originally a tribal code. Do not murder, for example, meant Do not murder anyone in your tribe. Here is a gloss from the New American Bible on the word kill in Exodus 20:13 ("You shall not kill"):

        Kill: as frequent instances of killing in the context of war or certain crimes (see vv. 12–18)demonstrate in the Old Testament, not all killing comes within the scope of the commandment. For this reason, the Hebrew verb translated here as “kill” is often understood as “murder,” although it is in fact used in the Old Testament at times for unintentional acts of killing (e.g., Dt 4:41; Jos 20:3) and for legally sanctioned killing (Nm 35:30).The term may originally have designated any killing of another Israelite, including acts of manslaughter, for which the victim’s kin could exact vengeance. In the present context, it denotes the killing ofone Israelite by another, motivated by hatred or the like (Nm 35:20; cf. Hos 6:9).

        • Yes, it seems to me that the hallmark of being a psychopath is that the feelings that reinforce moral behavior are absent.

          But do the feelings reinforce moral behavior or do they merely aid social integration? To use an example in a different domain, I have heard that a lot of CEOs in Silicon Valley tend to have at least a bit of Asperger's, because this aids in ignoring social cues such as "your idea sucks". There's a lot of creativity that society actively dislikes. Anyhow, let's take a test particle: would the fact of a psychopathic abolitionist, whose psychopathy helped immunize himself/​herself from societal pressure, shatter your objection on this point?

          DN: If conscience is from God, why can it go so disastrously wrong?

          LB: Isn't this tantamount to asking, "Why does God permit sin?"

          DN: I don't think so at all. It is an entirely different question as to why, if conscience is a God-given faculty, it is sometimes absent altogether and other times leads people to erroneous moral positions and actions.

          It seems to me that enough errors could compound with each other and yield the situation we have before us. There is a deep hope to this conception: it says healing is possible. If on the other hand we are merely evolved, then there are almost certainly many pure mistakes. Now, this hope could be false, so it is important to empirically investigate. But imagine for a second that psychopaths could be testers of societal "morality", to see if it is really moral. Could that perhaps be a very good thing?

          The Catechism of the Catholic Church says the following: [...] That seems very much to imply that moral knowledge is imparted directly to each individual by God. Is there any real-world evidence that this is the case?

          I would first want to see how Catholics reason about "those who call evil good and good evil" (Is 5:20), "their conscience, being weak, is defiled" (1 Cor 8:7), "liars whose consciences are seared" (1 Tim 4:2), and "our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience" (Heb 10:22). There is also the matter of hardened hearts in the OT which sometimes can only be fixed by God replacing the heart. What is the relation there to conscience?

          One possible response I imagine getting is that God wants to speak to every person, but we are very, very good at shutting him out, starting from a very early age. Psychopathy could even be a disease of society which manifests in certain members, just like I say that "I" am sick when it's my stomach which is manifesting the symptoms. But perhaps such possibilities can only be raised if there is a standard of right and wrong external to society.

          I have always found it fascinating that (according to what I have read) the commandments were originally a tribal code. Do not murder, for example, meant Do not murder anyone in your tribe.

          How does this jibe with all the calls to treat foreigners well? Don't get me wrong; the Israelites were quite nationalistic. But they were also a people struggling to be a people; I think God was working one step at a time. That seems to be the only way people really change.

  • David Nickol

    There seem to be two models of conscience in the OP, neither of which is clearly endorsed or differentiated from the other. There is the little voice from the heart that tells us right from wrong and may very will make us feel guilty for wrongdoing. Then there is the faculty that, using reason, makes moral decisions. The problem with the first model is that if the little voice were God himself telling us right from wrong, everyone would agree on questions of morality. The problem with the second model is that the output of a reasoning conscience depends on the input.

  • Jim (hillclimber)

    Whether something is recognized [as right or wrong], depends too on the will which can block the way to recognition or lead to it. It is dependent, that is to say, on an already formed moral character which can either continue to deform or be further purified. On this level, the level of judgment (conscientia in the narrower sense), it can be said that even the erroneous conscience binds. This statement is completely intelligible from the rational tradition of scholasticism. No one may act against his convictions, as Saint Paul had already said (Rom 14:23). But the fact that the conviction a person has come to certainly binds in the moment of acting, does not signify a canonization of subjectivity. It is never wrong to follow the convictions one has arrived at — in fact, one must do so. But it can very well be wrong to have come to such askew convictions in the first place, by having stifled the protest of the anamnesis of being. The guilt lies then in a different place, much deeper — not in the present act, not in the present judgment of conscience but in the neglect of my being which made me deaf to the internal promptings of truth. For this reason, criminals of conviction like Hitler and Stalin are guilty. These crass examples should not serve to put us at ease but should rouse us to take seriously the earnestness of the plea: "Free me from my unknown guilt" (Ps 19:13).

    http://www.catholiceducation.org/en/religion-and-philosophy/faith-and-reason/conscience-and-truth.html

  • Yet, although there is a commonality, conscience tells people to make very different choices. That is obvious from the fact we disagree on so much. Such disagreement is not new, though it may be more frequent in our time. While this does not by itself mean there is no objective morality, conscience clearly isn't a sure guide to it.

    As to the "no moral authority outside oneself", I'd hardly call that the "spirit of the age". It may be the spirit of the age to look for non-divine source of morals, but that does not entail only individual subjectivism. The very title of one book you cite "How To Be An Atheist" is telling here. It would be best to stop telling other people what they should believe based on their views, if this is actually supposed to be about dialogue.

  • VicqRuiz

    Of course, on Catholicism if the still small voice of conscience tells you to do thing 1 and the catechism tells you to do thing 2, the deuce is supposed to win every time.

    Do a web search for "strange notions should you lie to a Nazi" for several interesting discussions here. You'll find some Catholics who when asked "Would you lie to save an innocent life?" have a very, very hard time getting to "yes".

    • You'll find some Catholics who when asked "Would you lie to save an innocent life?" have a very, very hard time getting to "yes".

      That's an interesting observation.

      They have a rule against lying, and when asked whether the rule might have any exceptions, they struggle mightily to think of even one.

      But they also have a rule against killing. Now ask them whether that rule has any exceptions.

      • BCE

        If they struggle, they weren't paying attention or stopped studying.
        There is no command to not lie
        It's ..false witness.
        That is a concepts around motive, telling a lie to cause harm...honor your father and mother extends to honor others, but not under any circumstance. The illusion to parents presumes because there is a valid relationship between the parties where the authority of the parent is just and directed toward the good. This principle is also recognized by civil gov.
        They have a rule against murder, not defense . Again it's also
        a distinction in law
        They shouldn't hesitate.

        • There is no command to not lie

          If you mean there is no scriptural command, that would be decisive for Protestants. This discussion is about whether the Catholic Catechism prohibits it and whether the Catechism allows for any exceptions.

          It's ..false witness.

          According to the Catechism, "The eighth commandment forbids misrepresenting the truth in our relations with others."

          That is a concepts around motive

          By definition, the motivation for lying is deceit. If there is no deceitful intention, there is no lying.

          They have a rule against murder, not defense

          Right. The Catechism interprets the Fifth Commandment as a prohibition against the intentional taking of innocent life.

          The Catechism says that killing in self-defense is not only allowable but in some situations morally necessary, and it states explicitly that this provision "is not an exception to the prohibition against the murder of the innocent that constitutes intentional killing." I find no analogous provision in the Catechism's discussion of lying.

      • VicqRuiz

        Happily, not all Catholics though.

        GK Chesterton had no problem stating clearly that "any sane man would of course tell a lie to save a child from torture".

        I am not sure that all of the catechism-wranglers here would go so far.

        • You can believe that something is wrong because some authority told you not to do it, or you can believe it's wrong for some other reason.

  • So the naturally advantageous results of following our conscience may be the result of God’s genius and careful planning.

    Or what we think are moral codes are just the by product of what is naturally advantageous to a species of social primates. And since we're all the same species, this moral code seems universal in every culture, and we mistakenly think that this entails a moral law giver.