Monday, February 05, 2007

What Sets Us Apart

I received an interesting book for Christmas, The Good Life by Charles W. Colson. (thanks to Google's extraordinary project, the link is to the actual text of the book!)

In the book, Colson examines through the stories of a number of people (from former Tyco CEO Dennis Kozlowski to Chinese dissident Nien Cheng) what truly make our lives worth living. In his examination, he explores what it is in the nature of human beings that sets us apart from other beings and, he asserts, demonstrates the presence of God in our lives. It is an easy and edifying read, one I recommend to those with an open mind.

But this post is not about Mr. Colson's lessons directly. In the book, he spends some time discussing the human being's innate sense of right and wrong. He suggests that we are "hard wired" to understand intuitively how we should react to moral questions we encounter (not that we would actually act appropriately, but that we do recognize what is right and what is wrong). Of course, I thought, this proposition must be one that skeptics and scientists would surely ridicule.

And this morning, I discovered that the subject is in fact one of scientific inquiry.

Harvard professor Marc Hauser, a psychologist, evolutionary biologist and anthropologist (that should qualify him) is at work on a study, the theory of which is that morality is hard wired in humans.

Morality, he argues, is influenced by cultural teachings but is also so deep and universal an aspect of human existence that it is effectively "hard-wired" into the brain, much like the instinct for language.

At work, he says, are principles as unconscious and yet powerful as the grammar rules we use when we speak -- and the challenge to scientists is to figure out what those built-in moral rules are and how they work.

To that end, Hauser and other researchers are experimenting with children, monkeys, on-line survey takers, brain-damaged patients, and even psychopaths and remote hunter-gatherers.

His theory that morality is based in biology has plunged Hauser into an intellectual fray that spans from the pages of The New York Times to the rows of students who take his evolution classes at Harvard.

A psychologist, evolutionary biologist, and anthropologist, Hauser has felt students grow restless as he talks about the underpinnings of morality. In one class, he said, a student complained, "I know where you're going: Because it's universal, it's biological, and therefore there's no role for religion."

Hauser recalls responding: "I'm not saying you shouldn't derive meaning from religion. I'm just telling you that at some level, the nature of the moral judgments that you make and I make are the same, even though I don't go to church and you do."

Some critics also charge that Hauser's emphasis on biology negates the concept of free will and implies that all our moral choices are predetermined.

But he is not saying that at all, Hauser responds. A greater understanding of how moral minds work by no means translates into automatic prescriptions and decisions, he says.

Rather, Hauser and other morality researchers are working to tease apart "the system that allows us to intuitively, unconsciously make moral judgments about what's right or wrong," he said. "And that capacity is distinct from how we go about justifying what we do, or what we actually do." Such a system would be so fundamental that it would be present in all cultures.

Of course, Colson has no reservation in drawing the conclusion that (contrary to Hauser's caveat) this moral nature is evidence of God's existence. And he points to many other elements of our nature that are as well.

Colson is an extraordinarily brilliant and insightful man, and his life experience and lessons are deeply insightful and spiritual. If you are anything but the most hardened cynic, you will find his writing edifying and important.

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