Ligon Duncan on the Non-Negotiables of the Gospel

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  • Monday, January 14, 2008

    The "Science of the Moral Sense"

    Stephen Pinker, Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, published an article in the New York Times entitled "The Moral Instinct". In it he refers to "the science of the moral sense". Interesting article, and perhaps an indicator of debates to come, as it not only indicates a rising interest in moral law ("These days, the moral law within is being viewed with increasing awe, if not always admiration") and that there is usefulness in studying morality, but also as he makes reference to the "evolutionary history and neurobiological foundations" of the human moral sense.

    ... and what's most telling of things to come is that all this comes after the author's remark that "our heads can be turned by an aura of sanctity, distracting us from a more objective reckoning...", along with an opening illustration where it is the one clothed in religious garments (Mother Theresa) whose past definition and recognition of sainthood and suggested should be brought into question. (Note: it's not my intention to defend Mother Theresa's sainthood or ministries in this post, or to deny that a more objective reckoning of actions might be more useful in evaluation; but rather only to draw attention to the fact that the religious and their view of morality may perhaps be under as well as coming under attack.)

    I find interesting both what Pinker says and what he does not say. On one hand, he says "the concept of morality would have to be bigger than any of us and outside all of us", "The first hallmark of moralization is that the rules it invokes are felt to be universal", "The other hallmark is that people feel that those who commit immoral acts deserve to be punished" and that "If morality is a mere trick of the brain, some may fear, our very grounds for being moral could be eroded". But then, while stating "Yet as we shall see, the science of the moral sense can instead be seen as a way to strengthen those grounds, by clarifying what morality is and how it should steer our actions", he fails to state what morality and it's foundations are.

    ... In other words, he clues us in to the fact that the issues of morality are going to be addressed and studied [and presented at a later time], and particularly from a "scientific" standpoint, but other than suggesting that we use "our religions to justify" our morality, he does not state the basis of morality but leaves it for future debate.

    ... My suspicion is that it won't be long before we begin hearing that science will be used to try to explain away the need for revelation or religion when it comes to morality. My basis for this statement is Pinker's reference to us being "worthy human beings" and his defining sainthood based on human works (and human evalution) rather than on relationship with God including faith in and union with Christ through which one receives justification and adoption.

    The uphill battle for science is evident in the article though (...and I believe the reason Pinker did not go on and say more). The struggle remains for those who oppose belief in God and the reality of moral absolutes which originate and are upheld by explain either: (1) a basis not only for universal moral law apart from God but the motivation and obligation for all to follow and submit to it (even against their own will/desires), or (2) to explain or provide apart from universal law grounds for why any specific system of law (or set of laws) should be considered authoritative (and imposed on others).

    Don't be surprised though...given the presuppositions of many, both the science and the issues of culture and law will not be left untouched until those opposed to God find "some" form of support and answers for their views in which the fetters of God may thought to be thrown off and attempts made to lead astray those who are of the elect of God. Christian scientists and professors need to be active and on alert. Christian apologists need to keep their eyes and ears open and be prepared with the not only with biblical truth but applied logic along with knowledge of the science/arguments.

    Praise God that none of those given to Christ will either fail to come to him or be lost!

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