Friday, 11 January 2013

Evolutionary explanation of values

I have often wondered about evolutionary psychology and its implications for the existence of values endorsed by the Christian faith.  My concern is that much of neuroscience and psychology have shown that values most likely don't exist, and are just evolutionary mechanisms that helped ancient humans survive.

Take beauty and love, for instance.  Many studies over the past few years have indicated that the neurotransmitter dopamine is both implicated in perceptions of beauty/love and in learning/memorizing novel stimuli.  One could conclude from such data that beauty and love are simply evolutionary mechanisms that prompt people to memorize and familiarize themselves with novel environments and situations.  That's certainly the attitude taken by this New York Times article, here.  The idea would explain the old aphorism 'variety is the spice of life', making sense of why we humans often find things "beautiful" (or just interesting at all, really) only when they seem original and unique, and we have such disdain for what we think are clichés.  It would also explain the intuition that beauty and love are 'outside' of us - the intuition is essentially telling us that our current environment/stimuli (which IS technically outside of us) is unprecedented, and ought to be memorized and focused upon for survival purposes.

Is the above interpretation warranted by the data, or is there still reason to believe in values as immaterial entities?  If it isn't a threat, then why would God create a world where we can grow 'numb' to things which are intrinsically lovely or beautiful once we are familiar with them?  Furthermore, why would God make this numbing process evolutionarily beneficial? (it doesn't seem to be a result of the Fall, since the numbing mechanism probably evolved before humanity came around).  Please reply as you are able.

Response:  All our perceptions of anything are mediated by our brains and neuroscientists can paint a fascinating picture of the mechanisms involved.  Since our brains, like the rest of our bodies, have evolved it is also possible to tell an evolutionary story “explaining” any aspect of brain behaviour.  (These are known as “Evolutionary Just-so Stories” and are taken with a massive pinch of salt by experts – but they can be fun and sometime illuminating. Naïve journalists and their readers lap them up).

But this of course has nothing to do with whether the entities we think we perceive exist or not.  Most people who say “values don’t exist” will certainly agree that the sun (say) exists. But neuroscience has a fascinating story of how we perceive the sun and the sun certainly impacts on our hormones and chemistry and there are obvious evolutionary advantages in being able to perceive the sun.

Whether you believe that the fundamental basis of the universe is a Loving Ultimate Creator or meaningless matter/energy is a philosophical decision and no conceivable scientific experiment could settle the question.  It’s certainly a problem for atheists to account for the existence of objective moral truths – and they mostly seem to be committed to the conclusion that “torturing babies for fun is wrong” is simply a matter of opinion.  But we cannot force them to accept the deep Love at the heart of the universe – we have to hope and pray that they see it.

No comments:

Post a Comment