The Laws of Life: Grounding Spiritual Truth in Science

Kevin Sharpe with Brent Waters

An evolutionary case for "To have a friend, be a friend."

Science & Spirit 10(3) 1999

I rode my bike to the library this morning. The bike path crosses a pedestrian precinct. A woman didn’t look before she suddenly changed direction and I braked hard to avoid hitting her. Why did I do this? I didn’t have time to think it out and mull over the consequences of the various actions I might take. Was my avoiding her a good thing for me to do? Was it a natural reflex or inclination in me?

Why should we choose to follow the laws?

· Because human nature grounds them? If so, what account of human nature underlies the maxims, and why is it better than alternative accounts?

· Because we want the positive consequences and not the negative ones? If so, why do so many people behave in ways they know will make them suffer later?

These challenges reflect a lack of discussion on the assumptions behind Templeton’s laws. We need a thicker foundation to base the maxims on if we want to judge their truth or effectiveness and if we want them to benefit moral thought and conduct.

The maxims promote different and conflicting ideas of what constitutes good and evil, right and wrong, and virtue and vice. They could say, for instance, that good equals obedience while evil equals disobedience, that right equals natural while wrong equals unnatural, or that virtue equals rational while vice equals irrational.

The maxims lack a sound basis for applying at all times and places as good, right, or virtuous. Confucius, Milton, and Templeton would probably understand the maxims differently, given their differing interpretations of such things as will, freedom, and human agency. How might we test the universality of the claims? If these maxims are timeless and universal, why have people perennially and widely ignored or willfully neglected them? Templeton doesn’t address these questions. Rather, he looks to support from the major religions. He neither elaborates on this nor says why anyone should follow what the religions support.

This issue of Science & Spirit opens a scientific examination of some of the laws. I look at research principally from social psychology and ask if it supports the laws as Templeton states them, or if it supports them in a modified form, or if it fails to support them. Research shows we acquire friends in a variety of ways. I therefore remove the words, “the only way,” in the maxim I wrote above and reword it as:

To have a friend, be a friend.

Larry Arnhart constructs such a foundation [S&S 9(1) 1998]. He draws on evolutionary theory to create an “ethical naturalism”:

· Happiness marks the highest of our desires.

· Zoologist Frans de Waal outlines the morality essentials that evolution provides us with: “a tendency to develop social norms and enforce them, the capacities of empathy and sympathy, mutual aid and a sense of fairness, the mechanisms of conflict resolution, and so on.” We are innately social and political animals.

· To decide what to do in specific instances, we must judge prudently and respect the group’s social customs.

Does this neglect a rooting for morality? Arnhart spins an evolutionary story, which the secular-scientific nature of our society justifies. So long as we think a science-based society is partially all right, we could accept Arnhart’s evolutionary naturalism as a framework. This then renders understandable scientifically-derived moral principles. Caring for our young, belonging to a group, attaining a high status, and so on are, therefore, the “good.” We should pursue the innate in us.

But, some would argue, evil pervades the natural, including our natural instincts. Nature fell from the perfection of God. De Waal argues that we are naturally neither immoral nor amoral, but that our moral instincts derive from the behavior of our primate ancestors. Self-love motivates us and, as extension of ourselves, we love those with whom we bond, especially our children and our spouse. “The view of human beings as innately depraved is not supported by the biological evidence,” writes Arnhart, “but rather reflects a Calvinist doctrine of original sin.” Morality doesn’t equal altruistic selflessness.