EP27. Copyright © 1999 by Kevin Sharpe. All rights
Published in Studies in Science and Theology, Vol. 7 (1999-2000), ed. Niels Henrik Gregersen, Willem B. Drees, and Ulf Görman (
Kevin Sharpe and
ABSTRACT. Recent research in evolutionary psychology and neurobiology suggests that human fundamental motivation (or purpose) reduces to 15 core desires, the majority of which originate in our genes. The theological doctrine of providence entertains the notion of a Divine who directs creation in accordance with divine purposes, thus infusing life with meaning. If purpose is a biologically rooted phenomenon, does it make sense to talk of the (spiritual) Divine acting purposively? If it does, we need to understand how a spiritual being can exhibit biological traits. If it does not, an alternative characterization of the Divine’s relationship with creation becomes necessary.
Meaning, according to psychologist Victor Frankl, colors human nature. The search for meaning represents an innate human urge. Failure to find meaning leads to existential frustration, boredom, and, in some cases, mental ill health (see Shek, 1992, pp.185-86). What, then, infuses our lives with meaning? How do we attain existential satisfaction and safeguard our mental well being?
In this paper, we examine the Judaeo-Christian notion that the Divine guides, and so provides meaning for our lives through providence. We contrast this traditional viewpoint with new evidence from (evolutionary) psychology and neurobiology that suggests that fundamental motivation (or purpose) is a biologically rooted phenomenon. This evidence, we argue, raises questions about the idea of divine purpose (which providence entails) as well as providing an alternative source of meaning in human life.
The concept of providence springs from a popular notion of the Divine as caring about and influencing nature, the activities of humankind, and the course of history. More formally, providence is “God’s care, provision, foresight and direction of the universe in such a way that the universe as a whole and individual creatures within it fulfill God’s purposes” (Hasker, 1998).
Although the word “providence” does not actually
appear in the Bible, many passages refer to a Divine who overlooks and directs
the workings of the universe and the activities of the entities within it.
Thus, the Divine exercises control over entire nations: “Can I not deal with
The doctrine of providence paints a picture of an
omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent god. The
Divine has complete knowledge of the past, present, and future of the universe
and wields the power necessary for the past, present, and future direction of
that universe in accordance with the divine plan--which demonstrates moral
perfection and infinite love for all creation. In other words, providence
insists that the Divine acts with a purpose. Theologians and believers
construe divine purpose as similar to human purpose, only on a grander scale.
In much the same way as we might lovingly and carefully plan, provide for, and
direct the future of a child, envisaging various eventualities and weighing up
the best options, so the Divine lovingly and carefully plans, provides for, and
directs the future of the universe and everything in it toward the divine end
goal. In the words of
The concept of providence invokes a number of further concepts that, we suggest, highlight different aspects of the Divine’s purposive activity. These are:
(See Langford, 1981, p.6, for a different, less inclusive classification of divine guidance.)
Providence rests on the theistic notion of a Divine who initially creates the universe (everything that exists) and then proceeds to sustain that universe via further creative activity. Christian theologians have consistently interpreted the creation stories in Genesis as creation ex nihilo, with the Divine producing matter, space, and time out of nothing, rather than molding some primordial substance, or creating order out of pre-existing chaos. Ted Peters, to take a modern example, argues that since the Divine has promised a new creation and a final redemption for the dead, the Divine must also possess the power necessary for initial creation. “The eschatological promise of a new creation seems to warrant worship of the creator and Lord of the first creation,” he says. “The logic is this: the God who saves must also be the God who creates. Nothing less will do” (Peters, 1992, p.126).
Once created, the universe requires sustaining. Theologians traditionally understand New Testament passages such as: “[God] exists before everything, and all things are held together in [God]” (Colossians 1:17-18), and “the Son who is the effulgence of God’s splendor and the stamp of God’s very being, and sustains the universe by his word of power” (Hebrews 1:3), as assertions that the Divine must actively uphold the existence of each being in the universe from moment to moment. Michael Langford explains that the doctrine of continuing creation “emphasizes the utter dependence of all existing things on a creative act so far as their existence is concerned, such that if this activity could be conceived as being withdrawn, there would simply be nothing. It follows that the sustaining activity of God is…the upholding of an order which makes…change possible” (Langford, 1981, pp.8-9). Theologians of a more scientific bent have recently re-interpreted the opaque notion of continuing creation in terms of the universe’s natural processes. Thus, Hefner argues that evolution stems from the Divine and represents the process through which the Divine brings creatures with free will (humans) into being in order to further divine purposes. “This interpretation of the conditioning matrix of evolution as the work of God…requires of us a particular view of the natural processes as themselves participants in God’s grace and vehicles of that grace,” he says (Hefner, 1993, p.45). Likewise, Peters understands the processes of entropy and evolution as instances of “epigenetic or ongoing creative activity,” which allow for the emergence of new entities and so constitute the Divine’s continuing creation (Peters, 1992, p.134).
The task now becomes one of understanding why the Divine engages in this creative activity. The theological answer is two-fold: (a) creation of the universe comprises an expression of divine love and generosity (creation is a priceless gift) and (b) the Divine desires to consummate this creation (via continuing creation). (The desire for consummation is, of course, further evidence of divine love for creation.) Once again, purposes confront us. The Divine has promised a final redemption for humankind, according to Christian thought. This promise is revealed to us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, with Christ’s rising again representing the new and perfect life to come for all creation. In the words of the prophet Isaiah: “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth” (Isaiah 65:17); from John’s Revelation: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had vanished, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready like a bride adorned for her husband” (Revelation 21:1-3). The Divine intends to fulfill, or perfect, or consummate creation, thereby upholding the redemptive promise. Consummation comprises the Divine’s plan or purpose regarding the universe. “God’s creative work within nature and history derives from God’s redemptive work of drawing free and contingent beings into a harmonious whole,” explains Peters (Peters, 1992, p.136).
The Divine’s plan of consummation for creation affords an active role for humankind--it infuses our lives with meaning. We, in the words of Hefner, are “created co-creators.” The Divine has created us (via evolution) in order that we may play a part in the perfection of the universe. Evolution has equipped us with freedom--the power to deliberate, to come to decisions, to act on those decisions, and so to take responsibility for our free actions. Those free actions may either damage or preserve creation. We therefore have a responsibility, Hefner believes, to discern and to act in accordance with the Divine’s desire for perfection of creation. “Do we want to preserve the ecosystem? Do we want to practice ecological responsibility? In what direction? Should snail darters be preserved? Should fossil fuels be preserved? Should auto emissions and steel plant pollution standards be relaxed?” (Hefner, 1984, p.214). Our response to questions such as these becomes a critical factor affecting the Divine’s plan for creation. Our lives and our actions become intensely meaningful under this theological vision, since the choices we make will influence the future of the universe and our hopes for a life of eternal reward in the Promised Land.
Human freedom brings us hard up against the problem of evil. Evil exists in two forms: moral evil (perpetrated by human wrongdoing) and natural evil (natural disasters--flood, earthquake, famine, for example--plus disease and pain). Why does such evil exist in the presence of an omnipotent and omnibenevolent Divine? Scholars frequently pose this question as a challenge to the existence of God--or at least to a god possessing the superhuman qualities typically supposed. Yet, belief in the Divine can make sense of evil and can transform it from something malevolent into something meaningful. If, as Hefner suggests, we are created co-creators, then moral evil may result from our misusing our freedom. Willful destruction of the environment, infliction of pain or death on others, excessive self-absorption: all indicate contempt for--or lack of interest in--the universe, the Divine’s creation. We then have a duty, as created co-creators, to change the contempt into care, to spark an interest in the consummation of creation. Moral evil may inevitably co-occur with freedom, yet by recognizing the cause of this evil, and by attempting to reverse it, we engage in meaningful action.
What, then, of natural evil, which occurs independent of our actions? John Hick argues that the Divine’s chief purpose in creation comprises the moral and spiritual maturation of human beings. The universe represents a “vale of soul-making” in which natural evils necessarily exist to challenge and strengthen so that we develop into fully fledged, responsible moral beings (see Hick, 1966, pp.289-97). By combining Hick’s soul-making theodicy with Hefner’s notion of the created co-creator, we can produce an even more meaningful interpretation of natural evil. If we are to aid the Divine in consummating creation, we need to be aware of the problems facing us and we must possess the requisite skills to tackle those problems. The existence of disease enables us to hone our medical (curative and preventative) expertise; the occurrence of flood, hurricane, and earthquake allows us to improve our understanding of natural phenomena and to perfect our skills of prediction; crop failure and famine encourage us to employ more skilful agricultural techniques. Natural evil allows us to develop our skills--to increase our understanding and knowledge--and to apply those skills in morally responsible ways. Our development enables us to manage natural evil more effectively and, simultaneously, to contribute toward the Divine’s desire for consummation.
Perhaps the most common argument raised in support of divine purposive activity concentrates on evidence of design in the universe. Proponents of this experiential argument traditionally draw analogies between objects of human design and the universe and its parts. William Paley describes in his classic work, Natural Philosophy, finding a watch lying abandoned on the heath: “When we come to inspect the watch, we perceive…that its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose” (Paley, 1802, p.1). He later continues: “For every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature” (Paley, 1802, p.20). Paley applies his analysis to specific instances of “design” in the universe. The eye, he argues, like the telescope, represents a complex instrument created specifically for the purposes of sight. Just as we infer the existence of a (human) creator from the telescope, so we should infer the existence of a (divine) creator from the eye--only the Divine could have the volition and means to create such an organ.
With the advent of Darwin’s theory of evolution and its emphasis on random mutation and natural selection (as opposed to creation), support for the design argument waned. Lately, however, the issue arose again in the form of the anthropic principle, which concentrates on the origins of life. How do we explain the fact that our universe supports (is “fine tuned” for) the evolution of life? Immediately after the big bang, the ratio between the forces of contraction and the forces of expansion had to fall within a very narrow band in order that the universe neither instantly recollapse nor expand at a rate too fast for galaxy formation. John Leslie explains that: “Its rate of expansion at early instants needed to be fine tuned to perhaps one part in 1055 (which is 10 followed by 54 zeros)” (Leslie, 1989, p.3). The fundamental physical constants also demonstrate fine-tuning: had the weak and strong nuclear forces, electromagnetic force, or electron charge been minutely different, conditions would have proved unsuitable for the evolution of life. The fact that life has evolved--that such precise conditions have emerged--suggests to some that the Divine engineered our universe specifically for the appearance and evolution of living beings. Our universe stands testament to a Divine who possesses both purposes and creative abilities, they believe.
The Psychobiology of Fundamental Motivation
“Nearly everything important a human being wants can be reduced to one or more of these 15 core desires, most of which have a genetic basis. These desires are what guide our actions. In a sense, we are studying the meaning of life” (Patton, 1998, p.8). This is how psychologist Steven Reiss sums up his research (conducted with Susan M. Havercamp) on fundamental motivation.
The two researchers define a fundamental motive as “a universal end goal that accounts for psychologically significant behavior” (Reiss and Havercamp, 1998, p.98). By this they mean that fundamental motives induce drives in almost all people (universal) and that these drives encourage us to pursue extensive activities (psychologically significant behavior) for their own sake (end goals). Food, for example, comprises a fundamental motive since we all spend large amounts of time acquiring, preparing, and eating food. Drinking, though an end motive, is not a fundamental motive because we spend little time obtaining or preparing what we drink. Water induces little psychologically significant behavior.
Reiss and Havercamp’s aims are two-fold: (a) to identify humankind’s fundamental motives and (b) to highlight individual differences arising from these fundamental motives. They begin by compiling a list of terms referring to end purposes from psychological handbooks, studies, and articles. Then they conduct a series of experiments to measure individuals’ desire for, or aversion to, specific end purposes. They test subjects who can read and understand with ease using self-report inventories, and subjects suffering from mental retardation and developmental disabilities with informant-rating scales (completed by parents, caregivers, and teachers). Their subjects differ widely in age and come from diverse racial, educational, and geographic backgrounds. Typical test items include “I love to eat,” “sex is very important to me,” “I am happiest when I am physically active,” and “I love parties.” Using factor analysis (a statistical procedure for identifying clusters of test items that relate to, or fall under, more basic motives) on the results of both types of experiment (and confirmed by independent samples differing significantly in age, IQ, and presence of behavioral disorders), Reiss and Havercamp conclude that the following 15 fundamental motives drive human behavior: vengeance, family, order, curiosity, sex, physical exercise, social contact, social prestige, aversive sensations, rejection, food, honor, citizenship, power, and independence
Though these 15 motives appear universal, the results of the Reiss-Havercamp experiments indicate that different individuals pursue them to a greater or lesser degree. Sex motivates almost all of us, but not all of us enjoy sex to the same extent. Some people exhibit high sex drives, seeking out sexual relations often, whereas others remain content with having sex only occasionally. Similarly with aversive sensations. Nearly all of us dislike pain, yet some fear it more than others. Some people feel faint at the sight of a syringe, in mere anticipation of pain, whereas others exhibit high pain thresholds.
These results lead Reiss and Havercamp to propose a “cognitive-behavior-genetics model” of end motivation. Their findings coincide with what psychologists used to call the instinct model of human motivation--a model that claims an instinctual basis for certain human emotions. Desire for social contact represents an expression of the herd instinct, according to the instinct model, and desire for vengeance comprises an expression of the aggression instinct. Proponents of this model insist that such instincts vary across both cultures and individuals--cognition and experience lead to individual differences in instinct expression. As Reiss and Havercamp point out, this notion of an instinct corresponds to what psychologists today call a genetic disposition.
The instinct theorists identify an instinct as a motive that is (1) seen in all humans, (2) seen in some animals, and (3) thought to have survival value. Reiss and Havercamp claim that nearly all of their 15 fundamental motives (with the exception of citizenship and independence, perhaps) satisfy these three criteria. Hence the Reiss-Havercamp fundamental motives describe instincts or, in modern parlance, genetic dispositions. These fundamental motives proved their worth in evolutionary terms by aiding the survival of our ancestors. Natural selection has therefore ensured that we all inherit genes that code for the motives. They are a biologically rooted phenomenon.
This genetic model of end motivation enables Reiss and Havercamp to explain individual differences as well as universality. They propose that genetic variables lead individuals to inherit differing set points for each fundamental motive, which, in turn, influence their behavior and desire for that motive (Reiss and Havercamp, 1996, pp.626-27). People with high set points for social contact, for example, will require much more social stimulation to satisfy their desires than people with low set points for social contact.
Finally, Reiss and Havercamp believe that their research might serve as a basis for studying the relative contributions of genes and environment to fundamental motivation. “Using established research designs in behavioral genetics, it should be possible to…estimate the extent to which fundamental goals and sensitivities have genetic components” (Reiss and Havercamp, 1998, p.104).
Research in other areas supports the Reiss-Havercamp proposal that fundamental motives comprise genetically rooted dispositions.
Molecular biologist Dean Hamer argues that, for each of us, our happiness fluctuates within a small range--a set point--that our genes largely determine (see Hamer, 1996). Those with high set points for happiness enjoy life, have fun, and react to events positively, whereas those with low set points tend toward depression and have a negative outlook. Support for the genetic set point comes from comparative studies of identical twins (who share identical genes) and of fraternal twins (who share roughly 50% of their genes), as well as from psychological studies of individuals. This research indicates that our levels of happiness remain stable over many years. Twin studies also show that many other personality traits and related individual differences--including thrill seeking, anxiety, aggression, addiction, and shyness--are, to a greater or lesser extent, genetically rooted (see Hamer and Copeland, 1998). We might expect, therefore, that another prominent aspect of our personalities--the goals that fundamentally motivate our behavior--anchor in our genes. With the help of twin studies, behavioral geneticists should be able to indicate, as they have done with other traits, the percentage contributions of our genes and the environment to each of the 15 fundamental motives.
Further research is needed, as Reiss and Havercamp point out, to determine the extent to which our genes influence fundamental motives and our individual sensitivities to them. Evidence for biological rootedness already exists for one motive at least, social contact. Substantial work by Jaak Panksepp and colleagues indicates that brain opioids, oxytocin, and prolactin systems mediate both the tendency to form social bonds and the emotional effects of social loss (see, for example, Panksepp, Siviy, and Normansell, 1985; Knowles, Conner, and Panksepp, 1987; Panksepp, Nelson, and Bekkedal, 1997; and Nelson and Panksepp, 1998). They have demonstrated across a number of species, for example, that brain opioids are released during social grooming, that social interaction can reduce pain due to opioid release, and that both animals and humans become more keen to seek social interactions when researchers block their opioid receptors. With further work using animal models, Panksepp et al. hope to unravel fully the brain substrates (common to all mammals) that underlie the human systems of emotional attachment.
The tendency to live and work in social groups, to form early bonds with caregivers, and later to form friendships and intimate partnerships appear universal across the human species. Evolutionary psychology explains why. Social living means shared labor, resources, and information. Groups provide protection against external aggressors and they aid reproduction by providing a pool of potential mates. Proximity to a caregiver maximizes an infant’s chances of survival and one-to-one partnerships facilitate shared childrearing and emotional support (see, for example, Salter Ainsworth, 1989; Buss, 1990 and 1991; and Baumeister and Leary, 1995). Evolutionary psychologists believe that the behavior of social attachment evolved via natural selection because it produced survival advantages. They also assume that neurophysiological processes root this behavioral system. Universality and neurophysiological rooting together suggest that the behavioral system passes down the generations via our genes.
In his recent book, Darwinian Natural Right, Larry Arnhart proposes that: “There are at least 20 natural desires that are manifested in diverse ways in all human societies throughout history: a complete life, parental care, sexual identity, sexual mating, familial bonding, friendship, social ranking, justice as reciprocity, political rule, war, health, beauty, wealth, speech, practical habituation, practical reasoning, practical arts, aesthetic pleasure, religious understanding, and intellectual understanding” (Arnhart, 1998, p.29). (Note that our desire for religious understanding neither confirms nor disconfirms the existence of a god. Arnhart simply argues (p.250) that “religious longings for transcendent meanings express a natural desire to understand that can be explained as a purely natural outcome of natural evolutionary causes.”) Several of these desires mirror the Reiss-Havercamp fundamental motives. Arnhart explains that these desires represent general categories, each including many specific desires. He thereby achieves the same net result as Reiss and Havercamp’s factor analysis. Like Reiss and Havercamp, Arnhart insists that these desires root so deeply in human nature that they appear in some form in every human society throughout history. He also agrees that each natural desire admits of individual variation. “A few individuals might have little or no sex drive,” he says. “There is great fluctuation in sexual interest across the human life span” (Arnhart, 1998, p.31).
Arnhart gleans evidence for his proposals from various sources. Anthropological and biological research has uncovered hundreds of human universals, including Arnhart’s 20 desires. Sociology and psychology attest the universality of these desires. Further support comes from classic works of philosophy and literature (Arnhart, 1998, pp.29-30) and from common human experience. Evolutionary psychology suggests that natural selection shaped the pattern of our desires during the Paleolithic era, with human paleontology evidencing that parental care, for instance, played as central a role in the lives of our Paleolithic ancestors as it does for us today (Arnhart, 1998, p.30).
Arnhart’s list does
differ from the Reiss-Havercamp profile. He notes
five more desires than do Reiss and Havercamp and the
remaining 15 do not match exactly. However, Arnhart’s
method is less scientific than Reiss and Havercamp’s.
He does not use factor analysis for clustering desires. Perhaps some of the
desires he lists separately--sexual identity and sexual mating, for example, or
parental care and familial bonding--actually form one, more general desire--the
equivalent of Reiss and Havercamp’s Sex or
Science and Theology in Conflict?
According to theology, the Divine acts with a purpose--the Divine has plans for the universe and everything in it, including us. The Divine created and continues to sustain the universe with the purpose of consummating creation and providing a final redemption for humankind. The Divine intends that we play an active role in the consummation, enabling us, through the gift of freedom, to improve our universe as well as our practical and spiritual skills. As a result of participating in the divine plan, our lives acquire direction, purpose, and meaning.
According to science, purposes--fundamental motives or natural desires that prompt action--are universal, biologically rooted phenomena, seated in, and so transmitted to offspring through the genes.
A conflict can emerge. Providence and the theological concepts surrounding it relate, for some theologians and believers, to their assumption that the Divine, like ourselves, envisages the future, weighs up pros and cons, comes to a decision regarding the best course of action, and then proceeds with that decision or purpose in mind. For these believers, consummation and redemption are the purposes that drive the Divine to create, sustain, equip humans with freedom, and tolerate evil. Providence can paint a picture of a personal god. But how personal? How much like ourselves must this God be? If having a purpose is an evolved trait and depends on genes, perhaps this Divine must, like us, possess a biology. In the light of reflection on recent research about fundamental motivation, must this divinity possess genes that code for motives or purposes? Similar effects spring from similar causes, we assume.
At this point, the theologians will likely explain that of course the Divine does not possess genes--any more than the Divine possesses bones, lungs, kidneys, or neural circuitry. The Divine, after all, is a spiritual, not a physical, being and our attempts at describing divine hopes, motives, and actions amount to no more than analogies. In a bid to understand, we project. Yet the problem remains. The Judaeo-Christian tradition rests on the notion of a personal god who loves and so desires the best for creation, acting in accordance with that desire. Scripture plus the works of the early church fathers and most latter day theologians enfold this belief. How can we uphold this if we speak only analogically and fail to grant God the basis by which we humans have purposes?
If we claim that the Divine entertains and acts on purposes in a way similar to humans, we need to justify that claim, not just assume it without question. In addition, we must take on board new evidence--that purposes comprise genetic dispositions, for example--and use it to modify our claims. We might react to the Reiss-Havercamp proposal in several different ways. The connection of purposes with genes might lead us to drop the idea that the Divine possesses purposes (in the human sense) at all. In this case, we must ask what it really means to say that the Divine acts according to purposes. Can we produce a more adequate, less anthropocentric characterization? Or we might hold on to the notion that divine purposes in some way correspond to human purposes, in which case we must confront the genetic disposition issue. Do we, for instance, need to recast the Divine in a naturalistic rather than a spiritual light? What might the divine equivalent of a genetic predisposition look like?
Further, the activity of divine providence imparts meaning to our lives, many theologians believe. Our contribution to the divine plan guarantees that we live for a larger goal, that our actions matter, and that we will share in the final redemption and new creation. If the notion of divine purpose teeters, does the religious meaning of life topple along with it? Does the absence of divine purpose render our lives meaningless? Not necessarily, for life’s meaning can arise from other sources. Our lives could become more meaningful without a divine plan. We must learn to handle and solve our problems for ourselves. We must learn without divine aid to separate morally responsible from morally irresponsible behavior. In the possible absence of future redemption, our responsibilities become heavier. We may have only one chance to get it right, to act thoughtfully and compassionately, to fulfill our moral obligations toward others, and to leave a cleaner environment for future generations.
A theological reading of the Reiss-Havercamp hypothesis casts doubt on the idea that meaningfulness in life is a spiritual property that comes to us unmediated from the Divine. Instead, their theory of fundamental motivation can suggest that meaning might come from behavior prompted by our intrinsic natures, by our genes. If meaning originates in our biology and arises from genetically driven actions, then we must ensure that our behavior merits the label “meaningful.” The onus is on us alone.
We can reasonably expect more evidence to emerge in support of the Reiss-Havercamp cognitive-behavior-genetics model of fundamental motivation. Independent evidence already confirms aspects of the model, while other research indicates a genetic component for many behavioral traits. Theologians and philosophers of religion need to familiarize themselves with this work, since it can cut deep into many orthodox beliefs. They should not consider these findings a threat. On the contrary, they should take them in the spirit of an exciting challenge, one that can pave the way toward an invigorating and fruitful dialogue between science and religion.
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To appear in the European Society for the Study of Science and Theology 1998, Studies in Science and Theology. Copyright © 1999 by Kevin Sharpe.