Paul Bloom debunks the “Moral Law argument for God”

I’ve just finished reading Paul Bloom’s short book, Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil, which was published last November by Crown Publishing. Bloom, who works at Yale, is a well-known psychologist, specializing in the development of morality—especially in infants. I recommend his book, especially if you’re interested in how much of human morality is hard-wired versus learned (and, of course, both factors can and certainly are involved).

One of the reasons I liked the book is because it deals frankly with the contention of some religious people that the “innate moral sense” of humans, especially our altruism—which is unique in the animal kingdom—could not be a result of either evolution or culture, and therefore must have been bequeathed us by God.  This is in fact a common argument of Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, and a man who should know better.  It’s also been made by Dinesh d’Souza. Both are quoted in a very nice new article by Bloom in The New Republic, “Did God Make These Babies Moral? Intelligent Design’s oldest attack on evolution is as popular as ever.” If you don’t have the time or dosh to read Bloom’s book, the article is a good summary of its findings. It is a Professor Ceiling Cat Recommendation.

Before we get to Bloom’s findings, what is the “moral law argument”? It’s simply this: human altruism can’t be explained by any kind of evolution. What I mean is pure altruism, whereby an animal helps another animal not only unrelated to it, but not part of its social group, and helps in such a way that it sacrifices its own reproductive potential without getting anything back.  It’s unrequited altruism. That kind of behavior simply can’t evolve, at least by natural selection, because it reduces the fitness of the performer.

And indeed, I am aware of no cases of pure altruism in the animal kingdom—outside of our own species. I suppose people could argue whether humans really do show pure altruism. We could argue, for instance, that doing selfless acts actually enhances your reputation and hence your reproduction. Still, the case of the soldier who throws himself on a grenade to save his comarades, or of volunteer firefighters who risk their lives without pay, or, indeed, religionists like Father Damien in Hawaii who contracted leprosy and died while ministering to confined lepers—those cases look to me like pure altruism.

If this kind of behavior cannot result from natural selection, then, says Collins and d’Souza, God must have given it to us. Surprisingly, religionists find this argument pretty convincing. But they’re leaving out the one factor that Bloom claims is responsible for altruism: culture. In other words, he says, we’re taught to be altruistic.

And the evidence supports him.  The evidence is this—a list of traits that very young infants show, presumably before they have a chance to be socialized (they can’t speak or understand much at the ages when they’re tested):

  • moral judgment: some capacity to distinguish between kind and cruel actions.
  • empathy and compassion: suffering at the pain of those around us and wishing to make this pain go away.
  • a rudimentary sense of fairness: a tendency to favor those who divide resources equally, and, by the second year of life, an exquisite sensitivity to situations in which one is getting less than someone else.
  • a rudimentary sense of justice: a desire to see good actions rewarded and bad actions punished.

Those traits are all seen in rudimentary forms in other species—not just primates but in animals like dogs. Given that, it’s entirely possible that these traits are largely evolved in humans, with their expression perhaps enhanced by culture—our being socialized into being altruistic.

What other creatures don’t show, as Bloom recounts in this piece and in his book, is concern for others at their own expense. The empathy that seems inherent in “human nature” is directed only towards those the infants are familiar with, like family. It is not directed at strangers. In fact, infants are spiteful little things, and do not like even equality with strangers. They will, for example, prefer to have one cookie while another infant nearby gets none, over the alternative where both infants get two cookies. In other words, infants sacrifice their own well-being just to affirm their superiority in the acquisition of goods.  Several other studies show the same thing.  Infants are empathic but not altruistic.

Bloom argues, then, that the altruism comes from education, an argument also made by Peter Singer in his superb book The Expanding Circle. I quote Bloom:

And so there is no support for the view that a transcendent moral kindness is part of our nature. Now, I don’t doubt that many adults, in the here and now, are capable of agape.

. . . When you bring together these observations about adults with the findings from babies and young children, the conclusion is clear: We have an enhanced morality but it is the product of culture, not biology. Indeed, there might be little difference in the moral life of a human baby and a chimpanzee; we are creatures of Charles Darwin, not C.S. Lewis.

So much for the Moral Law as proof of God.  Notice that we haven’t disproven that God gave us altruism, but we have a plausible alternative theory that is more parsimonious, particularly in view of the data from other mammals. Remember that God was invoked by Collins and d’Souza because they couldn’t think of an alternative scientific explanation.

I have only one quibble with Bloom’s article, and it’s inconsequential. He argues that it is indeed possible to get direct evidence that God gave us altruism. We could, for instance, find some “altruism gene” that shows signs of being inserted into our genome by God. Now I don’t know what such a gene would look like, and Bloom doesn’t tell us, but presumably it would be found only in humans and bear no signs of relationship to genes in other species. In other words, its DNA sequence would be sui generis. Alternatively, says Bloom, humans could have parts of the brain that act to produce altruistic acts—parts that other species don’t have.

We haven’t seen any evidence for such genes or brain parts, of course, but were I a theologian I would defend the God Hypothesis by raising two objections.  The first is that well, maybe God didn’t give us altruism by giving us “unselfish genes” or “altruistic brain modules,” but simply rewired our brains in a way that facilitates altruism. We wouldn’t know that from the kinds of observations Bloom suggests.  But, ultimately, we may understand those pathways, and dollars to donuts they’ll show that the altruistic rejiggering is caused by environmental influences: learning.

The other argument a face-saving theologian could make is that well, babies don’t need to be altruistic, and God arranged it so that our divinely-bestowed altruism would show up only when we were old enough to use it: as, say, five- or six-year-olds.  But that doesn’t explain why the other “moral” traits listed above, like empathy and a sense of fairness, do show up at very young ages, like two, also before they’re needed.  And presumably you could test that, too, although the tests are verboten: isolate children from all moral instruction and see if they spontaneously become altruistic, without any teaching, later than they evince other inherent signs of morality.

But we already have enough data to suggest that the God Hypothesis is wrong, and the data show that if altruism is innate, it doesn’t appear until children are taught to be altruistic, while other moral virtues—the one seen in nascent form in our relatives—show up largely without instruction.

At any rate, I highly recommend Bloom’s piece (and his book, if you have time)—it’s a good palliative for one of the most popular arguments of what I call the New Natural Theology: the argument that we’re nice to strangers because God made us that way.


  1. Cara
    Posted January 31, 2014 at 12:32 pm | Permalink


    • Jesper Both Pedersen
      Posted January 31, 2014 at 1:17 pm | Permalink


  2. Richard Olson
    Posted January 31, 2014 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    Para 5: ‘If this kind of behavior cannot result from natural selection, then, says Collins and d’Souza, God must have given it to us. Surprisingly, religionists find this argument pretty convincing.’

    Not surprisingly, instead, perhaps?

    • Posted January 31, 2014 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

      It seems to me that altruism could easily emerge as an expression of other traits that arise by natural selection, as listed in the article, especially in a species capable of abstract thought.

      • Posted January 31, 2014 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

        [...] especially in a species capable of abstract thought.

        Well, that rules out Christians and Muslims, at the least.


      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted January 31, 2014 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

        I suspect it has a lot to do with brain development and that it makes sense to be a nasty little munchkin when you’re a kid. I still remember lacking empathy as a child. Two things come to mind. As a 3 year old, I was playing with a girl and I was curious as to what she would look like if she cried, so I punched her one. I think my mom was horrified when she asked me why I did it & I told her that stark fact.

        Another was when I was in grade 3. A boy cut himself on the glass of a window during lunch. There was blood everywhere and we all just kept eating.

        As I got older, I gained more empathy and now I feel bad for everyone and everything, including insects (even the biting ones).

        So, it would stand to reason that empathy and altruism develop together somehow.

        • Mark Joseph
          Posted February 1, 2014 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

          Mostly agreed–but not the roaches.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted February 1, 2014 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

            Aw, poor roaches. :)

      • Kevin Alexander
        Posted February 1, 2014 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

        Altruism can also be predicted as a malfunction of the nurturing response
        What makes us or any other animal respond to a cute face or signs of distress in another? Instinctive behaviour works by stimulus and response. You don’t need abstract thought, you don’t need though at all for it to work.
        A gene* that produces a parental response only to one’s own offspring would have to be more complex than one that would respond to any cute face since it would also require the ability to distinguish one’s own offspring and one’s own genes from a stranger’s.
        In other words, there is no need to evolve altruism, it’s an inevitable result of genes for a nurturing behaviour.

        *Yes,I know I’m using this term in the popular sense.

  3. dunnfjfrancis
    Posted January 31, 2014 at 12:41 pm | Permalink


    • peltonrandy
      Posted January 31, 2014 at 1:45 pm | Permalink


  4. gbjames
    Posted January 31, 2014 at 12:43 pm | Permalink


    “…prefer to have one cookie while another infant nearby gets one none“?

  5. Taskin
    Posted January 31, 2014 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    A little typo
    “…prefer to have one cookie while another infant nearby gets one”
    I suspect the nearby infant gets none

  6. NoAstronomer
    Posted January 31, 2014 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    ” our altruism—which is unique in the animal kingdom”

    Altruism is not unique to humans. It’s somewhat rare elsewhere, probably because most other species are engaged in a daily life-or-death struggle, but it does happen.


    • Posted January 31, 2014 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

      There are, indeed, for example, credible reports of mother cats repeatedly returning to a burning building to rescue their kittens, singeing their own fur in the process. That’s certainly an act of altruism, though one easily predicted by Darwinian evolution.

      What we see with humans is that the definition of “family” is much more expansive, to the point that it can cross even huge leaps of species boundaries. Indeed, it’s not even hard to imagine it applying to robots or aliens; witness all the examples to that effect in science fiction. How many humans on board the USS Enterprise would have thrown themselves on a grenade for Data or for Worf? All of them, I should think — or, at least, as readily as any of them would for any of the other humans.

      As such, I don’t see the “moral law argument” as being all that impressive. There are powerful Darwinistic drivers forcing moral instincts, and even more powerful socioeconomic drivers forcing more sophisticated moral behavior. Simply, without modern morality, we would not have modern societies with their scientifically-fuelled wealth. Societies without such morality — witness Somalia and the Taleban — can’t even begin to compete with modern moral societies. And breakdowns in morality (aka, “corruption”) are almost instinctually tied to breakdowns in society.

      What would be real evidence of a miracle would be an immoral society that could outcompete a moral one. But the current state of affairs is about as remarkable as the fact that spraying things with water makes them wet.



      • Sastra
        Posted January 31, 2014 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

        What would be real evidence of a miracle would be an immoral society that could outcompete a moral one.

        One of the big problems with this ‘miracle’ would be how we distinguish a ‘moral’ society from an ‘immoral’ one. After all, nobody thinks they’re the Bad Guys (unless they’re stupid enough to have put skulls on their helmets, of course.) Many cultures we consider ‘immoral’ are actually rigorously moral in the sense of having strict rules, strict discipline, and a strict sense of right and wrong which when violated is met with strict consequences.

        When Christians cite totalitarian regimes like the Nazis and Stalinist Soviets as examples of the “anything goes” mentality of not having God, aside from the arguments re whether these were really atheist regimes or no, there is the bizarre claim that describes these rigid, authoritarian systems as “anything goes” — as if they were laid-back hippie communes.

        • Posted January 31, 2014 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

          That’s an excellent point, and why I define my own view of morality in Darwinian terms — as an effective strategy (in the sense used by Game Theory) for an individual to thrive.

          You can easily come up with pathological examples of dictators who don’t die at the end of a rope or mass murderers who never get caught, but such examples are as irrelevant to the big-picture view of morality as Andre the Giant was to the big-picture view of human physiological evolution. In the real world, your odds of personally succeeding at whatever it is that you might desire to succeed at are vastly improved by being a moral, upstanding citizen who doesn’t go around raping and murdering and thieving at the drop of an hat. More sophisticated and nuanced points of morality easily follow from this basic principle; you’re more likely to enjoy your own vacation if you can trust your neighbor to do a good job at looking after your home while you’re gone, so it’s also in your own best interests to reciprocate and be diligent about picking up the mail for your neighbor when she’s away, too.

          The odds, of course, are no more a guarantee with morality than elsewhere; however, for some bizarre reason, people who wouldn’t think to play Russian Roulette despite an 83% chance of survival love to leap on the one-in-billions sociopathic dictator as some sort of “gotcha!” justification for why my view of morality is invalidated. I strongly suspect at least residual desire for some form of absolutist divine command theory explains most of the complainants.



          • Posted January 31, 2014 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

            This line of argument with Mao, Uncle Joe, Pol and Dolph Baby is curious in that history seems to begin Nov 12, 1918. If people are gonna cherry-pick their Holey Books, history is fair game for the same treatment.

            I saw a show on PBS I think, aboot experimenting with the abilities of rats.

            They put a rat in a cage with a locked cylinder of kibble. The tube was transparent and had holes to stimulate the rat. It opened a reasonably complex lock in good time.

            Then another rat in a cage with two clear, holey and locked tubes. One with an amount of food which was less than what is typically and easily eaten in one setting by one rat.

            The other tube had an unrelated and unknown rat locked inside.

            Surprise, surprise, surprise. The subject rat opened the food first and ate most of the food, then it unlocked the trapped rat which ate the rest.

            It was somewhat unexpected.

            • Posted January 31, 2014 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

              as an aside, I didn’t embed the video by highlighting the address as displayed in that field near the top of the browser (under tabs in Firefox) and Ctrl-C (followed by Ctrl-V in the appropriate spot in the link) – not right clicking the video and choosing from the menu. It is esay to grab the embed code that way.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted January 31, 2014 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

            I’m wondering if you could be an immoral society that has rules. This would turn out to be more a cold society that works on pure logic (Hal 9000 anyone?). Immoral people would not want to suffer consequences so rules would be the only thing that would stop self annihilation.

            • Posted January 31, 2014 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

              It might be a mathematical possibility, but I can’t see how something like that could originally evolve or be sustainable in the long term.

              Remember, all it takes is for a small number to collude in such a way that they don’t do horrific things to each other and instead pool their resources for said minority to outcompete the majority.

              Of course, it’s entirely possible for one subgroup to dominate another to the detriment of those being dominated, and even for the dominant group to forcefully impose rules on the minority detrimental to the minority. Human history is rife with such examples, including the 1% today. Even still, we see that, if it’s in the power of the oppressed majority to overthrow the powerful minority, such inevitably happens to the tragic end of the minority. See the French Revolution for the textbook example, but with countless others throughout history. That’s why we’ve seen a steady evolution away from such concentrations of power, though clearly it’s a disease that’s come roaring back in the past few decades. I’ve no clue how we’re supposed to eradicate it for good.



              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted January 31, 2014 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

                I suspect it wouldn’t be sustainable in the long term because if you look at game theory, they’d inevitably play tit for tat until someone defected and there would be an all out war. Or, there would be so many schemes to do things without getting caught, that the rules would no longer matter.

              • Posted January 31, 2014 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

                Exactly. And that’s the same problem as with so many utopias, such as Communism or Capitalism; the models are too simplistic. Even if you have a way to impose such “simple and elegant” rules upon society, real-world variation and imperfections, coupled with deep time, are inevitably going to result in one of the strange attractors catching hold.

                Unfortunately, one of those strange attractors seems to be imperial conquest followed by authoritarian rule by a powerful elite followed by corruption and scandal followed by revolution and upheaval. And we are, right now, on the last steps before “revolution and upheaval,” with the potential to be as dramatic as any in all of human history. A few dozen individuals own half the world’s wealth; the NSA is technologically capable on a scale unimaginable by any previous secret police and its head openly admits to openly lying under oath to the civilian leadership and yet remains untouchable; and the executive and the secret courts retain their power to convict and kidnap and murder anybody they wish without even the pretense of independent review. Pick the driving forces behind any one of the world’s previous revolutions, and it’s at play once again, writ large.

                …but I digress….


              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted January 31, 2014 at 9:29 pm | Permalink

                I also think those ideals don’t always appeal to human behaviour. Communism doesn’t allow for selfishness and Capitalism allows for too much selfishness so you need to regulate it but too much regulation screws it up. It’s a fine balance.

              • Posted February 1, 2014 at 11:38 am | Permalink

                What they’re all missing, and what almost all moral systems are missing, is a positive answer to the question, “What’s in it for me?” Instead, individuals are expected to sacrifice their own interests for some vague “greater good” that instead turns out to be just a few pigs who’re more equal than the others.

                Give people a valid, verifiable reason why buying into your scheme benefits them personally and is a good value for their investment, and you’ve got a winner. Platitudes of noble philosophical principles might get people excited for a while, but that sort of thing isn’t sustainable.



              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted February 1, 2014 at 11:42 am | Permalink

                Yes, I agree. It’s time to acknowledge the inherent selfishness of humans and stop trying to suppress it as a undesirable thing.

              • Posted February 1, 2014 at 11:52 am | Permalink

                Selfishness isn’t the problem. Indeed, a significant level of selfishness is essential; if you’re not going to look out for yourself, who will?

                The problem is those who pursue their own interests at the expense of others.

                You’re selfish enough to want a nice little cabin in the woods, and you’re willing to put in the hard work to build it? Fantastic! But don’t run your sewage line into the creek that pollutes everything downstream of you.



            • Pali
              Posted February 1, 2014 at 2:19 am | Permalink

              The ideas regarding Sith societies from the Star Wars Expanded Universe would actually fit in here fairly well, though without the Force being a real thing the philosophical justifications for such societies tend to fall apart. ;)

              As a small example: Sith apprentices in an academy are forbidden from killing each other. It is fully understood that they will still kill each other as they compete for prestige/power/etc., but the real test is managing to do so without getting caught – the idea being to cull from the ranks both the weak and the unintelligent so that only the best apprentices remain to actually become Sith.

              Fiction. Everything works there. ;)

              • Posted February 1, 2014 at 11:45 am | Permalink

                Even with that example…given more time, the Sith who’d be most successful would be the ones to ally with one another to pool their resources with a reliable non-aggression pact. By not having to worry about whether or not their allies are going to stab them in the back, they’ll be able to more effectively pursue their other goals — and they’ll also have the assistance of those allies; all that in exchange for not stabbing their allies in the back and helping them out with their own (often overlapping) goals. That’s a pretty good bargain.

                These new, kindler and gentler Sith will overtake the old, treacherous Sith. They may well be that much of a worse threat to the non-Sith…but, again. Once they make an alliance with some non-Sith, both sides benefit. If the Sith turn treacherous on their non-Sith allies, we’re right back where we started with inter-Sith factions, with the same pattern playing itself out at a larger scale.

                It may well take some very, very deep time, but the long-term advantage is always going to go to those who cooperate rather than those in conflict. Even if the social landscape leading to the cooperative society is as littered with the fossils of extinct societies as the geological landscape is littered with the fossils of extinct species.



              • Pali
                Posted February 1, 2014 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

                All true. Ironically, in various books a number of Sith explicitly recognize that fact as the reason they always lose to the Jedi in the long run. ;)

              • Posted February 3, 2014 at 10:59 am | Permalink

                I dare say the operative word in a lot of this is *society*. We have to live together, so we fix things so that we can. (Notice the non-propositional nature of this: I’m mulling over _The Ethical Project, by Kitcher) …

        • Peter Ozzie Jones
          Posted January 31, 2014 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

          Cue the UK comedic duo of Mitchell&Webb sketch, avail on the Tube:

          “Are we the baddies”, funny Nazi sketch.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted January 31, 2014 at 9:35 pm | Permalink

            I think “Are We The Baddies” has become part of the WEIT culture. We always seem to find a way to reference it at some point. It seems to have a lot of relevance for all of us.

      • Posted January 31, 2014 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

        There are, I think, different uses of the term ‘altruism’. One can be the softer version that you are using with the mother cat rescuing her kittens. But of course the kittehs bear her genes, so her action does have a benefit for the mother since this secures the continuity of her genes.
        A harder form of altruism is where one performs a self-sacrifice for a non-relative that also creates harm for ones own future. Dropping onto a live grenade to save your buddies in a trench would be an example.

        • NoAstronomer
          Posted January 31, 2014 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

          Since grenades use is limited to humans I don’t thinks it’s reasonable to say that other animals aren’t altruistic because they don’t throw themselves on them very often.


          (not criticizing, this just like a place to make the point)

        • Posted January 31, 2014 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

          But that’s just it.

          Her own kittens share most of her genome, of course; but all cats, statistically, have almost exactly the same genome. And, again statistically, you and I share the overwhelming majority of that genome with not just every cat but every mammal, and indeed with every tetrapod, and significant amounts with everything alive.

          Those almost-indistinguishable differences between individuals and species and families are very significant, of course, both in terms of morphology and evolution. But every form of self-sacrifice, if successful, does act to preserve huge swaths of your own genome in others, even if the ancestors you share with the others you saved lived hundreds of millions of years ago.



          • Posted January 31, 2014 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

            What you are describing here is ‘group selection’, where the gene pool of a group includes genes for some form of altruistic behavior for group members. This idea has many critics, for example it often looks just like kin selection, but I do not have the chops to argue on one or the other about it for very long.
            I do reject outright that group selection extends beyond a species. There is ~ no horizontal gene flow to keep that up, so this can not be true. Horizontal gene flow is not even significant in bacteria over the short term.

            • Posted January 31, 2014 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

              First, of course, there’s no horizontal gene transfer between humans and cats, or cats and ducks, or whatever.

              But, at the same time, I think it’s quite clear that our deep ancestors had evolutionary-derived traits from which our modern altruism is derived, and that those traits were not specific enough to discriminate amongst species.

              Thus, the complex of genes preserving altruism is, to an extent, preserving itself across species barriers.

              Whatever it is that makes you want to rescue somebody else’s crying child from the onrushing wildebeest stampede also makes you want to rescue that crying kitten from the bottom of the well, and whatever it is that makes a cat willing to nurse another cat’s kittens also makes her willing to nurse ducklings.

              At that point, I don’t think that the ability (in these particular examples) for the surrogate parent to breed with the adopted child really enters the picture, any more than any parent’s ability to breed with its own offspring ever does.



      • NoAstronomer
        Posted January 31, 2014 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

        Thank you for that link.

        The video that always sticks in my mind is the sight of an Orca pushing a floundering baby seal up the beach.


        • stuartcoyle
          Posted January 31, 2014 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

          The orca just wants the seal to grow bigger so he can eat it later.

          • Filippo
            Posted January 31, 2014 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

            That’s mighty capitalist of him.

  7. Andrew B.
    Posted January 31, 2014 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    Doesn’t it just seem that most arguments these days just boil down to the God of the Gaps? Isn’t that just pathetic?

    • Kevin
      Posted January 31, 2014 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

      Even worse is that if any agrument proves the existence of a god, what then? What does it mean. So what if God’s existence is proved by some moral agrument. How does it set straight all other epistemological vacancies a deity leaves behind? Not a theistic God, they are puny and apocryphal. And a Deist God? What delineates it from just the universe? We have had no set of humans who are specialized as to figure out what any God’s intenstions are or why we should care.

      • Sastra
        Posted January 31, 2014 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

        If God’s existence is proved by the moral argument then I think this is a rather significant change from an uncaring cosmos which reduces to nonmoral components. At a fundamental level, reality is inherently moral. At the very least, that strongly suggests some sort of karmic law in which ‘goodness’ or ‘fairness’ have as much force as gravity does. It also places human concerns at the center of existence.

        • Posted January 31, 2014 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

          On the other hand, I can imagine a cosmos where God exists and human concerns are not the centre of existence. The God that might be proven is not necessarily the God that the religious hope for.

          • Sastra
            Posted January 31, 2014 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

            I can imagine such a god as well, but it wouldn’t be indicated here. If our best and highest enhanced morality is deemed to be legitimate evidence for God, then we’d be dealing with a god which fits that evidence: a highly loving, altruistic god. It must share our sense of right and wrong because that’s where we got it from.

            So it couldn’t be a version of god which cares little or nothing for us. After all, that would be too mean.

        • Marella
          Posted January 31, 2014 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

          You’re assuming “God” however defined, cares. A God being could easily have created the universe for its own purposes having nothing whatsoever to do with us. Just showing that a God exists goes nowhere towards explaining its motives or interests. There is no evidence of any gods, but plenty of evidence that if such beings exist they don’t give a rat’s patoot about us.

          • Posted January 31, 2014 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

            To be fair, “Is passionately interested in human affairs,” is an essential definitional element of all gods actually worshipped by humans.

            Sure, the Deist god of the Enlightenment didn’t give a flying fuck how you flew or whom you fucked, but nobody actually worshipped that god or any of the variations on that theme.

            But the gods that actual people actually care about all actually care about humans.



            • Sastra
              Posted January 31, 2014 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

              The Deist God of the Enlightenment was much more personal than the sort of stripped down Thought Experiment you find in Deists today. The 18th century rationalists would talk about how God “smiled” with approval upon the reasonable affairs of humanity and would be “angered” by slavery and the like.

              It didn’t interfere in Nature, but it apparently looked down on earthly events sort of like a fond father keeping track on how you were doing at boarding school.

              • Posted January 31, 2014 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

                Your reporting of the verbiage used is certainly accurate, but I always got the overwhelming impression that any such personal attention was entirely metaphorical. Remember that Spinoza was quite influential on Enlightenment concepts of Deism, and Spinoza was as close as one could come to being an atheist without actually being one.

                Rather, I would see such language then as we today would say, “Fortune favors the bold,” or “Fate smiled upon them.” Nobody who says such a thing thinks that Fortuna is actually playing favorites, or that Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos had smiles upon their faces as they worked their loom.

                I could, of course, be mistraken, but I was unaware that the well-known Deists of the Enlightenment literally thought of their “God” god as being in any way personal or actively interested or intervening in the affairs of humans.



              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted January 31, 2014 at 9:33 pm | Permalink

                Yes, me too. The watchmaker god.

              • Filippo
                Posted February 1, 2014 at 7:20 am | Permalink

                If I correctly recall, deists would not infrequently use appellations like “Providence” or “Divine Providence,” and “The Author of the Universe” re: Jefferson). My perception is that “providing” connotes some (at least nominal) personal interest in a particular subset of “Creation,” humanity.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted January 31, 2014 at 9:31 pm | Permalink

                I think those deists were faux deists. Deists of the early 19th C believed in the clockwork universe run by a watchmaker god who set the thing in motion, then buggered off.

          • Sastra
            Posted January 31, 2014 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

            As mentioned above, we’d have to assume God cares about us in this case because it left the evidence of its altruistic character in our natures.

            I guess a possible alternative which could conceivably still fit the evidence might be a psychopathic sadistic god which gave us altruistic natures only in order to feel even more pleasure when it screws with us — but that seems unnecessarily complicated. That one stretches too far to sound plausible even to my atheist ears … and a Christian would just throw up their hands.

            • Posted January 31, 2014 at 10:59 pm | Permalink

              Yes – but it is more plausible than an omni-benevolent god and solves the problem of theodicy.

              The Church of God the Sadistic Joker, it’s more rational than Christianity.

              • Posted February 3, 2014 at 11:06 am | Permalink

                Or there’s the Inuit version of Raven, who is not a god, but one could imagine (with the usual provisos about “universe” vs. “hubble volume” ignored) one that is like that. I.e., a creature who always brings about something good from some horrible mishap. For example, burning down a forest after stealing fire and dropping it, just as a cold snap arose and allowed the people to use all the extra heat.

    • Sastra
      Posted January 31, 2014 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

      It’s particularly pathetic because the apologists are criticizing scientific fields for not being detailed and thorough enough — but on their side they don’t even need a minimum of detail or bare wisp of an idea of how anything works. It’s what Daniel Dennett calls “playing tennis without a net.”

      Against natural selection, kin theory, genes, and all the hypotheses of evolutionary biology they’ve got — “God gave altruism to us.”

      How does that work? Let’s look and see.

      Well, God is a Being who is altruistic by inherent nature. It just is, for no reason. It’s made out of altruism — wait, no, it isn’t made out of anything. Scrap that. God’s essential nature is altruism, which it has always been even though it didn’t evolve in a group and there are no others it interacted with till it made us. Look, this is the story, okay? God is not like us. We don’t need no stinkin’ explanations. It is what it is. “Love.” Now curl up and smile.

      And then — as the next step (step #2) — wegot altruistic because it granted us altruism. Gave it to us. Impressed it. Fine, the term doesn’t matter — just think of it as being like a gift. Metaphorically. The process isn’t important. Hell, there was no “process.” If you’re looking for the mechanism through which God works then oh, baby, do YOU misunderstand how God works. “Mechanism.” There’s nothing mechanical, it’s a spiritual gift, and works like we see spiritual gifts working all around us. Except we don’t see that but it’s okay. You get the gist.

      Picky, picky, picky. “God gave altruism to us” is enough for anyone who isn’t looking for an excuse.

      But your side — needs to show every single step of your work in excruciating scientific detail or it’s simply not satisfying enough to compete. ‘Cuz we’ve got the BEST explanation!

      Pathetic indeed.

    • stuartcoyle
      Posted January 31, 2014 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

      It does seem to be a god of the gaps argument.

      “Altruism is not explained by evolution therefore goddidit.”

      “Altruism is not explained by evolution therefore karma.”

      “Altruism is not explained by evolution therefore Flying Spaghetti Monster.”

      These are all equivalent arguments.

      Why do deists expect evolution to explain everything? I suspect that they are used to having one idea to explain everything, and therefore think that science is like that too.

      It is interesting to compare this to the other post about the Science/Humanities poster. The study of culture can quite possibly explain true altruism in a way that biology cannot.

  8. Sean
    Posted January 31, 2014 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    I particular dislike Dinesh d’Souza.

    Literally lecturing about morality, yet he is blatantly intellectually dishonest. Often making arguments that are counter to even the premise of the books he has written!

    And now it has come out that he is not only intellectually dishonest, but a probably a criminal as well.

    What a looser.

    • Sean
      Posted January 31, 2014 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

      I apologize for the grammar and spelling in that post! (darn cell phones!)

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted January 31, 2014 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

        Yeah but “looser” was funny because he was a bit “loose”.

    • Filippo
      Posted January 31, 2014 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

      Dinesh “When In Doubt, Shout!” D’Souza.

  9. Posted January 31, 2014 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    “It’s unrequited altruism. That kind of behavior simply can’t evolve, at least by natural selection, because it reduces the fitness of the performer.”

    I can think of a scenario to explain unrequited altruism; if altruism were like sickle cell disease, ie a recessive allele, then those with two copies of an altruistic gene could be unrequitedly altruistic all day long. The allele would survive and thrive in the heterozygotes who would either be not altruistic or semi-altruistic depending on resource availability and would be bolstered by having true altruists in their midst.

    • Sastra
      Posted January 31, 2014 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

      I can think of another scenario to explain unrequited altruism: there being no hard and fast rule on the individual level for who is “in” your family or tribe … and who is not. If you believe “all men are my brothers and all women are my sisters,” then kin selection kicks in. How the heck would your genes “know” or “care” that you got it …. “wrong?”

      • Posted January 31, 2014 at 1:52 pm | Permalink


        Now, remember Dawkin’s gene-centric view of evolution, and remember that you share a large percentage of your genes with a redwood tree. When you help protect that forest, you’re actually, in a very real sense, working to protect a significant part of your very own genome. Those trees are your cousins, after all, and unquestionably so. Whatever innate imperative you might have for helping your mother’s sister’s daughter applies equally well in principle, even if quite diluted, to the tree. (Or, at least, the forest as an whole.)



        • Posted January 31, 2014 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

          Yes… and protecting your unrelated fellows of the same tribe should benefit your genetic relatives in that tribe. Continuity and stability of the tribe and its culture ensures longevity of the tribe and culture and the very real people ‘in’ it.

        • Posted January 31, 2014 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

          “Whatever innate imperative you might have for helping your mother’s sister’s daughter applies equally well in principle, even if quite diluted, to the tree.”

          A gene for altruism will be favored by natural selection under the conditions given by Hamilton’s rule. This does not apply for gene’s that DON’T influence social behavior.

          So unless you and the tree share a copy of that altruistic gene, there would be no evolutionary reason for you to behave altruistically too it, even if you share a large proportion of genes overall.

          “Inclusive fitness theory pertains to the evolutionary emergence of genes, and it
          pertains principally to genes underlying behaviors that influence other individuals.
          Although it may be handy to assume that individual organisms generally act in ways that maximize their inclusive fitness, inclusive fitness is not a property of individuals—it represents the cumulative effects of genes that underlie specific behaviors (see Tooby and
          Cosmides, 1989).

          “Nor does inclusive fitness theory imply that all genes under all circumstances are driven to maximize copies of themselves at the expense of non-copies. As a thought experiment, imagine a population of organisms in which no single gene in these organisms’ bodies codes for behavior that influences other organisms (a scenario that must have existed at some point in the past). In such a state, the mere fact that two closely related individuals happen to “share genes” isn’t enough to engender altruistic behavior. Any two genes, replica or not, are “selfish” competitors for limited resources(Dawkins, 1976).”

          • Posted January 31, 2014 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

            I’d agree with you if it was as simple as a single gene, but I think it’s overwhelmingly obvious that it’s much more complex than that.

            Consider that almost all tetrapod (and especially mammalian) young are considered “cute.” Humans at least are hard-wired to feel protective towards organisms with infantile features, and the genes that cause the expression of those features in young animals are nearly universal. When you rescue a kitten from a well, you’re in a very real sense saving your own copy of the gene for infants with eyes disproportionately larger than the skull than in adulthood.

            This type of altruism is clearly shared across species. Look to the cats who just birthed kittens who will adopt juveniles of various other (prey) species from squirrels to ducks but who would instead eat adults of that same species.

            Then, when you introduce intelligence and DNA sequencing into the mix, you wind up with the environmental movement that is explicitly interested in preserving global biodiversity. It’s literally impossible to get more altruistic than that.



      • Posted January 31, 2014 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

        Natural selection would eventually weed out those who get their relations with non-kin “wrong.” In other words for kin selection to work you have to be able to distinguish kin from non-kin; while it is uncertain whether animals can distinguish the two, it seems to work so long as you act altruistically close to home where kin are likely to be. I’m not sure how you would explain cross species altruism or the rampant altruism in humans across countries and continents.

        • Joe Dickinson
          Posted January 31, 2014 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

          I disagree that you have to distinguish kin from non-kin. As I argue in another comment, it should be sufficient that, under the circumstances (particularly population structure) prevailing when and where the altruistic behavior evolved made it likely that randomly bestowed acts of kindness had a reasonable chance of benefitting kin. Indeed, some good evolutionary biologists have proposed testing for kin selection by seeing whether kin are favored when both kin and non-kin are present. I thin that’s wrong.

  10. Wrysmile
    Posted January 31, 2014 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    What about people who are morally bankrupt how does the sophisticated theologian deal with that. We now how your common or garden religionist would deal with it – its the devil or their evil but how does it work with the more abstract god of the sophisticated theologian.

    • Sean
      Posted January 31, 2014 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

      That’s a good point! And what about psychopaths? God didn’t like them or they infected by satan.

      What about someone who loses their morals after a brain injury ?

      None of it comports with religious views

  11. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted January 31, 2014 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    If you accept that altruistic behaviour is partly genetic and partly cultural then you would expect that to be variation in behaviours shown… a few sacrifice self for others, a few prioritise self over others, but most would show (on average)the most effective altruistic behaviour for our type of pro-social animal.

    If god was dishing out the innate moral sense of altruism you would also have to explain the distribution of altruism… rather difficult when all you have to play with is a good/evil dichotomy.

  12. Posted January 31, 2014 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    Aren’t there several documented cases of dolphins saving humans from drowning or from shark attacks? I’d call that unrequited altruism, as there’s little to be gained by the dolphin in doing so. However, a general tendency to keep hairless mammals in distress afloat would probably benefit dolphinkind as a whole.

    If the development of altruistic tendencies toward one’s kin increases one’s fitness, it’s only expected that such behaviour would be selected for, even if in practical terms it first means the spread of a broadly-targeted altruism toward “any creature vaguely resembling my young”. I don’t think it’s any wonder that we humans have more empathy for smaller mammals with round heads and short limbs than for snakes, toads or lanternfish.

    • Posted January 31, 2014 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

      This seems a good point. I am not sure of other cases of unrequited altruism in the animal kingdom, but I think this one is well documented.
      It seems possible that the super-intelligent species (people, dolphins..) can show novel behaviors that came from evolved behaviors, even though the novel behavior itself was not a direct product of evolution. It makes sense to me that a behavior for protecting ones’ kin (which would have evolved) will be automatically applied to kin in even scary situations if it is so strong that it ‘leaks’ into situations of unrequited altruism. This would ensure that protection of kin would over-ride an instinct of self-protection in scary situations.

      • lkr
        Posted January 31, 2014 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

        Whatever goes on, or not, with dolphins rescuing humans, there doesn’t seem to be danger, or much cost, to the dolphins… they may be empathetic, or simply bored and using the humans as toys. (It’s been said that we probably only hear of humans pushed to safety, not out to sea or under water.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted January 31, 2014 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

      Yes and dolphins were recognized as helpful to sailors even back in the times of the Ancient Greeks.

  13. Max
    Posted January 31, 2014 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    The examples you cite of pure altruism in humans are easily explained! In both cases there is the expectation that the altruist’s kin would be taken care of or helped in some way. I say “expectation” because we often don’t take as good care of our veterans and their families as we should in this country, but this is definitely something that one might expect when sacrificing themself for the greater good.

    Also, I don’t see how you can dismiss simple mistakes or manipulation as explanations for these behaviors. Organisms can only make good decisions with good information/knowledge.

  14. Sastra
    Posted January 31, 2014 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    I have only one quibble with Bloom’s article, and it’s inconsequential. He argues that it is indeed possible to get direct evidence that God gave us altruism. We could, for instance, find some “altruism gene” that shows signs of being inserted into our genome by God…. We haven’t seen any evidence for such genes or brain parts, of course, but were I a theologian I would defend the God Hypothesis by raising two objections.

    I don’t think this is a problem with Bloom’s point. IF we had such direct evidence, then the theologians wouldn’t bring up objections of any type, would they? Isn’t that what he means?

  15. Posted January 31, 2014 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    Of course arguing over whether God made us altruistic presumes the existence of “God”. So when I read statements like

    “Notice that we haven’t disproven that God gave us altruism”

    I kept feeling that the word “God” needed a footnote. Or maybe an alternative statement like

    “Notice that we haven’t disproven that Ceiling Cat gave us altruism”

  16. kelskye
    Posted January 31, 2014 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    I thought the moral argument was about the queerness of the oughtness, that is that normative moral values aren’t something that a naturalistic worldview can meaningfully make sense of. To which we can either agree with J.L. Mackie that any talk of moral values is making an error, agree with critics of error theory like S Finlay who say that morality doesn’t have that requirement (that it’s more of an If-Then proposition), or agree with the theists that normative moral values are the product of something transcendent.

    • Sastra
      Posted January 31, 2014 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

      There are several variations of the “moral argument.” As you point out, some of them attack the philosophical possibility of a natural explanation. But others agree that sure, evolution can explain “lower” levels of morality — but not the best kind of all. This is apparently what Collins says.

      • kelskye
        Posted January 31, 2014 at 10:00 pm | Permalink

        Any of those descriptive moral arguments tends to fall afoul of the same problems as appeals to a designer in nature (a similarity Bloom took note of), so I’m really not sure why anyone would bother with them. I can see the appeal of the normative case at least, because however unsatisfying the theistic answer is (it’s wrong because it’s wrong in the mind of God), it’s quite difficult to come up with a viable alternative. (at least according to J.L. Mackie)

        Reading through Bloom’s article, I can better appreciate the view he took down.

  17. Posted January 31, 2014 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    On a parallel note about whether unrequited altruism could not (or could) evolve b/c it reduces the fitness of the performer:
    I am thinking that such things could evolve, but that they did not evolve for that purpose. I expect there are many examples of behaviors that evolved by natural selection that prove disastrous in novel situations. The one I can think of 1st is the spectacular escape reflex of armadillos. When an armadillo is confronted by a predator it suddenly leaps straight up in the air. This must be a pretty effective way of evading the 1st lunge of the predator, but of course now this behavior is a huge source of mortality for armadillos as they wander across a road. When they are confronted by a car ‘predator’ they jump right up into the grill or undercarriage. So this is an evolved behavior that now reduces fitness of the performer.

  18. Joe Dickinson
    Posted January 31, 2014 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    I think Sastra’s point about not knowing who is related can be strengthened. If empathy and altruism evolved in human populations in which every individual with whom you interact is reasonably likely to be related, kin selection kicks in whether or not you specifically target your altruism toward kin. So, if most of human evolution occurred in isolated bands with a lot of related individuals, a general rule “help anyone you see needing help” could evolve up to the benefit/cost ratio allowed by the average relationship between randomly selected pairs within such populations. That “rule” would then look unreasonable (and un-evolable) in modern populations.

  19. Jason
    Posted January 31, 2014 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    I’ve encountered a (minority?) view among Christians which starts with the observation of evil, or more specifically, single acts of evil such as mass shootings followed by the theist’s assertion that these acts aren’t generally explainable by evolution (or young-earth creation) alone. To these theists there’s something else going on. And that something else is demons, the devil, (whatever it is it isn’t ‘natural’). For them this becomes a significant point for deriving God. A form of proof. In other words, Paul Bloom’s argument is a little off topic for this type of Christian. I realize the burden of proof is on the Christian in this case, and it may simply boil down to how they view the universe (i.e. good and evil constantly battling it out) vs. my naturalistic view. Has anyone dealt with or thought about this angle much in terms of how to respond?

    • Sastra
      Posted January 31, 2014 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

      That’s an interesting switch. Many theists see evolution as mandating a sort of “survival of the fittest” mentality which would explain and predict mass shootings. The idea that it’s not “natural” seems to be based on two underlying beliefs: 1.) the Naturalism Fallacy, that what is “natural” is what is good and 2.) a failure to realize that mass shootings typically involve shooting enemies.

      It seems to me then that this is less of an argument against the adequacy of evolution to “explain” a behavior and more like the Argument from Good and Evil (in a “natural” universe there would be no transcendent source of good and evil; agreeing that anything is ‘evil’ (or good) presupposes the existence of God i.e. a presupp.)

      My own response would be to point out that just labeling someone as “evil” tends to assume that the evil-doer is an Orc and made out of Badness. People who do mass shootings usually have reasons which as far as they’re concerned justifies what they have done. The fact that their reasons are crap doesn’t mean that even “evil” people usually think they’re the good guys and it’s important to be the good guys.

      As for psychopaths who simply kill for the thrill of it — they’re not cartoon characters either. No moral theory will encompass them, but there are still ‘reasons’ they did what they did (brains with diminished uncinate fasciculus or what have you.)

      • Jason
        Posted January 31, 2014 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

        Thanks for the comments. I think you’re on it. This Argument from Evil approach has always struck me as nothing more than an argument from incredulity with regard to understanding the brain. They’re effectively tucking their eggs into a big pocket of ignorance which exists regarding the human brain. Unfortunately when we do point to evidence such as a poorly connected uncinate fasciculus, they typically invoke free will so that ‘choice’ always remains in the picture to some degree (heads I win tails you lose sort of thing). In this case choice would mean something like not accepting God therefore allowing all this behavior to manifest. It’s an interesting game for sure. It’s also a dangerous game being that it overlooks the real problem and literally demonizes people.

        • Posted January 31, 2014 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

          Sastra has nailed it well, as always. As for the explanation of why Christians see the work of the devil in things like mass shootings, there is of course the point that they (Christians) tend to see an agency in the cause of events. A mass shooting must have been caused by an agent that was as evil as the action. The devil therefore must have been the agent (and so the devil must exist). Since the Christian mind tends to see agency in significant events, their devil explanation makes more sense than saying ‘my uncinate fasciculus made me do it’.
          You might try to point all of this out to a Christian. You could go on to explain that they are merely interpreting events to be caused by an agency, and that this is a trait that has evolved b/c it improved fitness in our paleolithic ancestors, but I would not expect they would see themselves in such an ‘academic’ way. More likely they will think you are possessed.

  20. Jamie
    Posted January 31, 2014 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

    When I had my first go at birding, I was astounded to discover that the appearance of gulls transforms greatly between juvenile and adult forms. Now, I have always been sympathetic to cultural explanations (and certainly would take them over religious ones), but I see no reason why a delayed onset of moral conscience would necessarily have to be due to nurture.

  21. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted January 31, 2014 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

    But if this moral design argument is right, it would not only prove the existence of a divinity, but also suggest that this divinity has certain specific properties—as Collins puts it, “He would have to be the embodiment of goodness. He would have to hate evil.” Collins suggests that such a God looks very much like the God of Abraham.

    Wha-a-a-a-at? has the man ever read the Bible?

    • Sastra
      Posted January 31, 2014 at 3:12 pm | Permalink


      The otherwise reasonable folks who consider the God of the Bible to be the exemplary example of the embodiment of Goodness always remind me of the schoolchildren in the famous “clumsy man” experiment.

      Years ago researchers were interested in exploring the power of suggestion among children. Classes of 2nd graders (?) were told by their teachers “Class, today a clumsy man is going to come and give a talk to us.” (There was also a control group which was simply told “Today a man is going to come and give a talk to us.”) Then a man would come in and give a perfectly normal talk about some designated neutral topic, behaving as usual.

      Immediately afterwards (presumably before they had time to conspire) the kids were individually asked to come to the library (?) for some plausible reason and questioned “I heard you had a speaker today. Could you tell me about it?”

      An enormous % of the children who had been told they were going to hear a speech by a “clumsy man” all did the same thing: described various bloopers and slips the man had made. Most of them said he tripped at least once. Knocked things over at least once. Even when prompted by “Really?” only a few of them changed their story.

      If you had not KNOWN it was a controlled study you would have been convinced that there were just too many eyewitnesses who had “no reason to lie.” The man must have been clumsy.

      The control group — nada. All it took was the simple label, the expectation. The kids elaborating their stories of the “clumsy man” either believed it, or wanted to, or thought they had to, or something else.

      Collins and other Christians have been told over and over again that God is “good” — that the Bible is the best book ever and if you read it then you will love God. So God in the Bible could theoretically have drowned all but a handful of humans — and even animals — for some petty complaint like “not godly enough” — and folks like Collins would probably still describe God as “good.”

      Very clumsy thought processes.

      • Kevin
        Posted January 31, 2014 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

        Well said. I look forward to the day when it is not just polite to say ‘clumsy’ thought processes, but expected to have such thought processes shuned by all members of society.

  22. Posted January 31, 2014 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, Why do we go on speaking of the “argument” (as you do, “a common argument of Francis Collins”) that the ‘innate moral sense’ of humans, especially our altruism—which is unique in the animal kingdom—could not be a result of either evolution or culture, and therefore must have been bequeathed us by God.”
    “Bequeathed us by God,” what could that possibly mean? How does that phrase really differ from “brought to us by the stork, or by Santa Claus.”
    Just as we cannot reason with someone who believes in Santa Claus (nor do I want to when that someone is my three year old grandchild) we cannot really reason, have anything to say to someone whose God leaves absolutely no tracks on this earth, when and if He ever does come here, no tracks that we might follow to something real that has made them.
    The interesting question for me is the same one I mentioned in an earlier comment on Whyevolutionistrue, why do we go on acting as if there were valid arguments in the creationist’s position? For his argument, if we do even allow him one, is never more than just words, rhetoric, although the words have often come in highly persuasive form, as poems, songs and paintings for example, and for centuries this coincidence of form with belief has terribly confused the issue of whether or not there is a God. In any case without the poems, songs and such the believer has nothing at all of substance. For if you were to remove the beauty of the art form, take down the uplifting, soaring structures of Chartres and Mont St. Michel, there is really nothing left. It’s the reverse of the argument of the creationists when they say take away God from the Good and there is nothing left.

    • Curt Nelson
      Posted January 31, 2014 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

      Arguing with the religious is necessary not because their arguments are good but because their arguments are old and pervasive.

    • Posted January 31, 2014 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

      Actually, I’m a bit surprised that you ask this question. Francis Collins travels the U.S.–as America’s most famous scientist, and certainly the most powerful–and tells audiences that our innate altruism is evidence for God.

      And you’re telling me not to answer that argument; to let the credulous listeners accept it as SCIENCE. I’m sorry, but these arguments must be answered somewhere, and I choose to do so.

      If you don’t like to see them addressed, I invite you to visit the many websites that don’t address them.

    • Kevin
      Posted January 31, 2014 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

      I used to think the same way. Why deal with creationist’s arguments and/or fundamentalist’s position on the origin of morals. These views, at least in America, are ubiquitous.

      Fortunately they are waning and one good reason is discussion. Atheism is going places now because people are talking about it. And creationism and its extrapolations and implicatures are interesting to a lot of people. As a physicists, I would prefer we talk about the origin of the universe as some interesting ontological discussion point, but most people are stuck with life and humanity because to them it is more important than constituents of the cosmological constant.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted January 31, 2014 at 9:33 pm | Permalink

        Yes – exchange of ideas is important and atheists need to keep putting their ideas out there and exposing bad ideas and bad thinking.

  23. Curt Nelson
    Posted January 31, 2014 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    Couldn’t altruism be considered to be among the many nonadaptive things people do (e.g. artistic expression, extreme sports, collecting, recreational reading) that are apparently the result of our having an oversized brain?

    • Posted January 31, 2014 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

      Yes, but with a caveat.

      Just as with medicine, altruism works in very obvious and direct ways to improve fitness.

      Even if the origins of altruism are not genetic nor evolutionary at all, once it exists, it provides a distinct reproductive advantage.



      • Curt Nelson
        Posted February 1, 2014 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

        Altruism works in very obvious and direct ways to improve fitness?

        I thought the point was that it doesn’t, that it seems to be of no benefit to the one being altruistic – is unique to humans and requires some explanation because of it’s being, as best anyone can tell, actually just costly.

        One possibility is that this strangely maladaptive trait, altruism, only seems maladaptive because we aren’t realizing that it’s a gift from God (and that is why the “animals” don’t display it). But aren’t we a rare example on the earth of a species with a bizarrely big brain that exhibits lots of weird (maladaptive) behaviors, altruism being just one of them?

        • Curt Nelson
          Posted February 1, 2014 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

          Yes, and my theory is that we can afford altruism and all our other isms because we are living in fat times.

          • Posted February 1, 2014 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

            Quite the contrary. It’s only in times of plenty that you can afford the luxury of anti-social selfishness. In lean times, you need to share your harvest with your neighbor when you got lucky if you want your neighbor to share his harvest with you when he’s the one who gets lucky.




        • Posted February 1, 2014 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

          Your odds of surviving a streak of bad luck are vastly improved if you’re part of a society that non-judgmentally helps those in need. Unless you think you have some magic formula to avoid bad luck, the personal advantages to you of contributing to build such a society should be obvious.

          If you need more, just look to those who went from being on one form or another of public assistance to being productive members of society. For the cost of the time they were on the dole, you personally benefitted from the rest of their lifetime tax contributions in the form of the government services they paid for. You also didn’t have to worry about them committing crimes of desperation upon you.




          • Curt Nelson
            Posted February 2, 2014 at 8:45 am | Permalink

            I would like to reply to explain my thinking but it seems my comments are not being accepted by the moderators for some reason I can not understand.

  24. pktom64
    Posted January 31, 2014 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    Do creationists also argue that homosexuality was “given” by God since it doesn’t seem to increase the reproduction of the people/animals implicated in homosexual behavior?

    • Curt Nelson
      Posted January 31, 2014 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

      No. They argue that it is a choice. A bad choice.

      • Simon Hayward
        Posted January 31, 2014 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

        So that’s probably what they’d say to Bloom’s flippant comment that internet porn proves the existence of dog too. Darn, I thought he had them there :)

  25. Posted January 31, 2014 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

    and of course, (probably already noted), theists can’t tell us which god gave us their magic morals. I’m guessing something other than the verminous Judeo-Christo-Islamo god since it’s a hot mess of hatred, injustice and plain stupidity.

  26. Filippo
    Posted January 31, 2014 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

    “Still, the case of the soldier who throws himself on a grenade to save his comrades . . . Bloom . . . says, we’re taught to be altruistic . . . .”

    In January 1968, my mother’s first cousin, a few months past 20 and in the SeaBees in South Vietnam, threw himself on a grenade, at least so I was told, with fatal consequences.

    I’m given to understand, from what little I’ve read – anecdotally – that it is for their comrades that soldiers/sailors/airmen/marines will so sacrifice their lives. Not for some fat, dumb and happy civilian safely racked out in his recliner, and certainly not for some freaking corporation seeking to “maximize shareholder value,” U.S. foreign policy and CIA overseas activity notwithstanding. It leads one to examine just what is worthy of such sacrifice.

  27. AR.
    Posted January 31, 2014 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

    I’m sorry if this has been addressed already:

    Couldn’t altruism merely be a less “costly” side-effect of an important trait(s) that was selected for?

    • Kevin
      Posted January 31, 2014 at 7:41 pm | Permalink

      Interesting. You might want to read above, Goren’s and Sastra’s comments. Altruism is complex.

      Though your question made me think of whether atomic or chemical systems behave in ways which are less “costly”. In general, no. Conservation laws and second law of thermodynamics prevent atoms from choice of costly dynamics. However, would an atom/photon (or just quanta) do something that was costly that might benefit another atom or set of atoms. Polymers certainly have interesting entropy properties, but I will have to think of others.

  28. Posted February 1, 2014 at 1:28 am | Permalink

    The Paul Bloom book may seem to endorse the Atheist viewpoint upon morality, but I think that the great project of human enlightenment does not need such friends. North America is only just beginning to crawl out of the darkness of religion into the light, but only to crawl back into the darkness of the Social Sciences, where it may remain for many long centuries. Psychology comes from the same mid-nineteenth century European roots as totalitarianism, (Nazism, Communism) along with the same self-identification as an elite, whose five million ‘priests’ worldwide are tasked with ‘correcting’ the symptoms of personality in the population at large and replacing those symptoms with corrected thought and behaviour: unemotional, circumspect, obedient to social norms and political demands. And they universally eschew the true impact of the ‘specificity’ of genetic inheritance in errant belief and behaviour in favour of their trust in childhood trauma as the universal explanation for personality difficulties in adulthood. Prominent among their beliefs is that almost everyone has been ‘damaged’ by their family!

    Bloom’s research work is suspicious in that psychologists always place themselves at the centre, and therefore draw all their evidence from their, and their work-colleagues’ children. The truth is disturbing; 5%-10% of the world’s families are at war with their own children, exploiting them and abusing them, or by neglecting them on account of alcoholism and drugs. Another 60% actively throw their children into religion, and other weird beliefs and practices, such as misogyny, racism, gun-culture violence, sexual immorality, and other kinds of coercion such as exposing them to the a work ethic, to sports fever, to The American Way, to raw exploitive work practices, and so forth. The moral feelings of young children are neither consistent nor dependable.

    Psychology is a cult belief based upon the inner convictions of its adherents, just like religion, and those dangerous beliefs are enlarged daily by a worldwide cadre of ‘researchers’ who are doing what St Augustine and Aquinas once did; try to source fresh justification for their beliefs from a book-lined study.

    The true horror of psychology comes when they interfere in the social world; arguing their false understandings in court and sending the innocent to prison; devising psychometric testing so that people like themselves are entrusted with responsibilities in such areas as social policy, or in social work, where they fail spectacularly.

    The boast that one has a reading-list at home of great books by contemporary psychologists and philosophers, should be moderated by a sceptical heart and a disbelieving eye. Assuredly, they are all just more woo.

  29. Posted February 1, 2014 at 4:49 am | Permalink

    One reason I try to be moral is because I AM an atheist. I have something to prove.

    Also, my parents instilled good behavior into me, and I know that was a tough job.

    I am not perfect, of course, but I’m comparing myself to priests who molest children, suicide bombers, criminals who are religious, evangelists who treat on their wives, etc. So the bar is set low.

  30. Scientifik
    Posted February 1, 2014 at 5:26 am | Permalink

    “What I mean is pure altruism, whereby an animal helps another animal not only unrelated to it, but not part of its social group, and helps in such a way that it sacrifices its own reproductive potential without getting anything back.”

    I wish we knew if the ‘hero dog’ from this youtube vid was related to the one he saved..

  31. Scientifik
    Posted February 1, 2014 at 5:36 am | Permalink

    “And indeed, I am aware of no cases of pure altruism in the animal kingdom—outside of our own species.”

    How about this one?

    Dog saves four newborn kittens from fire

    • bobbiej1
      Posted February 1, 2014 at 7:13 am | Permalink

      I also agree that there are cases of altruism in other animals. This and the hero dog above yours are examples, and if we Google “Altruism in animals” several sites come up with examples of altruism in animals, including crows and rats.
      Since I know nothing on the subject and my butt is hurting from sitting so long at this computer, I will leave it to others to research it today.

  32. Stephen Barnard
    Posted February 1, 2014 at 8:09 am | Permalink

    I didn’t know anything about Paul Bloom so I Googled him and found this really good TED Talk.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted February 1, 2014 at 8:33 am | Permalink

      That was pretty good. I’ve heard the example of sweaters with how people are repulsed if it was Jeffery Dalmer’s sweater. I find all things like that icky but some more icky than others.

      A side note, the Goering example reminded me of The Nuremberg Interviews. It’s an interesting book and you get insight into what these villains were like. Goering, to me, was especially repugnant so I don’t know how people saw him as charming.

  33. Posted February 1, 2014 at 8:13 am | Permalink

    As it happens, David Bentley Hart has a version of the “Moral Law argument for God” in his “The Experience of God.” He’s so sure morality comes from God that he rains down anathemas on those poor whipping boys, the evolutionary psychologists. Ludicrously, he seizes on the argument that their science is just a bunch of “Just So Stories.” Of course, the “Just So Story” meme was invented by the Blank Slaters to buttress their claim that morality is purely a product of culture and experience. It makes not the slightest sense when applied to innate morality, whether evolved or, as Hart claims, put there by God. If God equipped us with morality, it’s impossible for the EP experiments to be detecting “Just So Stories.” The poor, dumb boobs just don’t realize that what they’re seeing comes from God!

  34. Posted February 1, 2014 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    Altruism is so weighted with religion and morality that it is inevitably seen as the result of natural selection, or a gift from the gods. But there is third and highly persuasive explanation for altruism. We can dismiss all those good cats and d*gs who save others, as the result of their misplaced ‘family’ allegiance. They do it out of confusion. But in the human world they do it on account of of another neglected background human characteristic; the desire of most humans to live and work within a hierarchy of authority.
    It marvels us all that soldiers are so willing to march to battlefields and die. It cannot be real. It is induced after months of regimented training whereby they are taught to let go of personal needs in favour of group demands. Much like British Private Schools. The results are awesome. Napoleon supposedly watching a detachment of troops marching off a cliff to an order, to demonstrate their loyalty to the fat fool. French troops marching to their deaths on the battlefields in the Great War, all bleating like sheep in sarcasm, – but few dare run away, with its risk of being shot.

    De Guiche to his soldiers…
    “Will you all be so kind as to lay down your lives….?”
    Cyrano de Bergerac

    Many who work in offices and in other hierarchical places such as State and Local Government give their lives to humiliating, trivial and useless work out of a sense of duty, which is the allegiance they hold to those higher in the hierarchy. And so, in my observation, altruism is an over-deferential regard for those higher in authority. And that sense of duty infuses all their living days, and is the price paid by those who can only live communally that such a need may abruptly end their family line.

  35. Scientifik
    Posted February 1, 2014 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    “the case of the soldier who throws himself on a grenade to save his comarades, or of volunteer firefighters who risk their lives without pay, or, indeed, religionists like Father Damien in Hawaii who contracted leprosy and died while ministering to confined lepers—those cases look to me like pure altruism.”

    Actually, I don’t think that the altruism of religionists can be considered pure, as they help others in exchange for the heavenly rewards (eternal life, 72 virgins, etc).

  36. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted February 1, 2014 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, very useful (and educational)!

  37. jeffreyjaylowder
    Posted February 3, 2014 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    Hi Jerry,

    I’m a fan of yours, but I’m not a fan of this post. With all due respect, I think you’ve misrepresented the “moral law argument” for God’s existence. See


    Jeffery Jay Lowder

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