Thursday, July 12, 2007

God of the Psychological Gap

If you read any of the reviews related to The Language of God (see my review here), you'd know that one of the common complaints about Collins's book is that, while he decries the use of "God of the Gaps" type explanations, he seems to fall into one himself, no pun intended.
Side note: I can't recall anymore. Is it correct to say Collins' or Collins's?
The complaint stems from Collins emphasis on CS Lewis's "moral law." He thinks that our inability to escape certain aspects of morality and altruism is an indication of divine origin. His critics argue that Collins essentially brushes off evolution-based, scientific arguments for the origins of human morality and settles for a "God of the Gaps" himself.

This has led me to ponder the problem a bit. How do you explain human morality from a naturalistic perspective?

As a scientist, I can only say that basing the answer on principles of evolutionary theory is no better than philosophical rhetoric. It leaves you with a hypothesis, and hypotheses must be tested if you're looking for a scientific answer.

So, how do you examine the origins of human morality? I can think of only two ways: Animal studies and computer models.

Here's an example of such a study: Researchers took rats and put them in connected cages with a wire mesh between them. Rats on one side of the cage would pull a lever, which caused rats on the other side to receive a treat (an oat flake). In Science magazine's most recent podcast, they talked about a similar study involving monkies and watermelon slices.

The results showed that untrained rats who were paired with trained rats in these scenarios became more likely to pull the lever for others. The study is thought to indicate something about altruism in rats, which might indicate origins for humanity.

Hm . . . maybe. I'm not so certain. First, they used rats who were trained to pull the lever. I'm not sure you can use this as any sort of indication of natural behavior. But then the untrained rats picked up on the behavior. Was this reciprocity, or were they imitating the observed behavior? I can't conclude which way, being neither an animal behavior specialist nor able to view their data, but I'm left quite skeptical. Such controlled situations do not go very far in convincing me that animals further down the evolutionary ladder imitate our uniquely human traits.

Then what of computer studies? The most recent Science podcast discussed a computer model for the development of justice systems in societies. The researcher on the other end of the phone tended to mumble quite a bit (they all do), but I gathered that "people" in the model tended to opt out of justice systems because doing actual punishment was too costly to society. Involvement became higher when other conditions were added in, though now I don't recall what those were.

I'm not really sure what this would indicate about humanity, but I'm a big skeptic of computer models of this nature. It's the old GIGO principle: Garbage In, Garbage Out. In other words, because you are programming into this model all of your assumptions and preconceptions, as well as putting a hard limit on the variables involved, the model is going to come out in a very specific way. If those assumptions are off or you've neglected variables, the model is worthless.
From my perspective, human behavior is too complicated to accurately model with computers. Yes, you can use observed principles and averages to predict outcomes, but this will never substitute for the wild unpredictability of human nature.

(Of course, Scott Adams would have a thing or two to say about the "unpredictability" of human nature, but that's not the issue at hand)

So, what's the conclusion here? I must admit my ignorance on the subject. I don't know hardly anything about the field, so there might be much more convincing studies out there. However, animal studies and computer models, at least from what I've seen, don't convince me.

This doesn't completely exonerate Collins in the "God of the Gap" accusation, but I think it's a start.

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