Sunday, October 02, 2011

Fallenness in a Darwinian World?

St. Augustine
Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510)

The´╗┐ painting above dates to 1480 and is said to depict St. Augustine at prayer, though his eyes are open. They are, however, directed upward, as though contemplating spiritual realities. This saint, however, also observed earthly realities, such as the radical evil of human beings, which he thought due to the enslavement of the human will by our sinful nature, which he argued was biologically inherited from Adam and Eve, who had fallen from innocence into evil by their violation of God's command not to eat the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

My cyberfriend Bill Vallicella has been blogging on human evil, as I noted in a recent blog entry of my own -- "Fallenness as the Human Condition" -- on an article about "original sin" in the journal First Things:
I'm indebted to my friend Bill Vallicella, the Maverick Philosopher, for the link to the First Things article. Bill has been discussing several of the logical conundrums confronting those who take original sin seriously, and he would be well worth reading on the subject, though I've had too little time lately to do so myself, being immersed in teaching and editing.
I emailed Bill to let him know of my implicit 'hat tip' to him, and in noting an intriguing argument presented in the First Things article, I posed a query:
I liked the interesting argument that the consequences of belief and nonbelief in original sin are both bad and thus evidence of our fallen natures. But I do wonder what either original sin or fallenness mean in a Darwinian world . . .
Bill has since responded to my query with another blog post, titled "Original Sin in a Darwinian World." I cannot do justice to his argument by a summary, so I urge interested readers to go directly to his own post, but I can indicate some of his argument as it relates to my query.

Bill rejects Augustine's view that guilt is inherited, so he absolves us of any guilt due to inheritance, what he calls "originated original sin" (following Kant), basing his view on our moral intuition that we are only morally culpable for actions or inactions over which we have control, i.e., libertarian freedom. In place of Augustine's view, Bill offers what he calls "originating original sin" (again following Kant), by which he means that the fact of our evil actions or inactions can be understood as due to our fallenness -- and Bill cites Kant explicitly on this point -- "as though the individual had fallen into it directly from a state of innocence." This distinction is presented in more detail in Bill's post on Kant's distinction "between originating original sin (peccatum originale originans) and originated original sin (peccatum originale originatum)."

Bill also rejects a literal reading of the Genesis account of Adam and Eve, for he takes seriously the evidence for evolution. Hence his response to my query radically reinterprets the meaning of the Biblical account, and he follows Kant in this:
Man enjoys dual citzenship. As a physical being, and thus as an animal, he he is a member of the phenomenal world, the world of space-time-matter. In this realm determinism reigns: everything that happens is necessitated by the laws of nature plus the initial conditions. But man knows himself to be morally responsible, and so knows himself to be libertarianly free. Since everything phenomenal is determined, and nothing free, man as moral agent is a noumenal being who 'stands apart from the causal nexus.'

Kant sees with blinding clarity that nothing imputable to an agent can be caused by factors external to the agent: only that which the agent does or leaves undone freely and by his own agency is imputable to the agent. It follows that sinfulness, guilt, and desert of punishment cannot be inherited: there is no originated original sin. For what is inherited is caused to be by factors external to the agent. So . . . [the claim that there is a universal propensity to moral evil in human beings that is not inherited] is true. But the predisposition to moral evil is nonetheless innate in the sense that it is not conditioned by events in time. It is logically prior to every action of the agent in the time-order.

How is the predisposition imputable? It is imputable because it is the result of a free noumenal choice. And so there is originating original sin. Each of us by an atemporal noumenal choice is the origin of the radical evil which is at the root of each specific evil act. So . . . [the claim that there is a universal propensity to moral evil in human beings that is imputable] is true.
If I understand Bill, then our fallenness, which follows from original sin, is to be understood as a state into which we have fallen due to an originating original sin that each one of us commits by acting (or 'inacting') wrongly at some first time in our lives, an action (or inaction) over which we had free control.

If I have understood Bill correctly, this seems to leave open a question that still requires an answer: Why do we, in our original innocence and freedom, choose evil? Admittedly, the same question can also be posed about the traditional story of Adam and Eve.

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At 3:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As an elementary teacher, I wonder every day what motivates children to make wrong choices. Innate character and influence from family and friends seem to be factors. Unless there is severe mental or emotional impairment, children lacking internal motivation do seem to respond to appropriate external motivation to respect self, others, and property, indicating a capacity for choice and an understanding of consequences.


At 5:17 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I'd be interested to know if those children respond better to these external motivations if expressed as moral imperatives or couched in terms of enlightened self-interest.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:05 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Enlightened self-interest seems to be a primary motivator for some. We try to get kids to internalize social norms and be good for the sake of being good, but not all children appear capable of rising to that high standard. The pitch I make to these self-interested students when I talk with them is that most of their peers will not like or respect them if they are mean to others or destroy property, which, thankfully, is true. When we are liked and respected by others, school is fun. When we are not, school is a lonely place.

Human survival depended on sometimes acting selflessly and sometimes selfishly, so it makes sense that we would be endowed with genes capable of expressing both traits. A combination of genes and environment probably explain why some people are incredibly selfless and others incredibly selfish.


At 8:10 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I'd like to live in a world in which everyone else were incredibly selfless . . . so I wouldn't have to be.

Thanks for the additional information. I figured there'd be some of one, some of the other.

Jeffery Hodges

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