Wintery Knight

…integrating Christian faith and knowledge in the public square

Mike Licona and Bart Ehrman debate the resurrection of Jesus

From the Unbelievable radio show.


Bart Ehrman is well known as a US New Testament Scholar who lost his Christian faith and now questions many core precepts of Christianity, including the Resurrection of Jesus.  When Mike Licona had doubts he devoted himself to investigating the evidence and became convinced that Jesus resurrection is the only rational explanation for the facts.

They debate key historical facts about the resurrection – are the letters of Paul that report the resurrection and the Gospel accounts trustworthy or theologised and changed with time?  What about apparent contradictions between the Gospels? Does the consensus of scholars count as evidence, or is there a Christian bias?  Can a miracle count as an explanation for historical data?

The MP3 file is here.

Snarky summary of the radio debate: (items with * are my made-up paraphrases/clarifications)

This has got to be one of my silliest summaries, but Ehrman makes me so annoyed.

- my new book is about forgeries in the ancient world
- some books were falsely attributed to prominent Christian figures
- there are mistakes in the Bible
- there are mistakes in the resurrection narratives
- the defeat of inerrancy led to his conversion to liberal Christianity
- the problem of evil and suffering caused him to become a non-Christian

- there are minimal facts that are agreed to by a broad spectrum of scholars
- the minimal facts are accepted because they pass standard historical criteria
- Fact 1: Jesus died by crucifixion
- Fact 2: Individuals and groups had visions of Jesus after his death
- Fact 3: Paul, a skeptic and an enemy, had an appearance of Jesus that converted him
- these facts are agreed to atheist scholars, liberal scholars, etc.
- virtually 100% of scholars agree with these three facts
- there is no naturalistic explanation of these three facts
- therefore, the best explanation of these three facts is that God raised Jesus from the dead

- all historians would accept these three facts, except for maybe the group appearances
- the death of Jesus is irrelevant to the resurrection
- the second and third point can be collapsed together
- so really there is only one fact

- the crucifixion is relevant because Muslims don’t admit that fact
- the crucifixion important because it establishes a resurrection, not a resuscitation

- well, if the point is that he died, then yes, this does require a resurrection

- the crucifixion refutes Muslims who deny that Jesus died
- the crucifixion refutes the apparent death theory (swoon theory)
- the death is required for a bodily resurrection
- it’s important to know what facts most scholars, regardless of worldview, agree on
- it’s important to emphasize that Licona is working from historical bedrock facts
- the resurrection is the best explanation for the historical bedrock facts

- you are trying to list 3 things, but really it is just one thing – the appearances
- and not ALL scholars agree that the group visions occurred

- name one prominent scholar who denies the group appearances

- the radically leftist atheist nutcase John Dominic Crossan denies the group appearances
* Crossan is so far on the left that I look like a nutcase for even citing him
* Crossan believes in the Secret Gospel of Mark, which is a hoax – but I still cite Crossan
* Crossan believes that the synoptics are LATER than gnostic forged gospels – but I still cite Crossan
* Crossan presupposes atheism, so he cannot admit to miracle stories as a pre-supposition – but I still cite Crossan
* Crossan pre-supposes religious pluralism, so he cannot allow any exclusive claims Christians make – but I still cite Crossan
* Crossan is a good historian, it’s just that he is so far to the left that no one – NO ONE – agrees with his all of crazy theories
* I think it is a good idea to cite historians who pre-suppose atheism and political correctness before they sit down to do history

- let me explain why most scholars accept the individual and group post-mortem appearances
- the best source for the appearances is the early creed recorded by Paul in 1 Cor 15:3-8
- Paul himself had an appearance of Jesus after Jesus’ death
- Paul received this material from a source very soon after the appearances – within 1-3 years
- we know that Paul met with Jesus disciples multiple times prior to writing
- Paul probably received it from Peter and James, who were themselves eyewitnesses

- this early dating presumably rules out legend

- well legends CAN start quickly
- it does show that Paul was an eyewitness
- it does show that Paul was in contact with reliable eyewitnesses

- 1 Corinthians is written around 55 AD, twenty-five years after Jesus died
- it is not implausible that Paul got the creed from the disciples, who were eyewitnesses
- but you don’t need a long time for legends to emerge, so that is a possibility

- only about 3% of people could read and write back them
- instead, people had enormous capacity for memorization
- the Pharisees were particularly good at memorization
- Jews were very serious about passing along traditions accurately
- Paul, a prominent Pharisee, would have been capable of passing on early creeds accurately
- Paul, in 1 Cor 7, shows that he is willing to separate his opinions from authentic tradition
- Paul had an opportunity in 1 Cor 7 to put words into Jesus’ mouth, but he wouldn’t do it

- cultural anthropologists show that things do get changed in some oral cultures
- in these oral cultures, it is assumed that the story teller will change the story
- only in written cultures are they careful to avoid changing the story
- in the New Testament, you can compare the same story in two different gospels, there are differences

- Ehrman is right that the gospel writers pick and choose things from the oral tradition that they want to include in their gospels
- different oral tradition transmission schemes have more or less embellishment
- african tribes embellish more, rabbinic teaching embellishes less
* Jesus’ followers would have viewed him as a rabbi, and been careful about adding to his teachings
- Paul, an eyewitness, probably received the creed in 1 Cor 15 from other eyewitnesses
- Paul speaks about going twice to Jerusalem in Galatians
- he is meeting with Peter and James to check his facts

- when you look at Mark and John, there are lots of differences in the narrative

- I agree that the gospels have differences, but the oral tradition is likely fixed

- but Mark and John have different sayings
- why doesn’t Mark have the same explicit high Christology that John has?

- first, John is trying to weave the oral tradition into a compelling story
- and second, when you look in Mark, the high Christology is there in the Son of Man sayings
- the apocalyptic Son of Man is in Mark, and everywhere in the New Testament

- the “apocalyptic Son of Man” isn’t in John

- what about in John 9 with the man who was born blind

- where is the apocalyptic part?

- the healed man worships Jesus because he is the Son of Man
- that links to the apocalypic passages in the Old Testament

- what about the differences between the gospels?

* well, now is the time for me to set up an inerrantist straw man and then knock it down!
* who was at the empty tomb: one angel or two angels? we don’t know, so the whole Bible is false!
* I used to be an inerrantist, so one minor difference is enough for me to dump the whole Bible
* I’ll kill you, you stupid straw man! I hate you, Moody Bible Institute! You lied to me!

- many of these problems can be solved by realizing that the gospel writers compress time
- the stories don’t have to list ALL the characters in every scene
- you don’t have to force the Bible to meet some sort of wooden chronology
- the main thing is that the events happened, not that the descriptions match word for word across sources

- you can’t infer a miracle from history, David Hume says so
* extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, David Hume says so
* no I don’t know what begging the question is, I’m not a philosopher
* no I don’t remember when Bill Craig kicked my ass on this Hume objection in our debate
- the New Testament gospels contradict each other at every point, they are not reliable at all!
* they cannot even agree what Jesus’ name is! There are 1 trillion variants of Jesus’ name!
* “one angel vs two angels” proves that the gospels contradict each other at every point
* my expansive list of FOUR theologically insignificant variants proves that the gospels contradict each other at every point

- um, the gospels agree on the central narrative and disagree on the peripherals
- and they agree on the minimal facts I presented, even if they disagree about the number of angels

* they have to agree on everything and be inerrant! The Moody Straw Man Bible Institute says so!
* I really really really need to have the number of angels be the same, or Jesus didn’t die on the cross

- but you don’t deny any of the three minimal facts I presented (crucifixion, appearances, Paul)

- well, I don’t know if the group appearances occurred – maybe they did
- i think Jesus died on the cross, and I think that people said they saw him alive afterward

- if you deny the minimal facts, then you are outside the majority of scholars

- the majority of scholars who agree to the minimal facts you presented are Christians
* Gerd Ludemann is an atheist Christian
* James Crossley is an atheist Christian
* Hector Avalos is an atheist Christian
* the majority of the atheist scholars are all Christians!

- you really think so?

- you name one non-Christian in the SBL

- (incredulous) um, John Dominic Crossan is an atheist

* all you have to do to be a Christian is claim to be one
* you can even deny the existence of God and the divinity of Christ and still be one, you bigot!

- would Jesus or the apostles recognize a Christian as being someone who doubts God’s existence

- my view is that Jesus and the apostles would not recognize evangelical Christians as Christians
* a non-theist can be a Christian just by claiming to be one, but evangelical Christians are not Christians even if they claim to be Christians
- Christians can’t record accurate history about the resurrection because they are biased

- on your view, if a person is a Christian then he can’t write about the evidence for the resurrection
- so then similarly, you would not allow Jews to write about the historicity of the Holocaust
- because you think that if people have an interest in what they are recording then they can’t be objective
- but you have to consider the evidence we have, taking the biases of the sources into account

- but the only people who believe in the resurrection are Christians!

- well, people can consider the evidence for the resurrection as non-Christians
- and then if they accept it they can become Christians

- what about your bias? you don’t believe in God – doesn’t that pre-supposition affect how you do history?

- well, I presuppose naturalism, so I can’t admit to anything in history that implicates supernatural causes
* no I have never heard of the arguments for the Big Bang, fine-tuning, origin of life, Cambrian explosion, irreducible complexity, limits on mutations creating information, habitability and so on – I never heard about that stuff from my atheist university professors and even if I had I would have been expelled for talking about it because that would make people feel bad about their sinning

- so it’s not bias you are concerned about, it’s that you don’t want history to contradict your untested religion of naturalism?
- why not just do the history without pre-suppositions to gather the minimal facts and then see what the best explanation is?

* well God is out of bounds as an explanation because I could not have got my PhD if I mentioned God
* I really needed my smart atheist professors to like me and give me good grades so God is RIGHT OUT
* ideas like a real God and moral laws and Hell makes my atheist professors uncomfortable and that means low grades for me
* I’m not really interested in butting heads with professors – it’s easier to just agree with them and move on to selling books to the gullible
* My books are much more sensational than Dan Brown books, so please buy lots of them!

- what if the historical evidence is good enough to show that Jesus rose from the dead?

- well I would not call someone rising from the dead a miracle – I would call it weird
* I also think that the Big Bang is “weird” but that doesn’t prove that God created the universe out of nothing
* if it’s a miracle then I’m going to have to not sin, and maybe even go to Hell, and we can’t have that

- well, you accept the three minimal facts
- what if we try all the naturalistic explanations for those three facts and there are problems with all of them?
- what if the resurrection is the best explanation for the three minimal facts?

- but I want to arbitrarily rule God put because I want to pre-suppose naturalism
- there is not historical reason I have to rule put supernatural explanations a priori

- I think you are struggling with the theological implications of a historical conclusion

- well when you do theology, you have to avoid grounding your theology on science or history
- theology has to be completely made up or it’s not good theology

- I think you are letting your dislike of the implications of the resurrection determine your historical conclusions
- you have to use historical methods to gather the minimal facts that every scholar accepts, regardless of worldview
- then you weigh ALL the hypotheses, natural and supernatural, that could account for these minimal facts
- then you choose the hypothesis that best explains the minimal facts

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The Jesus-wife source is dated to eight-century Egypt: could it be authentic?

J. Warner Wallace tweeted this post from Al Mohler, which talks about the scholarly review of a recent discovery.


Last week, the Harvard Theological Review released a much-delayed series of articles on the fragment. After a series of investigations undertaken by diverse scholars, the general judgment claimed by Professor King is that the fragment probably is not a forgery — or at least that it dates back to ancient times. The analysis suggested that the fragment dated from about four centuries later than Professor King had first suggested. This would place the fragment, if authentic, in the context of eighth-century Egypt — hundreds of years after the New Testament was written and completed.

The language used by the national media in reporting the story this time reveals the lack of confidence now placed in the fragment. The Boston Globe reported that the tests “have turned up no evidence of modern forgery,” but the reporter had to acknowledge that at least one of the scholars writing in the Harvard Theological Review insisted that the fragment is not only a forgery, but an amateurish effort. The New York Times ran a story that featured a headline announcing that the fragment “is more likely ancient than fake.” Note the uncertainty evident even in the headline.

In her major article released last week, Professor King defended the fragment’s authenticity, but acknowledged that — all previous sensationalism aside — “It is not entirely clear, however, how many women are referred to [in the fragment], who they are, precisely what is being said about them, or what larger issues are under consideration.”

This is a very different message than was sent back in 2012. Professor King now acknowledges that all the references to females in the fragment might be “deployed metaphorically as figures of the Church, or heavenly Wisdom, or symbolically/typologically as brides of Christ or even mothers.” In other words, the fragment might not even conflict with Christian orthodoxy.

The most declarative article in the Harvard Theological Review, however, dismisses the entire fragment as a modern forgery. Professor Leo Depuydt of Brown University argues that the fragment’s authenticity is “out of the question.” He points to several factors, including the fact that a set of typographical errors in the fragment matches a set of errors in an online edition of the “Gospel of Thomas,” an ancient Gnostic text. Depuydt put the chances of coincidence with respect to these errors as one in a trillion. Depuydt states that he “has not the slightest doubt that the document is a forgery, and not a very good one at that.”

Taken as a whole, the issue of the Harvard Theological Review released last week includes some scholars who stalwartly defend the fragment as authentic, some who argue that there is no convincing proof that it is a forgery, and at least one who argues that the case for authenticity is laughable.

Previously when I blogged about this I noted that like sensational fiction writer Dan Brown, Karen King is a feminist, and anxious to insert women into more prominent roles in Christian history.

Mohler picked up on it too:

The larger background includes the fact that Professor King has devoted much of her scholarly career to making a case that the early church falsely constructed an orthodox understanding of Jesus that minimized the role of women. Back in 2003 she released The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle, in which she argued that at least some ancient texts pointed to Mary Magdalene as an apostle. In 2012 she told the writer for Smithsonian: “You’re talking to someone who’s trying to integrate a whole set of ‘heretical’ literature into the standard history.”

Professor King, along with others such as Professor Elaine Pagels of Princeton University, reject traditional Christianity and have turned time and again to ancient Gnostic documents, such as were found in 1945 in Nag Hammadi in Egypt, to argue that early Christianity marginalized some theological voices and standardized doctrinal orthodoxy in order to maintain doctrinal purity.

I think this is why media outlets, who are sympathetic with this goal, would trumpet an eighth century discovery over the 1st century gospels. Let me be clear. Nothing from the eight century can be considered authentic if it contradicts multiple, independent first century sources. The only thing driving the media frenzy on this discovery is feminism, pure and simple.

I just want to say that I don’t always agree with Al Mohler, especially on marriage and men’s rights issues, where I think his exegesis of the Bible is overly influenced by liberal feminism. So to have him agreeing with me on King’s “scholarship” is a good thing.

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New study casts doubt on deep sea hydrothermal vents scenario

From Science Daily.


One of the greatest mysteries facing humans is how life originated on Earth. Scientists have determined approximately when life began (roughly 3.8 billion years ago), but there is still intense debate about exactly how life began. One possibility — that simple metabolic reactions emerged near ancient seafloor hot springs, enabling the leap from a non-living to a living world — has grown in popularity in the last two decades.

[...]A central figure in this hypothesis is a simple sulfur-containing carbon compound called “methanethiol” — a supposed geologic precursor of the Acetyl-CoA enzyme present in many organisms, including humans. Scientists suspected methanethiol could have been the “starter dough” from which all life emerged.

The question Reeves and his colleagues set out to test was whether methanethiol — a critical precursor of life — could form at modern day vent sites by purely chemical means without the involvement of life. Could methanethiol be the bridge between a chemical, non-living world and the first microbial life on the planet?

[...]Instead of an abundance of methanethiol, the data they collected in the hydrogen-rich environments showed very little was present. “We actually found that it doesn’t matter how much hydrogen you have in black smoker fluids, you don’t seem to be making a lot of methanethiol where you should be making a lot of it,” Reeves says. Surprisingly, in the low-hydrogen environments, where much less should form, the research actually found more methanethiol than they had predicted, contradicting the original idea of how methanethiol forms. Overall, this means that jump-starting proto-metabolic reactions in hydrogen-rich early Earth hydrothermal systems through carbon-sulfur chemistry would likely have been much harder than many had assumed.

When I talk to naturalists, I often hear how it is not possible to claim that intelligence can be the cause of anything in nature. They claim that the progress of science has shown that we will discover a natural cause for everything. But for several areas of nature (origin of the universe, fine-tuning, origin of life, Cambrian explosion, etc.) where each new discovery makes a naturalistic solution less likely.

For a full evaluation of naturalistic scenarios for the origin of life, you can look at “Signature in the Cell” by Dr. Stephen C. Meyer.

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Theistic evolutionists and the two-platoon strategy

What should we make of theistic evolutionists telling us that you can believe in God, while still knowing that matter, law and chance explain the full development of all of life?

Consider this quotation from Phillip E. Johnson.


The National Academy’s way of dealing with the religious implications of evolution is akin to the two-platoon system in American football. When the leading figures of evolutionary science feel free to say what they really believe, writers such as Edward O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Carl Sagan, Steven Pinker, Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Lewontin and others state the “God is dead” thesis aggressively, invoking the authority of science to silence any theistic protest. That is the offensive platoon, and the National Academy never raises any objection to its promoting this worldview.

At other times, however, the scientific elite has to protect the teaching of the “fact of evolution” from objections by religious conservatives who know what the offensive platoon is saying and who argue that the science educators are insinuating a worldview that goes far beyond the data. When the objectors are too numerous or influential to be ignored, the defensive platoon takes the field. That is when we read those spin-doctored reassurances saying that many scientists are religious (in some sense), that science does not claim to have proved that God does not exist (but merely that he does not affect the natural world), and that science and religion are separate realms which should never be mixed (unless it is the materialists who are doing the mixing). Once the defensive platoon has done its job it leaves the field, and the offensive platoon goes right back to telling the public that science has shown that “God” is permanently out of business. (The Wedge of Truth, IVP 2000, pp. 88-89).

So what naturalistic scientists believe is that God didn’t do anything to create the diversity of life – that nature does all of its own creating. In fact, it doesn’t matter if the best naturalistic explanation is improbable or implausible – scientists must bitterly cling to materialistic explanations of natural phenomena.

The problem for these scientists is that they are taxpayer-funded, and religious people don’t like paying to have scientists shoehorn reality into a pre-supposed naturalistic framework. Sometimes, religious people get annoyed about being told that sparking gases can create functional proteins. And sometimes, religious people get annoyed about being told that the universe oscillates eternally despite observations that falsify that speculative theory. And sometimes, religious people get annoyed about being told that there are as yet undiscovered fossilized precusors to the Cambrian era fossils.

Naturalists think that opposition to these lame naturalistic theories only ever be religiously-motivated. They cannot accept that people might question their naturalistic just-so stories on scientific grounds. So what do the naturalists do when faced with scientifically-motivated dissent that they think is religiously motivated? Well, they trot out “religious” scientists. These “religious” scientists claim to have a deep personal faith in God, and a belief in miracles. But these religious scientists believe that what actually happened is that law, matter and chance did all the creating of life. This is the “second platoon”. They are sent out to mislead the public by talking about their personal faith, and what God could and couldn’t do, and how evolutionists can believe in God without any evidence of intelligent causes in the history of life. The one question they most want to avoid is whether science, done in the ordinary naturalistic way, can discover evidence of intelligent agency in the history of the development of life.

Now, take a look at this article by Jay Richards. He cites some theistic evolutionists.


Biologist Ken Miller:

For his part, [Ken] Miller, a biologist, has no qualms about telling us what God would do: “And in Catholicism, he said, God wouldn’t micromanage that way. ‘Surely he can set things up without having to violate his own laws.’”

I am unaware of any tenet of Catholic theology that requires God not to micromanage. It is, however, a tenet of deism.

Got that? What really happened is that God didn’t do anything. How does he know that? From the science? No. Because he assumes naturalism. Oh, it’s true that he says that God is lurking somewhere behind the material processes that created life. But God’s agency is undetectable by the methods of science. And he is hoping that you will accept his subjective pious God-talk as proof that a fundamentally atheistic reality is somehow reconcilable with a robust conception of theism.

More from Richards:

Then we get Stephen Barr offering his private definition of “chance.”

It is possible to believe simultaneously in a world that is shaped by chance and one following a divine plan. “God is in charge and there’s a lot of accident,” said Barr, also a Catholic. “It’s all part of a plan. . . . God may have known where every molecule was going to move.”

What does Barr really believe? He believes that what science shows is that nature created life without any interference by an intelligent agent. Barr then offers believers his subjective pious God-talk to reassure them that evolution is compatible with religion. He has a personal belief – NOT BASED ON SCIENCE – that the material processes that created all of life are “all part of a plan”. He cannot demonstrate that from science – it’s his faith commitment. And more speculations: “God may have known…”. He can’t demonstrate that God did know anything from science. He is just offering a personal opinion about what God “could have” done. The purpose of these subjective opinions is to appease those who ask questions about what natural mechanisms can really create. Can natural causes really account for the development of functional proteins? Never mind that – look at my shiny spiritual-sounding testimony!

That’s theistic evolution. What really happened is that no intelligent causes are needed to explain life. What they say is “God could” and “God might” and “I believe” and “I attend this church” and “I received a Christian award” and “I believe in miracles too”. None of these religious opinions and speculations are scientifically knowable – they are just opinions, speculations and biographical trivia. Atheists and theistic evolutions agree on what science shows about the diversity of life – intelligent causes didn’t do anything.

The quickest way to disarm a theistic evolutionist is to refuse to talk about religion or God, and to ask them to show you the naturalistic explanation of the Big Bang. And the naturalistic explanation of the fine-tuning. And the naturalistic explanation of the origin of life. And the naturalistic explanation of the Cambrian explosion. And so on. Focus on the science – don’t let them turn the conversation to their personal beliefs, or to the Bible, or to religion, or to philosophy. Ask them what they can show in the lab. If naturalistic mechanisms can do all the creating they say it can do, let’s see the demonstration in the lab.

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Mark D. Linville: does Darwinian evolution make morality rational?

Have you ever heard an atheist tell you that naturalistic evolution is an answer to the moral argument? I have. And I found a good reply to this challenge in the book “Contending With Christianity’s Critics“. The chapter that responds to the challenge is authored by Dr. Mark D. Linville. It is only 13 pages long. I have a link to the PDF at the bottom of this post.

First, a bit about the author:

Blog: The Tavern at the End of the World
Current positions:

  • PhD Research Fellow
  • Tutoring Fellow in Philosophy


  • PhD in Philosophy with a minor in South Asian Studies and a specialization in Philosophy of Religion, University of Wisconsin-Madison
  • MA in Philosophy, University of Wisconsin-Madison
  • MA in Philosophy of Religion, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School
  • MA in Theology, Cincinnati Christian Seminary
  • BA in Biblical Studies, Florida Christian College

Here is his thesis of the essay:

Darwin’s account of the origins of human morality is at once elegant, ingenious, and, I shall argue, woefully inadequate. In particular, that account, on its standard interpretation, does not explain morality, but, rather, explains it away . We learn from Darwin not how there could be objective moral facts, but how we could have come to believe—perhaps erroneously—that there are.

Further, the naturalist, who does not believe that there is such a personal being as God, is in principle committed to Darwinism, including a Darwinian account of the basic contours of human moral psychology. I’ll use the term evolutionary naturalism to refer to this combination of naturalism and Darwinism. And so the naturalist is saddled with a view that explains morality away. Whatever reason we have for believing in moral facts is also a reason for thinking naturalism is false. I conclude the essay with a brief account of a theistic conception of morality, and argue that the theist is in a better position to affirm the objectivity of morality.

And here’s a sample to get your attention:

But even if we are assured that a “normal” person will be prompted by the social instincts and that those instincts are typically flanked and reinforced by a set of moral emotions, we still do not have a truly normative account of moral obligation. There is nothing in Darwin’s own account to indicate that the ensuing sense of guilt—a guilty feeling—is indicative of actual moral guilt resulting from the violation of an objective moral law. The revenge taken by one’s own conscience amounts to a sort of second-order propensity to feel a certain way given one’s past relation to conflicting first-order propensities (e.g., the father’s impulse to save his child versus his impulse to save himself). Unless we import normative considerations from some other source, it seems that, whether it is a first or second-order inclination,one’s being prompted by it is more readily understood as a descriptive feature of one’s own psychology than material for a normative assessment of one’s behavior or character. And, assuming that there is anything to this observation, an ascent into even higher levels of propensities (“I feel guilty for not having felt guilty for not being remorseful over not obeying my social instincts…”) introduces nothing of normative import. Suppose you encounter a man who neither feels the pull of social, paternal or familial instincts nor is in the least bit concerned over his apparent lack of conscience. What, from a strictly Darwinian perspective, can one say to him that is of any serious moral import? “You are not moved to action by the impulses that move most of us.” Right. So?

The problem afflicts contemporary construals of an evolutionary account of human morality. Consider Michael Shermer’s explanation for the evolution of a moral sense—the “science of good and evil.” He explains,

By a moral sense, I mean a moral feeling or emotion generated by actions. For example, positive emotions such as righteousness and pride are experienced as the psychological feeling of doing “good.” These moral emotions likely evolved out of behaviors that were reinforced as being good either for the individual or for the group.2

Shermer goes on to compare such moral emotions to other emotions and sensations that are universally experienced, such as hunger and the sexual urge. He then addresses the question of moral motivation.

In this evolutionary theory of morality, asking “Why should we be moral?” is like asking “Why should we be hungry?” or “Why should we be horny?” For that matter, we could ask, “Why should we be jealous?” or “Why should we fall in love?” The answer is that it is as much a part of human nature to be moral as it is to be hungry, horny, jealous, and in love.3

Thus, according to Shermer, given an evolutionary account, such a question is simply a non-starter. Moral motivation is a given as it is wired in as one of our basic drives. Of course, one might point out that Shermer’s “moral emotions” often do need encouragement in a way that, say, “horniness,” does not. More importantly, Shermer apparently fails to notice that if asking “Why should I be moral?” is like asking, “Why should I be horny?” then asserting, “You ought to be moral” is like asserting, “You ought to be horny.” As goes the interrogative, so goes the imperative. But if the latter seems out of place, then, on Shermer’s view, so is the former.

One might thus observe that if morality is anything at all, it is irreducibly normative in nature. But the Darwinian account winds up reducing morality to descriptive features of human psychology. Like the libido, either the moral sense is present and active or it is not. If it is, then we might expect one to behave accordingly. If not, why, then, as a famous blues man once put it, “the boogie woogie just ain’t in me.” And so the resulting “morality” is that in name only.

In light of such considerations, it is tempting to conclude with C. S. Lewis that, if the naturalist remembered his philosophy out of school, he would recognize that any claim to the effect that “I ought” is on a par with “I itch,” in that it is nothing more than a descriptive piece of autobiography with no essential reference to any actual obligations.

When it comes to morality, we are not interested in mere descriptions of behavior. We want to know about prescriptions of behavior, and whether why we should care about following those prescriptions. We are interested in what grounds our sense of moral obligation in reality. What underwrites our sense of moral obligation? If it is just rooted in feelings, then why should we obey our moral sense when obeying it goes against out self-interest? Feelings are subjective things, and doing the right thing in a real objective state of affairs requires more than just feelings. There has to be a real objective state of affairs that makes it rational for us to do the right thing, even when the right thing is against our own self-interest. That’s what morality is – objective moral obligations overriding subjective feelings. I wouldn’t trust someone to be moral if it were just based on their feelings.

The PDF is right here for downloading, with the permission of the author.

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