Edward Feser has posted a reply to my previous post about original sin. I shall reply in two posts, but that will be it from my side. If Feser wants to reply to these posts then he can have the last word.
The problem is this: Several lines of evidence tell us that there was never a time when the human population was exactly two. It also tells us that humanity is one endpoint of billions of years evolution by natural selection. This conflicts with religious accounts holding that Adam and Eve were created instantaneously and were the only humans on the planet at that time. Thus, if we desire harmony between modern science and traditional religion, we shall need to find a different understanding of the Adam and Eve story. Feser offered one possibility in that regard, writing:
The implications of all of this should be obvious. There is nothing at all contrary to what Pius says in Humani Generis in the view that 10,000 (or for that matter 10,000,000) creatures genetically and physiologically like us arose via purely evolutionary processes. For such creatures — even if there had been only two of them — would not be “human” in the metaphysical sense in the first place. They would be human in the metaphysical sense (and thus in the theologically relevant sense) only if the matter that made up their bodies were informed by a human soul — that is, by a subsistent form imparting intellectual and volitional powers as well as the lower animal powers that a Planet of the Apes-style “human” would have. And only direct divine action can make that happen, just as (for A-T) direct divine action has to make it happen whenever one of us contemporary human beings comes into existence.
Supposing, then, that the smallest human-like population of animals evolution could have initially produced numbered around 10,000, we have a scenario that is fully compatible with Catholic doctrine if we suppose that only two of these creatures had human souls infused into them by God at their conception, and that He infused further human souls only into those creatures who were descended from this initial pair. And there is no evidence against this supposition.
I offered three arguments against this possibility. The first was that this story conflicts with the plain teaching of the Bible. The second was that it is very unclear, to put it kindly, that it is biologically feasible to have an organism that is physically identical to a human being that nonetheless lacks the ability for logical or abstract thought that Feser takes to be possible only after ensoulment. The third was that the story is theologically problematic, in the sense that it is very difficult to fathom what divine purposes were served by God behaving as Feser’s scenario says that He did.
Let’s take these points in reverse order. Feser ignores my third point completely. He makes no attempt to explain why God would behave in so bizarre a fashion. And he really does have some explaining to do. For the sake of argument, let’s assume we have devised a satisfying answer to the already thorny problem of why a just and loving God would create through eons of evolutionary bloodsport. We are now to suppose that God, having noted that evolution has finally produced creatures with just the sort of physical architecture you need for housing a soul, chose just two of those creatures to receive that awesome gift. But why just two? How is that different from parents playing favorites with their children? And how great a gift was it to take two people, make it so they can no longer relate to others in their community, and then send them off to live on their own? We are to believe that they now have the awesome privilege of living in communion with God, but they lose that privilege the second they disobey Him in even the slightest way. And after being expelled from their new home, they are forced to return to a life that is effectively equivalent to living with animals. I really don’t think I’m out of line in wondering about either the logic or the justice in any of this.
As it happens, though, there is an additional level of implausibility that I did not consider in my earlier post. To avoid the problem of having all of modern human genetics pass through a bottleneck consisting of some original human couple, we have to assume that Adam and Eve continued to mate with their unensouled but otherwise human contemporaries. In a paper defending ideas similar to Feser’s, philosopher Kenneth Kemp addresses this issue, writing:
First, is this idea offensive to pious ears? Of course it may well be a consequence of my view that our earliest ancestors were sinners for continuing to interbreed with the pre-human beings who, if not of a different biological species, were not fully human beings either. The sin involved would be more like promiscuity — impersonal sexual acts — than like bestiality. But the idea that our first ancestors were sinners can hardly be an objection to this theory. It is an idea supported by all four of the great episodes of the human proto-history of Genesis — the Fall, Cain’s slaying of Abel, the Deluge, and the Tower of Babel. The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it as follows: “After that first sin, the world is virtually inundated by sin.”
But leaving aside the question of precisely what to call the sin committed by Adam and Eve in procreating with their unensouled brethren (is it bestiality? or merely promiscuity?), we really must ask why Adam and Eve would find it appealing at all to engage in this sin. Since they can not even have an intelligent conversation with these “people” (in this context I feel compelled to use the sneer quotes), why would they find it desirable to have and raise children with them? And the children, we must presume, would themselves have souls. But does it not create an odd family dynamic to have the child and one parent have souls, and therefore higher reasoning capabilities, while the other parent cannot even be described as fully human?
Now let’s move on to the second point. Is it possible to have an animal that is physically identical to a human being that lacks the full panoply of human cognitive abilities? Feser opens his discussion of this point as follows:
Rosenhouse’s other response to what I wrote is (again, perhaps because he could see that Kemp had in effect answered Coyne’s original objection) to change the subject. The subject, you’ll recall, was whether the doctrine of original sin is compatible with the genetic evidence. The subject was not whether the doctrine is true. Obviously I think it is true, but that is a separate issue requiring a separate discussion. Flynn, Kemp, and I were not trying to convince skeptics to accept the doctrine of original sin, but only to show that rightly understood, the doctrine is compatible with the claim that modern humans descended from a population well above two individuals. Rosenhouse, however, complains that we have not established the truth of a key presupposition of our defense of the doctrine, viz. the immateriality of the human soul — even though I explicitly said that I was not claiming to have done that in the post he’s responding to (since doing so was not necessary to answering the specific objection at hand and the post was already long enough).
This is bizarre. First, if someone says, “I have reinterpreted original sin in a way that makes it consistent with modern genetics,” it is not changing the subject to reply, “But your suggestion is biologically impossible nonetheless.”. Second, it is highly disingenuous to say that the only goal of his original post (or Kemp’s paper; I haven’t read Flynn) was to establish mere consistency between doctrine and science. Surely they also wanted us to think their reinterpretation was plausible, or at the very least biologically possible, and that project is seriously undermined by my argument about animal intelligence. Finally, I made not the slightest reference to the problem of showing the immateriality of the human soul. Feser knows perfectly well that I don’t even believe the human soul exists, except in a metaphorical sense. My actual point was far more concrete. It was that the scientific evidence on animal intelligence does not support Feser’s interpretation.
Now, since this is a Feser post, you know you are going to have to wade through a lot of silliness to get to the few nuggets of actual argument. Consider this:
I also noted that the immateriality of the human soul is something I have argued for elsewhere. For example, I treat the subject at length in my books Philosophy of Mind, The Last Superstition, and Aquinas. I address it in numerous previous blog posts. Yet Rosenhouse assures us that:
Catholic theologians have not the slightest basis for saying that our nature is simply not exhausted by our physical attributes.
Hear that? Not “a highly controversial basis.” Not “a basis that I, Jason Rosenhouse, find unconvincing.” No, not the slightest basis. Now, forget about my own arguments for the intellect’s immateriality (though Rosenhouse says nothing in response to them). A great many more important Catholic philosophers and theologians have also presented serious arguments for it, as have non-Catholic Christians and pagan thinkers in the Platonic and Aristotelian traditions. Secular writers like Karl Popper and David Chalmers have endorsed forms of dualism. Secular writers like Bertrand Russell, A. J. Ayer, and Galen Strawson, while they do not embrace dualism, nevertheless reject physicalism. Yet others, like Thomas Nagel, Jerry Fodor, and Joseph Levine, have argued that there are at least serious difficulties facing physicalism which have yet to be answered. And many materialists who think these difficulties can be answered at least acknowledge that the difficulties are indeed serious ones raised by critics in good faith. Then there are secular non-dualists like Tyler Burge, John Searle, and William Lycan, who (as I have noted before) have expressed the opinion that the dominance of materialism in contemporary philosophy of mind owes less to the quality of the arguments in its favor than to ideological thinking.
Truly, those first few sentences after my quote are beyond ridiculous. When you say that so and so has not the slightest basis for believing something, you obviously are not saying that so and so stands in dumbstruck silence when you ask them to explain themselves. And someone as snide, arrogant and dismissive as Feser is towards anyone who disagrees with him certainly has no business claiming to find those flaws in others.
But the bigger issue is that I can’t for the life of me understand why Feser thinks we’re discussing philosophy. I said nothing about physicalism, dualism, materialism or anything like that. I made a claim about animal intelligence, and that’s a question for biology to answer. My claim was that the biological evidence we have suggests strongly that intelligence and rationality are things that come in degrees, with more neural wiring translating into greater intelligence. I pointed out that dogs, with their relatively small brains, already have impressive information processing capabilities. I then pointed to apes, whose abilities are more striking still. Though I didn’t discuss it in my previous post, I could have added that paleoanthropology reveals that attributes we consider distinctively human, such as a capacity for art or music, are things that emerged gradually in the course of our evolution. There is nothing in the science to suggest that we developed such abilities instantaneously. They appear to have evolved gradually along with everything else.
So you can imagine my surprise at reading this:
Such preposterous overstatement would be inexcusable even if Rosenhouse had shown any evidence that he understands the issues. But he quite obviously does not understand them. He continues:
Intelligence and rationality appear to be things that come in degrees. Dogs already have the ability to learn hundreds of commands. They can form complex emotional relationships with people. They can understand their place in a pack. All of this requires considerable mental processing ability. What basis is there for saying that purely physical processes in the brain can account for these, fairly sophisticated, mental accomplishments, but cannot account for abstract reasoning or rationality as well?
Even the brief comments I made in my previous post should make it obvious what is wrong with this argument from an Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) point of view. None of the examples Rosenhouse gives requires a grasp of abstract concepts, as opposed to mere sensation, mental imagery, or the processing of material symbols. And it is abstract concepts — for instance, the concept man as opposed to a sensation of a particular man or a mental image of a certain man’s appearance or voice, or a neural structure that is causally correlated with particular men encountered in the past — that A-T philosophers (and by no means only A-T philosophers) argue cannot be material.
Just incredible! My quoted statement explicitly makes a distinction between the sorts of things dogs are observed to do on the one hand and abstract reasoning on the other, but Feser concludes I don’t understand the issues because I failed to make that distinction. My point in mentioning dogs at all was to show that even a relatively small brain is already capable of quite a lot, to the point where that alone should make us suspicious of claims that a capacity for abstraction represents a fundamental break between human and animal abilities.
But when we come to apes Feser gets truly desperate:
And that’s just dogs. Once we start contemplating apes the basis for Feser’s arguments gets very rickety indeed. Apes have sophisticated tool-making and tool-using capabilities. They can learn sign language and have shown an ability to combine signs in logical ways to express concepts beyond what they were specifically taught. Are you really confident they have no ability for abstraction or the use of logic?
The answer is Yes, I am confident of that, for the same sorts of reasons Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker are confident that the “evidence” for ape sign language is completely bogus. (Last time I checked, Chomsky and Pinker weren’t religious apologists.) But even if Chomsky, Pinker, and I are all wrong, that wouldn’t show that the intellect is material. For if it turned out that apes really did have genuine intellectual powers, what would follow instead is that they too had immaterial souls — and indeed, that they were arguably therefore “human” in the metaphysical sense even if not in the genetic sense, for they would in that case be rational animals.
See what I mean about having to wade through a lot of silliness?
Feser is taking advantage of an equivocation on what it means to “learn sign language.” Pinker’s objection is that sign language, no less than Latin or English, has a grammar and a structure to it, and there is no evidence that apes can grasp that structure. Fair enough, but that’s hardly what I need to make my point. Apes have been successful at learning signs for different words and have been able to combine those signs to express more complex thoughts. They have also been able to communicate using lexigrams on keyboards. Here’s a helpful account of the history of studies into animal intelligence. It includes discussions of work such as this:
Kanzi’s [a chimpanzee] two-and-three-word sentences on the keyboard may seem less than impressive. But a set of experiments comparing Kanzi’s understanding of spoken English to that of Alia, the two-and-one-half-year-old daughter of a Language Center researcher appears to show a very different level of understanding. Kanzi and Alia were presented with sentence-understanding tasks as similar as the researchers could make them. Archival videotape of Kanzi’s performance sets the scene.
Kanzi sits in a room with two researchers (one is Rose Sevcik). A third (Sue Savage-Rumbaugh) stands outside the room with a microphone. The two inside researchers wear earphones playing loud music to reduce the chance they can give Kanzi any clues. The room has a “kitchen,” and a large playroom with a number of objects Kanzi has never seen. A child’s toilet, a pitcher of water, a rubber snake, a stuffed dog, a 25-pound bag of carrots, a hand puppet vaguely resembling a rabbit. The voice from outside says “Kanzi, make the dog bite the snake.” Kanzi immediately picks up the rubber snake and the plush toy dog. He carefully puts the snake’s head into the dog’s mouth and gently squeezes the dog’s jaws shut. An impressive show of understanding made more impressive by the fact that Kanzi has generalized the spoken words dog and snake to toys he’s never seen.
“Kanzi, tickle Rose with the bunny,” says Savage-Rumbaugh. Kanzi picks up a bunny hand puppet, carries it to Sevcik and tickles her. Sevcik says in explaining the videotape that Kanzi’s only previous knowledge of “bunny” was a videotape of a Language Research Center worker dressed in a bunny suit. The researchers had never drilled Kanzi (or Alia) on the requests, and all of the objects were new, purchased just for the experiment.
Duane Rumbaugh summarizes the results: “Kanzi’s comprehension of 500 novel sentences of request were very comparable to Alia’s. Both complied with the requests without assistance on about 70% of the sentences.” He emphasizes that Kanzi learned by observation alone very early in life, and further that the researchers only discovered this fact by the lucky decision to keep Kanzi around after Matata was sent home. “The apes can come to understand even the syntax of human speech at a level that compares favorably with that of a two-to-three-year-old child–if they are reared from shortly after birth in a language-structured environment. Reared in this manner, the infant ape’s brain develops in a manner that enables it to acquire language. First through its comprehension and then through its expression, a pattern that characterizes the course of language acquisition in the normal child. We had no intention of studying language-observational learning in [Kanzi]. But it happened and we’ve replicated it with other [bonobos and chimpanzees],” Rumbaugh says.
Duane Rumbaugh and Sue Savage Rumbaugh summarize–fairly, it seems–the current state of research in their chapter of the 1994 Animal Learning and Cognition. “Though none will argue that any animal has the full capacity of humans for language, none should deny that at least some animals have quite impressive competencies for language skills, including speech comprehension.”
I repeat my question: Are you sure that apes don’t have a capacity for abstract reasoning?
Biology provides good reasons for being highly suspicious of claims that an ability for abstract reasoning represents a clean break between humans and animals. Paleoanthropology provides no evidence that mental attributes we sometimes think of as distinctively human appeared suddenly, as opposed to gradually. These findings strike me as far more relevant and significant than the conclusions of so much armchair philosophy. If the empirical facts point strongly in one direction while a handful of philosophers say something different, then I think I know who is likely to have to yield.
That leaves only the question of what the Bible says, but since this has become far longer than I intended I shall address that in the next post. Stay tuned!