Here is a video of Robert Wright’s lecture on the evolution of compassion. I’ve written on this recently at UD here.
My point in the other blog was to note that if compassion has an evolutionary explanation for its existence, then so does not being compassionate, and so does every other aspect of our entire humanity by being the product of the same process. This leaves one with no more ultimate standard to use to judge whether we should or shouldn’t be compassionate, for whatever we try to use for the standard is itself subject to the trial. And of course this includes all thoughts, not just ones we call compassion and being in-compassionate. The explanation of our thinking resulting from evolution necessitates that all thoughts, even contradictory ones, have the same grounds in evolution. And this brings us to the difficulty: On this premise, there could be no escape from evolution to find a more solid ground on which to make judgments about any other thoughts that are, themselves, also the result of evolution. Evolutionary Psychologists like Robert Wright, very contradictorily, contends that evolution has given us false beliefs, not seeing that the judgment he is using also comes from the same process as the one he claims produced the false belief. If evolution gives us false beliefs, what grounds have we to trust it in any other regard? This excerpt from C. S. Lewis’s essay The Abolition of Man may help to clarify the matter; and let’s say that our evolved capacities of thought (including compassion) are called Instincts for the sake of argument:
It looks very much as if the Innovator would have to say not that we must obey Instinct, nor that it will satisfy us to do so, but that we ought to obey it. But why ought we to obey Instinct [compassion]? Is there another instinct of a higher order directing us to do so, and a third of still higher order directing us to obey it?—an infinite regress of instincts? This is presumably impossible, but nothing else will serve. From the statement about psychological fact ‘I have an impulse to do so and so’ we cannot by any ingenuity derive the practical principle ‘I ought to obey this impulse’. Even if it were true that men had a spontaneous, unreflective impulse to sacrifice their own lives for the preservation of their fellows, it remains a quite separate question whether this is an impulse they should control or one they should indulge. For even the Innovator admits that many impulses (those which conflict with the preservation of the species [and compassion]) have to be controlled. And this admission surely introduces us to a yet more fundamental difficulty.
Telling us to obey Instinct is like telling us to obey ‘people’. People say different things: so do instincts. Our instincts are at war. If it is held that the instinct for preserving the species should always be obeyed at the expense of other instincts, whence do we derive this rule of precedence? To listen to that instinct speaking in its own cause and deciding it in its own favour would be rather simple-minded. Each instinct, if you listen to it, will claim to be gratified at the expense of all the rest. By the very act of listening to one rather than to others we have already prejudged the case. If we did not bring to the examination of our instincts a knowledge of their comparative dignity we could never learn it from them. And that knowledge cannot itself be instinctive: the judge cannot be one of the parties judged; or, if he is, the decision is worthless and there is no ground for placing the preservation of the species above self-preservation or sexual appetite.
The idea that, without appealing to any court higher than the instincts themselves, we can yet find grounds for preferring one instinct above its fellows dies very hard. We grasp at useless words: we call it the ‘basic’, or ‘fundamental’, or ‘primal’, or ‘deepest’ instinct. It is of no avail. Either these words conceal a value judgment passed upon the instinct and therefore not derivable from it, or else they merely record its felt intensity, the frequency of its operation and its wide distribution. If the former, the whole attempt to base value upon instinct has been abandoned: if the latter, these observations about the quantitative aspects of a psychological event lead to no practical conclusion. It is the old dilemma. Either the premises already concealed an imperative or the conclusion remains merely in the indicative.
And Lewis is exactly right. We cannot get an ought from an is. And on the premise of a completely evolved human, including all neural networks and all that makes up the capacity of the mind, we cannot have any grounds for why any evolutionary standards should be used to judge other evolutionary standards when they are all themselves on trial in the process. And we have to remember that these evolutionary psychologists really and honestly do consider that whole systems of false beliefs, such as the world’s religions, are merely the result of an evolutionary process, and do not actually exist. This leaves them, though they don’t see it, with the truth that there really aren’t any more fundamental guiding standards above or deeper than any other, because they don’t even rise to the ground of being different from any other belief by comparison. But the matter gets worse when we really conceptualize what is at stake with our evolutionary psychologist’s framework of claiming all sensibilities to be from the same process that has produced all other living things. C. S. Lewis shed’s much needed light on the difficulty of emptying ourselves of the traditional concept of being designed and remolded into the image of evolution:
The process whereby man has come to know the universe is from one point of view extremely complicated; from another it is alarmingly simple. We can observe a single one-way progression. At the outset the universe appears packed with will, intelligence, life and positive qualities; every tree is a nymph and every planet a god. Man himself is akin to the gods. The advance of knowledge gradually empties this rich and genial universe: first of its gods, then of its colors, smells, sounds and tastes, finally of solidity itself as solidity was originally imagined. As these items are taken from the world, they are transferred to the subjective side of the account: classified as our sensations, thoughts, images or emotions. The Subject becomes gorged, inflated, at the expense of the Object. But the matter does not rest here. The same method which has emptied the world now proceeds to empty ourselves. The masters of the method soon announce that we were just as mistaken (and mistaken in much the same way) when we attributed “souls”, or “selves” or “minds” to human organisms, as when we attributed Dryads to the trees. Animism, apparently, begins at home. We, who have personified all other things, turn out to be ourselves mere personifications. Man is indeed akin to the gods: that is, he is no less phantasmal than they. Just as the Dryad is a “ghost”, an abbreviated symbol for all the facts we know about the tree foolishly mistaken for a mysterious entity over and above the facts, so the man’s “mind” or “consciousness” is an abbreviated symbol for certain verifiable facts about his behaviour: a symbol mistaken for a thing. And just as we have been broken of our bad habit of personifying trees, so we must now be broken of our bad habit of personifying men: a reform already effected in the political field. There never was a Subjective account into which we could transfer the items into which the Object had lost. There is no “consciousness” to contain, as images or private experiences, all the lost gods, colours, and concepts. Consciousness is “not the sort of noun that can be used that way”…
And thus we arrive at a result uncommonly like zero. While we were reducing the world to almost nothing we deceived ourselves with the fancy that all its lost qualities were being kept safe (if in a somewhat humbled condition) as “things in our own mind”. Apparently we had no mind of the sort required. The Subject is as empty as the Object. Almost nobody has been making linguistic mistakes about almost nothing. By and large, this is the only thing that has ever happened.
Now the trouble about this conclusion is not simply that it is unwelcome to our emotions. It is not unwelcome at all times or in all people. This philosophy, like every other, has its pleasures. And it will, I fancy, prove very congenial to government. The old “liberty-talk” was very much mixed up with the idea that , as inside the ruler, so inside the subject, there was a whole world, to him the centre of all worlds, capacious of endless suffering and delight. But now, of course, he has no “inside”, except the sort you can find by cutting him open.
The question is whether the first thinkers in modifying (and rightly modifying) them under the criticism, did not make some rash and unnecessary concession. It was certainly not there intention to commit us to the absurd consequence that have actually followed. This sort of error is of course very common in debate or even in solitary thought. We start with a view which contains a good deal of truth, though in a confused or exaggerated form. Objections are then suggested and we withdraw it. But hours later we discover that we have emptied the baby out with the bath water and that the original view must have contained certain truths for lack of which we are now tangled in absurdities. So here. In emptying out the Dryads and the gods (which, admittedly, “would not do” just as they stood) we appear to have thrown out the whole universe, ourselves included. We must go back and begin over again: this time with a better chance of success, for of course we can now use all particular truths and all improvements of method which our argument may have thrown up as by-products in its otherwise ruinous course.
This essay was first published as a Preface to D.E. Harding’s The Hierarchy of Heaven and Earth: A New Diagram of Man in the Universe (London, 1952).
Not only have we emptied ourselves from any real standards of truth when our entire person is subject to a mindless process of evolution, but we cannot even say that there exist any standard between us and the non-sentient world given that evolution has produced both. The Subject is just as vacuous as the Object. Lewis was right, we must begin again in our thinking, otherwise we will remain tangled in these absurdities.