Richard Dawkins and the Moral Tao – Part 1

In my previous post I introduced the term ‘Tao’, borrowed from CS Lewis, to designate reality as having values of an essence that demands appropriate (moral) responses from us.  Perhaps surprisingly, Richard Dawkins, in his well-known book The God Delusion, cites experimental evidence supporting this view of the Tao.  I briefly mentioned this in the videos of Session Two.  In this post I want to explore it further.

Morals built into our brains – the tests of Marc Hauser

Dawkins references the work of biologist Marc Hauser where Hauser had developed experimental tests given to people posing a series of moral dilemmas.  The dilemmas involved hypothetical cases of people about to die in accidents, with possible ways to save them that sometimes involved risk to others.  The goal of the tests was not to determine the right course of action in each situation, but to see how and why people responded as they did.  As Dawkins reports:

“The interesting thing is that most people come to the same decisions when faced with these dilemmas, and their agreement over the decisions themselves is stronger than their ability to articulate their reasons.  This is what we should expect if we have a moral sense which is built into our brains, … as Hauser himself prefers to say like our capacity for language (the details vary from culture to culture, but the underlying deep structure of grammar is universal)”[1]

“In an intriguing venture into anthropology, Hauser and his colleagues adapted their moral experiments to the Kuna, a small Central American tribe with little contact with westerners and no formal religions…the Kuna showed the same moral judgments as the rest of us”[2]

“Hauser … compared the verdicts of atheists with those of religious people… there is no statistically significant difference between atheists and religious believers in making these judgments”[3]

Hauser’s work is experimental corroboration of CS Lewis’s Tao.  When we reason morally we are not inventing morals, we perceive absolute moral truths.  And this ability flies beneath the radar of our awareness.  This is why sometimes it seems unnatural to even ask the question “why is dishonesty wrong?”  Our moral sense just tells us that it is though our ability to articulate why does not come as readily.

Mankind: Equipped with a universal moral grammar

Dawkins and Hauser conclude that:

“Driving our moral judgments is a universal moral grammar, a faculty of the mind that evolved over millions of years to include a set of principles for building a range of possible moral systems.  As with language, the principles that make up our moral grammar fly beneath the radar of our awareness”[4]

Dawkins and Hauser both attribute this moral grammar (i.e. ‘Tao’) to evolution, but there is nothing in the fact of its existence that requires an evolutionary explanation.  It is simply that their worldview requires that everything must be explained by naturalistic evolution.  But stand back and look at the big picture: the concept of innate moral laws hardwired into our brains fits readily with the idea of a Lawgiver who put them there.

Human Morals – Built into us like SciFi robots with Laws

Dawkins concludes from these experimental results that since non-westerners with no formal religion (the Kuna), as well as religious westerners, and atheists alike all have the same moral Tao, that therefore religion does not change or improve morality.  But this is to miss the point.  The important question is not whether religion improves our Tao; it is rather ‘Do we have a Tao grounded in absolutes outside of society’?  Dawkins and Bertrand Russell (in the first video of Session Two) themselves, using two distinct approaches, have shown us that we do.  Without intending to do so, they have actually helped us to see through our culture’s current widespread misconception that morals are relative.

Russell (in Session Two) has done so by showing how morals actually worked in him when he was ‘wronged’; in his indignation, when he forgot he was not trying to create a case for subjective morals, he showed us that in him they were absolute.  Dawkins showed that morality is a capacity within us that is like a ‘universal moral grammar’. We are morally aligned alike, with a moral ‘up’ and ‘down’, as if in reference to an absolute standard.  If this is the case, then morals are rooted outside of us and outside of society; they are absolute.  For us science fiction buffs, it is analogous to Isaac Asimov’s famous Three Laws of Robotics in his books and the movie I Robot.  These were moral laws planted into the circuitry of robots to give them ‘robot morals’.  But they were hardwired in by the robot creators – humans!  If a moral circuitry is wired into us, in a similar way, it hearkens back to the Creator who made us – a Moral Creator.

So Dawkins does not want this moral basis because this raises the natural question: where does this absolute moral reference come from?  As Dawkins puts it.

“Not all absolutism [ie an objective moral Tao] is derived from religion.  Nevertheless, it is pretty hard to defend absolutist morals on grounds other than religious ones” [5]

He knows he is flirting one step away from admitting that a Lawgiver stands behind this Moral Law.  So instead, he advances reasons why natural selection (ie physical rather than metaphysical reasons) can explain why we have an objective morality.  In our next post I want to examine these reasons.


[1] The God Delusion.  p. 223

[2] Ibid. p. 225

[3] Ibid. p. 225-226

[4] The God Delusion. p. 223

[5] Richard Dawkins, “The God Delusion” 2006 p. 232

5 thoughts on “Richard Dawkins and the Moral Tao – Part 1

  1. If only religious people like yourself actually understood what evolution is and how it comes about, you wouldn’t need to write this post..! You write “….innate moral laws wired into our brain…….” And HOW were they wired into our brains? Yes! You’ve guessed it! Evolution by means of natural selection predisposing the organism to use it’s brain to navigate it’s environment to increase it’s potential for survival into adulthood and produce the next generation…!! Yes, we are ‘just’ biological robots run by a supercomputer housed within a bony skull – get used to it! Knowledge like that does not demean us – it empowers us.
    No gods involved in any part of our manufacture..!

  2. Pingback: Made In His Image…. at the beginning. (Genesis 1:1 – 3:3) | allpowerfullove

  3. An analogy never exactly matches the thing it’s trying to illustrate — it always breaks down at some point — because otherwise it wouldn’t be an analogy, it’d be the thing itself. But I think you’ve made a good response.

    However, I fail to see the significance of the scientist becoming a rat to lead other rats to freedom, unless he were to stay a rat forever. Sure, he’d be living among the rats and experiencing all the limitations that come with that, but only for a finite period of time after which he is apart again (and leaving “his spirit” with the rats doesn’t make up for it). Moreover, a wound isn’t mortal if you can fully recover from it. You can call it mortal, but then you leave behind the weight that normally comes with the word.

    So now the big question: could God have left out the trap? To rephrase it cliche-ly, can God make a triangle whose angles don’t sum to 180/a boulder so heavy he can’t lift it/a square circle…? The difference between God’s situation and that of male-female love is that humans have limitations. God is supposed to be all-powerful, in which case He should not be bound by logic (which, indeed, He isn’t, if Jesus was both fully God and fully human). An all-powerful God unbound by logic therefore CAN leave out the trap. He might choose not to, if He is not really benevolent, but He is supposed to have that quality as well. Logic would therefore dictate that God is either not all-powerful or not benevolent.

    I hear your reply coming a mile away. God is not bound by logic, so He can still be both! That’s all well and good, but then we can no longer use logic to reliably describe God, which means we can’t really talk about Him in terms that we mere humans can understand. And this site is all about trying to come to logical conclusions about the person of God and the nature of the universe — an impossible feat if our subjects actually transcend logic.

    Occam’s razor presents an alternate solution: avoid this logical quandary altogether by denying the existence of Goodness or a God. It isn’t a pretty solution, it isn’t comfortable, but it is logical.

  4. I feel like I should have said this earlier, so I’ll say it now: if our “inbuilt morality” is supposed to have come from a divine Lawgiver, why does it conflict so much with the Lawgiver’s morality?

    I don’t concede that we all have the same sense of morality, but even if I did, I would point out that most of us sense poor morality behind a lot of God’s actions in the Old Testament. He plays favourites (picking Israel as his people), encourages manslaughter (telling them to go conquer their neighbours), makes people pay for their ancestors’ shortcomings (numerous occasions, but for example, killing Egyptian first-born children before the Exodus), performs executions for minor infringements (you didn’t approach the Ark correctly!) or just to prove a point (collapsing a roof onto Job’s children)…the list goes on. Frankly, this isn’t a God I WANT to believe in.

    I’ve asked you before, “How do we know that God is good?” Your reply was, “Jesus.” I wasn’t convinced, and now I know how to express why:

    Imagine that a scientist builds a maze containing a trap, then places a rat into the maze. The maze is large with many different pathways to traverse, but the rat eventually steps into the trap and is ensnared. The scientist eventually releases the rat from the trap, starving and dehydrated and bleeding from the wounds caused by the trap’s spiky jaws. In so doing, the scientist is forced to scratch his hand against one of the spikes, and the cut forms a scab.

    Is the rat supposed to love the scientist for releasing him from the trap?

    In case the analogy is lost on some of our younger readers, the scientist represents God while the rat represents mankind. The maze is the world, the trap is sin/the potential for sin/the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. The scientist releasing the rat from the trap represents God saving mankind from sin through the coming of Jesus. The pricking of his hand, and its subsequent healing, is Jesus’ death and resurrection.

    In other words, the event of Jesus’ death and resurrection is better than Jesus NOT dying and being resurrected, but it falls short of what we would expect from someone who expects our love. Why does the trap have to be there? Why does the scientist wait so long before rescuing the rat? In fact, why put the rat in the maze at all? Christianity makes less and less sense the more I think about it.

    • Hey Justin. Good comment. In fact, your analogy (the rat in a maze) is exactly the analogy my roommate in university used. We had some good conversations around it. The trick with analogies is that they may not exactly match the concept they are supposed to illustrate. So Biblically speaking (since you are using the Biblical narrative to frame your rat-in-a-maze analogy), your analogy falls short in that the scientist remains apart from the rat. To be a better analogy to the gospel, the scientist should become a rat himself and enter the maze so that he can lead the other rats out of the maze. This forever changes the nature of the scientist. And in the maze this rat-scientist does not suffer a scratch but some mortal wound.

      Now this modification does not remove the maze or the trap from your analogy. But your analogy seems to assume that the trap is (arbitrarily?) opted in by the scientist i.e. that it is in principle an option. And you question why he put a trap there. I think perhaps you are too preoccupied with the details (tree of knowledge etc.) and since the details can vary you think this must be an extraneous option. But think of male-female human love. For it to be real love – freely given and freely received – there has to be a real option to say ‘no’ to a relationship. The details of how a relationship is developed and how ‘commitment’ or ‘understanding’ between the lovers is reached can vary widely. But it must be freely chosen and it is done so within a set of detail events.

      So the biblical view is that the freedom of choice is a necessary (not arbitrary) prerequisite by the nature (not the details) of the thing sought for – free-willed relationship. It is like saying if you want a triangle you have to have a geometric figure with internal angles summing to 180 degrees. You cannot have it any other way because that is the nature of a triangle. To look at it slightly differently, in the biblical account, angelic beings also faced the same nature of choice as Adam/Eve with the Tree of Knowledge – though they did not face it in a Garden with a spec ific tree. Take a look at Isaiah 14:12-14 (Lucifer`s `trap`) and compare it with Genesis 3:4-6 (human `trap`). The details of the settings are different but the nature of the issue and the choices are the same.

      And we see from the biblical point-of-view that this is the reason the ‘maze’ is so complex. It is not that God has made it such, but that we do all we can to run away and hide – bringing ourselves into a maze. Starting right in the Garden when they hid from God, to Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son wandering far away that is a biblical statement of the reality of the human heart (think of Ecclesiastes 7:29 – “This only have I found: God created mankind upright, but they have gone in search of many schemes.”). One can argue that this biblical view of reality is plain wrong but I think the gist of your comment is to say that the biblical account is internally inconsistent, rather than externally inconsistent, so I am focusing this comment of mine on its internal consistency or lack thereof (trying to keep it reasonably short).

      If I understand you correctly, your problem with the goodness of God is not Jesus per se but reconciling the ‘good’ Jesus with difficult OT passages. One can layer this with other questions that arise from observing evil in this world (ie outside of the biblical narrative). I suppose there are different ways in trying to answer this. One way is to flatly deny there is any such thing as Goodness or a God. I guess the way I have chosen is to try to see if there really is such a thing as Goodness through trying to understand our human condition better. This is the point of my posts dealing with morality. I do find that outside the bible, as I try to show in my posts, the evidence leans strongly that there is a real Goodness. I also look critically at the Biblical account to see if there is evidence that there is a Divine Mind behind it. I find that there is. I look at Jesus and conclude both that he is from God and that he is Good. Only then, with this starting assumption (there is a God and He is Good) can I seek to understand such passages as you list. I have not posted about this yet because I have not laid an adequate foundation yet (to my mind) on these starting points. I want to start posting more about divine inspiration and look at that more in depth.

      Anyways, my comment to your comment is probably long enough so I will end it here. But thanks for your thoughts.

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