22 December 2014

Can Ed Feser save Adam and Eve?

Something that's often lost in debates with philosophically-inclined Christian apologist types is that we can grant them, for the sake of argument, all their ridiculous arguments about "necessary beings" and Cartesian dualism. Let's say they have, through philosophically sophisticated deduction, incontrovertibly proved the existence of souls and a god. It matters little, unless they're content to settle for a deistic or pantheistic deity. They're still got all their work cut for them to show that Christianity — and importantly, their particular brand of it — is the One True Faith.

I think that one of the biggest theological hurdles for Christianity — aside from the sheer absurdity of Original Sin, blood covenants, and a god who fulfills his own promise by making himself a body and killing it because only his own magic blood was powerful enough to allow us to be granted forgiveness... by him... for involuntarily inheriting a sinful nature that he cursed us with... sigh. I digress. The whole religion is a mess, but if there's one sour apple in the bunch that even those swimming deep in the Kool-Aid can recognize, it's the problem of Adam and Eve.

Put simply, the problem is this: creationists not withstanding (and not worth debating), we all recognize the overwhelming evidence for evolution. Modern humans did not descend from two people; we descended from a population of common ancestors no smaller than some 10,000 individuals. So okay, we didn't all come from Adam and Eve, like the Bible teaches. Why does that matter? Isn't the story in Genesis, as most modern Christians accept, a fable meant to communicate spiritual — not scientific — truths?

The problem is that without Adam and Eve, the Fall makes little sense. And with no Fall, the idea of God creating a covenant with humanity to save us from our 'Fallenness' makes even less sense than it does with a literal interpretation of the Bible. The issue was nicely summarized by apologist Tim Keller, pastor and author of The Reason for God:
[Paul] most definitely wanted to teach us that Adam and Eve were real historical figures. When you refuse to take a biblical author literally when he clearly wants you to do so, you have moved away from the traditional understanding of the biblical authority. . If Adam doesn’t exist, Paul’s whole argument—that both sin and grace work “covenantally"—falls apart. You can’t say that Paul was a "man of his time" but we can accept his basic teaching about Adam. If you don’t believe what he believes about Adam, you are denying the core of Paul’s teaching.
There are tangential questions, too: Why would God, in his One True Book he gave humanity to tell us about the One True Faith, mislead us so egregiously as to the origin of humanity? If his intention was only to communicate a 'spiritual truth', he clearly failed — as Paul's own writing unambiguously shows. The simplest explanation, of course, is that it's just a fucking myth. It looks like a fable because it is. The Bible doesn't talk about common ancestry not because God had his reasons, but because the book is a product of its pre-scientific era.


But nevermind that. Sophisticated Theologians™ are not about to take this issue lying down. And sophisticated theologian extraordinaire Ed Feser is certainly no exception, as he recently blogged about the problem in his post "Knowing Ape from Adam". To his credit, he acknowledges the problem head-on:

In a recent article at Crisis magazine, Prof. Dennis Bonnette correctly notes that Catholic teaching also requires that there be a single pair from whom all human beings have inherited the stain of original sin. He also rightly complains that too many Catholics wrongly suppose that this teaching can be allegorized away and the standard naturalistic story about human origins accepted wholesale.
Naturally, that raises the question of how the traditional teaching about original sin can be reconciled with what contemporary biologists have to say about human origins.
After a long digression into the position of the Catholic church, Feser gets to the heart of the matter:
Longtime readers will recall that I there rehearsed a proposal developed by Mike Flynn and Kenneth Kemp to the effect that we need to distinguish the notion of a creature which is human in a strict metaphysical sense from that of a creature which is “human” merely in a looser, purely physiological sense. The latter sort of creature would be more or less just like us in its bodily attributes but would lack our intellectual powers, which are incorporeal. In short, it would lack a human soul. Hence, though genetically it would appear human, it would not be a rational animal and thus not be human in the strict metaphysical sense.
Right away, we have a problem — one that happens to cut to a serious problem with Feser's dualism as well. Specifically: what is the correct degree of intelligence — or, specifically, the exact types of cognition — that qualifies for a "soul"? Feser describes these soulless proto-humans as non-rational animals, but this in itself requires him to cover his eyes and ears with regard to modern science.

Evolution shows us that intelligence and rationality exist on a spectrum. Higher-order primates, like chimps and bonobos, can use sign language, paint, and create tools for specific tasks. Dolphins and elephants, like primates, can experience empathy (elephants can also use tools); ravens can solve complex problems and understand the social hierarchy of other birds. Examples like these show that animals are capable of a level of abstraction that even a few decades ago was thought to be exclusively the domain of humans.

Just as he lives in denial regarding the findings of embodied cognition that disabuse us of the existence of incorporeal minds, so too Feser is in denial of our scientific understanding of intelligence — it would seem, on his position, that even animals capable of abstract reasoning and empathy are not really exhibiting rationality:
As I noted in a recent post, though a purely material system could never in principle exhibit true rationality, it might simulate it to a significant extent (just as if you add enough sides to a polygon you will get something that looks like a circle even though it could not really be a circle). The sub-rational creatures in question would have been sphexish, but a sufficiently complex sphexish creature might seem not to be on a superficial examination.
So what, specifically, is the intelligence litmus test that demonstrates the existence of a divinely imbued soul? Abstraction? Emotion? Social hierarchy? Fairness? Creativity? Different animals display these various traits to varying degrees. The evolutionary view is that human intelligence is... well, evolutionary; it exists along a spectrum that evolved from our humanoid ancestors and can be seen in our modern evolutionary cousins. Feser, by contrast, believes God decided at some seemingly arbitrary point that primates were ready for a soul, and presto — human intellect. Clearly, Feser's position is not only rubbish, it's anti-scientific.


But let's get back to Adam and Eve, for a moment. Feser finds it plausible that, given this population of non-rational human-like creatures, God imbued a soul into two people. These two people interbred with the population, and who'dathunkit — it turns out that souls, for some reason Feser does not specify, are transmitted genetically along with DNA. Eventually, the lesser, non-souled humans die out as they are supplanted by the soul-imbued people. And this isn't a problem from a biological point of view, because the non-soul-people are biologically identical to the soul-people, so fossilized remains of soul- and non-soul people look the same. 

Except, it's contrary to what we know about genetics. Perhaps Feser is confused about  Y-chromosomal Adam & mitochondrial Eve, or their distinction from our most recent common ancestor. Regardless, it's impossible for God to have picked two contemporaneous people out of a population and selected them for souls, which they then (somehow) passed on. Geneticists already know we (as in "all humans") are not descended from two contemporaneous individuals, even if they were part of a large population. And remember, Feser's speculative claim isn't just that we're descended from two contemporaneous individuals, but that these two individuals marked the beginning of truly human rationality. What's the evidence that rationality arose from humanity so abruptly? Feser is predictably silent, because there is none and his claim contradicts what we know about the evolution of intelligence.

And what about Neanderthals? We modern humans have a small trace of Neanderthal DNA, and the modern consensus is that Neanderthals were wiped out, at least in part, through interbreeding with modern humans. They certainly weren't humans by either scientific or Feser standards, but they did use tools, have a complex sociocultural hierarchy, and may have even created art. The problem of equating a certain type of cognition with a soul rears its head — cognition doesn't evolve in such neatly delineated categories.

So Feser makes much ado about all this, then concedes, 
Of course, this is speculative. No one is claiming to know that this is actually what happened, or that Catholic teaching requires this specific scenario. The point is just that it shows, in a way consistent with what Catholic orthodoxy and Thomistic philosophy allow vis-à-vis evolution, that the genetic evidence is not in fact in conflict with the doctrine of original sin.
This is the problem with trying to shoehorn an ancient fable into modern science in order to rationalize one's narrow-minded religious trappings: you have to make shit up. I'm certainly not the first materialist to dismiss theology as an art of bullshitting, but Feser seems to be more adept than most at making the case for us. Of course Feser's pedantic yammering is speculative, but it's worse than that: it's anti-scientific and flagrantly irrational. How could any of his proposals be falsified? Why should anyone not already drinking the Christian Kool-Aid by the gallon by remotely persuaded by his conjecture?

The fact that Feser and other theologians are even engaging in this kind of argumentation is symptomatic of a deeper issue in religious thinking: the persistent need to conjure up rationalizations for immutable presuppositions to make them fit our evolving understanding of the mind, the body, and the universe. A far greater and more relevant challenge to Feser and his ilk is this: Put yourself in a skeptic's shoes. Imagine that you have never heard of Christianity before and, seeing it alongside the claims of all other religions, see no reason to treats its claims any more leniently. What is the evidence that gets you from here to there? What is the evidence that compels a rational skeptic to accept that Adam and Eve really did exist in some way, and that all the Biblical trappings that come with them — Original Sin, covenantal salvation, blood sacrifice, the Virgin birth — are real, too? In all my years of reading and debating theists on these matters, I've yet to see even the most haughty one rise to the occasion. Without exception, as with William Lane Craig's ignorant refrain "Why is that impossible?", theologians are more concerned with placating their presuppositions than explaining why anyone else should take them seriously in the first place. And like so much else in Christianity, we have no reason to take the story of the Fall seriously at all. The place of Adam and Eve in our evolutionary history is much more parsimoniously explained thusly: there is none, because their Biblical story is a fable — nothing more.

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