Monday, May 17, 2010

Babies, Morality, and God

In "The Moral Life of Babies" (May 9, 2010, NYT, Paul Bloom, see here), the author discusses babies and their sense of innate justice. Below is a description of one of the studies used to determine baby behavior:

[W]e tested 8-month-olds by first showing them a character who acted as a helper (for instance, helping a puppet trying to open a box) and then presenting a scene in which this helper was the target of a good action by one puppet and a bad action by another puppet. Then we got the babies to choose between these two puppets. That is, they had to choose between a puppet who rewarded a good guy versus a puppet who punished a good guy. Likewise, we showed them a character who acted as a hinderer (for example, keeping a puppet from opening a box) and then had them choose between a puppet who rewarded the bad guy versus one who punished the bad guy.

The results were striking. When the target of the action was itself a good guy, babies preferred the puppet who was nice to it. This alone wasn’t very surprising, given that the other studies found an overall preference among babies for those who act nicely. What was more interesting was what happened when they watched the bad guy being rewarded or punished. Here they chose the punisher. Despite their overall preference for good actors over bad, then, babies are drawn to bad actors when those actors are punishing bad behavior.

The babies rewarded the "good" puppet by giving it a treat. This experiment reminded me of C.S. Lewis's book, The Problem of Pain. Lewis, a former atheist turned Christian, argues that pain and guilt must come from God (or some innately programmed code placed by a programmer) because even at an early age, we have feelings that come too early to be explained away by socialization.

Another way to review Lewis's ideas is by examining the problem of a conscience. Most of us, from a very early age, have a conscience that produces guilt and pleasure. Where does a two-year-old child's conscience come from? Lewis contends that the best explanation for a young child having guilt is God, because it is unlikely that biology can produce such feelings in someone so young. Today, we talk about genes for diabetes, cancer, and even homosexuality, but few reputable scientists have tried to argue for a "guilt gene." Of course, there may be genes that make humans more social and more attuned to social networks, but such genes would presumably need more catalysts than a mere two years of experience, much of it spent in a restricted space.

Aquinas, Pascal, and other philosophers have submitted their pro-God arguments, but C.S. Lewis's musings on the problem of guilt/pain don't get enough credit in philosophy classes or general theology discussions. That's a shame, because Lewis has presented an argument that anyone, merely by studying a child, can understand. Reducing theology to child's play might seem overly simplistic, but I see nothing wrong with effective arguments.

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