The moral law and socialization

In Dr. Collins’s book, he uses the existence of the moral law as one of his bases for faith. While I’m inclined to agree with this, one exception did come to mind. And if I have the question, others might as well, either on here or that I come across in conversation so I want to see how this idea of the existence of the moral law holds up to scrutiny.

What came to mind when I was reading Dr. Collins’s thoughts is instances of extreme child neglect. I’m speaking of children who have been so severely neglected and isolated that they are termed “feral children” because of their mannerisms. In Sociology last year I wrote a paper about a case of one girl who had been locked in a room by herself for several years, I believe about 10 or so. Obviously she had no language, she had no concept of modesty such as toileting behaviors and when and where it’s appropriate to do certain things such as undress. She walked sideways and on her toes because she didn’t even understand how to properly use her legs to walk efficiently. It seemed she lacked almost everything that would make one “human” (in a spiritual sense. I don’t mean to dehumanize her.)

Do cases like these argue against an innate sense of a moral law and suggest that the morals we hold as a society are a product of socialization?

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A link was posted in these forums recently (I think by beaglelady who shares lots of excellent links) to an excellent Veritas Forum about this very topic. In “The closing of the modern mind” two speakers: Pastor Timothy Keller and Professor Jonathan Haidt take turns lecturing for the first half of this long video while audience Q&A presumably fills the rest that I haven’t listened to yet. While Haidt’s take is interesting and decidedly depressing (by his own admission!) I really recommend the first 20 minutes or so after introductions where Keller speaks.

The short answer to your question is that the Christian certainly has no grounds to deny the humanity of anybody born to human parents (zygotes, embryos, and unborn fetuses obviously being a sticky issue to make the answer not short). (Many!?) non-theists too (probably!?) realize that declaring our humanity is somehow contingent on socialization into certain norms is a dangerous corner that we do not want to turn – even if they can only base it on “because our current society legislatively says so”.

The whole issue is a good one. I don’t think it delivers quite as far as Lewis hoped towards being empirical evidence for God. I think Collins shows the appropriate caution in that though it’s been a while now since I’ve read his book. But it remains a good and very important question, and I don’t think it is entirely irrelevant in the evidential sense, but shares its place among the corpus along with other necessary evidences.

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A specific anecdotal response, @Alli, to your isolated and abused 10-year old would be to remember people like Helen Keller. Without researching this much for this comment, I do seem to recall that she started life in something of a similar situation, though it may have been more due to her tragic sensory deprivation and parental frustration in the face of unheard-of challenge rather than cruelty. But in any case she went from what would seem to most to be an “uncivilized state” to being an accomplished author. But that’s just from seeing a movie about her years ago – you could probably correct me in a lot of this.

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I do think this is ultimately what got me on the question is that it seemed like the existence of the moral law was somewhat being pulled out of the spiritual realm and into a framework of empirical evidence, which when I look at it through that lens then I start coming up with alternate explanations.

In one sense Helen Keller is relevant to the example of extreme neglect and in another sense her case is entirely irrelevant. In the irrelevant sense, she did not experience neglect. True, she was very much isolated due to being blind and deaf, but she was not deprived of human contact and, very importantly, touch. There’s a lot of studies that show the crucial importance of touch and interaction, particularly in the infancy and childhood. The feral children examples are children who spent years of their life from infancy up to whatever age they were discovered, if at all, in circumstances such as being tied to their beds, kept in locked rooms, one girl was reported to have spent most of her life tied to a toilet until she was almost 14 years old. These kids had no stimulation, interaction, or contact beyond having food brought to them. It’s really very, very sad. And while it would be entirely unethical to do an experiment to determine how much of a role socialization plays, when these children are found, they do give some insight on what an experimental group would look like due to the utter lack of socialization that they have experienced.

But in the sense that Helen Keller is relevant is that she demonstrates the hidden and/or unlocked potential in children that have little opportunity to be fully socialized, showing that it’s not a case of “missing humanity,” but more so a lack of cultivation.

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Yes, you are correct. As Wikipedia puts it:

Enculturation is the process by which people learn the requirements of their surrounding culture and acquire values and behaviours appropriate or necessary in that culture.[1] As part of this process, the influences that limit, direct, or shape the individual (whether deliberately or not) include parents, other adults, and peers. If successful, enculturation results in competence in the language, values, and rituals of the culture.[1]

Essentially, we learn the values of the culture, which shape and inform our conscience, so that neither morality nor conscience is implanted in us by God. In my opinion, one cannot argue from the existence of morals to a moral absolute to the existence of God, but that’s just my opinion.

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Interesting topic, an in less severe forms of social deprivation, we see the problems of reactive detachment disorder, and the difficulties in adoptive families that result when children lack early childhood socialization.
That need for social interaction for proper psychosocial development is for me one of the strongest arguments outside of genetics against the literalist interpretation of Adam and Eve. How indeed could Adam have any measure of moral competency if he were an adult since birth?


[quote=“Jay313, post:5, topic:35716”]
As part of this process, the influences that limit, direct, or shape the individual (whether deliberately or not) include parents, other adults, and peers. If successful, enculturation results in competence in the language, values, and rituals of the culture.[1]
[/quote][My emphasis added]

“competence” is the God-word in the sentence that attempts to sneak in some external or higher objective justification and give some teeth to the morals by this particular wikipedia author. If one goes on to define competence as that which helps some culture thrive, then they are just replacing the prior God-word with a new set of trans-cultural objectives that themselves don’t come from within the culture. I’m using this phrase “God-word” (heard from a friend of mine --and I like it) as parlance referring to something culturally deemed unquestionable. Sort of like “progress”. Everybody seems to be for it. And their political enemies are always accused of holding it back. Or “moving forward”. When is the last time you ever heard any political candidate brag that they wanted to move in any other direction?

As long as our culture seems to have some memory of the importance of human rights enshrined in its laws, we seem to be fine debating these points. If, God forbid, totalitarian regimes with their “might makes right” mentality come to power and start to do things to some new set of unfortunate targets and enshrine those practices into law, then according to the “morality has nothing more than a cultural basis” people, does that persecution become morally justified then? They just go with the flow and to heck with any unwanted groups? Do secularists really want to be like the very Christians they would so despise in Nazi Germany who went along with majority power? Only the difference here is, without any believers there will be no Dietrich Bonhoeffers or anybody else to call each other to account. What would be the point? Why speak truth to power when power determines the truth? That I think is more or less the depressing conclusion we are forced to when we attempt to abolish any notion of objective morality. It is why Haidt’s talk from the video above is so depressing – and he recognizes that. I find Keller’s pluralistic outlook so much more hopeful and positive (despite his own pessimistic outlook on the way things have gone for so long and are still going). And both speakers above were in favor of pluralism. That is, I think, a true avenue of hope as far as worldly governance can reach.

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No, not really. As a teacher of English to special education students, I assessed their competence in language on a routine basis. I even made determinations that some children had a disability that prevented them from becoming competent in learning language. And you know what, experience taught me that the one – lack of competence in learning language – was often replicated in the other – lack of “fitting in” with others (social values and rituals) and failure to follow accepted norms and rules of (age-appropriate) behavior. And it is no accident that when I taught in juvenile detention, upwards of 1/3 of my students received special education services. Enculturation is nothing more than learning to become a functioning member of society.

God can (and does) use human governments and human consciences to restrain evil, even though both of those things are flawed and imperfect.

Who said anything about abolishing notions of objective morality? All that I am saying is that human culture is flawed, for it is infected with evil. That is the whole flow of Genesis 4-11. Evil flourished in the roots of human culture. Revelation portrays God’s judgment upon human culture in the form of the False Prophet (false religion), Babylon (economic wealth), and the Antichrist (political power). Jesus faced all of these temptations, and rejected them, in the wilderness. Jesus spoke truth to power, and his message was that society’s values were not God’s values, but, in fact, the things that humanity valued were “an abomination” in God’s sight (Luke 16:15). Jesus rejected the people’s desire to crown him king after the feeding of the 5,000. Jesus repudiated greed and said that it was not the rich, but the poor who were blessed. He rejected the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, and reserved his strongest denunciations for false religion.

Jesus spoke truth to power by telling his culture that its values were upside down. Where the rabbis of Jesus’ time would not teach Torah to women, let alone accept a woman as (gasp!) a disciple, we find Mary sitting at the Lord’s feet, in the position of a disciple, and Christ refuses to order her back to her culturally accepted “woman’s work.” The Samaritan, not the priest or the Levite, was a neighbor and example to the scribe. Thus, Jesus repudiated racism. Christ ordered us to become like little children, and to wash one another’s feet – a task not even a slave was expected to perform. Jesus welcomed the outcast and the sinner, the prostitute and the tax collector.

Christ did not come to redeem human culture. He came to replace it with a new paradigm. I, for one, do not find it at all depressing.


Ali, you and @Jay313 bring up the problem that so many philosophers/theologians have just danced around: We do not become suddenly human at some magic moment, like when the sperm penetrates the egg, or when our mother first feels our fetal movements, or when we take our first breaths of air outside our mother’s body. We have the potential to become a unique human at the moment of conception, and that potential deserves much reverence and respect. Also, practically speaking, we need to be encultured to finish the job. Helen Keller was well along in her journey to become a unique human member of society when illness deprived her of two of her senses that are so important in completing the process: sight and hearing. She did have the one advantage lacking in too many families today: loving parents willing to sacrifice to help her reach her potential. And a helpmate with saintly patience, Anne Sullivan.

You can see how I deal with this argument, as well as other “feral children” if (when) you get time to read my story.
Al Leo


I agree with nearly everything you wrote – and an especial ‘Amen’ to the hope that we do have. Thank God that Jesus (after growing up and becoming ‘enculturated’) was able to transcend that enculturation and expose those values it had that were upside down!

I’m not convinced you really took in my point about ‘God-words’, but that is small fry here. You may not be speaking of ‘abolishing objective morality’ but others (some even here) happily speak in those terms with or without us. ‘Abolish’ is not the word they would choose, of course. But it amounts to a denial of objectivity or of any universal standard. You should listen in on Keller’s video too – I think he brings helpful clarity to some of this.

Well, here I am at school on my ‘busy weekend’ and still checking in on this forum. I may be a Biologos junkie. Is there a 12-step program?

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I have thus far given it a cursory skim and fallen deeper into a some of the finer points. So far it looks to be a gold mine!

The link from this post appears to be broken, but I have the link from my other post that you provided so in case anyone comes across this post and would like to link to it


Since you and Mervin have mentioned non-theists in the course of the discussion, you may be interested in my thoughts, since I am an atheist.

I think the girl you refer to in your original post is known as “Genie,” and I would encourage anyone who has not read about her life to do so. Though I do not believe in the existence of any moral law, I’m not sure that Genie’s case would be a strong counterargument to someone who does.

One might argue that her initial behavior was not due to lacking an innate “sensitivity” to moral law, but rather was because this awareness had been violently beaten out of her as a result of her horrific childhood. According to the Wikipedia article on her life, she was later able to share on a limited basis and became aware of the inappropriateness of taking things without permission. The argument could thus continue that, once removed from her abusive situation, she was able to progress morally, though I think it could just as well be argued that this was due to social conditioning alone.

Coincidently, I have lately been thinking about “human in a box” thought experiments as a way to explore the limits of what can be concluded on the basis of reason alone as well as appropriate levels of skepticism, and I agree that it also provides an interesting tool to examine morality, though I’m not aware of any well-documented real world cases of children being isolated that could be deemed “neutral” rather than abusive.

First, I am interested in understanding the world. As desires about how we may want the world to be can lead us astray, I guard against such influences as much as I can. Whether I like the conclusions I obtain or not is irrelevant.

Second, I don’t think that holding that our subjective experiences are ultimately reducible to “purely materialistic” explanations does anything to diminish them. Indeed, I would say that the chemical pathways in the brain are not being mistaken for love, but are love. Nevertheless, the subjective experience is real to the person feeling love, and as far as I can tell, indistinguishable from a scenario in which “love” has some more substantial metaphysical quality.

I accept that nothing “intangible” has any “objective” existence, and that the world and the universe will take no notice of human civilization, and that death, both of myself and of humanity itself, is ultimately insurmountable by any currently known mechanism. Dealing with this seems to me more of a psychological problem than a philosophical one.

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[quote=“BDH, post:12, topic:35716, full:true”]
I think the girl you refer to in your original post is known as “Genie,” and I would encourage anyone who has not read about her life to do so. Though I do not believe in the existence of any moral law, I’m not sure that Genie’s case would be a strong counterargument to someone who does.[/quote]

This particular case was actually not Genie, but Genie is the most well-known example. In the case of Genie, frequent and severe beating was involved. Her story is very difficult to get through. A small mercy, but in the case of the girl who was the subject of my paper (she did not have a pseudonym) her situation was largely just isolation and deprivation.

[quote=“BDH, post:12, topic:35716, full:true”]
Second, I don’t think that holding that our subjective experiences are ultimately reducible to “purely materialistic” explanations does anything to diminish them. Indeed, I would say that the chemical pathways in the brain are not being mistaken for love, but are love. Nevertheless, the subjective experience is real to the person feeling love, and as far as I can tell, indistinguishable from a scenario in which “love” has some more substantial metaphysical quality.[/quote]

You actually demonstrate what I would expect (and hope) to see in another human being regardless of their theistic leanings, and I think agrees with my original premise. Nobody wants to live in a world where love is nothing more than an evolutionary trick of the brain and has no real meaning. I would fully expect a non-theist to allow for the subjectively real experience of love as a source of enrichment and life satisfaction.

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Jay, I could read the quote above as saying that human culture is intrinsically evil at its very roots. This seems to be along the lines of extolling the Nobel Savage as pictured by John Dalton and J. J. Rousseau. You seem to confirm this with this second quote:

[quote=“Jay313, post:8, topic:35716”]
Christ did not come to redeem human culture. He came to replace it with a new paradigm.

Doesn’t this contradict what Jesus says in Mt 5: 17-8 that he came not to destroy the Law (which was the foundation of Jewish society) but to fulfill it? Human progress (if you want to call it that) from the Stone Age to the present is almost totally dependent upon language and the ability to perform more efficiently in societies. That has given power to those who lead these societies (tribes, nations etc). This is a product of evolution in many animal societies; e.g . the alpha male and/or alpha female. In John 6:38 and Mark 10:45, Jesus seem to be telling us to reverse this, and human societies will become more pleasing to God. In spite of the recent futility of our Congress, I still can name a few representatives and senators who genuinely want to serve their constituents. We’ve just got a long ways to go even in one of the best societies the world has ever seen.
Al Leo

Sorry, BDH, but no matter what spin you put on it, I will never buy reducing the concept of Love to physicochemical pathways in the brain. Last month, after enjoying 72 years of a joyous love affair, my wife passed from this life. But in a real sense, not detectable biochemically, she is still with me, and, to a lesser extent. to our kids and to theirs, who also loved her. I contrast this with the reductionist explanation given by a well known Oxford chemist (and outspoken anti-theist) Peter Atkins: All change, and time’s arrow point in the direction of corruption. The experience of time is the gearing of the electrochemical processes in our brains to this purposeless drift into chaos as we sink into equilibrium and the grave.”

All too often reductionism produces this bleak Worldview. I hope you have found something better.
Al Leo



Thank you for sharing in a time when your grief must be acute. I’m glad you were able to have so many years with your wife.

I doubt I can say anything to shake your convictions, nor would I be inclined to if I could. Though I am not an anti-theist, I agree with Atkins’ quote. If religions were like a job fair, the atheist “recruiting table” would, as you say, be an apparently bleak affair. Atheism, if it is correct, offers at most the truth. Death, purpose, and morality, rather than being solved, become problems that must be engaged directly.

I think that nihilism, or something close to it, is a necessary consequence of atheism, and dealing with that has been part of my journey. It is an error to reject a proposition because one does not like the consequences. My “something better” has been the observation that though I must be a nihilist intellectually, I needn’t be an “emotional nihilist,” as it were. I can reject despair.

I reject it by pondering the mysteries of existence. I reject it by finding happiness in the companionship of others. I reject it by striving, in my own pitiful ways, to increase the measure of happiness of my fellow humans. I reject it by understanding that death is nothing to be feared, only dying.

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@BDH, thank you for your candor and willingness to bring your perspective. You seem to be a very thoughtful individual, so I doubt you came to an atheistic viewpoint casually. However, I do wonder if a visit here might indicate that you aren’t quite 100% convinced. If you do have questions, there are many individuals here willing and able to answer them, or at least put a strong case forward!

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I’ve been impressed with the overall quality and civility of the discussions here, so I will be satisfied if I can likewise contribute while improving my understanding. As Proverbs 27:17 says, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.”

You are right that I did not come to atheism casually. My grandfather is a retired professor of apologetics, philosophy, and Koine Greek; I spent a good deal of time in his library as a boy, and I was a Christian until around 13.

I have an interest in philosophy and science, so I estimate that I have at least a passing familiarity with most classes of theological arguments. I would say that I have greater than 95% confidence that my arguments do not contain any errors serious enough to overthrow them, but not 100%, which would preclude the possibility of changing my mind. It is nonetheless useful to read sophisticated arguments contrary to my conclusions both because it can expose weaknesses in my thinking and because it brings greater clarity to my own understanding since it requires grasping why an argument is weak or strong.

I certainly invite challenges to any of my positions. The truth has nothing to fear from genuine inquiry. I think a passage from Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra puts it well.

You should have eyes that always seek an enemy—your enemy. Your enemy you shall seek, your war you shall wage—for your thoughts. And if your thought be vanquished, then your honesty should still find cause for triumph in that.

You must be proud of your enemy: then the successes of your enemy are your successes too.

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Not intrinsically evil, but flawed, warped by evil. Just like us. The culture reflects the people. For the present, good and evil coexist side-by-side, within society and within the individual. Jesus’ prescription was to change the individual, not the society. He announced the kingdom of God, the kingdom “not of this world.” As the apostle John said, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever.”

I am sorry for your loss, but I rejoice with you in the 72 years. As Paul said, only three things matter in the light of eternity: Faith, Hope, and Love. “And the greatest of these is love.” Truly, there is more to this world than the physical.

I agree. I’m sure your positions are sound, and I appreciate your willingness to engage politely. Nietzsche is a good enemy. I am proud of him! Haha.

I’m more in line with Wittgenstein: “Even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all.” Science has nothing to say about what is transcendental, which is just another name for everything that really matters! Ethics, aesthetics, religion. Music, art, literature, philosophy. These may not contribute to our store of scientifically verifiable facts, but they do contribute to our understanding of life.

Pascal, whom some call a “proto-Existentialist,” represents more of my own personal opinion in regard to apologetics:

"Faith is a gift of God; do not believe that we said it was a gift of reasoning. … It is the heart which experiences God, and not the reason. This, then, is faith: God felt by the heart, not by the reason. … We know truth, not only by the reason, but also by the heart, and it is in this last way that we know first principles; and reason, which has no part in it, tries in vain to impugn them. The sceptics, who have only this for their object, labour to no purpose. We know that we do not dream, and however impossible it is for us to prove it by reason, this inability demonstrates only the weakness of our reason, but not, as they affirm, the uncertainty of all our knowledge. … And it is as useless and absurd for reason to demand from the heart proofs of her first principles, before admitting them, as it would be for the heart to demand from reason an intuition of all demonstrated propositions before accepting them.

This inability ought, then, to serve only to humble reason, which would judge all, but not to impugn our certainty, as if only reason were capable of instructing us. Would to God, on the contrary, that we had never need of it, and that we knew everything by instinct and intuition! But nature has refused us this boon. On the contrary, she has given us but very little knowledge of this kind; and all the rest can be acquired only by reasoning. Therefore, those to whom God has imparted religion by intuition are very fortunate, and justly convinced. But to those who do not have it, we can give it only by reasoning, waiting for God to give them spiritual insight, without which faith is only human, and useless for salvation. … The knowledge of God is very far from the love of Him."


I cannot deny that, if one relies on intellect and reason alone, atheism seems more “truthful” than relying on religious faith alone. I conceded this point in past discussions with @patrick. However, I consider myself fortunate that I have had experiences in my life that clearly indicate that materialism cannot begin to explain some of the more important mysteries of existence. In earlier posts I have related two such experiences when I was 19 yr. old ‘dogface’ in WWII, and another in my 50’s in helping a colleague with a family problem involving professing a Christian Faith. An objective, materialistic skeptic might be comfortable ascribing the earlier life-changing experience to a permanent alteration of brain circuitry and synapse chemistry. When you are the subject, it is decidedly different. The later experience meets my requirement of miraculous: No abrogation of the Laws of Nature, but a happening against a billion-to-one odds.

I respect your ability, BDH (& Patrick, & Sagan & Atkins) to avoid emotional nihilism. For people like me who are not so brave, Christian Faith is a surer pathway to earthly happiness. And if there is an afterlife, then, like Pascal, I’ll take my chances on that, too.
with best wishes,
Al Leo
P.S. Your striving “to increase the measure of happiness of my fellow humans” sounds a lot like the empathy that Darwinian evolution struggles to explain. Perhaps you have not strayed as far from your Christian Faith as you now profess.