The Moral Arc

As a scientist and mystic, I am frustrated with the conflict that divides the scientific materialists from the Biblical literalists. Both camps contain people that are well-meaning who tend to focus on the defects in the world-view of their disputants, rather than considering the good that can be done by joining forces.

When I first framed this debate at, I celebrated three great threads of human thought: science, which is concerned with creating languages that accurately model objective reality; philosophy, which refines language to ensure that we understand one another; and spirituality, which is concerned with the negotiation of the boundaries between the I and the we (encompassing politics as well as religion). I have argued here that science can explain spiritual experience, but we cannot avail ourselves of its predictive powers to control spiritual growth. We simply cannot establish initial conditions without mutilating the personality that we would like to study. As a result, moral growth is unavoidably consensual.
The Moral Arc
Looking at the moral liberation of humanity from that perspective, with a balance between material and spiritual experience, I summarize our moral growth in the figure. We began as animals, completely amoral creatures. This is to say that morality was not initially a consideration of our existence: we simply did what needed to be done to survive. As relative newcomers on the spiritual scene, the weight of mammalian behavior patterns overwhelmed rational analysis. The exit strategy towards moral discourse was monotheism: a cold and callous rejection of all spiritual associations that were not wholly human in their origin.

Was this a clean process? No, it was a bootstrap process (witness the Bible). People exhibiting animalistic behaviors had to learn painfully from experience the consequences of failing to think carefully about the consequences to others of our actions. They had to develop languages to support moral analysis (philosophy), and they had to form communities willing to surrender resources to those pursuing that study. The Bible is best understood as one culture’s experience of that growth.

The rise of moral philosophy that culminated with Jesus of Nazareth asserts that Unconditional Love, which is the divine presence, propels our ascent. In part, it is because the contract is that the moral analyst must commit himself to the service of others.

Not everyone can master the nuances of moral discourse. What the faithful can do instead as moral actors is to invest their hearts and souls in caring for the world. There is no social system that can guarantee that investment – in fact, most of our social structures tend to consolidate the gains of those that abuse the contract. Only by reliance upon a divine external source can the less clever be ensured that their investment in moral conduct will be made good. Does this presence actually exist? Well, that is a matter of faith and personal experience (see the closing paragraph).

The difficulty in modern moral discourse is that the power of science outraced our philosophy. The world is changing rapidly around us, and most of humanity is still mired in amoral patterns of behavior. The power of science is often unleashed with terribly destructive consequences. This creates fear in the faithful that the institutions that safeguard our spirituality will be destroyed.

The counter of the scientist is to reject spirituality in favor of pure rationality (top of the diagram). What they seem not to understand is that most of humanity is not capable of participating in the discourse under those terms, but requires the deep psychological immersion of religion to substantiate trust in the mysteries tended by the intellectual elites. The faithful can only judge the trustworthiness of that elite by their pronouncements. Words like “stupid”, “sheep”, and “irrational” obviously will be interpreted as inconsistent with reliable moral stewardship, and tend to push the faithful into the arms of sociopaths that promise to protect them (as if that were possible, given the problems that we have mounted up against ourselves).

My experience is that economic exchange exploits our strengths and exacerbates our weaknesses. Obviously, it is in the interest of intellectuals to trumpet and enhance their virtues. But what I find, with Hume, is that spiritual engagement with such people is often hollow in the heart. The substitution of science for monotheism elevates rationality without replacing the guarantee of moral stewardship. In my own experience, that guarantee takes this form: when my heart is ready to break under the burden of the pain in the world, I open it a little wider and a great flood of love rushes through. I know that power is not mine.