Are We Merely Creatures of Instinct?

7 09 2009

This week in a book discussion of which I am a part, the discussion centered around Lewis’ discussion of the concept of instinct. What he says is that if we are merely evolved beings then we should operate on instinct rather than intentionality. There should be no oughtness to our behavior, simply an isness. What he means is that we should only be able to describe how a person behaves, not how they ought to behave, as ought would imply that there is a right and wrong way to behave, which cannot come via natural processes.

right-way-wrong-way1Often evolutionists will argue that survival is the result of evolution, and some will take an extra and unwarranted step of saying that survival is the “goal” of the evolutionary process, thus implying a purpose for evolution. I say that this is an unwarranted step as evolution is a blind process according to people like Richard Dawkins and others, and therefore cannot have a purpose or goal. So, survival is just a chance result of the evolutionary process rather than a goal or purposeful end.

What one of our members did to test this idea was to pose a case in which a person (A) had a choice to make between B, C & D to achieve the end of fulfilling a desire (sorry for all the letters, but it is the best way to explain the situation). His instincts were equally divided between the options and he had no history with any of the choices, so he arbitrarily chose B, which gave him fulfillment of his desire. The next time, given the same choices, instinct should direct A to choose B again to fulfill A’s desire, as B fulfilled A’s desire the first time.

Now the scenario changes and the option for B is taken out of the mix of choices, leaving A to choose between C & D. A arbitrarily chooses C, and A finds that C fulfills him even better than did B. The next time, given the choices of B, C and D, instinct should drive A to choose C over B & D.

In these scenarios we are assuming that A does not reason or is not influenced by anything other than instinct. Suppose that A, driven by the instinct to survive, began to steal food from Y who had more than needed to survive. If we are truly driven by instinct alone, we could not say that A has done anything wrong, even if our instincts tell us that stealing is wrong. We could only say that A has done something different from what our instincts would drive us to do. That would include every other behavior that we consider moral or immoral. Those actions would not be truly moral or immoral, just different.

Neither can we determine what actions would have ultimate survival value as we cannot determine how a certain action will impact the future. For example, suppose society judged murder to be an action that impeded survival, yet A were to murder a person who would have become a Stalin or a Hitler should he have lived, that murder would have actually had a greater impact on survival than not murdering the Stalin or Hitler. Yet, we cannot determine who will become a Stalin, Hitler, or Mother Teresa. In other words, we don’t truly know which of our actions will have greater impact for survival and which will not. Yet, to not murder will generally have greater survival impact than to murder. The choice not to abort the unborn should also have greater survival value as well, yet, it has not led us to ban abortion.

The other challenge with the instinct driven scenario is that often we have competing instincts and are left to “decide” between them. I put decide in quotes as we aren’t, in the case, making rational decisions, but somehow our instincts are arbitrating between them and one ends up “winning.” We are told that we have an instinct to survive by evolutionists, yet, we often see situations in which a person will put him or herself in harms way for no “good” reason from a survival viewpoint.

For example, on 9.11.01 we saw the efforts of the NYC fire fighters as they rushed into a burning building that they knew could be hazardous and possibly lethal to them. The higher up they went, the lower the chances of their survival as well as the survival of the victims inside the buildings. Yet, we saw these men and women rushing into the building and up to the higher floors against their instinct to survive. There was no guarantee that their efforts would have led to the ultimate survival of the species or even the improvement of the odds of the survival of the species. So, how does one explain that these people gave their lives and why do we call them heroes if instinct is the driver?

I think the reason that we consider them to be heroes is the same that we consider the person who does what we consider to be immoral to be an immoral person. We know that people act on more than just instinct, we know that they also act based upon reason and that reason is directed by a moral code that exists outside of us. C.S. Lewis calls this the Tao, a shorthand name for what we know to be objective moral values that really exist and by which our actions are judged and which also directs our conscience. We are driven by more than just instincts as we consider criminals to be truly guilty of doing wrong and someone like Mother Teresa to be truly virtuous. We don’t just chalk it up to instinct and leave it at that. We are not indifferent to these behaviors as we should be if we were truly driven by instinct as the instincts of those people would be no better or worse, just different.

We celebrate the heroes of 9.11, those who have given their lives for our country in war, and many others who made conscious choices to resist the instinct to survive as the highest good and chose instead to put their lives on the line for the good of country and those who were in need.



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