New research has provided interesting insights into brain activity associated with human morality. The study, conducted at the University of Southern California, focused on the uniquely human emotions of admiration and compassion. Brain imaging demonstrated that while humans can respond in fractions of a second to someone else’s physical pain, it takes 6-8 seconds to respond to the virtue or social pain of others.
In the study, volunteers were presented with stories designed to evoke specific emotions. The researchers found that emotional responses that are normally associated with morality take longer to develop than responses to negative impulses such as fear and physical pain. This could have significant implications in a digital media-saturated culture, in which the rapid pace of news and networking allows little time for processing data at a deeper level. “For some kinds of thought, especially moral decision-making about other people’s social and psychological situations, we need to allow for adequate time and reflection,” said Mary Helen Immordino-Yang of the USC Rossier School of Education, a study co-author.
Antonio Damasio, Director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at USC, oversaw the project which found, among other things, that emotions like admiration and compassion “engage the basic systems of our physiology.”1 He and his colleagues examined the portions of the human brain that are active whenever those distinctively human emotions are occurring. The results of the study indicate clearly that feelings of admiration and compassion engage portions of the brain that are well-connected to many other body systems. Damasio interpreted this as “proof, pending replication of this study by other groups, that social emotions have deep evolutionary roots.”1 However, the precise positioning of the appropriate “neural bases” in areas of the brain where they can have relevant connections is more likely the result of measured intent or purposeful design, so Damasio’s assertion of “proof” is not accurate.
Whereas brain activity is necessary for people to experience emotional moments, it is only one part of their moral construct. And the remaining requirements for morality have no realistic explanation within the evolutionary worldview. For example, for morality (knowledge of what is right and wrong) to have any personal meaning, not only must humans have the biological hardware to process the emotions and actions associated with it, but they must have the knowledge itself!
Scripture refers to this moral knowledge as the Law,2 and the inner voice that warns against breaking that Law is called “conscience.”3 Thus, as creatures made in the image of God, humans have been outfitted with all the features, both material and immaterial, necessary for morality to be actual and functional. In contrast, the evolutionary worldview asserts that man is the product of particles and death over vast time, in a universe where the immaterial is imaginary. “If we are all rearranged pond scum, then talk of moral obligation is meaningless.”4
Darwinian evolution is said to operate on populations of (material) animals, so mankind’s knowledge of right and wrong, an immaterial reality, is inexplicable by this purely naturalistic model.5 Studies of the physical manifestations of certain emotions therefore show little promise of being able to build morality, or set a meaningful “yardstick for what to reward in a culture, and for what to look for and try to inspire.”1 In contrast, to know that humans’ physical bodies were fashioned by the same One who set up moral laws could inspire them to appropriately worship Him, which is what they were made for after all.
- Marziali, C. Nobler Instincts Take Time. University of Southern California press release, April 14, 2009.
- For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves (Romans 2:14).
- But [we] have renounced the hidden things of dishonesty, not walking in craftiness, nor handling the word of God deceitfully; but by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man's conscience in the sight of God (2 Corinthians 4:2).
- Sarfati, J. 2002. Refuting Evolution 2. Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 144.
- See Beckwith, F. and G. Koukl. 1998. Monkey Morality. In Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Midair. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 151.
* Mr. Thomas is Science Writer at the Institute for Creation Research.
Article posted on April 20, 2009.