Dr. Jesse Couenhoven: Is Original Sin empirically verifiable?

June 26th, 2018 by

Very much of Christian teaching is not empirically verifiable — for instance, the doctrines of Trinity, Incarnation, and Atonement certainly are not — but for some time the claim has been made that at least one core doctrine is. Various figures in recent Christian history have made the affirmation that Christian teaching about Original Sin is empirically verifiable, though they have not made great efforts to try to prove their point. This is where Dr. Jesse Couenhoven’s paper comes in. I will summarize the argument here very succinctly and raise a worry about its cogency.

The doctrine of Original Sin, as Dr. Couenhoven defines it, claims that human nature as it currently exists is affected by a certain sickness and distortion. It is not natural for human beings to be sinful, but they are all born with a kind of illness of their nature, such that they are incapable of living lives of righteousness and justice as they ought. This is true for children as much as for adults: all humans are affected by this condition.

As empirical evidence of this teaching, Dr. Couenhoven brings forth two findings of recent psychological research. On the one hand, there are other experiments which suggest certain fundamental asymmetries of moral evaluation: when people make mistakes, they are likelier to excuse themselves and downplay them, attributing them to situational factors beyond their control, whereas the mistakes of others are taken to be signs of poor character, representative in some way of the kind of persons those others are. This seemingly innate, self-serving inclination towards injustice is taken to evidence a sickness of the human person of the sort that Original Sin describes.

On the other hand, there are the situationist experiments that suggest that human behavior is more a result of highly contingent situational factors rather than lasting character traits belonging to the person in some semi-permanent manner. One such experiment found that people were more likely to help someone who had dropped a stack of papers on the street if they had just previously found a small coin in a phone booth. Rather than indicating that character as such does not exist, however, Dr. Couenhoven interprets these experiments also to show that developing genuinely virtuous character is immensely difficult for us because of a fundamental weakness or sickness of our nature, as the doctrine of Original Sin affirms.

Dr. Couenhoven’s paper is more detailed and sophisticated than this brief summary can capture, but I think I have said enough thus far to raise an important objection against his project. More precisely, I am of the opinion that any empirical evidence taken into consideration for “verifying” the doctrine of Original Sin will be underdetermined, precisely because Original Sin is a metaphysical and not natural doctrine. Original Sin affirms that there is such a thing as human nature, a stable, metaphysical principle that belongs to every human being and defines her as such — something that no amount of empirical observation can ever verify because it is not strictly speaking observable. The experiments brought forth by Dr. Couenhoven as evidence do not justify the conclusion that human nature itself is affected by some kind of moral sickness, as Original Sin affirms, rather than merely that the conditions in which human beings exist are such as to contribute to the development of these diverse moral weaknesses. Granting the results of the psychological experiments mentioned above, it is nevertheless possible that human beings, just as they exist in the actual world, might be upright if external conditions were somehow different.

Indeed, it is difficult to empirically verify anything, let alone a robust metaphysical doctrine like the Christian teaching of Original Sin, because scientific experimentation is never perfectly passive observation of phenomena; there is also a positive, speculative element in which various assumptions and hypothetical suppositions are made which are not themselves verified and, in many cases, cannot be. For this reason, I am less than optimistic about the prospect of empirically verifying Original Sin. I would rather say that that various aspects of human moral experience, including some which have been experimentally observed in controlled conditions, are such as to be compatible with, even suggestive of what Christians teach about the fallenness of human nature.

Steven Nemes is a PhD student at Fuller Theological Seminary whose research primarily concerns philosophical theology.

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