Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category
Morality has always puzzled me; not least of which because it seems to dwell so much on individual sexual behavior, rather than how we treat our fellow humans. In a world with such suffering, where so many wrongs are committed by human beings against each other… it’s just mind boggling that what two consenting adults do with each other can be of any concern others. Yet this is the front and center issue of morality crusaders, and in their minds takes precedence over suffering, poverty, violence, the environment… all things that strike me as being of far greater moral concern than who’s boinking whom. Why is that?
The answer seems to have come in a fascinating article in the New York Times yesterday (now without a pay wall!), which examines the biological basis for morality and is titled Is ‘Do Unto Others’ Written Into Our Genes?
Dr. Haidt (pronounced height) began his research career by probing the emotion of disgust. Testing people’s reactions to situations like that of a hungry family that cooked and ate its pet dog after it had become roadkill, he explored the phenomenon of moral dumbfounding — when people feel strongly that something is wrong but cannot explain why.
Dumbfounding led him to view morality as driven by two separate mental systems, one ancient and one modern, though the mind is scarcely aware of the difference. The ancient system, which he calls moral intuition, is based on the emotion-laden moral behaviors that evolved before the development of language. The modern system — he calls it moral judgment — came after language, when people became able to articulate why something was right or wrong.
The emotional responses of moral intuition occur instantaneously — they are primitive gut reactions that evolved to generate split-second decisions and enhance survival in a dangerous world. Moral judgment, on the other hand, comes later, as the conscious mind develops a plausible rationalization for the decision already arrived at through moral intuition.
In a nutshell, evolution shaped the things we’re disgusted by. Those who felt disgust at the mistreatment of others in their tribe were more likely to survive and pass their genes on, because they could participate in a society and reap the benefits of belonging to that group. But so to did evolution program us to feel disgust at certain sexual acts – homoeroticism and female promiscuity being chief among them. Again, because those who didn’t were less likely to pass their genes on.
According to Dr. Haidt, this forms our most basic level of morality – an emotional reaction of disgust towards certain acts. After we evolved language, we rationalized and codified this emotion, thus forming the basis for morality, religion, and social norms. And so non-moral issues like sex got grouped together with truly moral issues like theft and murder.
Of course, this just raises a question about results produced by that second mental system discussed in the article. People, once we evolved language and reason, naturally enough, began to question why they felt such disgust at certain behaviors. But rather than correctly reason (as I did above) that an aversion to homosexuality is an adaptation to guide us towards lots of heterosexual sex and therefore grandchildren, our ancestors made a rather astounding leap of logic and assumed it to be a universal law, enforced by a diety. “God wants it that way”. This impulse towards religious explanations over rational ones is another thing that’s always baffled me, but it’s something the article fails to explain.
The article also begs the question of why this seems to be something less than universal. Why do some people (such as myself) have such low regard for authoritarian morals and social norms, and instead hold to an ethic driven by a respect for individual rights and freedom? Dr. Haidt touches on this question. He describes five categories of morality, and notes that liberals essentially disregard three of them – these happen to be the three that sexual morality could conceivably fall into. Overall I find this explanation lacking though. I disagree with several of the points he makes – most notably an assertion that conservatives are better able to understand liberals than vice versa (anyone who’s spent any time dealing with the religious right or who’s listened to right wing talk radio would beg to differ). Mostly however, I think it just lacks explanatory power; it describes the thinking of liberals and conservatives, but doesn’t attempt to explain from where those differences emerge.
Overall it’s a thought provoking piece though.
In a nutshell, it’s because no one knows how to define anything. Just look at how fuzzy the common terms are:
- On one side, we have “theism”. The belief that God exists. Or a God, anyway – we could be talking about someone who believes in the existence of Zeus on Mount Olympus. A theist can also be believe tat God is merely “the thing that created the universe”, which can conceivably be a form of energy or mathematics itself. It’s usually assumed though that the discussion specifically relates to the God of Abraham. Or maybe not so specifically… after all, in the eyes of a theist, the God of Abraham may or may not be all loving, may or may not be all powerful, may or may not be all knowing, may or may not answer prayers, may or may not directly intervene in human affairs, may or may not cause miracles, may or may not be a fan of George W Bush, and may or may not be some combination of a father, son, and holy ghost. Different combinations of those properties make for 1,024 different possible versions of the God of Abraham right there that we might be debating the existence of. Very few people, theists and atheists alike, put very much thought into what exactly they’re defending or attacking, resulting in debates where either side will just change their working definition when they run up against a logical argument they can’t defeat.
- On the other side, we have atheism, which itself is divided into (at least) two camps. “Weak atheism”, which corresponds to “I don’t believe there is a God”, and “strong atheism”, which corresponds to “I believe there is no God”. Note the difference – one is simply a statement of disbelief, the other makes a positive assertion of nonexistence. But most people don’t even know that distinction exists, not even self-described atheists. Theists tend to assume (or at least, argue based on the assumption) that all atheists are of the strong variety, ostensibly so that they can make the counterargument that atheism is just as much a “faith” position as theism. However, the reality is that most self described atheists are of the weak variety. Further confusing the issue, a lot of weak atheists describe themselves as “agnostics”, which is a misstatement of their actual beliefs.
- Which brings us to agnosticism, which (in my experience) is the one that’s the least well understood; the average joe seems to simply interpret it as a more politically correct version of atheism. But agnosticism actually has nothing to do with a belief in God, instead concerning itself with the knowability of God (it literally means “without knowledge”). And even in this case, there’s at least two flavors: “We can’t know” (God is outside space-time, we can’t test for him), and “We don’t know” (We could theoretically find out, we just haven’t as a practical matter). Wikipedia also adds “I don’t care” and “The question is stupid” as agnostic positions. But the bigger point is that it’s completely independent of theism or atheism. You can be an agnostic theist: “I don’t believe we can know that God exists but I believe that he does exist” as well as an agnostic atheist: “I don’t believe we can know that God exists but I believe that he does not exist”. Since very few people on either end of the scale claim absolute certainty about the existence or non-existence of God (whatever flavor of him they’re talking about), the vast majority of people are some flavor of agnostic.
Personally, I hold any given definition God to the same standard of evidence that I do Santa Claus, celestial teacups, and leprechauns. So in general, I view most conceptions of God the same way I do Ether and the Caloric Theory of heat; a victim of Occam’s Razor.
But the keyword in the above is “most conceptions”. I’m a strong atheist with regards to Zeus and the Flying Spaghetti Monster – I positively believe that those Gods don’t exist. I’m a weak atheist with regards to a deistic concept of a God that doesn’t interfere (much) in human affairs – I don’t believe such a God exists. I’m strong atheist if you describe God as “Omnipotent and Omniscient”, or for any other definition that includes logically impossible attributes. If you believe God is “the thing that started the Big Bang”, then I’m a believer – I think *something* kicked it off, after all. If you want to assert “God is everything” or “God is love”, then sure, I can’t discount the existence of those things. I don’t see any real reason to define God that way, but hey, whatever floats your boat.
The thing is, no one bothers to define their terms before jumping into a debate. Too often, an atheist will assume he’s debating a fundamentalist who believes that God answers prayers, the Earth is six thousand years old, and gay sex is the root of all evil. A theist, for his part, is prone to assuming that the atheist believes in science-as-his-religion, and that knocking down any particular scientific theory in the last 500 years is enough to knock down atheism. More commonly, theists assume that the atheist absolutely positively believes there’s no kind of God whatsoever beyond any shadow of any doubt – and he can therefore win the debate just by introducing the slightest doubt.
The truth is that you’d find few people on either one of those extremes, but rarely do you see anyone who bothers to actually state their positions before debating them; they’d rather pat themselves on the back for knocking down strawmen:
“The Earth isn’t really 6,000 years old, so I win!”
“We can’t know what happened before the Big Bang, it might have been God, I win!”
The debates wind up running in circles as one side or the other continually invokes a variation of the True Scotsman Fallacy – “I never SAID God was all loving”, “A true atheist would think this was true”, etc.
I haven’t even mentioned yet the secondary arguments that always come up on internet, which have nothing to do with the existence or non-existence of any sort of God, but one side or the other always brings them up anyway. Stuff like:
- Atheists “hate” God and “hate” religion and “want to ban it entirely”.
- Stalin and Mao were atheists, therefore all atheists are genocidal maniacs (that’s especially a pet peeve of mine, since those are among the most religious regimes ever in every way that matters).
- On the flip side – atheists love to bring up abortion clinic bombers, pedophile priests, atrocities by the Vatican, the Crusades, or any number of other evils brought on by religion.
- Theists “hate homosexuals” or “hate [some other form of sexuality]”
- Theists are all Republicans.
The fact is that none of those things have anything to do with the existence, nonexistence, belief, or non-belief in God. They might have a place in a debate about the merits of religion itself, but more often than not they’re just fallacious arguments, encompassing a number of logical fallacies (not the least of which is pure ad hominem).
The vast majority of theists aren’t fundamentalist Bible thumpers who deny evolution and believe that the book of Genesis is literal truth, but atheists love to assume they are when they start this debate. Similarly, an atheist may or may not believe in science, evolution, secular humanism, rationalism, skepticism, or anything of the sort – in fairness, they usually do, but one thing doesn’t follow from the other. Plenty of theists believe in those same ideas, and plenty of atheists believe in astrology, UFO abductions, and other scientifically indefensible ideas.
So what’s the moral of the story? If you’re going to argue about whether or not God exists, define it first. And then, if you can, stick to relevant arguments. It makes the ensuing debate much better and far more interesting.