Class Warfare Blog

May 10, 2020

The Biological Basis of Morality

Filed under: Morality,Philosophy,Reason,Science — Steve Ruis @ 10:40 am
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I was reading, from the recommendation of Professor Taboo, an article in The Atlantic written by Edward O. Wilson in 1998 entitled “The Biological Basis of Morality.” I am only part way through part 1 but a statement appeared that gave rise to a comment. Here is that statement:

I am an empiricist. On religion I lean toward deism, but consider its proof largely a problem in astrophysics. The existence of a God who created the universe (as envisioned by deism) is possible, and the question may eventually be settled, perhaps by forms of material evidence not yet imagined.

And my comment, is I believe a corollary to Clarke’s Third Law (Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.), asks if a deistic creator of the universe can be distinguished from an alien with access to very advanced technology? Remember that a deistic creator, launches his creation and then withdraws form the sandbox. So, any fingerprints it might have left behind are 13.8 billion years old at this point.

I argue that the two are not distinguishable (making my corollary: a deistic creator god is indistinguishable from an alien with very advanced technology), so referring to one or the other as closer to the truth is disingenuous.

* * *

And as is always the case in any morality discussion my mind ferments.

In most of these discussions, including those on free will, there seems to be little attention paid to emergence. Emergent properties of a system have interesting properties. They are usually unpredictable and they certainly break all causal chains and thus argue against a deterministic universe. This, of course, requires an example.

When the automobile was invented, did anyone predict traffic as congested and chaotic as we have it today? And, could anyone upon the basic of, say traffic congestion alone, predict the design of the automobiles causing it? There is clearly a good causal chain, or rather chains, involved in any kind of automobile. (You push the pedal down and the music goes round and round, etc.) Automotive engineers are hired who understand every cause-effect link in the chain, down to tire squirm. But is there anything in the design of those automobiles that allows us to predict the kinds and effects of traffic congestion? I say the answer is “no” as traffic congestion is an emergent property of cars and roads.

Thinking back upon how we became societal, I think the first bands of humans were family bands. We were designed (by evolution, of course) to be social animals, so we had built into us the idea that collectively we had a better chance of surviving than if we all tried to stand alone. So a band of Homo sapiens sapiens started out as a male and female and their children. But as time wore on this little band grew naturally, either through more children or children growing up and having children, or from accepting strays (survivors of the destruction of other families, or finding mates in other groups, etc.). There seems to be a natural upper limit on the size of such groups with evidence indicating that when a family group gets to be of a certain size it splits into two groups. (One of those limitations is how rapidly such a group can exhaust any locales resources. Splitting the group allows time for recovery of any locale between visits of the two bands, each of which harvests less from those locales. And since there was plenty of room, the two bands could follow quite different paths and not share any particular locale, although evidence indicates that these groups set up somewhat regular “meets” to exchange goods and family members.)

Once physical bounty becomes available, such as occurred naturally in river terrains, the upper limit on the size of a quasi-family group (everyone being kind-sorta relatives) went up and agriculture and civilization began their little dance.

Even when the bands were quite small, societal rules evolved naturally as emergent properties of the group. If the same problem came up over and over, say children fighting over who got what food, a structure might have been set up to reduce the tension these created (e.g. “We will take turns.”). Group cohesion was considered a general good as “in numbers lies strength.” So, a hunter who goes out and kills a deer comes back to the group and distributed pierces of meat to the members of the group. This deals with the lack of an ability to store meat (it rots fairly fast in warm climates, and also draws predators, so the safest place to store it is in the bellies of the tribe members). It also creates a nascent altruism.

As these groups got larger, managing a wide range of behaviors became problematic. When the patriarch/matriarch were unavailable to settle problems or weren’t strong enough, men’s and women’s circles were invented to teach the members of those groups and to resolve disputes.

All of these things are natural, emergent, outgrowths of a social species, especially one that learns to communicate significantly (which facilitates learning and dispute resolution).

I assume Dr. Wilson will make these points as I continue reading, but I consider these things inevitable. A highly communicative social species, should end up with general rules of behavior to keep the group viable and on an even keel emotionally. And voila, morals are born.

Note We are now learning that Neanderthals may have had some form of speech available to them (their DNA suggests this). If we hadn’t bumped them off of their perch, they might still be around today, having all of the basics to form complex societies. (They still had differences/limitations to deal with, such as a shoulder joint unable to perform an overhand throw, such as of a spear, so they probably wouldn’t have invented baseball, but they might have invented softball.)

 

 

 

 

February 15, 2020

The Transactional Idea of Gods

Filed under: History,Reason,Religion — Steve Ruis @ 8:36 am
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I am currently reading a wonderful book, An Atheist’s History of Belief: Understanding Our Most Extraordinary Invention by Matthew Kneale. The author paints a picture of how religion came to be that is quite compelling. He starts with a chapter entitles “Inventing Gods” which begins with a purpose for religion and that is keeping a primitive people’s worst nightmares at bay. He points out that widely dispersed cultures, which didn’t interact had a great deal in common. The commonality involved going into trance states and seeing or becoming spirit animals. In all of these cultures, these spirit animals had three basic abilities: the ability to help you when you got sick, the could also control the movement of prey animals, and they could improve the weather.

He argues that many of the cave paintings which typically are claimed to describe hunting scenes actually represent spirit animals.

The commonality of these things bears upon his claim that primitive peoples could be terrified by the three occurrences and the reassurances offered were welcomed everywhere.

The next stage in the development of gods is based upon the Theory of Mind, which is rooted in the human ability to winkle out what others are thinking without having to have them tell you that. This is a survival skill every mother taught every child when I was growing up: how to tell when an adult was being nice and how to recognize danger. Of course, having no cable TV or Internet meant our minds were busy imparting human feelings and thoughts to not just people, but other animals and even inanimate objects. We saw human points of view in anything that was important to our survival. These spirits were entities from which we could seek help just as we sought help from people. Ta da, animism!

Humans, of course, operated as many social cultures do, on a basis of reciprocity. If you do something nice for me, I will do something nice for you. Grooming is one such thing, another is a clever way to store food. When a hunter came back to camp with an antelope, the meat was often shared out with the whole tribe. If one tried to keep it, it more often than not spoiled, so sharing it out converted that meat into obligations of the other members of the tribe to share their finds when they harvested and hunted.

And, if these “spirits” or “deities” they saw all around them were helpers in case of illness, etc. then if they were going to do something for us, we needed to do something for them (reciprocity) and thus was born the idea of sacrifice.

How important people thought such sacrifices were is shown in places like Göbekli Tepe. As long ago as ten thousand years or so, maybe twelve, gigantic stone obelisks were dressed, carved and placed in a “high place” for reasons we do not fully understand, but were clearly not related to quotidian needs, but some sort of “spiritual need.” The amount of hard labor involved was immense, which is testimony to how important they thought this activity was. It apparently also took place over centuries.

The idea behind sacrifice seems clear but the manifestations of it are wide and bizarre: burying human children under the walls of a building, cutting living people’s hearts out to appease a sun god, etc.

And all of this existed and happened before there were systems for writing things down (paintings and carvings, yes, but writing, no).

Once writing came into the picture, after accounting, religious topics were most popular. And one thing is clear. In early religions, morality was not the coin with which gods were paid, it was ritual. The early religions had no heavens, no hells, pissed off gods extracted their revenge and provided rewards in the here and now. If there was an afterlife is was a gray, shambling kind of existence in a grey underworld. So, appeasing gods with sacrifices and rituals was the name of the game for a very long time.

This is about as far as I have gotten, but I didn’t want to wait to recommend this book to you. It is quite fascinating and well written and paced.

 

April 24, 2016

A Definition of Christian Morality … Finally

Filed under: Morality,Politics,Religion — Steve Ruis @ 9:59 am
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I have asked for anyone to make a clear statement of what Christian Morality is (please). Finally, I found one myself. According to the website http://www.christianityetc.org:

Morality for a Christian is the application of God’s laws regarding a person’s private and public behavior. In his or her seeking to live a moral life, a Christian tries to obey the rules for his or her personal behavior that have been decreed by God and recorded in the Bible. Throughout centuries of history these rules have been proclaimed by God’s prophets, like Moses and Isaiah and Jeremiah, taught by Jesus, interpreted by the apostles, like Peter and Paul, established by Emperor Constantine, and proclaimed by various popes, theologians, and preachers, like St. Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Jacob Arminus, Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, Dwight L. Moody, Billy Graham, and other contemporary preacher/teachers within the Jewish-Christian traditional understandings of what is right and what is wrong.”

Wait, Christian morality requires interpretation? I thought … never mind, let’s get back to the main topic.

This makes Christian morality easier to understand. Let’s see how well it is embraced by Christians. Here are some direct quotes from their god, albeit translated multiple times in multiple ways, and my comments on how well U.S. Christians seem carry out these recommendations from their god:

  1. If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.
    Uh, I don’t see this happening, do you? I do see the antithesis in “prosperity gospels” which basically say “God wants you to be rich” which seems to contradict this.
    2. But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.
    Does that love include carpet bombing Muslims? It seems that the more Christian your political candidate or state is, the greater the support for war.
    3. A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.
    He didn’t mean to include Muslims, did he? Or illegal immigrants? Or, shudder, atheists and liberals?
    4. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and everyone who humbles himself will be exalted.
    I’m voting for Trump, how about you? Then I am going to send another check into that mega-preacher so he can afford the rent on that mega-church.
    5. I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.
    This is why all of those folks in the Top 0.1% are heathens and Jews, I’ll bet. Actually I think they are all atheists. What, you say they are devout Christians? Well they must be doing good with their money because they are just throwing away Heaven for nothing otherwise.
    6. Give to everyone who begs from you; and of him who takes away your goods do not ask them again. And as you wish that men would do to you, do so to them.
    Welfare? We’re talking about welfare? What, food stamps for the poor? Those lazy shiftless bastards need to go get a job.
    7. Whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve….
    The only person I am a slave to is my boss. He just keeps getting richer and I haven’t had a raise in forever. He must not be a Christian. What? He is? Really?
    8. It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.
    He surely wasn’t talking about Medicaid and Obamacare was he? That’s socialist, un-American and un-Christian.

Doesn’t sound very Christian or moral, now does it? Usually I want to follow-up by asking Christians if they believe in the Ten Commandments. Almost all do, so they are accepting the Old Testament as the word of God also, and there are over 600 commandments directly from God in the OT, now let me see, on page …

I hope you can see that for many Christians, “Christian Morality” is defined as “what I stand for and against, even if I change my mind” and it has nothing to do the Jesus or the Bible or Billy Graham or, for that matter, decent morality.

Note
For those of you who may be wondering why I write about Christianity on a Class Warfare blog, it is because religion is being used as a weapon by our economic oppressors in this war. For example, conservatives have voted to restrict food stamps for the very poor in the name of “family values.”

 

 

June 6, 2014

Oh, Yeah, Take This …

Filed under: Philosophy,Science — Steve Ruis @ 1:22 pm
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Sam Harris’s blog is one of my favorites. On it he recently issued a challenge in the form of a contest (with a substantial cash prize, mind you, no cheapskate Dr. Harris) with the topic being to refute his thesis in his book “The Moral Landscape” that a scientific basis for morality could be found. Here is the prize winning essay (www.samharris.org/blog/item/the-moral-landscape-challenge).

The good doctor doesn’t allow comments on his website as he has neither the time to read them nor the staff to monitor them (plus he is a target, literally, because of his critiques of the Muslim religion, amongst other things). Consequently I am writing my comment about the refutation here. I state this up front so you can go elsewhere if this bores you.

The basis of the refutation is that there is no scientific definition of what “is good” means. And as Sam Harris used as an analogy the health business (doctors, nurses, etc.) the refutation basically says that since “good health” cannot be defined scientifically that medicine is in the same position as is a scientific morality, having to start with axioms of what “is true” to have any purchase whatsoever.

This is where I wish to start setting my hair on fire. I feel someone capable of evaluating such arguments as I majored in chemistry in college and minored in philosophy, also having read a great deal of philosophy. I remember my ethics professor pointing out that in 4000 years of recorded philosophy that philosophers had yet to answer a single question. His comment came in a very long discussion (taking up weeks) of what the phrase “is good” meant. This is in contrast to churchmen who have answered virtually every question, but incorrectly, e.g. Question: How old is the Earth? Answer: 6018 years. Wrong.

Since I am an academic I am used to this approach of taking somebody by the scruff of the neck and shoving their face into the bark of a tree and then screaming in their ear “Can you see the forest? Can you?” So, let us take a step back, shan’t we? The purpose of any system of morality is to guide people in making decisions that affect other human beings. Were you alone on the planet, I doubt the subject of ethics or morality would come up (although some now are trying to extend human ethics to include other conscious animals, let’s not go there for now as this is complicated enough as it is).

So, let me address the issue of health scientifically. Here is a scientific poll:
Q1 Would you rather be sick or well?
a. sick
b. well
c. don’t really care
What do you think the results would be if several thousand people were to seriously answer this question? Is there any doubt that 95+% of ordinary people would answer “b”? Would you not be suspicious of anybody answering a or c? Do you think the results would depend upon culture or ethnicity or age or . . . ? No, I don’t either.

So, we have scientific poll results saying that the hugely vast majority of human beings would rather be well than sick (or we would if we were to do this poll). So, does an academic concern over being able to scientifically and accurately define “sick” and “well” affect the interactions you might have with other people that involve the morality of these situations? I don’t think so.

This is by no means cut and dried. Let’s go back to the early days of the United States—the Revolutionary War period. Smallpox was a constant threat to our armed forces. (The British soldiers had either already had it and survived or been exposed to it enough to not get a bad case (they were somewhat immunized).) The radical idea cropped up that one could avoid the fatal aspects of smallpox by giving oneself a mild case of the disease (thus creating an immunity) and some douty Americans voluntarily did this, that is they chose being sick over being well. Of course, this is not a general condition we are addressing here, we are addressing a trade-off of choosing a mild short-term illness versus the possibility of a disfiguring and possibly fatal illness later. So, probabilities come into play. If you had to make this choice, would you prefer scientifically determined probabilities of death/disfigurement from a full-fledged case of smallpox versus the possibility of the mild case getting out of hand or would you prefer an “educated guess” by your health professional, the guy over there with the leeches?

If we step back farther, we see that scientific methods applied to medicine have resulted in better health outcomes for most of us and longer lifespans, too. So, wouldn’t it follow that having scientific information available any time a decision of questionable morality needs be made be a naturally good thing?

A system of morality should provide guidance when you have to make decisions that affect other people. (I think you should have autonomy over yourself up to an including suicide, but this is debatable.) Part of the problem is that some of us believe in absolute rules of morality and some of us do not. If you are a believer in moral absolutes, you will have a hard time accepting any scientific moral system as it will involve probabilities and not absolutes. I tend to think that people who believe in god-given absolute morals are deluding themselves. (They have to be god-given to have the authority behind them to make them absolute.) Such morals are wishful thinking on a grand scale. I say this because if the moral codes of say, Christians, were absolutes, a Christian would never murder anyone (Thou shall not commit murder.) because even if they avoided punishment in this life, punishment in the hereafter would be so extreme as to make such an act insane. And, of course, Christians, do murder people from time to time. So, whether you think such cases are clear evidence of insanity, at least you have to admit those rules do not work . . . especially the one about coveting your neighbor’s wife! The wishful thinking is that any god-given morality has to be more effective than any socially devised moral code we could come up with. Or possibly people like the fact that if someone does get away with it now, they won’t later; it is hard to tell.

The even sillier thing is if we do create a scientifically based moral code, how different could it be from the ones we have now? Are we going to come up with something that says it is okay to steal small things from rich people because they will hardly miss them but not okay to steal from poor people who need everything they have and more? I don’t think so.

It is clear to me that people have created the gods and therefore they created all of the “god-given” moral codes, along with the others (not god-given) and by and large these are pragmatic, “can’t we all get along” kinds of rules. We are not talking about the rules of the Securities and Exchange Commission, we are talking about general guidelines to help people who write such laws/regulations prevent fraud and abuse of others.

Need we worry about academic/scientific definitions of what it means “to steal” or should we take a step back and ask people, in a scientific poll, whether they want their goods stolen or not? Can we not accept the feelings of others as a basis to establish a scientific moral code? Are we not just trying to get along with one another, doing the most good and the least harm? Why is this so hard?

June 6, 2013

Is Religion The Bulwark of Morality?

Filed under: Politics,Religion — Steve Ruis @ 7:50 am
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Over time, there have been a great many efforts by the religious to prove the existence of their gods. Obviously these have failed as those efforts were attempts to prove the unprovable. Similarly atheists have engaged in attempts to disprove the existence of gods. This task is harder and also fails for the same reason. These are not so much attempts at proofs as they are arguments to convince unbelievers or wavering believers one way or the other. Most people pay no heed to any of it.

There are, though, modern atheists of a scientific bent who are eschewing attempts at disproving a god’s existence and, instead, are investigating our natural receptiveness to religion, how religion evolved, and what if anything might take its place. Part of this investigation is examining the linkage claimed by religion between it and morality.

My point here is that religion may be a context for moral discussions but it plays no real role in shaping moral behavior. The basis for my argument is that children’s moral sense of fair and unfair and right and wrong are developed far before their understanding of their religion.

“Any school yard child has a well-developed idea of what is right and wrong.
If you similarly test the same child’s understanding of his religion’s moral requirements,
I think you would find them quite vacuous.”

If you can think back far enough do you remember what you were thinking attending church services as a child. I can barely remember back that far (it has always seemed to me that females have better long-term memory than males as most women I know have more vivid childhood memories than most males) but I do remember wanting to avoid going to church as a child because it was intensely boring. The only relief from the boredom was an occasional song but, since we were American Protestants, the singing was off key and the accompaniment was indifferent.

But any school yard child has a well-developed idea of what is right and wrong. That doesn’t mean we didn’t test those limits, but we did know them. If you similarly test the same child’s understanding of his religion’s moral requirements, I think you would find them quite vacuous.

This also shows up in parents’ moral instructional interventions. When parents interrupt their child to address their behavior, the arguments are always emotionally based, e.g. “how would you like it if . . .” or “how do you think she felt when you . . .” that is these comments are rooted in making emotional connections with others. You won’t hear a parent asking their child “What would Jesus do?” Children are taught to consider and read the emotional fabric of others lives as their basis for moral behavior, not religious precepts.

There is now evidence that whole countries which are the least religious also tend to be the least violent. Apparently morality is not dependent upon religious instruction, nor is it intimately linked to religion itself. So why are religions so heavily linked to morality and social order? I think the answer is: in politics, you follow the money, but when it comes to religion you follow the power. Religions have made deals with political power structures (to get protection, to get funding, to get political power, etc.) and by claiming that religions (the opiate of the masses) keep the social order by legislating morality, they have acquired such power.

The amazing thing is that the political powers bought the argument. It may be that the cost to the political powers was small and the benefit, of being supported by the religion (divine right of kings, etc.), so large at the time that it was a bargain.

September 12, 2012

The Goose, The Golden Eggs, and the Republican Party

Filed under: Politics,Religion — Steve Ruis @ 2:08 pm
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Regular readers of this blog will probably note that irrationality is one of my favorite themes to write on. I continue. . . .

When I was growing up, all school kids seemed to know the fable of “The Goose that Laid the Golden Eggs.” This was one of Aesop’s fables (5th C. Greek maybe) which had more than one version. In each the goose gets killed: in one out of foolish curiosity and another out of greed. Motive is not important here.

The point here is: which is more important, the goose or a single egg?

Ah, now you can see where I am going. The connection is with the topic of the legality and the morality of abortion. As far as the Republicans are concerned, an unlaid egg is worth more than the goose. I am going to make a practical argument about why abortion needs to be available and freely so. And I shall not mention the arguments about raising unwanted children, or women having abortions on a whim, or any of the arguments already made; those just don’t add to the debate. This is strictly practical. Okay, buckle your seat belt; here I go.

Children just aren’t worth much.

What?! How can I say such a heinous thing? I can say it because it is true. Now I fully acknowledge that your children are precious to you (as mine is to me). But other people’s kids, not so much: we find them irritating, obnoxious, spoiled, ill-mannered, . . . , need I go on? Just listen to any conversation about kids at a family gathering and, well, “our kids” are sweet and nice or maybe even “a handful,” but when the topic rolls around to “their kids,” the knives come out. So, I don’t think the “children are precious” line holds any water.

It fact, it wasn’t that long ago in this country that women of no particular means had six, eight, ten, or more children. And it wasn’t a shock to anyone that fewer than half survived. (This is still the case in poorer countries now.) Where were the Republicans then (or now), wringing their hands about how life was sacred and we needed to protect the little children? You couldn’t even get them to donate to “poor houses” and orphanages then. You can get them to care about starving children in Somalia now. So, I don’t think the “life is sacred” line holds any water either.

In reality (a place far, far away from Republicanland) women are a far more precious resource than children because, well, women can lay golden eggs, many of them if they wish. Heck, the Spartans left less than perfect children out in the wilderness and went home to make better ones.

Republicans are even siding with rapists and incestuous fornicators on this issue. I don’t think these are their Christian morals popping up, because they show no pity, disrespect the poor, call the jobless lazy, and favor greed over all other attributes. They wouldn’t cherry-pick the Bible, now would they?

Maybe they are just pandering to people who think like they do, you know, the irrational.

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