The Moral of the Story

I was ‘talking’ with a fellow blogger who is a nurse, and as I am a meteorologist we were trying to figure out who had it worse.  Was it more annoying to deal with the “climate change deniers” or the “anti-vaxxers”.   I agreed his was more annoying, because while human induced climate changed is well-evidenced it is always going to receive a lot of political blowback in a fossil fuel dependent world and it is both a complex and new problem facing us.  Vaccinations on the other hand have worked so well and have eradicated disease so completely that people don’t remember why they even get them and instead have invented dangers to receiving them because they can no longer see the purpose.    It’s as routine as opening your mouth and saying “Ahhh”.  People don’t really question that, but it doesn’t inject anything into you and is sort of hard to get upset about, but I think when some medical advancement has been around so long and so successful we forget the reason and just see it as possibly something that isn’t necessary.

This led me to wonder if the same thing wasn’t true for how we understand morals.  One of the common things you hear from atheists is that many theists are under the impression that we do not have a moral and ethical code.  That such thing is not possible if we don’t have God and some supernatural system of punishment and reward.  I remember my mom, who is Christian, telling me at some point that our sense of right and wrong must come from God or else where would we get it from?  The general answer is easy of course, we are taught them by our parents and others.  We have authority figures that tell us what is right and what is wrong (even though you can convince a child that things that are wrong are actually write, like prejudice and intolerance).  The point is if as children we seem to get our morality from the authority figures in our life, perhaps it’s not surprising that many people, especially those who have no qualms about relying on the “rightness” of authority, that morality comes from what many consider the ultimate authority, God.  But it seems obvious to me that morality can easily be derived through scientific investigation.  Morality though has been around well before the scientific method, but humans have been around for a long enough time that we’ve been living a social experiment of morality and have simply been learning.  At one time the things we take as obvious might not have been overtly obvious, even though I think some of the big ones we could figure out rather quickly as they would not be a beneficial for survival.  Just like we stopped questioning why vaccines are important, perhaps we stopped questioning why certain immoral acts are wrong, such that people assume that it all must have come from some other plane of existence.

Some morals are certainly cross-cultural, like physical and sexual harm to other people’s children.  This one would be a pretty obvious natural (perhaps genetic) trait because our survival does depend on the survival of the next generation.  Anything that threatens that would be considered immoral.  Unfortunately in many places physically or psychologically hurting your own child is not seen as wrong.  It wasn’t so long ago here that, unless something got really severe, you were hardly considered in the wrong for disciplining your child with a belt or the back of your hand.  Some people still adopt that attitude unfortunately in North America, and it can be worse in other countries.  Regardless though we generally do go to ridiculous (and perhaps psychologically detrimental) lengths to protect children.  In general though killing is not quite viewed the same way.  Many think it’s okay to kill criminals (apparently it sometimes doesn’t even matter the crime…resisting arrest is enough), and killing in war is not only tolerated, but often cheered about.   For some time killing your wife in a crime of passion was often considered justifiable.  And many civilizations have committed genocide in our past and that has gone unpunished.   So even of the most basic commandments “thou shall not kill” isn’t clear cut, so this obvious sense of right and wrong we are supposed to get from God looks pretty muddy.  And if we are worried about some sort of eternal punishment system it’s amazing the ways we can justify killing when we need to dodge that one.

But let’s look at it from the perspective of “unlawful killing” which is why modern translations say “murder” instead of kill in the 10 commandments.  Thus we already have human law deciding what killing is lawful and unlawful.  This is not an overly divine commandment already.  We know that before civilization we roamed in smallish hunter gatherer bands.  Maybe a few hundred people at most.  This was a time before Christianity, before the 10 commandments, so let’s assume this group doesn’t know right from wrong.  Like a small town, in these small groups, you knew everyone.  Surviving in the wild is not easy and everybody had a role to play, and everybody shared and worked together.  Studies of hunter-gatherer tribes today show them to be rather egalitarian in compared with much of civilized society so let’s look at this as a group that gets along.  So we have a group of a few 100 people, and because they have no God to tell them between right and wrong they think murder might be just something that’s okay to do.  What would be the results of a few people that decided to commit a murder every once in awhile:

  1. Population decline and lack of genetic diversity – We could at the very least learn that there is a murder rate that is not healthy for the survival of the group. Through cooperation, life was made easier, but the group gets smaller, things get harder. Population can only increase so fast. So at the very least, if murder is okay, we can’t do it too often.
  2. Loss of those with specialized or exceptional skill. While daily tasks required teamwork there would have been certain people with more extraordinary skill. A tribe may also only have one person who does a particular job. Murder could reduce the chance for survival if such people are killed.
  3. Growing fear and distrust. If people are being murdered, people are less likely to cooperative. Some people will simply be scared they will be next and be more cautious and protective. Some people will be angry at the loss of their child, brother, sister, etc. This will cause others to fight back. There may be false accusations, which builds more anger and distrust.
  4. They are diminishing their own chance for survival. Once a murderer is discovered, those that committed the murders may find themselves a victim.

Now there are probably even more things that could be listed as to why murdering would not be a good idea, the least of which that we are by definition a social species for whom survival depends on our being in a group, and being able to work well in that group.  It simply isn’t in our nature to murder our own, and there is a lot of good reasons why murder would not be a good idea.  However when it comes to other groups, all bets are off.  We may be xenophobic due to bad experiences with other groups before, or simply be xenophobic because someone who we don’t know simply isn’t somebody we can implicitly trust, and thus we can justify killing others that are not part of our society.  This is why war is not against the law, but murder is.  We can do similar thought experiments with many other basic things that cause harm, like stealing, or any action that causes harm both physically and emotionally.   But even if it was not in our nature, this social experiment has been going on for some time and it seems quite reasonable to assume that even if there was not a morality inherent in us through birth, if at the very least we have a driving force to survive then many of the morals we have today would result through experience and observation and concluding how to survive better.

As a population we continue to adjust.  Different groups share moral truths just as they would share any other type of knowledge.  And so perhaps much of what we consider right and wrong is handed to us without that rediscovering process, but you can still see the impact of people doing the right thing and wrong thing today.  Because even though I think that on average humans are more moral in civilized society today than in the earlier days of civilization, we still have a ways to go.  People who are doing good and bad things are not of one particular faith or philosophy.  If you have compassion and care about how you make others feel, you will discover yourself how to behave in a way that’s more positive everyday as you grow and learn also.  It is the scientist in us that helps us become more moral.  If anything, the Bible demonstrates this more completely as the old testament has very much an eye-for-an-eye mentality, but the new testament is very much about forgiveness, redemption, and compassion.  Even God seemed to find a more moral way of dealing with enemies. Thus I don’t think it’s surprising that morality should progress in the same way that science does.

 

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9 thoughts on “The Moral of the Story

  1. JRG

    I have always failed to understand the criticism that atheists don’t or can’t have morals. Even if you couldn’t agree that the source of morals is from God, it doesn’t mean that atheists couldn’t practice that same morality. Does that mean that if God said it’s wrong to murder, but you’re an atheist, you believe it’s right to murder? That’s an illogical conclusion.

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    1. I’ve never really understood it either, but many people believe that the only reason to do a “right” action is because God is counting those deeds and will send you to heaven or hell depending on how you behave. Atheists also don’t believe in the concept of heaven and hell of course. Also many believe that the Bible is the guidebook to morality, and if you don’t believe in the truth of the bible then you can’t even know how God wants you to behave. More simply some people believe that God is the light, and if you turn away from the light, you must be seeking the darkness.

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  2. “One of the common things you hear from atheists is that many theists are under the impression that we do not have a moral and ethical code. That such thing is not possible if we don’t have God and some supernatural system of punishment and reward.”

    Excellent post, Swarn. There’s so much I want to comment on since you touched on several different issues, but this particular statement from you reminded me of something Albert Einstein once said:

    “If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed.”

    I don’t think we are a sorry lot, but I do think that humanity has been ignorant throughout history about the biological, neurological and environmental conditions that impact prosocial behavior.

    Prosocial Behavior
    “Historical evidence indicates that voluntary action which benefits others has biological roots, observable in both humans and animals (Knickerbocker 2003). The field of sociobiology, developed by Edward Wilson in the 1970s, examines the social behaviors of organisms as motivated by their biology. Wilson and others have documented examples of “helping” in several animal species, supporting the notion that prosocial behavior is genetically predisposed (Penner 2005) with an innate biological function, as opposed to a learned phenomenon (Knickerbocker 2003).”

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    1. Thank you as always for your thoughtful comments. That is a great quote and I couldn’t agree more. Your comment about “humanity being ignorant throughout history” is great. And I don’t think you meant willfully ignorant either and it reminded of an exerpt from a speech by Douglas Adams (which I think I linked in my last blog post) which I think is really good and addresses your though:

      ” Imagine early man. Early man is, like everything else, an evolved creature and he finds himself in a world that he’s begun to take a little charge of; he’s begun to be a tool-maker, a changer of his environment with the tools that he’s made and he makes tools, when he does, in order to make changes in his environment. To give an example of the way man operates compared to other animals, consider speciation, which, as we know, tends to occur when a small group of animals gets separated from the rest of the herd by some geological upheaval, population pressure, food shortage or whatever and finds itself in a new environment with maybe something different going on. Take a very simple example; maybe a bunch of animals suddenly finds itself in a place where the weather is rather colder. We know that in a few generations those genes which favour a thicker coat will have come to the fore and we’ll come and we’ll find that the animals have now got thicker coats. Early man, who’s a tool maker, doesn’t have to do this: he can inhabit an extraordinarily wide range of habitats on earth, from tundra to the Gobi Desert – he even manages to live in New York for heaven’s sake – and the reason is that when he arrives in a new environment he doesn’t have to wait for several generations; if he arrives in a colder environment and sees an animal that has those genes which favour a thicker coat, he says “I’ll have it off him”. Tools have enabled us to think intentionally, to make things and to do things to create a world that fits us better. Now imagine an early man surveying his surroundings at the end of a happy day’s tool making. He looks around and he sees a world which pleases him mightily: behind him are mountains with caves in – mountains are great because you can go and hide in the caves and you are out of the rain and the bears can’t get you; in front of him there’s the forest – it’s got nuts and berries and delicious food; there’s a stream going by, which is full of water – water’s delicious to drink, you can float your boats in it and do all sorts of stuff with it; here’s cousin Ug and he’s caught a mammoth – mammoth’s are great, you can eat them, you can wear their coats, you can use their bones to create weapons to catch other mammoths. I mean this is a great world, it’s fantastic. But our early man has a moment to reflect and he thinks to himself, ‘well, this is an interesting world that I find myself in’ and then he asks himself a very treacherous question, a question which is totally meaningless and fallacious, but only comes about because of the nature of the sort of person he is, the sort of person he has evolved into and the sort of person who has thrived because he thinks this particular way. Man the maker looks at his world and says ‘So who made this then?’ Who made this? – you can see why it’s a treacherous question. Early man thinks, ‘Well, because there’s only one sort of being I know about who makes things, whoever made all this must therefore be a much bigger, much more powerful and necessarily invisible, one of me and because I tend to be the strong one who does all the stuff, he’s probably male’. And so we have the idea of a god. Then, because when we make things we do it with the intention of doing something with them, early man asks himself , ‘If he made it, what did he make it for?’ Now the real trap springs, because early man is thinking, ‘This world fits me very well. Here are all these things that support me and feed me and look after me; yes, this world fits me nicely’ and he reaches the inescapable conclusion that whoever made it, made it for him.”

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      1. Yep, that’s a good assessment by Adams. I also think about all the environmental conditions that messed with people’s heads to make them think there was a God, like the Sensed Presence Effect, where you think there’s someone else in your presence. In his book,The Third Man Factor, John Geiger documents this effect in mountain climbers, solo sailors and ultraendurance athletes. It is, in fact, rather common, and recently was captured on EEG while someone was having a seizure.

        Charles A. Lindbergh’s experienced a sensed presence during his long transatlantic flight to Paris. Some of the conditions associated with this effect are monotony, darkness, barren landscapes, isolation, cold, injury, dehydration, hunger, fatigue, fear, sleep deprivation and oxygen deprivation. I’d say our ancestors dealt with a lot, if not most of those conditions.

        http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-sensed-presence-effect/

        Also neurological disorders and mental illnesses that cause people to think they are either a god or believe god speaks to them. You wrote:

        ” Your comment about “humanity being ignorant throughout history” is great. And I don’t think you meant willfully ignorant either.”

        Exactly right. How could they know about the conditions such as sensed presence effect, traumatic brain injuries that can cause delusions and hallucinations, and other environmental factors, like the discovery from NASA, whereby infrasound (standing waves) at around 18 hz can cause the eyeball to vibrate (resonate) undetected inducing hallucinations of a ghostly presence. Some of these natural conditions that induce these hallucinations are found in nature — severe weather, surf, lee waves, avalanches, earthquakes, volcanoes, bolides, waterfalls, calving of icebergs, auroras, lightening and upper-atmospheric lighting. We have the tools today to learn about these phenomena, but they had no way of knowing in the past.

        Science helped me find understanding and compassion about how superstitious beliefs came to be a way for people (throughout history) to make sense of their world. Today, I’m inclined to be a little less forgiving because we have so much information and scientific explanations galore at our fingertips. I understand that people may not have the time to do their own research, or are simply not curious. But there are many today who are willfully ignorant and/or lack critical thinking skills.

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        1. I remember reading an article about the “other presence” feeling and being totally blown away at how cool that is. We can recreate all sorts of “supernatural perceptions” with our current understanding of the brain. I remember when I posted that article on Facebook I just had to shake my head at someone who said “Well that doesn’t mean that ALL situations where someone perceives something else in the room isn’t real”. I guess. Wow. I had a student in one of my classes who came to her strong belief in God because she would have these episodes where she would see vivid colors everywhere. She has had these episodes a few times and she is sure that it is God speaking to her somehow. I remember doing some research about it, and found a website that talked about this being reported rarely in people who had epileptic seizures. I didn’t have the heart to tell her when I found out. How do you shatter someone’s entire foundation for who they are? Chances are she would have just doubted the validity of my information I suppose. I sometimes get annoyed at people for willfully being ignorant too, given all the information that is out there but I’m not always convinced that it is willful ignorance. If we believe first and rationalize later a person’s ignorance is really predicate on as much surety as ours. Or maybe they simply are afraid of changing and alienating themselves from their community. Maybe they are simply afraid of uncertainty. To me the embracing of science and critical thinking is to embrace change. Personally I find it exciting that what I think I know today might change. Or that things that are unknown become discovered. Other people simply seem to fear change because change represents uncertainty. I feel the great inner struggle of the human species is walking the line between safety and security, and change and uncertainty. Most of us are on some side of that line. I can see both as being important to our survival. But the only thing I am really certain of is that things change and so we need to find away to be better prepared for that.

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          1. Swarn, yours was a superb comment and I agree on all points. You wrote:

            “I remember doing some research about it, and found a website that talked about this being reported rarely in people who had epileptic seizures.”

            I was posting on a forum several years back, sharing information about Vincent van Gogh. Before he became a famous painter, he was hyper-religious. This was before we knew that hyper-religiosity was a feature of temporal lobe epilepsy, and van Gogh had TLE. But he later shed his beliefs and became obsessed with painting. He saw colors, vivid colors everywhere and that influenced his art and the colors he used. After posting this, a woman, who had been lurking, commented that her son had the same experiences — seeing colors everywhere. She said she was going to have her son examined by a neurologist. As you probably know, many people with TLE don’t have convulsive seizures. The symptoms can manifest in hallucinations that include a few or all the senses. As it turned out, after several months of evaluation, he was diagnosed with TLE.

            But you’re right — how do you tell someone that they might have a disorder when their whole world is wrapped around their belief in god. I look at it with compassion, empathy and the scientific lens. Is it better to believe or die early? Epilepsy is as common as breast cancer and takes as many lives. Most people don’t know this, and I can get raked over the coals in my advocacy work regarding seizure disorders and traumatic brain injuries. I’m not suggesting that everyone who believes in God has a disorder. But, for example, the fastest growing protestant church is the 7th Day Adventist. Their co-founder and “prophet” was hit in the head by a rock and succumb to TLE. Because her symptoms manifested in a non-convulsive religious nature, the SDA now has a following of 25 million and the 2nd largest private school system in the world, with the RCC being #1.

            Neurologists have also studied the Apostle Paul. They came up with the same assessment — TLE), which was published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry.

            http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1032067/

            When someone shows an over-zealousness of a religious nature, I get red flags. I’ve also had personal experiences with my late partner, who had TLE after sustaining a brain injury and would be alive today had it not been for poor religious counsel.

            I wholeheartedly agree with you about people needing certainty. Death anxiety is real and not everyone wants to face their mortality — probably the majority. It’s one of the side-effects of having awareness about the future. I also understand that because we are hardwired to cooperate, humans tend to flock like sheep and birds, which has also been demonstrated in studies done at the University of Leeds, in the UK, and replicated.

            Also, and this is a biggie in my book, deactivated neural circuitry when we have a profound love for someone. fMRI scans showed that we get rewarded, neurochemically, with romantic and maternal love. It’s natures way of making sure we stay together long enough to ensure the survival of our offspring. But this neural circuity associated with critical social assessment can also keep people from seeing the flaws of their belief system when they are in love with their god. I was one of them.

            Abstract: “The activity specific to maternal attachment was compared to that associated to romantic love described in our earlier study and to the distribution of attachment-mediating neurohormones established by other studies. Both types of attachment activated regions specific to each, as well as overlapping regions in the brain’s reward system that coincide with areas rich in oxytocin and vasopressin receptors. Both deactivated a common set of regions associated with negative emotions, social judgment and ‘mentalizing’, that is, the assessment of other people’s intentions and emotions.

            We conclude that human attachment employs a push–pull mechanism that overcomes social distance by deactivating networks used for critical social assessment and negative emotions, while it bonds individuals through the involvement of the reward circuitry, explaining the power of love to motivate and exhilarate.” Source: The neural correlates of maternal and romantic love — NeuroImage – Volume 21, Issue 3, March 2004, Pages 1155–1166

            “Personally I find it exciting that what I think I know today might change. Or that things that are unknown become discovered.

            I couldn’t agree more.

            “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known” ~ Carl Sagin

            Life would sure be boring if we had all the answers. Curiosity is my religion. 😉

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            1. That’s very interesting Victoria. By the way I am so glad that I’ve met you on here and that you share the same excitement about the neuroscience stuff as I do! 🙂

              It does seem overzealousness has some sort of biological source. Of course nobody is raised under completely identical situations, even siblings, but it seems that when you even look at something like the Westboro Baptist Church some members have left, despite the fact that they were indoctrinated to the same degree and they at least had the sense enough to not be part of that hate group. The girl I was referring to hasn’t had an episode in some time, and perhaps if it seemed like it was regular and recent I might have said something, but it just didn’t seem like the right thing to do at the time. She also had a fascination for Middle-Eastern culture too and seemed to like the “modesty” of their culture. She always dressed extremely modestly, she told me she never even wears a dress. It was kind of sad, because she was quite honestly one of the most beautiful girls I’ve seen. lol

              I like that Carl Sagan quote. That to me is perhaps the saddest part about religion I because it is intellectually lazy. It tries to answer all the big and small questions in life, and doesn’t encourage you to find other answers.

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