That Which Survives

I was thrust into a conversation recently where I debated a Christian fundamentalist on morality.  Particular why would we care about well-being, that only an existing divine moral authority would give us that imperative.

It seems obvious to me that morality is born out of need to learn how to survive best.   And this of course would be different for different species.  An intelligent life that evolved from frogs might simply have large litters and leave them all to fend for themselves and have completely different morals that made sense for their particular mode of survival.  For us as social primates we have our own set of behaviors that make us most successful.  I was then asked over and over again, “Why survive?”  As if the answer could only be some supernatural force at worked.  And yet it seems to me that survival is just the nature of life.  I would go so far as to say if the nature of life was not to survive, there wouldn’t be life.  It’s sort of the very definition of life.  I would imagine that this is part of the definition of life we can most agree on.

Thus it also seems obvious to me that as a species of primates who have evolved to survive rather well through cooperation, we survive best when we are compassionate and kind to others.  Building bonds of trust and empathy are not only some of the most long lasting relationships, but also the most gratifying to our own well being.  But clearly it can’t be so obvious, because there is a lot of the opposite going around.

I started to think that maybe there are two extremes of the type of person you can be.  You can be one who thinks the least of us slow us down and prevent us from living in that wonderful future utopia, or you can one who thinks that it difficult to know who the least of us is.  And that everybody, to a certain extent, has something to teach.  Hopefully, that thing they have to teach isn’t what not to do.  But even those are lessons well learned.  Of course most of us are not those extremes.  But we’re all hoping to be more like one than the other.  I think the former can be measurable shown to be illusion, but if you think the latter is easy to achieve you’d be fooling yourself just as much.    I can personally say that there are moments when the illusion seems simpler, and you find the appeal of the black and white view, even if you know that could never be you.  The latter is the path of humility, a path that asks you to accept uncertainty as property of nature.  Not only must you tolerate it, you must actually welcome it and embrace it.  Such a path can be a painful journey, but the well-being you gain from prostrating yourself under the endless sky of uncertainty, baring your soul to the universe, is immense.  Because it really is the best way to see the stars.   It’s always just seemed apparent to me that humans were naturally kind creatures, because it always seemed to me the reason why we’ve survived until now.  I hope I’m not wrong.

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32 thoughts on “That Which Survives

  1. “Why survive?” sounds like an iteration of, “if there’s no purpose to life why go on living?” which is another popular question directed at atheists. Of course, my retort is always, “if the afterlife is so much better than this one, why not kill yourself and get there faster?”

    Morality is an adaptation that makes survival easier. Period. If morality were really divine, you’d think that every single human would have the exact same morals, but we all clearly don’t. To which I’m sure a Christian would reply, well you have free will! To which I would ask what the point of divine morality is in the first place then. But I digress.

    What it sounds like this person is asking you is what atheists have to live for. Which is a ridiculous question on a variety of levels. We have everything to live for and nothing to die for, unlike our religious counterparts.

    Liked by 7 people

    1. You’re right that it did seem to be that sort of question. The idea was that a Godless universe would be without purpose. And your retort is a good one.

      The purpose of this post was also to move beyond that argument to what should be a much more universally agreed view, even if one is a theist, that we are capable of far more good by raising people up than casting them down. This is certainly preached by most religions as well. It’s usually reasonably clear, in most Holy texts the majority of the book doesn’t talk about after lives, but how to live better here on Earth. How to make the only existence we know of happier. It feels like humans are the ones using the afterlife as some sort of carrot at the end of stick.

      Liked by 4 people

  2. Hmmm … Agreed that “survival is just the nature of life,” what else? Morality is a human construct; one which, I suppose, originated to dominate the masses into submission. A form of behavioral control became a dominant Patriarchy.

    I could totally run with this one, but will leave you with a statement I’ve used more than not. It’s all god or none of it is. And so I try and accept it all, much as I’m able. It’s easier in my little corner of the world. Easier with no TV and limited news. Don’t know if I’ve said it here, but I used to have a great bumper sticker, “Some things exist, whether you believe in them or not.”

    An interesting read: Right Use of Will by Ceanne de Rohan. The second book is good. Subsequent of the author’s are redundant and begin to sound a bit out there. Aloha, Swarn

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      1. LOLOLOLOL That is so true, however it is religion that set up the poor to be so hated. For it was told (am a scientist) that if God so loved a person they would be well being in life and goods. ERgo the poor have been hated, and Napoleon is truly right, religion did keep people from killing, at least some of the rich, but did not keep the Rich from killing the Poor!

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Bela for the comment. 🙂

      You say: Morality is a human construct; one which, I suppose, originated to dominate the masses into submission. A form of behavioral control became a dominant Patriarchy.

      I’ve never heard this argument before. Are there some studies in this area that you could point to? It is my understanding, just based on what I’ve read about the brain that we all have a certain areas in are brain that are activated by moral thought. It doesn’t mean we all have the same morals, but the development of morals seems to be a natural part of human development. So I don’t believe morality in of itself is a societal construct for nefarious purposes such as the patriarchy. Hunter-gatherer tribes that are quite egalitarian will also have morals that they live by. I think it’s certainly true that certain moral behaviors have likely been invented for nefarious purposes. The idea that God is a man, and referred to as the Father is clearly an exploitation of our proclivity for parental reverence and perhaps to try to override what would have been the clear observation that females are the ones who create life here on Earth. But this doesn’t mean that morality itself is a construct. I think a good argument could be made for what we call good and bad morals a construct. In my post I hesitated to use the word “good”, but I figured the important evolutionary quality of reciprocal altruism could be safely judged as being good. 🙂

      And I agree that if one accepts God as the basis for it all, then there is good and evil and we have to then question why God who is supposed to be a force of good would not use his omniscience and omnipotence to battle evil every day,

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Is morality just evolutionary pragmatism? I suspect there must be more to it, as Bela suggests, in the way of their being cultural constructs too. Perhaps the human brain’s neotenous regression allows for the post-natal development of moral systems upon pre-wired (innate) sub-systems (as with language, I think?) that are themselves predisposed to the operation of moral principles. But to be made objectively existent in some sense, then cultural adaptions have to be incorporated, would you not think, Swarn?

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        1. I think it’s just evolutionary pragmatism, but that doesn’t mean that we would all develop the same morals, but it does mean we will develop morals. What appears to us as good moral practices certainly has a lot to do with our culture, but put a baby in any culture and they will develop a morality. I think there is a growing body of neurological evidence that shows moral thought activating certain areas of the brain. This makes morality itself not a social construct, but an evolutionary one. Rather like the framework being there, but culture dictates what we fill it with. That being said I think we can objectively analyze different behaviors which are considered moral in a cultural sense and make some judgments as to whether those practices have an overall contribution to the well being of the people or cause harm or suffering. Like anything we learn, we come to conclusions which may seem reasonable but are predicated on incomplete information or a misunderstanding of the information presented to us.

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  3. Re “Particularly why would we care about well-being, that only an existing divine moral authority would give us that imperative.” I am so tired of stupid comments like this from people who do not think things through. Why should we care about well-being? Only a god could give us that feeling? Maybe he needs to go back to the grammar school playground and work this out.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Yeah, in watching my son grow, it seems like such a natural thing for him to do. Now one could argue that there is a creator who has thus instilled this survival instinct in life, and thus allowed for the manifestation of reciprocal altruism to develop as a means of survival for a portion of the cacophony of species that life entails. However, it in no way implies that this is the God of the Bible or any other religion out there. It doesn’t imply that it’s a personal God who intervenes in your life to guide you or annoy you depending on your behavior. I’m fine if someone wants to believe in a creator, but a personal God is extremely far fetched, and even an indifferent creator is something that still rests entirely on faith. So why bother, other than just for the fun of entertaining certain ideas? 🙂

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  4. I believe you are correct at its core. But there is a dark side as well. Greed, hate, jealousy, religious cultural divides, and the capacity to kill counteract our good sides.

    Humility and uncertainty with a dab of self introspection sounds like a good recipe for a skeptic. And a bad recipe for a theist. Your conversation was with a fundamentalist. They are absolutely certain they are right no matter what because the babble. Any and all evidence or train of logical thought be damned.

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    1. Thanks SD. I think each one of the things you mention would require a longer discussion, but I think we can question whether or not any of those things is overly good for survival. Clearly such behaviors exist, but I think that if we look closely enough we could see that for the most part such things are maladaptive. For instance we might be very kind to each other in group, but be very aggressive to those from another group. We might be better to recognize that we are all human, and that angering the other group is likely to end up in bloodshed. Now your group might survive, but you may not. Where as peaceful coalition is the only way to ensure that both groups survive for as long as possible. Greed for instance would also be maladaptive. We all want to acquire resources for survival, that’s natural, but to have that to excess would certainly be self-defeating in terms of survival. Imagine in a hunter gatherer society someone sitting on a 1000 fish, while the rest of the group has none. Such a person would either be killed, or driven out, or perhaps even just abandoned. They would find that they might survive as an individual for some time. But if they were injured no one would nurse them back to health. Even with a mate, there would not be enough genetic diversity to rebuild a society. They would more likely fall victim to predators, their own angry tribe, or another one who decide this person has far too much, we should do something about it.

      So while we do have our darker side, I do believe that if our goal is to survive, then in general we survive better when we take care of each other as opposed to not.

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      1. Many today would simply scream socialism, or communism, at this particular reply 🙂

        I know that this makes complete sense, and is how we should treat our neverending quest for survival. But these darker traits are still with us. Even if I agree with your outlook.

        Despite our best attempt to be civilized, with laws, and rules, and codes of conduct, we still have prisons full of people with the traits discussed.

        If we were struggling to survive the aftermath of the Great Trump Nuclear Fallout, I would want to be with a group that thinks like you do. But survival also realizes there are others whose outlook is to simply take what they want, how they want, with no remorse.

        Each is a path to survival. Each effective strategies. One is simply that which you and I, would not care for. I’ll take of my persnickety cap now. 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

        1. And I find it hard to disagree with you either. I don’t want to give the impression that violence is not sometimes the answer. There can be very rational reasons for aggressive even violent behavior, but the fact that we have often found alternatives to this behavior I think speaks well for moral progress. In general I do think we have progressed morally as a “civilized” society and I would like to believe that things will continue in that direction even if in the short term there are a few backslides along the way.

          In regards to some of the more negative traits you mentioned, it seems that poverty and income inequality is a big driver of a lot of delinquent behavior. Globalization has raised many out of that condition, and so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that deaths from violent crime and wars (as a percentage of world population) has decreased. I think when the situation is dire, we are more likely to be fearful, more likely to react more desperately and irrationally than when we have a guaranteed 3 meals a day and time to think about things.

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  5. Insightful post, Swarn. “It seems obvious to me that morality is born out of need to learn how to survive best.”

    I’m sure you are familiar with the studies showing that prosocial behavior, such as charitable giving, activates the pleasure centers of the brain.

    https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-compass-pleasure/201108/is-your-brain-charitable-giving.

    Another in-depth study, with approximately 2000 participants, revealed a consistent link between demonstrating generosity and leading a better life. The more generous people were the happier they seemed to be. They tended to suffered fewer illnesses and injuries, lived with a greater sense of purpose, and experienced less depression.

    In the book, The Paradox of Generosity: Giving We Receive,Grasping We lose, it includes research which suggests that an altruistic orientations is associated with increases in dopamine. In one study, the authors observed that, “the linkage between the reward and altruistic attitudes provide the neuro-chemical substrate and ‘hard wiring’ needed to drive acts that benefit others even at the expense of reducing one’s own [reproductive] fitness.” Noting this significant association between human selflessness and levels of dopamine, the authors concluded, “we [humans] ‘feel good’ and are rewarded by a dopamine pulse when doing good deeds.”

    I suspect that the morality that this fundamentalist was talking about was associated with the ‘Strict Father” and the “Moral Hierarchy models”, as cognitive scientist George Lakoff has researched extensively. These models actually lead to poorer societal well being outcomes in the long run (See the Center for Disease Control study – ACE), which is one of the main reasons why authoritarian religion will eventually die out, if we are to survive as a species.

    “Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive.” ~ Dalai Lama

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you for these great links! I could have written much more on this subject, but decided to keep it short. While memories of that initial conversation lingered, I have been listening to a lot of Sam Harris podcasts on his views of morality and it resonated with ideas I had already formed about it from when I was in my early 20s. As I said in an earlier comment, it makes complete sense to question why it is life’s nature to survive, but it seems like if you are going to have a universe with the possibility of life in it, it’s nature should be to survive or else you wouldn’t have life. lol So we can say that perhaps the nature of life to survive is endowed by some divine being, but there is little more that needs to be explained after that. We certainly don’t need any further divine guidance to figure out what the best way to survive is, even if it does take us some time to figure it out.At best God would be a creature that helps us move in a positive moral direction faster than we would normally, but there is no evidence that we have been sped along in this process. It all seems like a rather organic and painfully slow march to moral enlightenment!

      Liked by 3 people

      1. “It all seems like a rather organic and painfully slow march to moral enlightenment!”

        I agree. No neurochemical rewards, no desire for sex, food, love, religion, god, etc. The more we understand our species, organically, the greater chances of us surviving and thriving. The brain has evolved to dupe itself as one of the ways to survive, hence, god belief. People who claim that morality is divine should spend more time studying the sciences.

        Liked by 2 people

  6. I really hope this wasn’t the result from your discussion with JB over on my blog. It’s a shame he was just trolling, and he wasn’t actually listening to what you had to say. I think it would have been a worthwhile discussion.

    With regards to morality, I’ve been looking at the opposite side of things a little too much lately. Although people might generally be seen as truthful and honest, the sad fact is that many people also lie and cheat others. That penchant for taking advantage of moral people has adapted as much as moral thinking has, almost like immoral people are a different species of human. Just as morality needs to develop, find a way to eradicate immorality also needs to develop.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. No this is when Ark posted a comment of mine from his big into Mrsmcmommy’s blog. Lol

      I agree that the good nature of people can be exploited. I always say for every system there are cheaters. But clearly such people could never get be the majority or we simply wouldn’t be here today in my opinion. In Hunter Gatherer tribes where everyone knows one another since birth such people would be rare if present at all.

      Liked by 3 people

  7. If

    we survive best when we are compassionate and kind to others

    , then why are compassion and kindness so rare? It seems to me that today and historically we are kind to those within our family and maybe up to our tribe or nation or race, but once that circle extends beyond our own self-interest, kindness and compassion quickly dry up, making the driving force in morality selfishness, not altruism.

    I think a compassionate society is not a natural state (as I believe you are asserting) but is only possible if we reject our natural inclinations.

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    1. Are compassion and kindness rare? What measure do you use to make that assertion?

      Some fairly good studies have shown that there are less people dying from violent crime and war as a percentage of world population than at any time in recorded history. Many things like slavery, while still in existence, are roundly rejected as immoral practices. Many countries stride towards gender equality in elevating the status of women. Many countries have socialized health care and try to take care of their citizens. The world is measurably more just than it has been historically.

      Yes, people can be very kind to people with in their “tribe” but have animosity towards people of other groups. That doesn’t mean that they lack empathy and compassion, but that it simply hasn’t developed enough to recognize the importance of extending it beyond the confines of people in their own community. Or that the group has dehumanized other groups to deactivate a person’s empathy for those people. Usually when we enhance the humanity of other groups, it is hard to not feel compassion for them. But in group versus out of group dynamics does not negate the assertion that our natural state is one towards compassion. It simply takes extra effort to extend that compassion beyond the confines of people we don’t know. This can be done through education and making conscious efforts to learn about other people’s experiences.

      Do you have studies that demonstrate children are born cruel, but have to learn how to reject those feelings in order to be kind?

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      1. I recently finished watching Oliver Stone’s The Untold History of the United States, so my view of humanity might be a bit overly cynical at the moment. I wasn’t suggesting that children are born cruel, and the McDonald/Messenger paper you linked to certainly makes a solid case that children are naturally empathetic, even shortly after birth. (I skimmed through it, since I’m supposed to be working right now.) I don’t have any research to point to myself, mostly just following my gut.

        The missing piece for me is if people are naturally empathetic and compassionate, why is there so much opposition about reversing global warming, why the genocides in Bosnia, Darfur, Rwanda, etc., why are wars so easily started, why do people oppose progressive income tax, universal health care? These are all anecdotal, and perhaps belie a trend of declining violence globally, but they do all involve a lack of compassion for those outside our group. Why is that? Is our natural state to only have compassion for those within our group, or are there more powerful emotions at odds with compassion the further removed someone is, or does society remove the altruistic level of compassion that is inherent in a child’s nature?

        I’m not sure what I’m arguing anymore, but I’m going to assume that I’m right.

        As a side note, there was an episode of The Current a few weeks ago, where they talked about how empathy was detrimental to formulating public policy. The main argument was that empathy diminishes as people become less similar, resulting more or less in a tyranny of the majority. The interviewee advocated a cold data-driven approach which warmed my heart. The part that is somewhat relevant to what we’re discussing, is that if compassion is reserved for those who are alike, it ultimately leads to a lack of compassion. I would argue that if I can’t have compassion for everyone, then I don’t really have compassion for anyone, and it is this kind of universal compassion that is lacking. Perhaps, as you say, it is not difficult with a little education to extend a local compassion to extend universally. I’m not so sure.

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        1. So if we can agree that we don’t start off as cruel or compassionless as children, then how do we get that way? It’s a good question and the responses are varied.

          Empathy of course still has to be nurtured, because it’s safe to say that we all don’t genetically have the same amount. Sociopaths and psychopaths have none, and it’s questionable whether they have the ability to even learn it, even though evidence does demonstrate that if raised in a loving environment they can at least not be harmful to others and may be beneficial to a society in other ways as the ability of unemotional objectivity has it’s value.

          So one answer is simply poverty. Poverty isn’t always because of government either. There can be natural environmental stressors. When children are raised in poverty their brains develop differently. Parents are often working more, don’t have a chance to guide or interact with them as much. They very often will think short term, instead of long term. They are often at increased risk for addiction. Basically when people are very desperate then desperate behavior can be problematic.

          I do think there are ways to of course exploit cognitive biases, and other weaknesses. Fear being the main one. There is increasing amount of evidence about how fear can reduce activity in higher reasoning functions of the brain. If you live in a society in which politicians and the media are continually trying to manipulate you using fear, you are much more likely to respond emotionally than think critically. Enter Trump! Of course there can even be real things to fear and in general we also don’t have a very realistic understanding of risk. Especially in a world where we can get bad news from everywhere. Most people feel that the world is a more violent place than it was, even though that is not the case. People believe that about the U.S. even though violent crime is the lowest it’s been in the modern era. By the numbers there are about 300 homicides a day in this country and you could potentially read about all of them. You don’t think about the fact that there are 300,000,000 people in the country. We also respond more to negative news than good news. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/24/your-money/why-people-remember-negative-events-more-than-positive-ones.html

          From an evolution standpoint this served us well. When we lived in groups of several hundred it was wise to take bad news more seriously…it was rare, but your survival depended on it. It was safer to think the rustle in the bushes was a lion and just run, instead sitting there to think critically about it. Such people would typically be lion food. Our brains have changed little from our hunter-gatherer days, and we are wired for this life which was typically more egalitarian, at least in group. And for a long time there was lots of space to move around…it is quite likely that if we came across a different group of people who did things differently, with different color skin, we might be fearful, we might not have been aware that they were humans just like us. And in the competition for resources the idea that you might cooperate and survive better might seem risky than killing off the entire group and just taking what they had. I would imagine 30,000 years ago, having empathy for people half away across the world, or even a 1000 miles away, wasn’t a well developed concept. Nation states didn’t exist.

          But if we take any person causing harm, we’ll often find: Someone who has experience trauma, someone who might have undiagnosed mental illness, somebody whose parents hurt, ignored, abused, taught the person hateful things, etc. In my volunteer work, one of the girls I work with is fearful of black men because she was sexually abused by one. Undiagnosed and untreated this is something, that if that person has children, passes on that fear even though it has a basis is a specific event and is not true in general.

          Perhaps the simplest way to say it though is that while it might be natural for us to have empathy and compassion, it’s a harsh world that is largely beyond our control. That’s something that’s hard for us to deal with, and without guidance in overcoming adversity and the foibles the world throws at us, we can interpret was has happened to us incorrectly.

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  8. Swarn,
    As always when I have the chance to read, Love your Post!! Nothing to add, it would be rather redundant! I did comment on the Poor not killing the Rich, however religion certainly did not keep the Rich from killing the Poor!!
    Great points made here Cheers MicheleElys

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