How Can Science Inform About Whether it’s Okay to Murder?

If you’re an atheist, you are no stranger to the notion that you probably don’t have morals.  Or at least good ones.  The idea shared my many theists, and why electing a Muslim as president (at least historically) has seemed more palatable than electing an atheist, is that without a belief in divine guidance there is no proper moral path for you to take.  In a related argument many theists believe that science has nothing to say about morals or ethics.  And my life of thinking science can lead me to a moral life is a waste of time.  If I’m moral it had to have come from somewhere other than science.  I’ve argued often that morality can be explained by science and it can be derived by science.  The idea is rejected so immediately by theists that I am sure they are as shocked by the suggestion as I am shocked that they don’t understand.

The real answer is in evolution, but I thought it would be fun to look at it from a research perspective and imagine we were in a situation where we really didn’t have any moral guidance and we didn’t know why something like murder was morally wrong.  Imagine a godless world.  One where we know about evolution, and we know all the things that we currently know about humans and behavior, but all of a sudden everybody is unaware about what morally right actions are.  Scientists still exists and some study human behavior and society and they are watching us.  Let’s start with the most universally agreed upon moral: murder.  Thou shalt not commit it.  Ending another person’s life. In this world without any moral touchstone you might just kill anybody.  Randomly.  Without provocation.  Because there is no God thus no divine punishment after you die, there is seemingly no earthly reason to prevent you from murdering anybody.

Our scientists are out looking at what life is like in the suburbs, and they see Jim out in his yard trimming the evergreen bushes in his front yard.  Cathy, the neighbor, walks out of her house and sees Jim there.  They’ve chatted a few times.  Jim has seemed a reasonable person, but Cathy all of a sudden says to herself, “You know what let’s just kill Jim.  There is nothing wrong with it, and there is no punishment in this life or the next one for it.”  She walks back into her house and gets her pistol she keeps in her purse and walks out shooting Jim, quite unaware, and kills him.

The scientists watch in amazement.  Suddenly Jim’s front door opens.  His two young boys are there and immediately start screaming in grief and terror at the sight of their father on the ground bleeding.  Cathy in a moment realizes what she has done.  Deprived his two boys of their father.  She is deeply affected by their grief, and begins sobbing herself.  Suddenly Jim’s wife Susan comes the door.  She sees Jim dead, and sees Cathy, her gun now dropped to the ground as Cathy’s empathy has kicked in and she’s buckled over in horror at what she’s done.  Susan’s anger though is understandable.  Her husband whom she loves his dead, her kids are traumatized, in pain and will grow up without a father.  She walks into her house and gets a big knife and walks over to Cathy and stabs her in anger.  The scientists scribble away at their notes at all this.  A week later, Cathy’s father completely distraught by Susan killing her daughter, decides to go after Susan.  One of the boys who saw what Cathy did has grown up now, and felt like Cathy deserved what she got, and that Cathy’s father had no right to kill their mother, Susan.  He now decides to go after Cathy’s father. The scientists see a cycle of vengeance possibly without end.   They note that the kids, who had been good at school, now have an education that suffers greatly.  Both of them end up having addiction problems.

As they tour other cities they see similar events unfold.  They notice a growing distrust in their fellow humans.  They notice people being more cautious, less interactive, unable to even form coalitions given that someone they thought they knew might murder them because murder is simply not something that occurs as an immoral act.

They fly to a city in another country, let’s say Paris.  In Paris they’ve newly figured out the harm of stealing people’s stuff, but they still don’t recognize the morality or immorality of murder.  Now they find murder is happening more often.  Some of those who want to steal or feel like they have to steal from others realize they are going to be punished if they are caught and decide that if they murder any witnesses they can get away with their crime.  This creates even more tension in the society and people are even more fearful.

The scientists wonder whether or not these “civilized humans” are just weird so they go observe a hunter-gatherer tribe in New Guinea.  There while one member is gathering berries with their child, they are killed by another tribesmen, Poku, who saw no harm in just murdering somebody.  The tribe feel that cannot punish Poku as they no law that murder was wrong.  Poku is one of the strongest and fiercest of the group and while he had previously been one of the stronger members of the tribe, he is no longer trusted and people in the tribe sleep further away from him.  Some of the tribe say they should keep watch and lose some sleep keeping guard.  The tribe had loved him and are in grief that he has betrayed them.  They are also in grief at the loss of the victims.  The one who was picking berries was also one of the best storytellers in the tribe and weaved baskets well.  The loss will be felt.  They note that despite Poku’s strength he is still finding it difficult to get enough food on his own.  To hunt animals is a group activity and he struggles to find enough other food all the time.  The scientists note that none of the women in the tribe wish to mate with him.  Being one of their best hunters and being of impressive stature his genes, and abilities would have been helpful to the tribe.

As a couple more years go by observation they see the breakdown of communities and people notice the change too.  Many feel the pain of seeing loved ones being killed, they remember times when they used to get along with their neighbors and that they use to work together and collaborate to do more than they could on their own.  The scientists conclude:

  • there must be laws against murder to discourage those who commit smaller crimes from committing greater ones
  • people can work together more and solve problems that impact their lives
  • PTSD and other mental illnesses are lessened when there is less murder in the society which impacts each person’s individual ability to prosper
  • murder eliminates people with important skills that might be needed.  The chance of knowledge being lost before being passed on increases when murders occur unabated
  • a free pass to murder increases the chance that genetic material might be lost before reproduction can occur.  In extreme cases, this loss of genetic diversity can be detrimental

The consciousness of the people to accept such findings would be increased as they too see what has become of their society without an initial idea that murder is good or bad.  Society embraces the laws, and their own desire to not live in a society with endless cycles of violence to increase their own chances of survival, leads to a change in culture.

Thus concludes my little thought experiment.  I would welcome those who wish to pick it apart.  Of course it all might seem quite horrific to you, and that’s good.  There is a reason why we don’t conduct experiments in this way.  The point is that A) It wouldn’t take very much observation by an objective outsider to see how harmful murder would be to a society and B) For those of us living in the experiment our emotions, our intuitions would also be able to pick up the harm quite easily.

The good news of course is that we don’t need such an experiment.  We’ve been living in the experiment for millions and millions of years.  The slow march of evolution inching us in the direction of social cooperation, the development of more and more complex emotions, and the development of empathy and love to help us bond with fellow members of our species to increase the chance of survival of ourselves and our offspring has required only a dim awareness of the direction we were headed.  Science explains this all quite well, and we could do a similar thought experiment for many other ethical and moral practices.  And if you can’t find a scientific explanation for, let’s say, why eating pork is an immoral as compared to other meats.  Then you probably have found something that probably shouldn’t be considered immoral.

Finally it’s important to note that the reason we have the morality that we do is because of the particular evolved species that we are.  Mammal – primate – human.  We might expect a very different set of moral principles were we intelligent being who evolved from spiders or frogs.  And while I’d like to believe that any species who had reached our level of intelligence and realized the effectiveness of cooperation and reducing suffering in other life would converge into a similar morality in the end, the path to get there is certainly not going to be the same for every species that could evolve our level of intelligence.

It All Hangs in the Balance

One of the problems I revisit regularly in my mind is the one of individualism versus collectivism.  It has been brought back to my mind as I finally concluded reading Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. His final two books in the series look at the idea of having individual consciousness or a more global consciousness which is inspired by the Gaia hypothesis, in which humans participate in self-regulating consciousness cooperatively with each other and all other life to create a state of perfect balance.  Asimov too struggles with the loss of individuality in favor of the common good.  Asimov seemed to be in favor of the latter, although I believe he tried to argue that a global consciousness doesn’t mean there is no individuality only that at times we must put that aside for the greater good.

The United States is a highly individualistic nation and it’s no surprise why so many nations with throngs of people forced to conform into a faceless, impoverished mass would envy the American way of life and freedom.  It occurred to me that many of the debates I seem to have about politics and ways of life are often have, at the heart, the issue of the greater good (collectivism) vs. individual freedom.  I guess it seems that I also side with the collectivist philosophy, but I also recognize the value of individuality to make that collective dynamic and adaptive to a changing understanding of our universe.  Whether it’s capitalism versus socialism, gun rights, globalism vs nationalism, justice and law, these debates often rest on arguments on what benefits the greater good and how much freedom we should have as individuals.  There is a balance to be had, and most critically thinking people I know agree on this, even if we disagree where that balance should be.

Freedom in itself is a strange concept because it doesn’t seem possible in the absolute as a social species.  How free am I to make any of my decisions? I should be free to buy my own clothes, but what if those clothes are made in a sweatshop?  But what if, even that meager wage allows people to live instead of starve, or at least a few more are able to break from that impoverished life.  When I simply provide for my family I make a thousand decisions that can impact positively and negatively others in the world, and though it may seem like I am living a quiet life causing no harm this may not be necessarily true, even if that harm is indirect.  How much does my lack of struggle in life come at the expense of someone who must struggle more?  It’s easy to ignore that which is not in front of your face and that which does not feel like part of your community.

Our species is a social one, and there is no getting around it.  Regardless of whether we are shaped as a hunter-gatherer society or “civilization” everybody has a role and can play a part.  And even if age or some accident in life, or a random birth defect we even have the ability to carry that small fragment of population along with us, and even find a way to find a use for them, even if that use is only to increase our capacity to have compassion.  As a result whatever values we hold will shape who we are as a species.  Too strong of a value on individualism over the greater good could leave us with vast degrees of inequality, decreased value on cooperation, and dysfunction in the ecosystem.  Too much emphasis on the collective can lead to greater conformity, loss of diversity of thought and ideas, and thus stagnation from individual growth and growth as a society.  The question becomes how can we promote individuality while at the same time convince people to work together and be in harmony with their environment?

If we remove humans from the Earth we would find a very self-sustaining organism.  Barring some large collision with an asteroid, life would persist until the sun went nova.  However it would be a mistake to think that there was a global consciousness such as described by the Gaia hypothesis.  I think it’s always a bit of a myth that other organisms live in balance with nature, whereas humans do not.  If you studied population dynamics in school you perhaps learned about cycles of rabbit and wolf populations.  The wolf is not conscious of the fact that it must conserve how many rabbits it eats or that it should hold off on having babies this year because if all the wolves in an area increase in population there will suddenly be a rabbit population in starve.  It thrives according to the food it can gets, and if can no longer get food, it starves, and there are less wolves, allowing the rabbit population to rebound.  Rabbits that evolve better evasion skills pass on their genes, and wolves with better hunting skills pass on theirs. And the population of both rabbits and wolves oscillates about an equilibrium, an average value that both populations of rabbits and wolves do not know they are maintaining.  One of the values of our intelligence should be that we can discover these equilibriums and we are best adapted at maintaining it.  We always haven’t been conscious of our place in the ecosystem, but we are now, and understanding more all the time.  It’s not surprising we could be so destructive, but as we learn more we also have the ability to extremely great stewards.

Annotation of the PREDATORS-PREY Relationship

Of course Asimov’s Gaia world, just as proposed by Lovelock, is likely a pipe dream in reality, because in his idea there was a collective consciousness that made decisions only in proportion to maintaining balance.  Such a reality for humans would mean that we would have all make sensible decisions about how many children to have, what to eat, and how to live peaceably in our environment.  But what’s interesting to me is that we also see examples of this in our human histories.  Many groups that ended up on islands learned how to conserve rather well.  Spacing out how often and how many children we had, techniques at preserving and storing food, techniques for domesticating plants and animals were all attempts to have ample food supplies for harsh seasons and changes in the environment.  But like any form of life, when abundance is presence, there is no thought to be conservative in terms of population.  We became masters of farming and population exploded as we began to be able to seemingly provide ourselves with food at will.  As it turns out we were only fooling ourselves, because our powers were still not limitless, although it made sense how it might seem so in the short term.

What I do see when I look at humanity is a potential for a march towards that ideal of global consciousness.  We may never truly have a global consciousness with each other and all life on the planet, but what we do have is empathy.  We have the ability to be conscious of the damage we do to our environment and other life, and what the long term impacts of that damage will be.   We have the ability to recognize that we might all be different pieces in a puzzle, but that we have equal value to the whole.  Just like each piece has uniqueness and is still integral to the puzzle, we can maintain our individuality while also recognizing what we are all a part of.  In this sense there would be no difference to an actual global consciousness and all acting in a way as if there was one.  We have a long way to go, but I believe it all begins with humility and compassion, and acceptance of the idea that all humans are part of the same tribe, the same community, the same species, and that we all have value.

How Our Will Is Not So Free – Part I

For any of you who are foolish enough to read my blog you are used to a lot of rambling.  I can’t promise this will be too different, but I would like to be a little formal and have an actual thesis for this post.  I have posted my thoughts about free will in respect to religion, but even if one is not religious the idea

From http://www.brandonragle.com

that we have free will is extremely pervasive and I think it is ultimately a not necessarily helpful concept to believe in.  The choices that we think people have are an illusion and we tend to instead judge others because people do not make choices that we would make.  It prevents us from really helping those who are violent, disturbed, hurting, depressed, etc.  It has us believe that there are people who are inherently evil allowing us to dehumanize them and cast them aside, when instead they might simply have brain abnormalities, be traumatized, influenced by people as messed up as they are, or simply lost and confused in a world that is beyond them and behave desperately.  I think it also acts to separate us from nature and is a great source of human conceit.  Free will is not something we ascribe to plants or animals and thus also gives us the illusion that we lie in a place above all else.  Whether you believe that the supernatural has imparted us this blessing of greatness or you think that evolution is a pyramid in which humans rest on top, both these notions are ultimately dangerous because they allow us to justify great atrocities against nature as we continue to satisfy our own self-importance.

In the first 8 months of watching my son grow it is clear that free will is not something he was born with.  He started out simply crying when he was hurting, uncomfortable or hungry, and sleeping when he was sleepy.  Not a lot of free will going on there.  As I watch him change, I see him simply become aware of more things.  When he first could see our cats, not surprisingly he was curious and wanted to touch them.  Now that he’s been outside he asks to go outside (well not in words).  Now that he realizes the comfort of being held he asks to be held.  He also mimics.  He sees us eating something and he wants to eat it.  He sees us using a remote, our phones, computers, and he desperately wants to use those too (or rather put them in his mouth).

Before I formally begin my argument for the absence of free will I want to put an excellent quote from an article I read some time ago from the New Yorker which has had a large influence on my thoughts in trying to understand why we are the way we are and where this sense of self comes from that I blogged about some time ago.

I believe we inherit a great river of knowledge, a flow of patterns coming from many sources. The information that comes from deep in the evolutionary past we call genetics. The information passed along from hundreds of years ago we call culture. The information passed along from decades ago we call family, and the information offered months ago we call education. But it is all information that flows through us. The brain is adapted to the river of knowledge and exists only as a creature in that river. Our thoughts are profoundly molded by this long historic flow, and none of us exists, self-made, in isolation from it.”

From http://www.eugenecascadescoast.org

The reason I want you to keep this in mind, because not only does it support the argument I am going to make (doesn’t of course make the statement true), but most importantly I want to reveal to you that just because I don’t think we have free will, doesn’t mean that I don’t find life absolutely amazing.  The idea expressed in this passage speaks to me in a way I cannot fully express, but I find this idea beautiful.  It tells me that we are product of processes that function over many different scales of time.  From what we learn each day, to what nature has molded us into over millions of years.  We can extend even further and look at the billions of years of evolution which has produced us , and we can go back further to old stars dying and being the seeds for our own sun and solar system which allowed one fortunate planet to even allow life to evolve.  So the fact I may not be quite as in control of the process is hardly depressing.  In fact it removes a lot of the pressure if anything.  I can simply marvel at all that has taken place for me to sit here and write these thoughts out today back to the beginning of time.  It is humbling, inspiring, and magnificent.

I shall now let you pause a bit before going on to the next blog post, because going back to the beginning of time is something that requires some deep reflection. 🙂

I’ve Got a Feeling

A few years back my wife and I had some trouble in our marriage.  I remember it being rather a shock to me that all of a sudden what seemed like a happy marriage seemed to be falling apart so quickly and was full of such heartache and pain.

But I am not here to talk about that.  It is in the past, and we have rebuilt and things are wonderful with our first child on the way.  What I would like to reflect on though is how feelings translate into actions.  The shock I felt was because I had this incredible amount of love in my heart.  But these feelings did not translate into a behavior that would have qualified me as a great husband.

I am sitting in on a wonderful class right now taught by a colleague in the Psychology Department on campus called Love, Lust and Attachment.  We were discussing in class how we go about measuring relationships.  Ultimately emotions cannot be measured, but behavior can and let me to thinking about why those two things are so often in a disconnect.

A must see documentary that will break your heart. From en.wikipedia.org

All of us have intense emotional experiences.  They can be intense sadness at a story on the news or a documentary; intense feelings of joy as a baby is born; intense anger at a betrayal, intense love for a partner and/or friend, intense fear when frightened by something.  It struck me that these intense emotional experiences have a real physical impact on us, and I began to wonder if this physical impact deludes into believing that it has more of an impact on our actions or behavior than it actually does.  Many people are often moved to tears by a sad story, but few act on that feeling to do something about it.   We may love someone deeply, but does that feeling of love translate into actions that make the other person feel loved?  Does our outrage over a defunct government move all of us to write our representatives?

The motivational speaker finds success in not so much giving us new things to think about, but rather tries to get people to direct their emotions, ideas, and thoughts into actions.  Few emotions in of themselves lead to immediate action without conscious thought.  Things like fear or disgust may be good examples of ones that do, for these emotions from an evolutionary standpoint impact our very survival.   But for the most part it seems that emotions are what motivate us, and yet only a small fraction of the emotions we feel actually lead us to a behavior that is the consequence of that emotion.   Furthermore we may simply lack the understanding of how to effectively behave to show how that emotion is affecting us.  I remember William H. Macy’s character in Magnolia’s words “I really do

From catdangle.com

have love to give, I just don’t know where to put it”.  I think many of us can identify with this character.  Acting on our emotions is often like wandering around in the dark, especially when we haven’t had positive examples in our lives.

Perhaps the only relevant answer in the end is that we live in a world with limits.  While I might be able to feel love for many different women, I only have the time, energy, and resources for a finite amount.  While I may feel deeply passionate about numerous social causes, once again those feelings cannot translate into an equal amount of actions.  There are only so many hours in the day.  We must rest and recharge to function adequately in our daily lives.  Of the many emotions we feel throughout the day we must pick and choose the actions we take.  And sometimes certain tasks are more important in the moment and we must let put intense emotions aside.

When I was young I felt like I was full all this emotion that was going to make me a great person, but I felt that none of it was coming out.  Emotions can be overwhelming and sometimes even paralyzing.  I felt like the real me was buried deep within myself.  I am proud to say that each day I’ve felt like that person was getting closer to the surface.  I am not sure if I’m the person I want to be yet, but I believe it is important to:

1) Let yourself feel what you feel.  Embrace the ones that make you feel good, and forgive yourself for the ones that frighten you or make you feel weak.  All emotions have value.  They teach you about yourself and raise awareness in your conscious mind about things you deem important in your environment.

2) Reflect on those emotions and choose a course of action that is according to your morality.  One that hopefully benefits you and the world around you.

3) Then reflect on the translation of emotion into action so that you can make adjustments if necessary.

Remember, no one is a natural, but we can all try to do more, and become better people.  We are changeable.  Accept it and don’t fight it, because then your emotions will never weigh you down and you will realize that you are learning and not making mistakes.

Questions

The human mind is amazing.  Think of things you can imagine.  Some are real.  Some are fantastical.  Some are not possible.  Some may be possible.  The range of what we are minds are capable of coming up with is astounding.

From http://www.daviddisalvo.org

Now humans are also curious.  Part of our imagination may be to visualize something and then ask ourselves.  How can I make this dream, this fantasy I have, real?  The fact that we can make any of these dreams real is impressive.  Any inventor though will probably have more failures than successes.

You may be questioning where am I going with this, and you’d be right to question me.  The truth is I don’t exactly know and luckily this is part of the point.

Given what are minds are capable of, and given that only a handful of our dreams ever can become reality, is it possible that we can dream up questions which have no answer?  I can ask a lot of questions that have no answer.  For instance I might ask “When we build a ship capable of traveling across the galaxy how many planets can one visit in a lifetime?”  Of course there are answers that you can give, but how much accuracy or value would such an answer have?  It is first contingent on a device we don’t have, asks us to know the number of planets in the galaxy which is something we don’t know, and we also are uncertain what our lifetimes might be at some future date when this device is available.  Such a question might have value.  If I cared enough about the answer I may devote my life to trying to see out into our galaxy more clearly, or build a faster than light speed spaceship, or perhaps try to increase our life expectancy, so that one day people can see lots of planets potentially.

The question is a loaded one because of all the uncertainties in the question, and it has no precise answer.  There are however grander questions we can ask.  What does God want from us?  There is uncertainty as to God’s existence so the answer becomes difficult.  And even if there was one, most cultures disagree on God’s nature, so trying to determine what God wants becomes rather challenging.

From library.sasaustin.org

But we can get even grander.  What is the meaning of life?   I would respond back with “whose life?” or “how do you define life?”  But let’s go a step further to a related question: Why are we here?  The simplest of all questions.  Not much ambiguity to it all.  Those who might have an answer have no evidence to back it up.  Many would simply say they don’t know.  And answers of course vary from person to person.  Of all the many questions we can ask, perhaps we can answer them all;  partly by answering some smaller questions first before getting to the bigger parent question.  But what if there are some questions like “Why are we here?”  that have no answer?  What if this question is a simply a product of our wonderful minds.  Nevertheless one of our inventions.  We invent machines, concepts, why not questions? And while the question “Why are we here?” seems a natural question to ask,  must every question have an answer?  Maybe our answers are inventions as well. What if the only answer to that question is “We just are”.  That seems quite unsatisfying because “Why” has not been addressed.  Making it not really the answer at all.  Just a truth which we might have to accept.

And if “Why are we here?” really has no answer, can’t existence still be wonderful? Does there have to be some grand plan in order for you to be happy?  Is there no value in a satisfying career, making the world a better place, raising your child to be happy and strong, bringing smiles to the faces of friends and family, giving to those who have less than you?  Maybe it is these smaller questions we should be trying to answer with our lives.  The bigger question has almost no value to the countless millions who live in abject poverty. If you are reading (or writing this blog) you have the privilege in life to ponder this big question more deeply.  Would the answer really change you all that much?  Is the answer preventing you from being a good person?  Do you need an answer to see that love is better than hate?  That peace is better than violence?  That generosity is better than greed?  Would an answer make learning physics, chemistry, or biology meaningless?  Would an answer make creating art, writing, or making music any less enjoyable or meaningful?

The only seems clear is that there are many questions to be asked, many questions that are important, and that we should never stop asking questions. 🙂