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“The Brothers Karamazov” – A Moral & Philosophical Critique (Part III)

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In the first two posts that I wrote in this series (part I and part II) concerning some concepts and themes mentioned in Dostoyevksy’s The Brothers Karamazov, I talked about moral realism and how it pertains to theism and atheism (and the character Ivan’s own views), and I also talked about moral responsibility and free will to some degree (and how this related to the interplay between Ivan and Smerdyakov).  In this post, I’m going to look at the concept of moral conscience and intuition, and how they apply to Ivan’s perspective and his experiencing an ongoing hallucination of a demonic apparition.  This demonic apparition only begins to haunt Ivan after hearing that his influence on his brother Smerdyakov led him to murder their father Fyodor.  The demon continues to torment Ivan until just before his other brother Alyosha informs him that Smerdyakov has committed suicide.  Then I’ll conclude with some discussion on the concept of moral desert (justice).

It seems pretty clear that the demonic apparition that appears to Ivan is a psychosomatic hallucination brought about as a manifestation of Ivan’s overwhelming guilt for what his brother has done, since he feels that he bears at least some of the responsibility for his brothers actions.  We learn earlier in the story that Zosima, a wise elder living at a monastery who acts as a mentor and teacher to Alyosha, had explained to Ivan that everyone bears at least some responsibility for the actions of everyone around them because human causality is so heavily intertwined with one person’s actions having a number of complicated effects on the actions of everyone else.  Despite Ivan’s strong initial reservations against this line of reasoning, he seems to have finally accepted that Zosima was right — hence him suffering a nervous breakdown as a result of realizing this.

Obviously Ivan’s moral conscience seems to be driving this turn of events and this is the case whether or not Ivan explicitly believes that morality is real.  And so we can see that despite Ivan’s moral skepticism, his moral intuitions and/or his newly accepted moral dispositions as per Zosima, have led him to his current state of despair.  Similarly, Ivan’s views on the problem of evil — whereby the vast amount of suffering in the world either refutes the existence of God, or shows that this God (if he does exist) must be a moral monster — betray even more of Ivan’s moral views with respect to how he wants the world to be.  His wanting the world to have less suffering in it, along with his wishing that his brother had not committed murder (let alone as a result of his influence on his brother), illustrates a number of moral “oughts” that Ivan subscribes to.  And whether they’re simply based on his moral intuitions or also rational moral reflection, they illustrate the deeply rooted psychological aspects of morality that are an inescapable facet of the human condition.

This situation also helps to explain some of the underlying motivations behind my own reversion back toward some form of moral realism, after becoming an atheist myself, initially catalyzed by my own moral intuitions and then later solidified and justified by rational moral reflection on objective facts pertaining to human psychology and other factors.  Now it should be said that moral intuitions on their own are only a generally useful heuristic as they are often misguiding (and incorrect) which is why it is imperative that they are checked by a rational assessment of the facts at hand.  But, nevertheless, they help to illustrate how good and evil can be said to be real (in at least some sense), even to someone like Ivan that doesn’t think they have an objective foundation.  They may not be conceptions of good and evil as described in many religions, with supernatural baggage attached, but they are real nonetheless.

Another interesting point worth noting is in regard to Zosima’s discussion about mutual moral responsibility.  While I already discussed moral responsibility in the last post along with its relation to free will, there’s something rather paradoxical about Dostoyevsky’s reasoning as expressed through Zosima that I found quite interesting.  Zosima talks about how love and forgiveness are necessary because everyone’s actions are intertwined with everyone else’s and therefore everyone bears some responsibility for the sins of others.  This idea of shared responsibility is abhorrent to those in the story that doubt God and the Christian religion (such as Ivan), who only want to be responsible for their own actions, but the complex intertwined causal chain that Zosima speaks of is the same causal chain that many determinists invoke to explain our lack of libertarian free will and how we can’t be held responsible in a causa sui manner for our actions.

Thus, if someone dies and there is in fact an afterlife, by Zosima’s own reasoning that person should not be judged as an individual solely responsible for their actions either.  That person should instead receive unconditional love and forgiveness and be redeemed rather than punished.  But this idea is anathema to standard Christian theology where one is supposed to be judged and given eternal paradise or eternal torment (with vastly disproportionate consequences given the finite degree of one’s actions).  It’s no surprise that Zosima isn’t looked upon as a model clergyman by some of his fellow monks in the monastery because his emphatic preaching about love and forgiveness undermines the typical heavy-handed judgemental aspects of God within Christianity.  But in any case, if God exists and understood that people were products of their genes and their environment which is causally interconnected with everyone else’s (i.e. libertarian free will is logically impossible), then a loving God would grant everyone forgiveness after death and grant them eternal paradise based on that understanding.  And oddly enough, this also undermines Ivan’s own reasoning that good and evil can only exist with an afterlife that undergoes judgement, because forgiveness and eternal paradise should be granted to everyone in the afterlife (by a truly loving God) if Zosima’s reasoning was taken to it’s logical conclusions.  So not only does Zosima’s reasoning seem to undermine the justification for unequal treatment of souls in the afterlife, but it also undermines the Christian conception of free will to boot (which is logically impossible regardless of Zosima’s reasoning).

And this brings me to the concept of moral desert.  In some ways I agree with Zosima, at least in the sense that love (or more specifically compassion) and forgiveness are extremely important in proper moral reasoning. And once one realizes the logical impossibility of libertarian free will, this should only encourage one’s use of love and forgiveness in the sense that people should never be trying to punish a wrongdoer (or hope for their punishment) for the sake of retributive justice or vengeance.  Rather, people should only punish (or hope that one is punished) as much as is necessary to compensate the victim as best as the circumstances allow and (more importantly) to rehabilitate the wrongdoer by reprogramming them through behavioral conditioning.  Anything above and beyond this is excessive, malicious, and immoral.  Similarly, a loving God (if one existed) would never punish anyone in the afterlife beyond what is needed to rehabilitate them (and it would seem that no punishment at all should really be needed if this God had the power to accomplish these feats on immaterial souls using magic), and if this God had no magic to accomplish this, then at the very least, it would still mean that there should never by any eternal punishments, since punishing someone forever (let alone torturing them forever), not only illustrates that there is no goal to rehabilitate the wrongdoer, but also that this God is beyond psychopathic and malevolent.  Again, think of Zosima’s reasoning as it applies here.

Looking back at the story with Smerdyakov, why does the demonic apparition disappear from Ivan right around the time that he learns that Smerdyakov killed himself?  It could be because Ivan thinks that Smerdyakov has gotten what he deserved, and that he’s no longer roaming free (so to speak) after his heinous act of murder.  And it could also be because Ivan seemed sure at that point that he would confess to the murder (or at least motivating Smerdyakov to do it).  But if either of these notions are true, then once again Ivan has betrayed yet another moral disposition of his, that murder is morally wrong.  It may also imply that Ivan, deep down, may in fact believe in an afterlife, and that Smerdyakov will now be judged for his actions.

It no doubt feels good to a lot of people when they see someone that has wronged another, getting punished for their bad deeds.  The feeling of justice and even vengeance can be so emotionally powerful, especially if the wrongdoer took the life of someone that you or someone else loved very much.  It’s a common feeling to want that criminal to suffer, perhaps to rot in jail until they die, perhaps to be tortured, or what-have-you.  And these intuitions illustrate why so many religious beliefs surrounding judgment in the afterlife share many of these common elements.  People invented these religious beliefs (whether unconsciously or not) because it makes them feel better about wrongdoers that may otherwise die without having been judged for their actions.  After all, when is justice going to be served?  It is also a motivating factor for a lot of people to keep their behaviors in check (as per Ivan’s rationale regarding an afterlife requirement in order for good and evil to be meaningful to people).  Even though I don’t think that this particular motivation is necessary (and therefore Ivan’s argument is incorrect) — due to other motivating forces such as the level of fulfillment and personal self-worth in one’s life, gained through living a life of moral virtue, or the lack thereof by those that fail to live virtuously — it is still a motivation that exists with many people and strongly intersects with the concept of moral desert.  Due to its pervasiveness in our intuitions and how we perceive other human beings and its importance in moral theory in general, people should spend a lot more time critically reflecting on this concept.

In the next part of this post series, I’m going to talk about the conflict between faith and doubt, perhaps the most ubiquitous theme found in The Brothers Karamazov, and how it ties all of these other concepts together.

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“The Brothers Karamazov” – A Moral & Philosophical Critique (Part II)

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In my last post in this series, concerning Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, I talked about the concept of good and evil and the character Ivan’s personal atheistic perception that they are contingent on God existing (or at least an afterlife of eternal reward or punishment).  While there may even be a decent percentage of atheists that share this view (objective morality being contingent on God’s existence), I briefly explained my own views (being an atheist myself) which differs from Ivan’s in that I am a moral realist and believe that morality is objective independent of any gods or immortal souls existing.  I believe that moral facts exist (and science is the best way to find them), that morality is ultimately grounded on objective facts pertaining to human psychology, biology, sociology, neurology, and other facts about human beings, and thus that good and evil do exist in at least some sense.

In this post, I’m going to talk about Ivan’s influence on his half-brother, Smerdyakov, who ends up confessing to Ivan that he murdered their father Fyodor Pavlovich, as a result of Ivan’s philosophical influence on him.  In particular, Smerdyakov implicates Ivan as at least partially responsible for his own murderous behavior since Ivan successfully convinced him that evil wasn’t possible in a world without a God.  Ivan ends up becoming consumed with guilt, basically suffers a nervous breakdown, and then is incessantly taunted by a demonic apparition.  The hallucinations continue up until the moment Ivan comes to find out, from his very religious brother Alyosha, that Smerdyakov has hung himself.  This scene highlights a number of important topics beyond the moral realism I discussed in the first post, such as moral responsibility, free will, and even moral desert (I’ll discuss this last topic in my next post).

As I mentioned before, beyond the fact that we do not need a god to ground moral values, we also don’t need a god or an afterlife to motivate us to behave morally either.  By cultivating moral virtues such as compassion, honesty, and reasonableness, and analyzing a situation using a rational assessment of as many facts as are currently accessible, we can maximize our personal satisfaction and thus our chances of living a fulfilling life.  Behavioral causal factors that support this goal are “good” and those that detract from it are “evil”.  Aside from these labels though, we actually experience a more or less pleasing life depending on our behaviors and therefore we do have real-time motivations for behaving morally (such as acting in ways that conform to various cultivated virtues).  Aristotle claimed this more than 2000 years ago and moral psychology has been confirming it time and time again.

Since we have evolved as a particular social species with a particular psychology, not only do we have particular behaviors that best accomplish a fulfilling life, but there are also various behavioral conditioning algorithms and punishment/reward systems that are best at modifying our behavior.  And this brings me to Smerdyakov.  By listening to Ivan and ultimately becoming convinced by Ivan’s philosophical arguments, he seems to have been conditioned out of his previous views on moral responsibility.  In particular, he ended up adopting the belief that if God does not exist, then anything is permissible.  Since he also rejected a belief in God, he therefore thought he could do whatever he wanted.

One thing this turn of events highlights is that there are a number of different factors that influence people’s behaviors and that lead to their being reasoned into doing (or not doing) all sorts of things.  As Voltaire once said “Those who can make you believe absurdities can also make you commit atrocities.  And I think what Ivan told Smerdyakov was in fact absurd — although it was a belief that I once held as well not long after becoming an atheist.  For it is quite obviously absurd that anything is permissible without a God existing for at least two types of reasons: pragmatic considerations and moral considerations (with the former overlapping with the latter).  Pragmatic reasons include things like not wanting to be fined, incarcerated, or even executed by a criminal justice system that operates to minimize illegal behaviors.  It includes not wanting to be ostracized from your circle of friends, your social groups, or your community (and risking the loss of beneficial reciprocity, safety nets, etc.).  Moral reasons include everything that detracts from your overall psychological well-being, the very thing that is needed to live a maximally fulfilling life given one’s circumstances.  Behaving in ways that degrade your sense of inner worth, your integrity, self-esteem, and that diminish a good conscience, is going to make you feel miserable compared to behaving in ways that positively impact these fundamental psychological goals.

Furthermore, this part of the story illustrates that we have a moral responsibility not only to ourselves and our own behavior, but also in terms of how we influence the behavior of those around us, based on what we say, how we treat them, and more.  This also reinforces the importance of social contract theory and how it pertains to moral behavior.  If we follow simple behavioral heuristics like the Golden Rule and mutual reciprocity, then we can work together to obtain and secure common social goods such as various rights, equality, environmental sustainability, democratic legislation (ideally based on open moral deliberation), and various social safety nets.  We also can punish those that violate the social contract, as we already do with the criminal justice system and various kinds of social ostracization.  While our system of checks is far from perfect, having some system that serves such a purpose is necessary because not everybody behaves in ways that are ultimately beneficial to themselves nor everyone else around them.  People need to be conditioned to behave in ways that are more conducive to their own well being and that of others, and if all reasonable efforts to achieve that fails, they may simply need to be quarantined through incarceration (for example psychopaths or other violent criminals that society needs to be protected from, and that aren’t responding to rehabilitation efforts).

In any case, we do have a responsibility to others and that means we need to be careful what we say, such as the case with Ivan and his brother.  And this includes how we talk about concepts like free will, moral responsibility, and moral desert (justice).  If we tell people that all of their behaviors are determined and therefore don’t matter, that’s not a good way to get people to behave in ways that are good for them or for others.  Nor is telling them that because a God doesn’t exist, that their actions don’t matter.  In the case of deterministic nihilism, it’s a way to get people to lose much if not all of their motivation to put forward effort in achieving useful goals.  And both deterministic and atheistic moral nihilism are dangerous ideas that can get some people to commit heinous crimes such as mass shootings (or murdering their own father as Smerdyakov did), because they simply cause people to think that all behaviors are on equal footing in any way that matters.  And quite frankly, those nihilistic ideas are not only dangerous but also absurd.

While I’ve written a bit on free will in the past, my views have become more refined over the years, and my overall attitude towards the issue has been co-evolving alongside my views on morality.  The main crux of the free will issue is that libertarian free will is logically impossible because our actions are never free from both determinism and indeterminism (randomness) since one or the other must underlie how our universe operates (depending on which interpretation of Quantum Mechanics is correct).  Neither option from this logical dichotomy gives us “the freedom to have chosen to behave differently given the same initial conditions in a non-random way”.  Therefore free will in this sense is logically impossible.  However, this does not mean that our behavior isn’t operating under some sets of rules and patterns that we can discover and modify.  That is to say, we can effectively reprogram many of our behavioral tendencies using various forms of conditioning through punishment/reward systems.  These are the same systems we use to teach children how to behave and to rehabilitate criminals.

The key thing to note here is that we need to acknowledge that even if we don’t have libertarian free will, we still have a form of “free will” that matters (as philosophers like Daniel Dennett have said numerous times) whereby we have the ability to be programmed and reprogrammed in certain ways, thus allowing us to take responsibility for our actions and design ways to modify future actions as needed.  We have more degrees of freedom than a person who is insane for example, or a child, or a dog, and these degrees of freedom or autonomy — the flexibility we have in our decision-making algorithms — can be used as a rough guideline for determining how “morally responsible” a person is for their actions.  That is to say, the more easily a person can be conditioned out of a particular behavior, and the more rational decision making processes are involved in governing that behavior, the more “free will” this person has in a sense that applies to a criminal justice system and that applies to most of our everyday lives.

In the end, it doesn’t matter whether someone thinks that their behavior doesn’t matter because there’s no God, or because they have no libertarian free will.  What needs to be pointed out is the fact that we are able to behave in ways (or be conditioned to behave in ways) that lead to more happiness, more satisfaction and more fulfilling lives.  And we are able to behave in ways that detract from this goal.  So which behaviors should we aim for?  I think the answer is obvious.  And we also need to realize that as a part of our behavioral patterns, we need to realize that ideas have consequences on others and their subsequent behaviors.  So we need to be careful about what ideas we choose to spread and to make sure that they are put into a fuller context.  If a person hasn’t given some critical reflection about the consequences that may ensue from spreading their ideas to others, especially to others that may misunderstand it, then they need to keep those ideas to themselves until they’ve reflected on them more.  And this is something that I’ve discovered and applied for myself as well, as I was once far less careful about this than I am now.  In the next post, I’m going to talk about the concept of moral desert and how it pertains to free will.  This will be relevant to the scene described above regarding Ivan’s demonic apparition that haunts him as a result of his guilt over Smerdyakov’s murder of their father, as well as why the demonic apparition disappeared once Ivan heard that Smerdyakov had taken his own life.

On Moral Desert: Intuition vs Rationality

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So what exactly is moral desert?  Well, in a nutshell, it is what someone deserves as a result of their actions as defined within the framework of some kind of moral theory.  Generally when people talk about moral desert, it’s often couched in terms of punishment and reward, and our intuitions (whether innate or culturally inherited) often produce strong feelings of knowing exactly what kinds of consequences people deserve in response to their actions.  But if we think about our ultimate goals in implementing any reasonable moral theory, we should quickly recognize the fact that our ultimate moral goal is to have ourselves and everybody else simply abide by that moral theory.  And we want that in order to guide our behavior and the behavior of those around us in ways that are conducive to our well being.  Ultimately, we want ourselves and others to act in ways that maximize our personal satisfaction — and not in a hedonistic sense — but rather to maximize our sense of contentment and living a fulfilled life.

If we think about scenarios that seem to merit punishment or reward, it would be useful to keep our ultimate moral goal in mind.  The reason I mention this is because, in particular, our feelings of resentment toward those that have wronged us can often lead one to advocate for an excessive amount of punishment to the wrongdoer.  Among other factors, vengeance and retribution often become incorporated into our intuitive sense of justice.  Many have argued that retribution itself (justifying “proportionate” punishment by appealing to concepts like moral desert and justice) isn’t a bad thing, even if vengeance — which lacks inherent limits on punishment, involves personal emotions from the victim, and other distinguishing factors — is in fact a bad thing.  While thinking about such a claim, I think it’s imperative that we analyze our reasons for punishing a wrongdoer in the first place and then analyze the concept of moral desert more closely.

Free Will & It’s Implications for Moral Desert

Another relevant topic I’ve written about in several previous posts is the concept of free will.  This is an extremely important concept to parse out here, because moral desert is most often intimately tied to the positive claim of our having free will.  That is to say, most concepts of moral desert, whereby it is believed that people deserve punishment and reward for actions that warrant it, fundamentally relies on the premise that people could have chosen to do otherwise but instead chose the path they did out of free choice.  While there are various versions of free will that philosophers have proposed, they all tend to revolve around some concept of autonomous agency.  The folk psychological conception of free will that most people subscribe to is some form of deliberation that is self-caused in some way thus ruling out randomness or indeterminism as the “cause”, since randomness can’t be authored by the autonomous agent, and also ruling out non-randomness or determinism as well, since an unbroken chain of antecedent causes can’t be authored by the autonomous agent either.

So as to avoid a long digression, I’m not going to expound upon all the details of free will and the various versions that others have proposed, but will only mention that the most relevant version that is tied to moral desert is generally some form of having the ability to have chosen to do otherwise (ignoring randomness).  Notice that because indeterminism or determinism is a logical dichotomy, these are the only two options that can possibly exist to describe the ontological underpinnings of our universe (in terms of causal laws that describe how the state of the universe changes over time).  Quantum mechanics allows either of these two options to exist given their consistency with the various interpretations therein that are all empirically identical with one another, but there is no third option available, so quantum mechanics doesn’t buy us any room for this kind of free will either.  Since neither option can produce any form of self-caused or causa sui free will (sometimes referred to as libertarian free will), then the intuitive concept of moral desert that relies on said free will is also rendered impossible if not altogether meaningless.  Therefore moral desert can only exist as a coherent concept if it no longer contains within it any assumptions of the moral agent having an ability to have chosen to do otherwise (again, ignoring randomness).  So what does this realization imply for our preconceptions of justified punishment or even justice itself?

At the very least, the concept of moral desert that is involved in these other concepts needs to be reformulated or restricted given the impossibility and thus the non-existence of libertarian free will.  So if we are to say that people “deserve” anything at all morally speaking (such as a particular punishment), it can only be justified let alone meaningful in some other sense, such as a consequentialist goal that the implementation of the “desert” (in this case, the punishment) effectively accomplishes.  Punishing the wrongdoer can no longer be a means of their getting their due so to speak, but rather needs to be justified by some other purpose such as rehabilitation, future crime deterrence, and/or restitution for the victim (to compensate for physical damages, property loss, etc.)  With respect to this latter factor, restitution, there is plenty of wiggle room here for some to argue for punishment on the grounds of it simply making the victim feel better (which I suppose we could call a form of psychological restitution).  People may try to justify some level of punishment based on making the victim feel better, but vengeance should be avoided at all costs, and one needs to carefully consider what justifications are sufficient (if any) for punishing another with the intention of simply making the victim feel better.

Regarding psychological restitution, it’s useful to bring up the aforementioned concepts of retribution and vengeance, and appreciate the fact that vengeance can easily result in cases where no disinterested party performs the punishment or decides its severity, and instead the victim (or another interested party) is involved with these decisions and processes.  Given the fact that we lack libertarian free will, we can also see how vengeance is not rationally justifiable and therefore why it is important that we take this into account not only in terms of society’s methods of criminal behavioral correction but also in terms of how we behave toward others that we think have committed some wrongdoing.

Deterrence & Fairness of Punishment

As for criminal deterrence, I was thinking about this concept the other day and thought about a possible conundrum concerning its justification (certain forms of deterrence anyway).  If a particular punishment is agreed upon within some legal system on the grounds that it will be sufficient to rehabilitate the criminal (and compensate the victim sufficiently) and an additional amount of punishment is tacked on to it merely to serve as a more effective deterrent, it seems that it would lack justification, with respect to treating the criminal in a fair manner.

To illustrate this, consider the following: if the criminal commits the crime, they are in one of two possible epistemic states — either they knew about the punishment that would follow from committing the crime beforehand, or they didn’t.  If they didn’t know this, then the deterrence addition of the punishment wouldn’t have had the opportunity to perform its intended function on the potential criminal, in which case the criminal would be given a harsher sentence than is necessary to rehabilitate them (and to compensate the victim) which should be the sole purpose of punishing them in the first place (to “right” a “wrong” and to minimize behavioral recurrences).  How could this be justified in terms of what is a fair and just treatment of the criminal?

And then, on the other hand, if they did know the degree of punishment that would follow committing such a crime, but they committed the crime anyway, then the deterrence addition of the punishment failed to perform its intended function even if it had the opportunity to do so.  This would mean that the criminal is once again, given a punishment that is harsher than what is needed to rehabilitate them (and also to compensate the victim).

Now one could argue in the latter case that there are other types of justification to ground the harsher deterrence addition of the punishment.  For example, one could argue that the criminal knew beforehand what the consequences would be, so they can’t plead ignorance as in the first example.  But even in the first example, it was the fact that the deterrence addition was never able to perform its function that turned out to be most relevant even if this directly resulted from the criminal lacking some amount of knowledge.  Likewise, in the second case, even with the knowledge at their disposal, the knowledge was useless in actualizing a functional deterrent.  Thus, in both cases the deterrent failed to perform its intended function, and once we acknowledge that, then we can see that the only purposes of punishment that remain are rehabilitation and compensation for the victim.  One could still try and argue that the criminal had a chance to be deterred, but freely chose to commit the crime anyway so they are in some way more deserving of the additional punishment.  But then again, we need to understand that the criminal doesn’t have libertarian free will so it’s not as if they could have done otherwise given those same conditions, barring any random fluctuations.  That doesn’t mean we don’t hold them responsible for their actions — for they are still being justifiably punished for their crime — but it is the degree of punishment that needs to be adjusted given our knowledge that they lack libertarian free will.

Now one could further object and say that the deterrence addition of the punishment isn’t intended solely for the criminal under our consideration but also for other possible future criminals that may be successfully deterred from the crime given such a deterrence addition (even if this criminal was not).  Regardless of this pragmatic justification, that argument still doesn’t justify punishing the criminal, in such a way, if we are to treat the criminal in a fair way based on their actions alone.  If we bring other possible future criminals into the justification, then the criminal is being punished not only for their wrongdoing but in excess for hypothetical reasons concerning other hypothetical offenders — which is not at all fair.  So we can grant the fact that some may justify these practices on pragmatic consequentialist grounds, but they aren’t consistent with a Rawslian conception of justice as fairness.  Which means they aren’t consistent with many anti-consequentialist views (such as Kantian deontologists for example) that often promote strong conceptions of justice and moral desert in their ethical frameworks.

Conclusion

In summary, I wanted to reiterate the fact that even if our intuitive conceptions of moral desert and justice sometimes align with our rational moral goals, they often lack rational justification and thus often serve to inhibit the implementation of any kind of rational moral theory.  They often produce behaviors that are vengeful, malicious, sadistic, and most often counter-productive to our actual moral goals.  We need to incorporate the fact that libertarian free will does not (and logically can not) exist, into our moral framework, so that we can better strive to treat others fairly even if we still hold people responsible in some sense for their actions.

We can still hold people responsible for their actions (and ought to) by replacing the concept of libertarian free will with a free will conception that is consistent with the laws of physics, with psychology, and neurology, by proposing for example that people’s degree of “free will” with respect to some action is inversely proportional to the degree of conditioning needed to modify such behavior.  That is to say, the level of free will that we have with respect to some kind of behavior is related to our ability to be programmed and reprogrammed such that the behavior can (at least in principle) be changed.

Our punishment-reward systems then (whether in legal, social, or familial domains), should treat others as responsible agents only insofar as to protect the members of that society (or group) from harm and also to induce behaviors that are conducive to our physical and psychological well being — which is the very purpose of our having any reasonable moral theory (that is sufficiently motivating to follow) in the first place.  Anything that goes above and beyond what is needed to accomplish this is excessive and therefore not morally justified.  Following this logic, we should see that many types of punishment including, for example, the death penalty, are entirely unjustified in terms of our moral goals and the strategies of punishment that we should implement to accomplish those goals.  As the saying goes, an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, and thus barbaric practices such as inflicting pain or suffering (or death sentences) simply to satisfy some intuitions need to be abolished and replaced with an enlightened system that relies on rational justifications rather than intuition.  Only then can we put the primitive, inhumane moral systems of the past to rest once and for all.

We need to work with our psychology (not only the common trends between most human beings but also our individual idiosyncrasies) and thus work under the pretense of our varying degrees of autonomy and behavioral plasticity.  Only then can we maximize our chances and optimize our efforts in attaining fulfilling lives for as many people as possible living in a society.  It is our intuitions (products of evolution and culture) that we must be careful of, as they can (and often have throughout history) led us astray to commit various moral atrocities.  All we can do is try to overcome these moral handicaps the best we can through means of reason and rationality, but we have to acknowledge that these problems exist before we can face them head on and subsequently engineer the right kinds of societal changes to successfully reach our moral goals.

Objective Morality & Arguments For God

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Morality is certainly an important facet of the human condition, and as a philosophical topic of such high regard, it clearly deserves critical reflection and a thorough analysis.  It is often the case that when people think of ethics, moral values, and moral duties, religion enters the discussion, specifically in terms of the widely held (although certainly not ubiquitous) belief that religions provide some form of objective foundation for morals and ethics.  The primary concern here regarding morals is determining whether our morals are ontologically objective in some way or another, and even if they are, is it still accurate to describe morality as some kind of an emergent human construct that is malleable and produced by naturalistic socio-biological processes?

One of the most common theistic arguments, commonly referred to as the Divine Command Theory, states that the existence of a God (or many gods for that matter) necessarily provides an ontologically objective foundation for morals and ethics.  Furthermore, coinciding with this belief are the necessary supportive beliefs that God exists and that this God is inherently “good”, for if either of these assumptions were not also the case, then the theistic foundation for morals (i.e. what is deemed to be “good”) would be unjustified. The assumption that God exists, and that this God is inherently “good” is based upon yet a few more assumptions, although there is plenty of religious and philosophical contention regarding which assumptions are necessary, let alone which are valid.

Let’s examine some of the arguments that have been used to try and prove the existence of God as well as some arguments used to show that an existent God is necessarily good. After these arguments are examined, I will conclude this post with a brief look at moral objectivity including the most common motivations underlying its proposed existence, the implications of believing in theologically grounded objective morals, and finally, some thoughts about our possible moral future.

Cosmological Argument

The Cosmological Argument for God’s existence basically asserts that every effect has a cause, and thus if the universe began to exist, it too must have had a cause.  It is then proposed that the initial cause is something transcendent from physical reality, something supernatural, or what many would refer to as a God.  We can see that this argument most heavily relies on the initial assumption of causality.  While causality certainly appears to be an attribute of our universe, Hume was correct to point out the problem of induction, whereby, causality itself is not known to exist by a priori reasoning, but rather by a posteriori reasoning, otherwise known as induction.  Because of this, our assumption of causality is not logically grounded, and therefore it is not necessarily true.

Clearly science relies on this assumption of causality as well as on the efficacy of induction, but its predictive power and efficacy only requires that causal relationships hold up most of the time, although perhaps it would be better to say that science only requires that causal relationships hold up with the phenomena it wishes to describe.  It is not a requirement for performing science that everything is causally closed or operating under causal principles.  Even quantum mechanics has shown us acausal properties whereby atomic and subatomic particles exhibit seemingly random behavior with no local hidden variables found.  It may be the case that ontologically speaking, the seemingly random quantum behavior is actually governed by causal processes (albeit with non-local hidden variables), but we’ve found no evidence for such causal processes. So it seems unjustified to assume that causality is necessarily the case, not only because this assumption has been derived from logically uncertain induction alone, but also because within science, specifically within quantum physics, we’ve actually observed what appear to be completely acausal processes.  As such, it is certainly both possible and plausible that the universe arose from acausal processes as well, with this possibility heavily supported by the quantum mechanical principles that underlie it.

To provide a more satisfying explanation for how something could come from nothing (as in some acausal process), one could look at abstract concepts within mathematics for an analogy.  For example, if 0 = (-1) + (1), and “0” is analogous to “nothing”, then couldn’t “nothing” (i.e. “0”) be considered equivalent to the collection of complementary “somethings” (e.g. “-1” and “+1”)?  That is, couldn’t a “0” state have existed prior to the Big Bang, and this produced two universes, say, “-1” and “+1”?  Clearly one could ask how or why the “0” state transformed into anything at all, but if the collection or sum of those things are equivalent to the “0” which one started with, then perhaps the question of how or why is an illogical question to begin with.  Perhaps this ill-formulated question would be analogous to asking how zero can spontaneously give rise to zero.  In any case, quantum mechanical principles certainly defy logic and intuition, and so there’s no reason to suppose that the origins of the universe should be any less illogical or counter-intuitive.  Additionally, it is entirely possible that our conceptions of “nothing” and “something” may not be ontologically accurate or coherent with respect to cosmology and quantum physics, even if we think of those concepts as trivial and seemingly obvious in other domains of knowledge.

Even if the universe was internally causal within its boundaries and thus with every process inside that universe, would that imply that the universe as a whole, from an external perspective, would be bound by the same causal processes?  To give an analogy, imagine that the universe is like a fishbowl, and the outer boundary of the fishbowl is completely opaque and impenetrable.  To all inhabitants inside the fishbowl (e.g. some fish swimming in water), there isn’t anything to suppose except for what exists within the boundary, i.e., the water, the fish, and the laws of physics that govern the motion and physical processes therein (e.g. buoyant or freely floating objects and a certain amount of frictional drag between the fish and the water).  Now it could be that this fishbowl of a universe is itself contained within a much larger environment (e.g. a multi-verse or some meta-space) with physical laws that don’t operate like those within the fishbowl.  For example, the meta-space could be completely dry, where the fishbowl of a universe isn’t itself buoyant or floating in any way, and the universe (when considered as one object) doesn’t experience any frictional drag between itself and the meta-space medium around it.  Due to the opaque surface of the fishbowl, the inhabitants are unaware that the fishbowl itself isn’t floating, just as they are unaware of any of the other foreign physical laws or properties that lay outside of it.  In the same sense, we could be erroneously assuming that the universe itself is a part of some causal process, simply because everything within the universe appears to operate under causal processes.  Thus, it may be the case that the universe as a whole, from an external perspective that we have no access to, is not governed by the laws we see within the universe, be they the laws of time, space, causality, etc.

Even if the universe was caused by something, one can always ask, what caused the cause?  The proposition that a God exists provides no solution to this problem, for we’d then want to know who or what created that God, and this would create an infinite regress.  If one tries to solve the infinite regress by contending that a God has always existed, then we can simplify the explanation further by removing any God from it and simply positing that the universe has always existed.  Even if the Big Bang model within cosmology is correct in some sense, what if the universe has constantly undergone some kind of cycle whereby a Big Bang is preceded by and eventually succeeded by a Big Crunch ad infinitum?  Even if we have an epistemological limitation from ever confirming such a model, for example, if the information of any previous universe is somehow lost with the start of every new cycle, it is certainly a possible model, and one that no longer requires an even more complex entity to explain, such as a God.

Fine-Tuning Argument

It is often claimed by theists that the dimensionless physical constants in our universe appear to be finely tuned such that matter, let alone intelligent life, could exist.  Supposedly, if these physical constants were changed by even a small amount, life as we know it (including the evolution of consciousness) wouldn’t be possible, therefore, the universe was finely tuned by an intelligent designer, or a God.  Furthermore, it is often argued that it has been finely tuned for the eventual evolution of conscious human beings.

One question that can be posed in response to this argument is whether or not the physical constants could be better than they currently are, such that the universe would be even more conducive to matter, life, and eventually intelligent life.  Indeed, it has been determined that the physical constants could be much better than they are, and we can also clearly see that the universe is statistically inhospitable to life, empirically supported by the fact that we have yet to find life elsewhere in the universe.  Statistically, it is still very likely that life exists in many other places throughout the universe, but it certainly doesn’t exist in most places.  Changing the physical constants in just the right way would indeed make life ubiquitous.  So it doesn’t appear that the universe was really finely tuned at all, at least not for any of the reasons that have been supposed.

There have also been other naturalistic theories presented as possible solutions to the fine-tuning argument, such as that of the Multi-verse, whereby we are but one universe living among an extremely large number of other universes (potentially infinite, although not necessarily so), and each universe has slightly different physical constants.  In a way, we could say that a form of natural selection among universes occurs, where the appearance of a finely tuned universe is analogous to the apparent design in biological nature.  We now know that natural selection along with some differentiation mechanisms are all that are necessary to produce the appearance of designed phenotypes.  The same thing could apply to universes, and by the anthropic principle, we can see that those universes that had physical constants within a particular range conducive to life, and eventually intelligent life, would indeed be the type of universe that we are living in such that we can even ask the question.  That is, some universes could be naturally selected to undergo the evolution of consciousness and eventually self-awareness.

There have been other theories presented to account for the appearance of a finely tuned universe such as a quantum superposition of initial conditions during the Big Bang, but they utilize the same basic principles of cosmic differentiation and natural selection, and so need not be mentioned further.  In any case, we can see that there are several possible naturalistic explanations for what appear to be finely tuned physical constants.

An even more important point worth mentioning is the possibility that every combination of physical constants could produce some form of consciousness completely unfathomable to us. We have yet to solve the mind-body problem (if it is indeed solvable), and so without knowing what physical mechanism produces consciousness, are we justified in assuming which processes can not produce consciousness? Even if consciousness as we know it is limited to carbon-based biological organisms with brains, can we justifiably dismiss the possibility of completely different mechanisms and processes that lead to some form of self-regulating “life”, “consciousness”, or “awareness”? Even a form of life or consciousness that does not involve brains, let alone atoms or molecules?  If this is the case, then all universes could have some form of “life” or “consciousness”, even if they would never come close to falling within our limited definition of such concepts.

“God is Good” & The Ontological Argument

The assumption that a God which exists must necessarily be a good God is definitely necessary for one to believe that the existence of that God provides an ontologically objective foundation for morals and ethics. So what exactly is the basis for this assumption that a God must necessarily be good?

This assumption has been derived by many from some versions of what is known as the Ontological Argument for God’s existence. This argument, believed to have been first asserted by St. Anselm of Canterbury in the year 1078 CE, basically asserts that God, by definition, is the greatest conceivable being.  However, if the greatest conceivable being is supposedly limited to the mind, that is, as a mental construct, then an even greater conceivable being is possible, namely one that actually exists outside of the mind as an entity in reality, therefore, God exists in both the mind as well as in reality.  Furthermore, regarding the concept of God being good, some people take this argument further and believe that the greatest conceivable being, that is, a God, also has to be good, since it is believed that the most perfect God, by definition, would deserve to be worshipped, and would only create or command that which is best.  So it follows then by the Ontological Argument, that not only God exists, but also that God must necessarily be good.

One obvious criticism to this argument is the fact that just because one can conceive of something, that act in itself certainly doesn’t make that conception exist in any sense other than as a mental construct.  Even if I can conceive of a perfect object, like a perfect planet that is perfectly spherical for example, this doesn’t mean that it necessarily has to exist.  Even if I limit my conceptions to a perfect God, what if I conceive of two perfect beings, with the assumption that two perfect beings are somehow better than one?  Does this mean that two perfect beings must necessarily exist? How about an infinite number of perfect beings? Isn’t an infinite number of infinitely perfect beings the best conception of all?  If so, why isn’t this conception necessarily existent in reality as well?  Such an assertion would indeed provide proof for polytheism.  One could certainly argue over which conceptions are truly perfect or the best, and thus which should truly produce something necessarily in reality, but regardless, one still hasn’t shown how conceptions alone can lead to realities.  Notice also that the crux of St. Anselm’s argument is dependent on one’s definition of what God is, which leads me to what I believe to be a much more important criticism of the Ontological Argument.

The primary criticism I have with such an argument, or any argument claiming particular attributes of a God for that matter, is the lack of justification for assuming that anyone could actually know anything about a God.  Are we to assume that any attributes at all of a God should necessarily be within the limits of human comprehension?  This assumption of such a potent human attribute of understanding sounds incredibly pretentious, egotistical, and entirely unsubstantiated.  As for the common assumptions about what God is, why would a God necessarily have to be different from, or independent of, the universe itself, as presumably required for an ontologically objective foundation for morality?  Pantheists for example (which can be classified as atheists as far as I’m concerned), assume that the universe itself is God, and thus the universe needed no creator nor anything independent of itself.  Everything in the universe is considered a part of that God and that’s simply all there is to it.

If one takes a leap of faith and assumes that a presumed God not only exists, but is indeed also independent of the universe in some way, aren’t they even less justified in making claims about the attributes of this God?  Wouldn’t it be reasonable to assume that they’d have an even larger epistemological barrier between themselves and an external, separate, and independent God?  It seems incredibly clear that any claims about what a God would be like are based on the unsubstantiated assumption that humans must necessarily have access to such knowledge, and in order to hold such a view, it seems that one would have to abandon all logic and reasoning.

Euthyphro dilemma

One common challenge to the Divine Command Theory mentioned earlier is the Euthyphro dilemma, whereby one must determine if actions are good simply because a presumed God commands them, or rather that the presumed God commands particular actions because they are good independently of that God.  If the former premise is chosen, this would imply that whatever a God commands, even if humans or others see those commands to be immoral, that they must be moral and good regardless of human criticisms. If the latter premise is chosen, then morality is clearly not dependent on God thus defeating the Divine Command Theory altogether as well as the precept that God is omnipotent (since God in this case wouldn’t ultimately have control over defining what is good and what is not good).  So for those that ascribe to the Divine Command Theory, it appears that they also have to accept that all moral actions (no matter how immoral they may seem to us) are indeed moral simply because a God commands them. One should also contemplate that if a God were theoretically able to modify its commands over time (presumably possible with an omnipotent God), then any theological objective foundation for morals would be malleable and subject to change, thereby reducing, if not defeating, the pragmatic utility of that objective foundation.

There are many people that have absolutely no problem with such Divine Command Theory assumptions, including the many theists that accept and justify the purported acts of their God (or gods), despite there being an enormous number of people outside of those particular religions that see many of those acts as heinous and morally reprehensible (e.g. divinely authorized war, murder, rape, genocide, slavery, racism, sexism, sexual-orientationism, etc.).  Another problem that exists for the Divine Command Theory is the problem of contradictory divine commands, whereby many different religions each claim to follow divine commands despite the fact that the divine commands of one religion may differ from another.  These differences clearly indicate that even if the Divine Command Theory were true, the fact that people don’t agree on what those divine commands are, and the fact that there is no known method for confirming what the true divine commands are, illustrates that the theory is pragmatically useless as it fails to actually provide any way of knowing what these ontologically objective morals and ethics would be.  In other words, even if morals did have a theologically-based ontologically objective foundation, it appears that we have an epistemological barrier from ever confirming such an objective status.

Argument from Morality for the Existence of God

Some believe in what is often referred to as the “Moral Argument for God” or the “Argument from Morality”, whereby at least one variation asserts that because moral values exist in some sense, it then follows that a God must necessarily exist, since nature on its own appears to be morally neutral, as nature doesn’t appear to have any reason or mechanism for producing moral values from purely physical or materialistic processes. One can also see that by accepting such an assertion, if one wants to believe in the existence of an objective foundation for morals, one need only believe that morals exist, for this supposedly implies that God exists, and it is presumed that an existent God (if one ascribes to the common assumption that “God” must be good as explained earlier) also provides an objective foundation for morals.

Well, what if morals are not actually separate from naturalistic mechanisms and explanations?  While nature may appear to be morally neutral, there is evidence to suggest that what we often call “morality” (at least partially) resulted from natural selection pressures ingraining into humans a tendency for reciprocal altruism among other innate behaviors that have been beneficial to the survival of our highly social species, or at least beneficial in the context of the environment we once lived in prior to our cultural evolution into civilization.  For example, altruism, which can roughly be expressed or represented by the Golden Rule (i.e. do to others what you would have them do to you), is a beneficial behavior for it provides an impulse toward productive cooperation and reciprocal favors between individuals.  Another example of innate morality would be the innate aversion from incest, and this also makes evolutionary sense because incestual reproduction is more likely to produce birth defects due to genetically identical recessive mutations or problematic genes being expressed more often.

These innate tendencies, that is, what we innately feel to be good and bad behaviors are what we often label as “moral” and “immoral” behaviors, respectively.  It is certainly plausible that after our unconscious, pre-conscious, or primitively conscious ancestors evolved into self-aware and more complex conscious beings that were able to culturally transmit information over generations as well as learn new behavior, they also realized that their innate tendencies and feelings were basically fixed attributes of their human nature that couldn’t simply be unlearned or modified culturally.  Without having any idea where these innate tendencies came from, due to a lack of knowledge about evolutionary biology and psychology, humans likely intuitively concluded that moral values (or at least those that are innate) were something supernaturally based or divinely ordained.  It is at least arguable that not all morals that humans ascribe to are necessarily innate, as there also appears to be a malleable moral influence derived from the cultural transmission of certain memes, often aided by our intellectual ability to override certain instincts.  However, I think it would be more accurate to say that our most fundamental goals in life in terms of achieving personal satisfaction (through cultivating virtues and behaving with respect to the known consequences of our actions) constitutes our fundamental morality — and I think that this morality is indeed innate based on evolutionary psychology, biology, etc.

Additionally, a large number of these culturally transmitted behaviors (that we often label as “morals”) often align with our innate moral tendencies anyway, for example, memes promoting racism may be supported by our natural tendency to conveniently lump people into groups and see outsiders as dangerous or threatening.  Or the opposite may occur, for example, when memes promoting racial equality may be supported by our natural tendency for racially-neutral reciprocal altruism.  Clearly what we tend to call “morals” are an amalgam of culturally transmitted ideas as well as innate predispositions, that is, they result from socio-biological or cultural-biological processes — even if there is an innate fundamental morality that serves as an objective foundation for those culturally constructed morals.

Moreover, since other animals (or at least most other animals) do not seem to exhibit what we call moral behavior, it is likely that most humans saw it (and many still continue to see it) as a unique property of humans alone, and thus somehow existing independently of the rest of the nature around them.  One response to this anthropocentric perspective would be to note that if we look at other animals’ behavior, they may just as easily be described as having their own morals based on their own naturally selected innate behavioral tendencies, even if those morals are completely different from our own, and even if those morals are not as intelligently informed due to our more complex brains and self-awareness (most notably in the case of culturally transmitted morals).  Now it may be true that what evolutionary biologists, psychologists, and sociologists have discovered to be the mechanism or explanation for human morality, as well as how we choose to define that morality naturalistically, is not something that certain people want to accept.  However, that lack of acceptance or lack of comfort doesn’t make it any less true or any less plausible.  It seems that some people simply want morality to have a different kind of ontological status or some level of objectivity, such that they can find more solace in their convictions and also to support their anthropocentric presuppositions.

Objective Morality, Moral Growth, and our Moral Future

While the many arguments for God have been refuted or at least highly challenged, it appears that the actual existence of God isn’t nearly as important as people’s belief in such a God, especially when it comes to concepts such as morality.  Sartre once quoted Dostoyevsky as saying, “If there is no God, then everything is permissible.”  I personally feel that this quote illustrates quite eloquently why so many people feel compelled to argue that a God exists (among other reasons), as many seem to feel that without the notion of a God existing, the supposed lack of an objective foundation for morality will lead people to do whatever they want to do, and thus people will no longer ascribe to truly “moral” behavior.  However, as we can clearly see, there are many atheists who behave quite morally relative to the Golden Rule, if we must indeed specify some moral frame of reference.  There are also plenty of people who believe in a God and yet behave in ways that are morally reprehensible relative to the same Golden Rule standard.  The key difference between the atheist and the theist, at least concerning moral objectivity, is that the atheist, by definition, doesn’t believe that any of their behavior has a theologically grounded objective ontological status to justify it, although the atheist may still believe in some type of moral objectivity (likely grounded in a science of morality, which is a view I actually agree with).  On the other hand, the theist does believe in a theological basis for moral objectivity, so if either the atheist or theist behave in ways that you or I would find morally reprehensible, the theist alone would actually feel religiously obligated to do so.

Regarding the concern for a foundation for morals, I think it is fair to say that the innate morality of human beings, that is, those morals that have been ingrained in us for evolutionary reasons (such as altruism), could be described as having a reliable foundation, even if not an ontologically objective one.  On top of this “naturally selected” foundation for morality, we can build upon it by first asking ourselves why we believe moral behavior is important in the first place.  If humans overwhelmingly agree that morality is important for promoting and maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures (with higher-level conscious creatures prioritized over those with less complex brains and lower-level consciousness), or if they agree with the contra-positive of that proposition, that morality is important for inhibiting and minimizing the suffering of conscious creatures, then one could say that humans at least have a moral axiom that they could ascribe to.  This moral axiom, i.e., that moral behavior is defined as that which maximizes the well-being of conscious creatures (as proposed by many “Science of Morality” proponents such as Sam Harris), is indeed an axiom that one can further build upon, refine, and implement through the use of epistemologically objective methods in science.  Even if this “moral axiom” doesn’t provide an ontologically objective morality, it has a foundation that is grounded on human intuition, reason, and empirical data.  If one argues that this still isn’t as good as having a theologically grounded ontologically objective morality, then one must realize that the theological assumptions for said moral objectivity have no empirical basis at all.  After all, even if a God does in fact exist, why exactly would a God necessarily provide an objective foundation for morals?  More importantly, as I mentioned earlier, there appears to be no epistemologically objective way to ascertain any ontologically objective morals, so it doesn’t really matter anyway.

One can also see that the theist’s position, in terms of which morals to follow, is supposedly fixed, although history has shown us that religions and their morals can change over time, either by modifying the scripture or basic tenets, or by modifying the interpretation of said scripture or basic tenets. Even if moral modifications take place with a religion or its followers, the claim of moral objectivity (and an intentional resistance to change those morals) is often maintained, paradoxically. On the other hand, the atheist’s position on morals is not inherently fixed and thus the atheist is at least possibly amenable to reason in order to modify the morals they ascribe to, with the potential to culturally adapt to a society that increasingly abhors war, murder, rape, genocide, slavery, racism, sexism, sexual-orientationism, etc.  Whereas the typical theist can not morally adapt to the culturally evolving world around them (at least not consciously or admittedly), even as more evidence and data are obtained pertaining to a better understanding of that world, the typical atheist indeed has these opportunities for moral growth.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, human nature is malleable and will continue to change as our species continues to evolve.  As such, our innate predispositions regarding moral behavior will likely continue to change as it has throughout our evolutionary history.  If we utilize “engineered selection” through the aid of genetic engineering, our moral malleability will be catalyzed and these changes to human nature will precipitate incredibly quickly and with conscious foresight.  Theists are no exception to evolution, and thus they will continue to evolve as well, and as a result their innate morality will also be subject to change.  Any changes that do occur to human nature will also likely affect which memes are culturally transmitted (including memes pertaining to morality) and thus morality will likely continue to be a dynamic amalgam of both biological and cultural influences.  So despite the theistic fight for an objective foundation for morality, it appears that the complex interplay between evolution and culture that led to theism in the first place will continue to change, and the false idea of any ontologically objective foundation for morality existing will likely continue to dissipate.

History has shown us that reason as well as our innate drive for reciprocal altruism is all we need in order to behave in ways that adhere to the Golden Rule (or to some other moral axiom that maximizes the well-being of conscious creatures).  Reason and altruism have also given us the capability of adapting our morals as we learn more about our species and the consequences of our actions. These assets, combined with a genetically malleable human nature will likely lead us to new moral heights over time. In the mean time, we have reason and an innate drive for altruism to morally guide us. It should be recognized that some religions which profess the existence of a God and an objective morality also abide by some altruistic principles, but many of them do not (or do so inconsistently), and when they do, they are likely driven by our innate altruism anyway. However, it takes belief in a God and its objective foundation for morality to most effectively justify behaving in any way imaginable, often in ways that negate both reason and our instinctual drive for altruism, and often reinforced by the temptation of eternal reward and the threat of eternal damnation. In any case, the belief in moral objectivity (or more specifically moral absolutes), let alone the belief in theologically grounded moral objectivity or absolutism, appears to be a potentially dangerous one.

Religious Paradigms in the Wake of Science

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Albert Einstein once said “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” From my perspective, I see the latter as most certainly true as science is the only way we’ve been able to gain a falsifiable world view of our universe. As for the former, it seems that Einstein was mainly pointing out how religion has largely precipitated from the human aspiration to ascertain truth, and without that drive for truth, science would be ineffective. That also sounds reasonable, as early on and throughout most of human history, religion was more or less the dominant world view used to provide many explanations for the unknown. Many if not most of these explanations were supernatural and the world view in general was also highly anthropomorphic and anthropocentric, perhaps due to its highly subjective basis and the failure to see that subjectivity bias as a fundamental problem (even if it sometimes produces more intuitive explanations). For a more in depth analysis of religion, I recommend you read one of my previous posts.

As people stumbled upon science, realizing that the same empirical and causally-based methodologies used to tackle everyday problems could actually be applied to the investigation of all phenomena, it has been slowly but surely replacing the religious world views with a more objective perspective as the human quests for truth, understanding, and predictive power are perpetuated. In the hopes of maintaining many of the old religious world views, there has no doubt been an enormous amount of religious opposition to science. It’s certainly not difficult to see why so many different religious proponents oppose science. After all, the pragmatic knowledge and explanatory power derived from science has replaced the hundreds of different gods and supernatural explanations proposed over the centuries, and it has also been taking power away from the priests and clergy whose authority throughout history has been based on the presumed existence of those gods and supernatural processes. Above and beyond the fact that science has been eliminating the “gods of the gaps” one by one, science has also been refuting some primary and often necessary assumptions within certain religions. Overall, it seems that the religious world views are slowly fading away in the wake of science. Let’s examine a few…

Human Origins

There is a strong belief held by many religious proponents that human beings along with all other species were created by a deity in their present form. Science has shown us no evidence of any deities, but it has shown us a plethora of evidence within evolutionary biology (among other disciplines) which shows that human beings, like all other life forms on Earth, have indeed evolved from a common ancestor thus forming the diversity of life we see today. Furthermore, we are seeing many different species continue to evolve (including human beings). Despite the scientific consensus that evolution is a fact, there are a large number of people that ignore the evidence in order to preserve their creation origin myths as well as to preserve many other parts of their old world view. While this ignorance may be seen as inconsequential to some (people are entitled to their own beliefs after all), it definitely becomes problematic when it enters and poisons the educational and political spheres of society where reason and intellect are needed most.

Some people have actually gone so far as to try and add Creationism as a complement to the Theory of Evolution currently being taught within the science curriculum of various public schools, despite the fact that the creationist’s claims aren’t supported by any scientific evidence, and thus should remain in the academic realms of cultural studies, religious studies, and mythology. To make matters worse, many religious proponents have also tried to use pseudo-scientific arguments to disprove evolution (although to no avail). Some have even resorted to using the intellectually dishonest (or merely ignorant) argument claiming that “evolution is just a theory”, not realizing that the meaning of the word “theory” within science is quite different from the common everyday usage. Whereas the common everyday usage of the word “theory” is meant to imply a “hypothesis”, the scientific usage implies an explanation with a factual basis that is generally supported by most if not all of the scientific community within the relevant fields. Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity is no different and thus would also be considered as “just a theory”, but we know for a fact that some force which we call “gravity” does indeed exist, and this force also produces measurable temporal dilation, as well as the non-Euclidean or curved space effects predicted by the theory. While some of the details of these theories may remain under contention, and while the theories may be incomplete in one way or another, the main crux of these scientific theories are widely accepted as scientific facts.

These kinds of arguments and tactics have far less precedent, for in the past, religious claims were largely supported by religious authority and intuition alone and didn’t require falsifiable scientific support. As science has continued to gain more influence and followers through its explanatory power, and as more educated people begin to participate in these kinds of public discourses, the necessity of scientifically grounded arguments has grown substantially. So it isn’t all that surprising to see many of the people with religious-based world views try and find scientific arguments to support their case, although it is obviously hypocritical and inconsistent when the same people undermine science when it no longer supports their position. The crucial difference worth noting here is that science is ultimately about trying to find an explanatory and descriptive model that fits the data best, whereas those trying to prove religious beliefs to be true are effectively cherry-picking data to fit a presupposed model. That is, science is always willing to scrap a poor model for a better one that has more explanatory and predictive power as more and more data is collected, whereas religion clings to one model and one model only no matter how poorly it fits the ever increasing amount of data and despite it’s usual lack of explanatory and predictive power.

Teleological Evolution of Humans

Evolutionary theists believe that evolution is factual, but some of them also believe that evolution has had a specific purpose or end-goal in mind determined by a deity, namely to produce human beings (another example of religious anthropocentrism).  In a few of these religious accounts, it has been suggested that once humans evolved from other life forms, they were given a soul and have been participating in some kind of an ongoing religious narrative.  Some have claimed that humans evolved to worship some god(s), to prepare for an apocalypse, to prepare for the afterlife, and other similar stories.  The main point here is that within these types of religious claims, the human species is purportedly the final speciation goal of evolution, and as a result, humans are thought to be the most remarkable, most intellectually capable, and most important species that will ever exist.

In terms of the scientific credibility of such claims, none of the claims are falsifiable except perhaps one — that humans are the end-all be-all for evolution and speciation, or to put it another way, that humans (or another species for that matter) will not evolve further (let alone evolve to produce a species that is more remarkable or one with more intelligent capabilities than homo sapiens).  We can already see that the assumption that humans will no longer evolve is patently false by noticing some relatively recent evolutionary changes to human beings, including the otherwise unnecessary ability for some human adults to digest lactose (this mutation became favorable after the recent development of agriculture and dairy farming several thousand years ago), the existence of specific disease resistances (and their genetic markers) within certain ethnic populations, and other gene pool changes due to genetic drift.

Perhaps more importantly, with the recent development of genetic engineering, we are beginning to consciously and directly guide our own evolution at the molecular level (and the evolution of other species).  As this technology develops further, we are likely to change extremely quickly into a completely different species, and one with more advanced capabilities engineered into the genome. Interestingly enough, there hasn’t been any evidence for the teleological evolution of any species until relatively recently, but it is human beings that are teleologically driving it through both artificial and, what I call, “engineered” selection.

Free Will

If science has shown us anything, it has shown us that there is a causal structure that exists in the world around us in which events that occur are ultimately caused by prior events. If this weren’t the case, then we could never successfully apply the scientific method, let alone live our daily lives with any predictable order or structure. Fortunately, because of the causal (and potentially deterministic) nature of our universe, we’ve been able to successfully formulate hypotheses, test them, and use the results to make further testable predictions.  Regarding free will, there is no known way for humans (or any other entity or object for that matter) to circumvent this causality without their actions being causa sui which would not only undermine the process of rational thought (which depends on causal thought processes), but would also go against every bit of scientific evidence we have obtained thus far.

Even if the randomness proposed within quantum mechanics were ontologically the case (which we’ll likely never know), we all know that randomness can’t produce freely willed actions either, since there have to be non-random conscious intentions and thought processes behind any deliberate action.  So whether the universe is ontologically deterministic or indeterministic (i.e. random), classical free will is logically incompatible with either possibility. Obviously this presents a serious problem to those religious views which assume that humans do in fact possess free will. Concepts such as moral responsibility, human fate in some proposed afterlife, karma, etc., lose their luster when free will is taken out of the equation since this would imply that any spiritual fate supposed isn’t something we can actually change or control anyway, and thus any implemented punishment or reward is ultimately futile.

Despite the fact that we don’t have free will, we all live with the illusion of free will since we don’t directly experience the prior causes to our thoughts and subsequent actions, and thus we truly feel that we self-cause those thoughts and actions.  In the grand scheme of things, even without any free will, we can see that our societal approach of implementing laws, crime deterrence measures, and any punishment-reward system for that matter, isn’t based on the assumption that we can freely choose our behaviors so much as they are based on their efficacy to maximize safety, productivity, as well as what society deems to be acceptable behavior.  It’s efficacy is accomplished primarily through the physical constraint measures put into place as well as the pragmatic application of psychological conditioning principles.

It doesn’t ultimately matter whether or not we could have chosen to behave differently unless one is trying to maintain certain metaphysical presuppositions, such as those proposed in many religions. However, our recognition that free will doesn’t exist can certainly affect how we approach problems in society. As a result of science demonstrating that we lack free will through the discovery of causal constraints such as genes, the body’s internal environment, and the body’s external physical environment (including that which causes the psychological conditioning of the brain), we’re definitely becoming more able to address the actual root causes of many problematic behaviors. In doing so, rather than wasting resources and erroneously blaming an individual for not “choosing” to behave differently (as in many religions), we can appropriately view every individual as an innocent amalgam of genetic and environmental information (regardless of their behavior) and then take more effective measures to improve their behavior by attempting to change any problematic genes and environmental factors.

Struggle for Morality

One of the most pressing issues regarding the human condition is the constant struggle to behave in ways that society deems to be moral. Many religions have their own ideas about what is considered to be moral behavior and they often claim that their particular morals are ordained by a god or some form of divine authority. It is also common that morality and immorality play an important role within various religious narratives.  For example, within the Abrahamic religions, if a person commits what the religion deems to be immoral acts, that is, if they “sin”, and this person does not repent or have their sins absolved, they are destined to eternal damnation.  Within Christianity, “sin” is considered an inevitable act passed down from generation to generation ever since the supposed “fall of man” which, as the story goes, began with a first descendent, named Adam.  This concept of seeing humans as inherent sinners is sometimes referred to as “original sin”.

As was mentioned in the previous section, humans’ lack of free will suggests that humans ultimately have no control over whether they “sin” or not.  Behavior is determined by prior causes such as a person’s genes and the psychological conditioning they’ve undergone throughout their lives.  Evolutionary biologists have also shown that the reasons for humans behaving in ways that society or various religions deem immoral is because of selfish genes as well as an ongoing conflict between biological instincts and societal conventions and expectations.

The strategy that genes tend to implement through their respective phenotypes (including behavior) tend to perpetuate those genes through means of self-preservation, reproductive success, and subsequent child-rearing success.  Additionally, because of the incredible speed of cultural evolution and ever-changing social conventions, humans may find difficulties adhering to particular conventions due to their biological evolution lagging behind that cultural evolution. To give some examples, if people kill others or steal, it is likely (or was likely long ago) to increase one’s chances of survival or increase one’s chances of successful mating by gaining power, property, and social status.  Infidelity could also be seen as a result of being sexually attracted to others because they may provide better genes for new offspring or simply provide more offspring.  Also, if humans are naturally more of a polygamous primate, it would make sense that monogamy, even if the current societal convention, would be difficult to maintain. Thus, there are many possible reasons for why humans behave the way they do, and science has been continuing to enlighten us with these reasons as we gain more information from evolutionary biology and psychology (among other disciplines).

As for the religious claim that humans will always be immoral, a few things must be made clear. For one, morality is largely determined by society, and so what is considered moral in one society may be considered immoral in another. Despite the claim by some religious proponents that religions provide some kind of objective foundation for ethics and morals, we can see that different religions often proclaim different morals, thus it is clear that no such objectivity exists. Science and reason on the other hand do provide a nice resource for answering moral questions by showing us in detail the consequences of our actions (such that we can better determine how we ought to behave), by providing us with a clearer picture of how the world really is so that our moral goals aren’t based on false pretenses, and by providing us with increasingly better ways to achieve those moral goals.

As we continue to evolve as humans or into another species entirely, our innate feelings or instincts about what is moral or immoral will likely continue to change (as will our behavior) since anything that is innate has a biological basis. Most importantly, as we continue to consciously guide our own species’ evolution through genetic engineering, we will have the power to shape human nature into anything we desire. In other words, we aren’t necessarily trapped in a struggle for morality as many religions claim, for we are going to have greater and greater abilities to change our instinctual behavior such that we are naturally inclined to behave in any way that society desires. The key point here is that, as opposed to some religious views which assume that mankind is forever doomed to immoral behavior, science is providing a way out of this supposed predicament.

Final Thoughts

It’s not at all surprising to see certain religious groups highly opposed to science, for there are countless ways that science has been threatening to their world view. Even the fear of death which has likely attracted people to religions for the promise of eternal life is being addressed by science as advances in genetic engineering, medicine, and artificial intelligence work toward increasing life expectancy potentially to the theoretical upper limit (i.e. for as long as the universe is able to support life, given the Second Law of Thermodynamics, etc.).

One striking parallel between many religious claims and the actual efficacy of science is that science truly appears to be providing the ultimate salvation of our species (and whatever species we will become). However, it is being accomplished by taking the ever increasing knowledge acquired over time and addressing every problem we face within the human condition, one by one. While religion has played an important role in history, most notably, in the human quest for truth — it seems clear to me that history has indeed also shown us that the more we accept and use science to learn about the universe, the better chance we have to achieve our goals as our species continually evolves.

Neuroscience Arms Race & Our Changing World View

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At least since the time of Hippocrates, people began to realize that the brain was the physical correlate of consciousness and thought.  Since then, the fields of psychology, neuroscience, and several inter-related fields have emerged.  There have been numerous advancements made within the field of neuroscience during the last decade or so, and in that same time frame there has also been an increased interest in the social, religious, philosophical, and moral implications that have precipitated from such a far-reaching field.  Certainly the medical knowledge we’ve obtained from the neurosciences has been the primary benefit of such research efforts, as we’ve learned quite a bit more about how the brain works, how it is structured, and the ongoing neuropathology that has led to improvements in diagnosing and treating various mental illnesses.  However, it is the other side of neuroscience that I’d like to focus on in this post — the paradigm shift relating to how we are starting to see the world around us (including ourselves), and how this is affecting our goals as well as how to achieve them.

Paradigm Shift of Our World View

Aside from the medical knowledge we are obtaining from the neurosciences, we are also gaining new perspectives on what exactly the “mind” is.  We’ve come a long way in demonstrating that “mental” or “mind” states are correlated with physical brain states, and there is an ever growing plethora of evidence which suggests that these mind states are in fact caused by these brain states.  It should come as no surprise then that all of our thoughts and behaviors are also caused by these physical brain states.  It is because of this scientific realization that society is currently undergoing an important paradigm shift in terms of our world view.

If all of our thoughts and behaviors are mediated by our physical brain states, then many everyday concepts such as thinking, learning, personality, and decision making can take on entirely new meanings.  To illustrate this point, I’d like to briefly mention the well known “nature vs. nurture” debate.  The current consensus among scientists is that people (i.e. their thoughts and behavior) are ultimately products of both their genes and their environment.

Genes & Environment

From a neuroscientific perspective, the genetic component is accounted for by noting that genes have been shown to play a very large role in directing the initial brain wiring schema of an individual during embryological development and through gestation.  During this time, the brain is developing very basic instinctual behavioral “programs” which are physically constituted by vastly complex neural networks, and the body’s developing sensory organs and systems are also connected to particular groups of these neural networks.  These complex neural networks, which have presumably been naturally selected for in order to benefit the survival of the individual, continue being constructed after gestation and throughout the entire ontogenic evolution of the individual (albeit to lesser degrees over time).

As for the environmental component, this can be further split into two parts: the internal and the external environment.  The internal environment within the brain itself, including various chemical concentration gradients partly mediated by random Brownian motion, provides some gene expression constraints as well as some additional guidance to work with the genetic instructions to help guide neuronal growth, migration, and connectivity.  The external environment, consisting of various sensory stimuli, seems to modify this neural construction by providing a form of inputs which may cause the constituent neurons within these neural networks to change their signal strength, change their action potential threshold, and/or modify their connections with particular neurons (among other possible changes).

Causal Constraints

This combination of genetic instructions and environmental interaction and input produces a conscious, thinking, and behaving being through a large number of ongoing and highly complex hardware changes.  It isn’t difficult to imagine why these insights from neuroscience might modify our conventional views of concepts such as thinking, learning, personality, and decision making.  Prior to these developments over the last few decades, the brain was largely seen as a sort of “black box”, with its internal milieu and functional properties remaining mysterious and inaccessible.  From that time and prior to it, for millennia, many people have assumed that our thoughts and behaviors were self-caused or causa sui.  That is, people believed that they themselves (i.e. some causally free “consciousness”, or “soul”, etc.) caused their own thoughts and behavior as opposed to those thoughts and behaviors being ultimately caused by physical processes (e.g. neuronal activity, chemical reactions, etc.).

Neuroscience (as well as biochemistry and its underlying physics) has shed a lot of light on this long-held assumption and, as it stands, the evidence has shown this prior assumption to be false.  The brain is ultimately controlled by the laws of physics since every chemical reaction and neural event that physically produces our thoughts, choices, and behaviors, have never been shown to be causally free from these physically guiding constraints.  I will mention that quantum uncertainty or quantum “randomness” (if ontologically random) does provide some possible freedom from physical determinism.  However, these findings from quantum physics do not provide any support for self-caused thoughts or behaviors.  Rather, it merely shows that those physically constrained thoughts and behaviors may never be completely predictable by physical laws no matter how much data is obtained.  In other words, our thoughts and behaviors are produced by highly predictable (although not necessarily completely predictable) physical laws and constraints as well as some possible random causal factors.

As a result of these physical causal constraints, the conventional perspective of an individual having classical free will has been shattered.  Our traditional views of human attributes including morality, choices, ideology, and even individualism are continuing to change markedly.  Not surprisingly, there are many people uncomfortable with these scientific discoveries including members of various religious and ideological groups that are largely based upon and thus depend on the very presupposition of precepts such as classical free will and moral responsibility.  The evidence that is compiling from the neurosciences is in fact showing that while people are causally responsible for their thoughts, choices, and behavior (i.e. an individual’s thoughts and subsequent behavior are constituents of a causal chain of events), they are not morally responsible in the sense that they can choose to think or behave any differently than they do, for their thoughts and behavior are ultimately governed by physically constrained neural processes.

New World View

Now I’d like to return to what I mentioned earlier and consider how these insights from neuroscience may be drastically modifying how we look at concepts such as thinking, learning, personality, and decision making.  If our brain is operating via these neural network dynamics, then conscious thought appears to be produced by a particular subset of these neural network configurations and processes.  So as we continue to learn how to more directly control or alter these neural network arrangements and processes (above and beyond simply applying electrical potentials to certain neural regions in order to bring memories or other forms of imagery into consciousness, as we’ve done in the past), we should be able to control thought generation from a more “bottom-up” approach.  Neuroscience is definitely heading in this direction, although there is a lot of work to be done before we have any considerable knowledge of and control over such processes.

Likewise, learning seems to consist of a certain type of neural network modification (involving memory), leading to changes in causal pattern recognition (among other things) which results in our ability to more easily achieve our goals over time.  We’ve typically thought of learning as the successful input, retention, and recall of new information, and we have been achieving this “learning” process through the input of environmental stimuli via our sensory organs and systems.  In the future, it may be possible to once again, as with the aforementioned bottom-up thought generation, physically modify our neural networks to directly implant memories and causal pattern recognition information in order to “learn” without any actual sensory input, and/or we may be able to eventually “upload” information in a way that bypasses the typical sensory pathways thus potentially allowing us to catalyze the learning process in unprecedented ways.

If we are one day able to more directly control the neural configurations and processes that lead to specific thoughts as well as learned information, then there is no reason that we won’t be able to modify our personalities, our decision-making abilities and “algorithms”, etc.  In a nutshell, we may be able to modify any aspect of “who” we are in extraordinary ways (whether this is a “good” or “bad” thing is another issue entirely).  As we come to learn more about the genetic components of these neural processes, we may also be able to use various genetic engineering techniques to assist with the necessary neural modifications required to achieve these goals.  The bottom line here is that people are products of their genes and environment, and by manipulating both of those causal constraints in more direct ways (e.g. through the use of neuroscientific techniques), we may be able to achieve previously unattainable abilities and perhaps in a relatively miniscule amount of time.  It goes without saying that these methods will also significantly affect our evolutionary course as a species, allowing us to enter new landscapes through our substantially enhanced ability to adapt.  This may be realized through these methods by finding ways to improve our intelligence, memory, or other cognitive faculties, effectively giving us the ability to engineer or re-engineer our brains as desired.

Neuroscience Arms Race

We can see that increasing our knowledge and capabilities within the neurosciences has the potential for drastic societal changes, some of which are already starting to be realized.  The impact that these fields will have on how we approach the problem of criminal, violent, or otherwise undesirable behavior can not be overstated.  Trying to correct these issues by focusing our efforts on the neural or cognitive substrate that underlie them, as opposed to using less direct and more external means (e.g. social engineering methods) that we’ve been using thus far, may lead to much less expensive solutions as well as solutions that may be realized much, much more quickly.

As with any scientific discovery or subsequent technology produced from it, neuroscience has the power to bestow on us both benefits as well as disadvantages.  I’m reminded of the ground-breaking efforts made within nuclear physics several decades ago, whereby physicists not only gained precious information about subatomic particles (and their binding energies) but also how to release these enormous amounts of energy from nuclear fusion and fission reactions.  It wasn’t long after these breakthrough discoveries were made before they were used by others to create the first atomic bombs.  Likewise, while our increasing knowledge within neuroscience has the power to help society improve by optimizing our brain function and behavior, it can also be used by various entities to manipulate the populace for unethical reasons.

For example, despite the large number of free market proponents who claim that the economy need not be regulated by anything other than rational consumers and their choices of goods and services, corporations have clearly increased their use of marketing strategies that take advantage of many humans’ irrational tendencies (whether it is “buy one get one free” offers, “sales” on items that have artificially raised prices, etc.).  Politicians and other leaders have been using similar tactics by taking advantage of voters’ emotional vulnerabilities on certain controversial issues that serve as nothing more than an ideological distraction in order to reduce or eliminate any awareness or rational analysis of the more pressing issues.

There are already research and development efforts being made by these various entities in order to take advantage of these findings within neuroscience such that they can have greater influence over people’s decisions (whether it relates to consumers’ purchases, votes, etc.).  To give an example of some of these R&D efforts, it is believed that MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) or fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) brain scans may eventually be able to show useful details about a person’s personality or their innate or conditioned tendencies (including compulsive or addictive tendencies, preferences for certain foods or behaviors, etc.).  This kind of capability (if realized) would allow marketers to maximize how many dollars they can squeeze out of each consumer by optimizing their choices of goods and services and how they are advertised. We have already seen how purchases made on the internet, if tracked, begin to personalize the advertisements that we see during our online experience (e.g. if you buy fishing gear online, you may subsequently notice more advertisements and pop-ups for fishing related goods and services).  If possible, the information found using these types of “brain probing” methods could be applied to other areas, including that of political decision making.

While these methods derived from the neurosciences may be beneficial in some cases, for instance, by allowing the consumer more automated access to products that they may need or want (which will likely be a selling point used by these corporations for obtaining consumer approval of such methods), it will also exacerbate unsustainable consumption and other personal or societally destructive tendencies and it is likely to continue to reduce (or eliminate) whatever rational decision making capabilities we still have left.

Final Thoughts

As we can see, neuroscience has the potential to (and is already starting to) completely change the way we look at the world.  Further advancements in these fields will likely redefine many of our goals as well as how to achieve them.  It may also allow us to solve many problems that we face as a species, far beyond simply curing mental illnesses or ailments.  The main question that comes to mind is:  Who will win the neuroscience arms race?  Will it be those humanitarians, scientists, and medical professionals that are striving to accumulate knowledge in order to help solve the problems of individuals and societies as well as to increase their quality of life?  Or will it be the entities that are trying to accumulate similar knowledge in order to take advantage of human weaknesses for the purposes of gaining wealth and power, thus exacerbating the problems we currently face?

Religion: Psychology, Evolution, and Socio-political Aspects

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Religion is such a strong driving force in most (if not all) cultures as it significantly affects how people behave and how they look at the world around them.  It’s interesting to see that so many religions share certain common elements, and it seems likely that these common elements arose from several factors including some psychological similarities between human beings.  Much like Carl Jung’s idea of a “collective unconscious”, humans likely share certain psychological tendencies and this would help to explain the religious commonalities that have precipitated over time.  It seems plausible that some evolutionary mechanisms, including natural selection and also the “evolution” of certain social/political structures, also played a role in establishing some of these religious commonalities.  I’d like to discuss some of my thoughts on certain religious beliefs including what I believe to be some important psychological, social, political, and evolutionary factors that have likely influenced the formation, acceptance, and ultimate success of religion as well as some common religious beliefs.

Fear of Death

The fear of death is probably one of the largest forces driving many religious beliefs.  This fear of death seems to exist for several reasons.  For one, the fear of death may be (at least partly) an evolutionary by-product of our biological imperative to survive.  We already perform involuntary physical actions instinctually in order to survive (e.g. fight-or-flight response, etc.).  Having an emotional element (such as fear) combined with our human intellect and self-awareness, can drive us to survive in less autonomous ways thus providing an even greater evolutionary advantage for natural selection.  For example, many people have been driven to circumvent death through scientific advancements.  Another factor to consider is that the fear of death may largely be a fear of the unknown or unfamiliar (related to the fear of change).  It shouldn’t be surprising then that a religion offering ways to appease this fear would become successful.

Could it be that our biological imperative to survive, coupled with the logical realization that we are mortal, have catalyzed a religious means for some form of cognitive dissonance reduction?  Humans that are in denial about (or are at least uncomfortable with) their inevitable death will likely be drawn towards religious beliefs that circumvent this inevitability with some form of spiritual eternal life or immortality.  Not only can this provide a means of circumventing mortality (perhaps by transcending the biological imperative with a spiritual version), but it can also reduce or eliminate the unknown aspects that contribute to the fear of death depending on the after-death specifics outlined by the religion.

A strange irony exists regarding what I call “spiritual imperatives” and I think it is worth mentioning.  If a religion professes that one’s ultimate goal should be preparation for the after-life (or some apocalyptic scenario), then adherents to such a doctrine may end up sacrificing their biological imperative (or make it a lower priority) in favor of some spiritual imperative.  That is, they may start to care less about their physical survival or quality of life in the interest of attaining what they believe to be spiritual survival.  In doing so, they may be sacrificing or de-prioritizing the very biological imperative that likely catalyzed the formation of their spiritual imperative in the first place.  So as strange as it may be, the fear of death may lead to some religious doctrines that actually hasten one’s inevitable death.

Morality, Justice, and Manipulation

Morality seems to be deeply ingrained in our very nature, and as a result we can see a universal implementation of moral structures in human societies.  It seems likely that this deeply ingrained sense of morality, much like many other innate traits shared by the human race, is a result of natural selection in the ongoing evolution of our species.  Our sense of morality has driven many beneficial behaviors (though not always) that tend to increase the survival of the individual.  For example, the golden rule (a principle that may even serve as a sort of universal moral creed) serves to benefit every individual by encouraging cooperation and altruism at the expense of selfish motives.  Just as some individual cells eventually evolved to become cooperative multi-cellular organisms (in order to gain mutual benefits in a “non-zero sum” game), so have other species (including human beings) evolved to cooperate with one another to increase mutual benefits including that of survival (John Maynard Smith and other biologists have shared this view of how evolution can lead to greater degrees of cooperation).  A sense of morality helps to reinforce this cooperation.  Evolution aside, establishing some kind of moral framework will naturally help to maximize what is deemed to be desirable behavior.  Religion has been an extremely effective means of accomplishing this goal.  First of all, religions tend to define morality in very specific ways.  Religion has also utilized fairly effective incentives and motivations for the masses to behave in ways desired by the society (or by its leaders).

Many religions profess a form of moral absolutism, where moral values are seen as objective, unquestionable, and often ordained by the authority of a god.  This makes a religion very attractive and effective by simplifying the moral structure of the society and backing it up with the authority of a deity.  If the rules are believed to be given by the authority of a deity, then there will be few (if any) people willing to question them and as a result there will be a much greater level of obedience.  The alternative, moral relativism, is more difficult to apply to a society’s dynamic as the behavioral goals in a morally relativistic society may not be very stable nor well-defined, even if moral relativism carries with it the benefits of religious or philosophical tolerance as well as open-mindedness.  Thus, moral absolutism is more likely to lead to productive societies, which may help to explain why moral absolutism has been such a successful religious meme (as well as the fact that morality in general seems to be a universal part of human nature).

Though I’m a moral realist in a strict sense since I believe that there are objective moral facts that exist, I’d also like to stipulate that I’m also a moral relativist, in the sense that I believe that any objective moral facts that exist are dependent on a person’s biology, psychology, and how those effect one’s ultimate goals for a satisfying and fulfilling life.  Since these factors may have some variance across a species and for sure a variance across different species, then morals are ultimately relative to those variances (if any exist).

In any case, I can appreciate why most people are drawn away from relativism (in any form).  It is difficult for most people to think about reality as consisting of elements that aren’t simply black-and-white.  After all, we are used to categorizing the world around us — fracturing it into finite, manageable, and well-defined parts that we can deal with and understand.  We often forget that we are subjectively experiencing the world around us, and that our individual frames of reference and perspectives can be quite different from person to person.  Relativism just isn’t very compatible with the common human illusion of seeing the world objectively, whether it is how we look at the physical world, language, our moral values, etc.

As for moral incentives, religions often imply that there will be some type of reward for the adherent and/or some type of punishment for the deviants.  Naturally anybody introduced to the religion (i.e. potential converts) will weigh the potential risks and benefits, with some people implementing Pascal’s wager and the like, likely leading to a larger number of followers over time.  You will also have established religious members that adhere to the specific rules within the religion based on the same moral incentives.  That is, the moral incentives put into place (i.e. punishment-reward system) can serve the purposes of obtaining religious members in the first place, and also to ensure that the religious members maintain a high level of obedience within the religion.  Of these converts and well-established followers, there will likely be a mixture of those that are primarily motivated by the fear of punishment and those primarily motivated by the desire for a reward.  Psychoanalysis aside, it wouldn’t be surprising if by briefly examining one’s behavior and personality, that one could ascertain an individual’s primary religious motivations (for their conversion and/or subsequent religious obedience).  It is likely however that most people would fail to see these motivations at work as they would prefer to think of their religious affiliations as a result of some revelation of truth.

The divine authorization and punishment-reward system within many religions can also provide a benefit to those that desire power and the manipulation of the populace.  If those in power desire an effective way to control the populace, they can create a religious structure with rules, morals, goals (including wars and conquests), etc., that benefit their agenda and then convince others that they are divinely authorized.  As long as the populace is convinced that the rules, morals, and goals are of a divine source, they will be more likely to comply with them.  Clearly this effect will be further amplified if a divine punishment-reward system is believed to exist.

One last point I’d like to make regarding morality involves the desire for divine justice.  People no doubt take comfort in the thought of everything being fair and orderly (from their perspective) in the long run, regardless of whether or not any unfairness presents itself during their lifetime.  It is much less comforting to accept that some people will do whatever they want and may die without ever receiving what one believes to be a just consequence, and/or that one has sacrificed many enjoyable human experiences in the interest of maintaining their religious requirements with potentially no long-term (i.e. after-death) return for their efforts.  The idea of an absolute justice being implemented after death definitely helps reinforce religious obedience in a world that has imperfect and subjective views (as well as implementations) of justice.

Desire for Free Will

Another common religious meme (related to the aforementioned moral frameworks) is the belief in classical free will.  If people practicing a particular religion are taught that they will be rewarded or punished for their actions, then it is logical for them to assume that they have free will over their actions — otherwise their moral responsibility would be non-existent and any divinely bestowed consequences incurred would be unjustified, meaningless, and futile.  So, in these types of religions, it is assumed that people should be able to make free choices that are not influenced or constrained by factors such as: genetics, any behavioral conditioning environment, any deterministic causal chain, or any random course of events for that matter.  That is, everyone’s behavior should be causa sui.  This way, it is the individual that is directly responsible for their behavior and ultimate fate rather than any factors outside of the individual’s control.

While the sciences have shown a plethora of evidence negating the existence of classical free will, many people continue to believe that free will exists.  It seems that people are naturally driven to believe that they have free will for a few reasons.  For one, the belief in free will is consistent with the illusion of free will that we consciously experience.  We do not feel that there is something or someone else in control of our fate (due to the principles of priority, consistency, and exclusivity as explained in Wagner’s Theory of Apparent Mental Causation), and so we have no immediate reason to believe that free will doesn’t exist.  It certainly feels like we have free will, even though the mechanistic physical laws of nature (whether deterministic or indeterministic) imply that we do not.  Second, from a deeper psychological perspective, if one believes in moral responsibility, has feelings of pride or shame for their actions, etc., the belief in free will is naturally reinforced.  People want to believe that they are in control because it better justifies the aforementioned punishment-reward system of both society and many religions.

Now granted, if all people agreed that free will was non-existent (most people assume we have free will), society’s system of legislation or law enforcement wouldn’t likely change much if at all.  Criminals being punished or detained for the protection of the majority of society would likely be a continued practice because pragmatically speaking, law enforcement has proven itself to be effective for providing safety, providing crime deterrence and so forth.  However, if people universally accepted that free will was non-existent, it would likely change how they view the punishment-reward system of society and religion.  People would probably focus more on the underlying genetic causes and conditioning environment that led to undesirable behavior rather than falsely looking at the individual as inherently bad or as someone who made poor choices that could have been made differently.

If someone feels that they have a lot to gain from a particular religion (or has invested so much of themselves into the religion already), and free will is a philosophical requirement for that particular religion, then they will likely find a way to rationalize the existence of free will (or rationalize any other religious assumption), despite the strong evidence against it (or lack of evidence in support of it).  There are even a few religions that simultaneously profess the existence of free will as well as the existence of an omniscient god that has complete knowledge of the future — despite the logical incompatibility of these two propositions.  Clearly, the desire for free will (whether conscious and/or unconscious) is stronger than most people realize.

Also, it seems that there is a general human desire for one’s life to have meaning and purpose, and perhaps some people feel that having free will over their actions is the only way to give their life meaning and purpose, as opposed to their life’s course being pre-determined or random.

Anthropocentrism & Purpose

Since religions are a product of human beings, it is not surprising to see that many of them have some anthropocentric purpose or element.  There seems to be a tendency for humans to assume that they are more important than anything else on this planet (or anything else in the universe for that matter).  This assumption may be fueled by the fact that human intelligence has brought us to the top of the food chain and has allowed us to manipulate our environment in ways that seem relatively extraordinary.  Humans certainly recognize this status and some may see it as necessarily divinely ordained or at least special in some way.  This helps to answer the age-old philosophical question: What is the meaning of life and/or why are we here?

By raising the value of human life over all other animals, religion can serve to separate humans from the rest of the animal kingdom, and thus separate humans from any animalistic traits that we dislike about ourselves.  Anthropocentric views have also been used to endorse otherwise questionable behavior that humans may choose to employ on the rest of the nature around them.  On the flip side, anthropocentrism can in fact lead to a humanistic drive or feeling of human responsibility to make the world a better place for many different creatures.  It seems however that the most powerful religions have often endorsed a human domination of the world and environment around them.  This selfish drive is more in-line with the rest of the animal kingdom as every animal fights to survive, flourish, and ultimately do what they believe best serves their interests.  Either way, elevating human importance can provide many with a sense of purpose regardless of what they think that purpose is.  This sense of purpose can be important, especially for those that recognize how short our human history has been relative to the history of all life on Earth, and also how relatively insignificant our planet is in such an unfathomably large universe.  Giving humans a special purpose can also help those that are uncomfortable with the idea of living in such a mechanistic world.

Desire for Protection

Certainly people are going to feel more secure if they believe that there is someone or something that is always protecting them.  Whether or not we have people in our lives that protect us in one way or another, nothing can compare to a divine protector.  It is certainly possible that this desire for protection is an artifact of the maternal-child dynamic from one’s earliest years of life, thus driving us to seek out similar comforts and securities.  Generally speaking however, the desire for protection is yet another facet of the biological imperative to survive.  Either way, the desire for some form of protection has likely played a role in religious constructs.

If religious members fail to receive any obvious protection or safety in specific cases (i.e. if they are harmed in some way), it is often the case that many find a way to reconcile this actuality by coincidentally believing that whatever happens is ultimately governed by some god’s will or plan.  This way the comforts of believing in a protective, benevolent, or loving god are not jeopardized in any circumstance.  This is a good example of cognitive dissonance reduction being accomplished through theological rationalization.  That is, people may need a special combination of beliefs (which may evolve over time) in order to reconcile their religious and theological presuppositions with one another or with reality.

Group Dynamics

Another form of protection (and an evident form at that) offered by religious membership is that which results from group formation and dynamics.  Specifically, I am referring to the benefits of both protection and memetic reinforcement by the rest of the group.  From an evolutionary perspective, we can see that an individual will tend to have a greater survival advantage if they are a member of a cooperative group (as I mentioned previously in the section titled: “Morality, Justice, and Manipulation”).  For this reason and many others, people will often try to join or form groups.  There is always greater power in large numbers, and so even if certain religious claims or elements are difficult to accept, many people will instinctually flock toward the group and its example because it is safer than being alone and more vulnerable.  After joining a group (or perhaps in order to join the group) many may even find themselves behaving in ways that violate their own previously self-ascribed values.  Group dynamics and tendencies can be quite powerful indeed.

After a religion becomes well established and gains enough mass and momentum, people increasingly gravitate toward its power and influence even if that requires them to significantly modify their behavior.  In fact, if the religion gains enough influence and power over a culture or society, there may be little (if any) freedom to refrain from practicing the religion anyway, so even if people aren’t drawn to a popular religion, they may be forced into it.

So as we can see, group dynamics have likely influenced religion in multiple ways.  The memetic reinforcement that groups provide has promoted the success and perpetuation of particular religious memes (regardless of what those particular memes are).  There also seems to be a critical mass component, whereby after a religion gains enough mass and momentum, it is significantly more difficult for it to subside over time.  Thus, many religions that have become successful have done so by simply reaching some critical mass.

God of the gaps

Another reason that many religions or religious memes have been successful has been due to a lack of knowledge about nature.  That is, at some point in the past there arose a “god of the gaps” mentality whereby unsatisfactory, insufficient, or non-existent naturalistic explanations led to deistic or theistic presuppositions.  We’ve seen that for a large period in history, polytheism was quite popular as people were ascribing multiple gods to explain a multitude of phenomena.  Eventually some monotheistic religions precipitated but they merely replaced the multiple “gods of the gaps” with one single “God of the gaps”.  This consolidation of gods may have resulted (at least in part) from an application of Occam’s razor as well as to differentiate new religions and their respective doctrines from their polytheistic predecessors.  As science and empiricism continued to develop further in the wake of these religious world views, the phenomena previously ascribed to a god (or to many gods) became increasingly explainable by predictable, mechanistic, natural laws.  By applying Occam’s razor one last time, science and empiricism has effectively been eliminating the final “God of the gaps”.

The psychological, social, and political benefits given by various religious constructs (including but not limited to those I’ve mentioned within this post) had likely already set a precedent and established a level of momentum that would continue to impede the acceptance of scientific explanations — even up to this day.  This may help to explain the prevalence of supernatural or miraculous religious beliefs despite their incompatibility with science and empiricism.  Once the most powerful religions gained traction, rather than abandoning beliefs of the supernatural in the wake of scientific progress, it was science that was initially censored and hindered.  Eventually, science and religion began to co-exist more easily, but in order for them to be at all reconciled with one another, many religious interpretations or explanations were modified accordingly (or the religious followers continued to ignore science).  Belief can be extremely powerful — so powerful in fact that even if a proposition isn’t actually true, if a person believes it to be true strongly enough, it can become a reality for that person.  In some of these cases, it doesn’t matter if there is an overwhelming amount of evidence to refute the belief, for that evidence will be ignored if it does not corroborate the believer’s artificial reality.

Another “God of the gaps” example that still perpetuates many religious beliefs is the mis-attributed power of prayer.  Prayer is actually effective for healing or helping to heal some ailments (for example), but science has shown (and is continuing to show) how this is nothing more than a placebo effect.  To give just one example, several studies on heart patients demonstrated that prayer was only effective on their recovery when the patients knew that they were being prayed for.  This further illustrates how the “God of the gaps” argument has never been very strong, and is only shrinking with every new discovery made in science.  Nevertheless, even as evidence accumulates that shows how a religious person’s notions are incorrect, there are psychological barriers in the brain that keep one from accepting that new information.  In the case of prayer just mentioned, a person who believes in prayer will have a confirmation bias in their brain that serves to remember when prayers are “answered” and forget about prayers that are not (regardless of what is being prayed for).

In other cases, if one chooses to actually consider any refutative evidence, it can become extremely difficult if not impossible for one to reconcile certain religious beliefs with reality.  However, if it is psychologically easier for a person to modify their religious beliefs (even in some radical way) rather than abandoning their religion altogether, they will likely do so.  It is clear how powerful these religious driving factors are when we see people either blatantly ignoring reason and the senses and/or adjusting their religion or theology in order to reconcile their beliefs with reality such that they can maintain the comfort and security of their deeply invested religious convictions.

It should be noted that the “god(s) of the gaps” mentality that many people share may result when the human mind asks certain questions for which it doesn’t have the cognitive machinery to answer, regardless of any scientific progress made.  If they are answerable questions (in theory), it may take a substantial amount of cognitive evolution in order to have the capability to answer them (or in order to see certain questions as being completely irrational and thus eliminate them from any further inquiry).  Even if this epistemologically-enhancing level of cognitive evolution did take place, we may very well be defined as a new species anyway, and thus technically speaking, homo sapiens could forever remain unable to access this knowledge regardless.  It would then follow that the “god(s) of the gaps” mentality (and any of its byproducts) may forever be a part of “human” nature.  Time will tell.

Final Thoughts

It appears that there have been several evolutionary, psychological, social, and political factors that have likely influenced the formation, acceptance, and ultimate success of many religious constructs.  It seems that the largest factors influencing religious constructs (and thus the commonalities seen between many religions) have been the psychological comforts that religion has provided, the human cognitive limitations leading to supernatural explanations, as well as some naturally-selected survival advantages that have ensued.  The desire for these psychological comforts (likely unconscious although not necessarily) seems to catalyze the manifestation of extremely strong beliefs, and not only has this affected the interplay between science (or empiricism) and religion, but these desires have also made it easier for religion to be used for manipulative purposes (among other reasons).  Furthermore, cognitive biases in the human brain often serve to maintain one’s beliefs, despite contradictory evidence against them.  Perhaps it is not too surprising to see such a complex interplay of variables behind religion, and also so many commonalities, as religion has been an extremely significant facet of the human condition.