Mankind’s Two Greatest Illusions

As the novelist and philosopher Harvey Fergusson once wrote, most people don’t think, they believe. It must be true, given the irrational things so many of us are convinced of. Of these, the two most familiar and universal are belief in God (or gods) and belief in the existence of a moral law, or good and evil, regardless of anyone’s opinion about them. We may not be as bright as many of us imagine we are as a species, but the stubborn belief in these two great illusions would still be difficult to fathom, absent mental traits that strongly incline us to accept them.

Mental traits, like most of our other characteristics that can significantly impact the probability that we will survive long enough to pass on our genes, exist by virtue of natural selection. It is most unlikely that such a natural process directly programmed us to believe in a spirit world or gods. However, since we are social animals, we may be inclined to defer to and adulate the leader of our group. Combine that with a natural fear of death and speculation about an afterlife as a possible way to avoid it, and the tendency to believe in spiritual supreme leaders seems natural enough. Since we find the alternative unpalatable, we simply accept that belief. It becomes a matter of faith.

Unfortunately, if we actually think about what belief in any of the familiar versions of God actually implies, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that we have put our faith in a fairy tale. If such a God actually exists, there must be a far greater gulf between him and us than between us and an amoeba. In spite of that, God is supposed to experience human-like emotions towards each one of these sub-amoebas. There are eight billion of them, give or take, and we imagine he takes a personal interest in every one of them, but particularly in ourselves. The sheer computational power of such an entity would necessarily be immense. Such beliefs also beg the question of why this entity would have any emotions at all. He is supposed to love, feel compassion, be wrathful, become angry, etc. We can explain the existence of these emotions in human beings because of their selective advantage and trace the locations where they actually originate in our brains. What possible use they could be to an incredibly intelligent and powerful supreme being is never explained.

This God is supposed to monitor the behavior of each one of the eight billion of us, not to mention those who have come before, and then punish or reward us in the afterlife based on that behavior. Since he created us, and is all-knowing, he must have been perfectly well aware of how each one of us would behave, and what paltry “sins” we would commit during our brief lifespans. In spite of this, he sees fit to subject some of the amoebae to appalling tortures for these predetermined and unavoidable “sins,” not just for a day, or a week, but for all eternity. Any human being who would even think of such a thing would rightly be deemed the vilest of tyrants. In spite of this, we fawn on this God, and describe him as compassionate! Is it possible to imagine anything more absurd? If a God does exist, then we must hope that he will find something less boring to occupy his time than concerning himself so intimately with the fates of his eight billion pet amoebae. It’s shameful that human beings believe in such grotesque fairy tales.

The other great illusion is, of course, one I’ve addressed many times before on this blog. It is the belief that a moral law exists “out there,” independently of anyone’s mere opinion about it. We are so inclined by our mental architecture to believe that some things are “really good,” and others are “really evil,” that even the few of us who understand the evolutionary origins of these beliefs are apparently helpless to avoid behaving as if they were true regardless. We find the very same scientists and philosophers among us who claim they accept the origins and subjective nature of morality turning around and in the very next breath condemning some individual as morally evil, and another as morally good, without the slightest qualification or allusion to the subjective nature of their judgment, as if it were really true. They act for all the world as if this absurd non sequitur required no explanation at all.

All this is certainly understandable in creatures as powerfully inclined to believe that whatever idiosyncratic moral rules we happen to believe in are true in themselves, but it would probably be helpful to us all to peek beyond the curtain occasionally. Morality exists because the mental traits responsible for its existence evolved. Absent the process of natural selection that gave rise to it, morality as we know it would not exist. That fact does not imply any “ought” whatsoever. It is simply a natural truth. It does not imply that all things “ought” to be permissible, or that all things “ought not” to be permissible. It does not in any way prevent human beings from constructing moral systems in harmony with their moral nature, including formulation of “absolute” moral rules with punishment for infraction of those rules.  It does imply that creatures of such limited intelligence as ourselves can’t get by without moral rules, and it would therefore behoove us to understand the truth about morality and come up with rational ways to construct our moral systems.

One would think that initiatives in this direction would naturally suggest themselves to our troupe of professional philosophers, but anyone who believes that is grasping at a very slim straw. For reasons I’ve discussed elsewhere, philosophers are just as inclined to insist on the existence of an objective moral law as the Pope is to insist on the existence of God. I ran across an interesting artifact of this reality recently in the philosophical journal NousThe article in question, The limits of rational belief revision: A dilemma for the Darwinian debunker, by Katia Vavova, actually appeared in the September, 1921 issue, but I just got around to reading it. The title seems promising enough and seems to suggest that the author has at least some inkling of the implications of what Darwin wrote about morality. Unfortunately, it turns out that is not the case.

According to Vavova,

The crux is this: in evaluating the debunker’s challenge, either we are allowed to make moral assumptions, or we are not. If we are, then we can answer the challenge: if we are not, then the challenge doesn’t arise.

In a nutshell, Vavova claims that there are two possibilities; either we can make moral assumptions, or we cannot.  If we are allowed to make moral assumptions, and Darwinian tendencies incline us away from these “true” assumptions, then all we have to do is nudge them back so they align properly with them. If on the other hand, we can make no such assumptions, she claims,

If morality could be about anything, then we have no idea what morality is about. And if we have no idea what morality is about, then we cannot get good reason to think we are mistaken about morality.

As a result,

Debunkers and opponents are at an impasse: they cannot agree on the rules of the game. I have argued that whatever these rules, the evolutionary debunker’s attempt to undermine our moral beliefs fails. It fails either because we have hope of self-correction, or because we get no evidence of error.

Here we can apply the familiar facepalm slap meme. The unspoken assumption is that the philosopher’s Holy Grail of true morality is out there. The evolutionary debunkers are merely an irrelevant distraction in our quest for this Holy Grail. No, I’m sorry Ms. Vavova, but you’ve completely missed the point. The point of what Darwin said about morality isn’t that we need to alter our strategy in our quest for the Holy Grail. The point was that there is no Holy Grail to be found.

If you read the stuff in the contemporary journals of ethics and philosophy, you’ll find that, with few exceptions, Ms. Vavova’s assumption is universal. Today’s philosophers are playing a game of splitting hairs in ways that are ever more incomprehensible to anyone else in a futile game of pretending to guide us towards “true morality.” There is seldom if ever any attempt to explain what it is that lends this hair splitting even a semblance of legitimacy or authority.

In short, there is no God or related spirits of any kind, and there is also no such thing as “true morality.” These are our two greatest illusions. No one or thing is out there to assign purpose or meaning to your life. To the extent that it has either, you must assign them yourself. As for the “moral landscape,” it is characterized today by utter nihilism and chaos thanks to our bitter refusal to even attempt to understand ourselves. I rather doubt that any great leader or revolution will guide us out of the chaos. They will only succeed in substituting one chaos for another. It seems we are thrown back on our own resources as individuals in deciding how to live our lives. I can only hope, dear reader, that you make a happy choice.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

3 thoughts on “Mankind’s Two Greatest Illusions”

  1. Someone I’m subscribed to on youtube has made a video attempting to solve the putative is/ought dilemma:

    I will also repeat some things I have said previously, which I don’t think you ever addressed. I strongly object to the way postmodernism has weaponized the empiricism of the Enlightenment to undermine intangible, metaphysical truths that cannot be readily detected and verified by the instruments of science. I believe Hume inadvertently sowed the seeds for postmodernism with his is/ought dilemma, which is the putative distinction between facts and values. As a discipline, science is regarded as synonymous with empiricism, but it is easy to forget that reason is fundamental to science. A metaphysical process of evaluation, reason is just as integral as biology, an empirical reality, to the formation of our values. Reason varies vertically, not horizontally as postmodernism teaches, and one must be of a rational disposition in order to appreciate the value of empirical evidence. In this sense, reason is the foundational axiom of science. It is the union of reason and empiricism, of subjectivity and objectivity, of the material and the metaphysical, which creates the scientific method. The Enlightenment was the recognition and acceptance of this, and if it weren’t for Hume’s contention, it is unlikely that we would today be locked in our perpetual struggle with the postmodern hydra. Science is not incompatible with *rationally derived* value judgements. We all have our biases and fallibilities, and we must control for them as best we can, but are some biases not sensible ones to have, either in the evolutionary context or in a more abstract context? I would certainly say so.

    In the absence of any other intelligent form of life, human consciousness assumes a central place in the universe. The trouble is that human consciousness is not monolithic. While there is a degree of homogeneity, a mainframe to which all minds seem to be connected, there is also radical variation due to differing evolutionary pressures selecting for different traits. This brings us to the problem of subjectivity, where the postmodernist menace rears its ugly head. There is nothing so exasperating, so insufferable, as the incessant kvetching about subjectivity which occurs with the tedious inevitability of a bowel movement whenever we debate anything. I should give credit to Sam Harris, who has been a vocal critic of Hume’s maxim and appears to have about as much patience for the subjectivity gambit as I do – exceedingly little. Despite my annoyance with his tepid liberal views on many other topics, Harris makes a crucial distinction between anthropocentric facts (contingent truths) and non-anthropocentric facts (necessary truths). An anthropocentric fact would be something like “Jack’s favourite colour is blue” or “people have an innate sense of justice and don’t like to be treated unfairly”, and as such they have a degree of malleability. A necessary truth would be something that isn’t predicated upon the existence of the human mind, like mathematics or the chemical composition of water. I am indebted to Harris for his invaluable contribution, but to the extent that the fact/value distinction may still pose a genuine problem for the justification of truth claims, one must appreciate that the incongruity between the material and the immaterial is a consequence of our universe’s most lamentable deficit: its lack of anthropocentricity. Reason is the best tool we have for justifying anything, but everything falls victim to epistemic regress eventually, as we know from Munchausen’s trilemma. At that point, it is our *will* which becomes the arbiter of all things.

    I can’t help but notice you’ve made a few moral indictments in this piece. I don’t have a problem with that, of course, but you should admonish yourself, given your subjectivist stance.

  2. I really don’t understand your obsession with postmodernism, and why you imagine it has anything to do with this blog. Look, you don’t believe in unicorns, do you? I certainly don’t! That’s all I mean when I say unicorns are “subjective.” The same thing applies to morality. When I say it is subjective, all I am saying is that it has no independent existence outside of human minds. It certainly happens that because of natural selection, humans are much more inclined to believe in the reality of morality than in the reality of unicorns, but that’s entirely beside the point. It seems to me that this concept of things being imaginary or not is extremely simple and has not the slightest connection with “postmodernism.” Unless you show some indication of grasping this simple concept, I really see no point in your continuing to leave comments on my blog.

  3. I’ve never claimed that morality exists as an empirical entity. I don’t think anyone ever has. It is perfectly clear, though, that some values are more sensible than others. This cannot be proven empirically, any more than complimentary colours are a provable phenomenon, but it is still true. Demanding empirical proof for metaphysical truths is what postmodernists do, precisely because they know no such proof can ever be obtained. You have fallen prey to a certain kind of biological relativism, the notion that one set of evolved preferences cannot be more rational, and therefore better, than another. While it is different from the metaphysical relativism of the postmodernists, it ends up fulfilling the same function. It renders us helpless in the face of all manner of godawful shit, from the modernist architecture that has wrecked our cities to the egalitarian ideology that is tearing our society to pieces.

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