Sam Harris and his Butterfly Net: An Account of the Capture of the “Real, Objective” Good

The human brain is a wonderful survival mechanism. It endows our species with unrivaled powers of reasoning, allowing us to discern truths about subatomic particles and distant planets that our unaided senses can’t even detect. It has also supplied us with self-constructed, subjective “truths” about things that exist only in our own minds, endowing them with a legitimacy and reality of their own. Morality is such a thing. It does not and cannot have an independent existence of its own, but believing that it does has promoted our survival. Therefore, we believe. Our brains are wired to perceive good and evil as real things, and so we do. In spite of our vaunted logical powers, some of the greatest thinkers among us cannot rid themselves of the illusion. At some level they have grasped the truth that everything about us, including our minds, emotions, and predispositions, have evolved because they have promoted our survival. On the other hand, they truly believe that one such evolved trait, morality, which we happen to share with many other animals, somehow corresponds to a real thing that has an independent reality of its own. Logically, they cannot justify their belief that good and evil are real, objective things, but, still, they believe it. Nature insists.

The “Big Three” among the “new atheists,” Richard Dawkins, Chris Hitchens, and Sam Harris, provide interesting examples of the phenomena. None of them would be any more capable of providing a logical basis for their belief that there is a real, objective good and a real, objective evil, and that they know the real objective difference between the two anymore than Euthyphro could demonstrate the same to Socrates. Nonetheless, all three of them are convinced that that which their brains are wired to perceive as real must actually be real. They all believe in the objective existence of good and evil, and they all believe that their own moral standards apply not only to themselves, but to others as well. Read their books and you will find all of them laced with the moral judgments that are the artifacts of this belief.

I have pointed out in earlier posts the logical absurdity of the belief that morality, an evolved emotional trait, not only of humans but of other animals as well, somehow has an existence of its own, independent of the minds that host it. Let us consider how one of the “Big Three,” Sam Harris, has nevertheless managed to convince himself that what he perceives as real must actually be real. Harris is a neuroscience researcher. He set forth his thoughts on the subject in an essay entitled, “Brain Science and Human Values,” that recently appeared at the website of the Edge Foundation. After a discussion of the process of discovering scientific truth, Harris asks,

“But what about meaning and morality? Here we appear to move from questions of truth—which have long been in the domain of science if they are to be found anywhere—to questions of goodness. How should we live? Is it wrong to lie? If so, why and in what sense? Which personal habits, uses of attention, modes of discourse, social institutions, economic systems, governments, etc. are most conducive to human well-being? It is widely imagined that science cannot even pose, much less answer, questions of this sort.”

Here, Harris has begun the process of self-obfuscation. Let us set aside the issue of what he actually means by “conducive to human well-being” for the time being and focus on the question of morality. There is no more a logical reason to consider that which is “conducive to human well-being” objectively good than there is a logical reason to consider it objectively good to follow Pythagoras’ admonition to avoid the eating of beans. However, making the logical leap from fact to fiction is no problem for most of us. We “feel” that “human well-being” is a legitimate good. We might even feel the emotion of shame in denying it. If someone demanded that we defend the assertion that “human well-being” is not objectively good, we would likely feel some embarrassment. It is mentally easy for us to associate “human well-being” with “objective good” in this way. It is also illogical.

Instead of simply claiming that good and evil exist because he feels they must exist, all Harris is doing is adding an intermediate step. He points to a “self-evident” good and props it up as a “gold standard,” as “real good.” In essence, this “gold standard” serves the same purpose as God does for religious believers. They believe that God must really be good, and, because He is the standard of that which is good, His laws must really be good as well. Harris substitutes his “gold standard” for God. It must be “really good,” because, after all, everyone agrees it is good. Who can deny it? Everyone has the same perception, the same conviction, the same feeling. In reality, he is just chasing his tail. Instead of simply claiming that the existence of objective good and evil are self-evident to begin with, he claims that it is self-evident that “human well-being” is an objective good. Once we have accepted this “gold standard,” it follows that, since we have established that it is “really good,” then “real good” must exist as well as the basis for making this determination in the first place. Once he has established this “gold standard,” Harris cuts to the chase:

“Much of humanity is clearly wrong about morality—just as much of humanity is wrong about physics, biology, history, and everything else worth understanding. If, as I believe, morality is a system of thinking about (and maximizing) the well being of conscious creatures like ourselves, many people’s moral concerns are frankly immoral.”

In other words, we are to believe that morality isn’t merely a subjective predisposition, but a real thing. It is simply a question of determining scientifically what it is. Once we have done that, then we really should do good and avoid doing evil. Harris continues:

“Morality—in terms of consciously held precepts, social-contracts, notions of justice, etc.—is a relatively recent invention. Such conventions require, at a minimum, language and a willingness to cooperate with strangers, and this takes us a stride or two beyond the Hobbesian ‘state of nature.’”

Here Harris commits the fallacy of associating “Consciously held precepts, social contracts, notions of justice, etc.,” with morality itself. They are not morality, but merely manifestations of morality in human beings living in the modern world. Morality itself predates human beings by millions of years, and many other animal species act morally in addition to ourselves. The most significant difference between us and them is that they lack the capacity to speculate about whether morality is objectively real. Indeed, for them, morality is likely a more effective evolutionary adaptation than it is for us. They simply act as they are wired to act, and feel no need to invent objective reasons for their actions in the form of Gods or Harris’ ersatz god, “the imperative to act for the well being of conscious creatures.”

Harris would do well to go back to square one and consider what morality really is. It is an evolved subjective predisposition that exists because it promoted our survival. Furthermore, it promoted our survival at a time when we existed in small communities of genetically related individuals. It is a dual phenomena. We apply one standard of right and wrong to our interactions with those within our “in-group,” and another standard of right and wrong to “out-groups.” It is reasonable to assume that the wiring in our brain responsible for our predisposition to behave morally, which evolved at a time when we lived in small hunter-gatherer communities, is not ideally suited to similarly promote our survival in a world of gigantic nation states equipped with nuclear weapons. Instead of understanding this problem and addressing it rationally, Harris claims to have discovered the “real good,” in the form of “that which is conducive to human well-being.” In reality, Harris is as religious as the most phantastical southern Baptist. The only difference between him and them is that he believes in a “True Good” instead of a true God. He insists that, instead of understanding our own nature and accommodating ourselves to it, we should all be required to change our nature to conform to his phantasy that a scientifically discernable version of this “True Good” exists. In other words, he wants to take a giant step backwards to the era of the behaviorists and the “new Soviet man,” when it was assumed that human nature was infinitely malleable and could be molded as needed to conform to whatever arbitrary definition of “good” one chose to adopt. He won’t succeed any more than the Communists or all the other architects of heavens on earth have succeeded. Human nature is what it is, and won’t jump through hoops, even for Sam Harris. He thinks he can simply wave his hands, and inconvenient aspects of human morality, such as the Amity-Enmity Complex will just disappear. Others have tried that before him. It doesn’t work. It not only doesn’t work, but, in a world full of nuclear weapons, it is extremely dangerous. If we are to avoid self destruction, it will behoove us to understand our own nature. Creating “brave new moralities” out of thin air and insisting that others conform to them does not promote such understanding. Rather, it amounts to a deliberate burying of our heads in the sand.

I can only suggest that Harris go back to his neuroscientific research. Who knows, one day he may turn up at my doorstep and present me with a vial of distilled “Good”. However, I rather suspect it’s more likely he will eventually come to a more rational understanding of human morality. At least I hope he will, and I hope the same for his two illustrious peers, Hitchens and Dawkins. It happens that the latter has a wonderfully designed website with forums for the philosophically minded. It pleases me to see that, based on their comments, some of the brighter visitors to these forums “get it” when it comes to morality. I suggest that Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens, and the rest of the intellectual gentry at take the time to read them.

On the “Morality” of Nuclear Weapons

There is an interesting post over at ArmsControlWonk entitled “Morality and the Bomb.” Key question posed in the article:

“One notable aspect of the current abolitionist wave is that it is powered by national interest arguments, not moral considerations. Is this a good thing, or a bad thing?”

My response:

“It is not a good thing or a bad thing, but a logical thing. Morality is an evolved trait that exists because it promoted our survival at a time when we existed as small communities of hunter/gatherers. Attempts to apply it to the nuclear weapons debate are logically absurd. The basic issue here is very simple. Is it desirable to survive? If so, how should we deal with nuclear weapons?”

This is a good example of an instance in which it’s necessary to step back from morality and think. Morality has a great deal more to do with emotion that logic. It is subjective, and exists only in the minds that host it. Other than that, it has no objective existence in itself. It exists as an evolved trait of our species because it promoted our survival. It did not evolve in response to the threat of nuclear weapons. Therefore, assuming one actually does want to survive, it would be illogical to apply it to the nuclear weapons debate. This is an instance in which one must disconnect the issue from moral considerations, and consider logically what course of action will best promote one’s survival. Survival, after all, explains why morality exists to begin with. To the extent that it doesn’t promote our survival, it is pointless. There can be nothing more immoral than failing to survive.

Genetic Engineering and the Brave New World of Transhuman Machines

I’ve been reading through a collection of essays on the future of science entitled “What’s Next,” edited by Max Brockman. Today I’ll pick up where I left off in an earlier post, and look at a piece entitled “How to Enhance Human Beings,” by Nick Bostrom.

Once upon a time, in the days before the Nazi paradigm shift, eugenics used to be a topic of polite conversation. Now, of course, the Holy Mother Church of public opinion has spoken on the subject, and only the obvious evildoers among us dare to use the term any more, especially when children are present. Nevertheless, there were some spirited debates on the subject before it became obvious that it was necessary to restrict freedom of speech on the matter for our own good. I have unearthed a few interesting examples, both pro and con, in my archaeological peregrinations, and will post them for your amusement and edification one of these days.

In any event, the subject is now moot. Eugenics has gone the way of the horse and buggy. We are now, or will soon be able to vote with our feet, or genes, as the case may be. Depending on whether our tastes run to biological or mechanical tinkering, we are promised a range of options for ourselves or our offspring to enhance everything from intelligence to lifespan. The emerging possibilities have already turned up in the popular culture in video games such as Bioshock, movies such as Gattaca, and the novels of James Patterson. As one might expect, ethical debates are raging over these technologies. As Nick Bostrom puts it in his essay,

The belief in nature’s wisdom – and corresponding doubts about the prudence of tampering with nature, especially human nature – often manifests as diffusely moral objections to enhancement. Many people have intuitions about the superiority of “the natural” and the troublesomeness of human hubris. Some might base these ideas on theological doctrine, but often there is no such underpinning; often there is nothing more than a discomfort with altering the status quo.

To a large extent, these debates are also moot. Parents are incredibly competitive when it comes to putting their children in better schools, or even on cheerleading squads. Offered the choice between having their children become the enhanced movers and shakers of tomorrow, or the unenhanced restroom attendants and parking valets, they are likely to choose the former. This will be especially true in developed countries where the number of children one chooses to have is often limited by their expense, and in countries like China that legally limit the size of one’s family. Under the circumstances, people are likely to be as indifferent to moral arguments against enhancement as they were to moral arguments against alcohol during Prohibition. The new technology may be used above or below the state’s legal radar, but it will be used.

Bostrom has devoted some thought to the question of whether particular enhancements are advisable or not, considering the matter more from a practical than a moral perspective. He has come up with a system of rules which he calls the evolutionary-optimality challenge. They are discussed in a paper he has posted at his website, and seem a reasonable start on a subject that is likely to attract a lot more attention in coming years.

In the final paragraph of his essay, Bostrom takes up the more speculative question of building “entirely artificial systems of equal complexity and performance” to the human organism. Continuing along these lines, he writes:

At some stage, we may learn how to design new organs and bodies ab initio. Someday we may no longer even rely on biological material to implement our bodies and minds. Freed from most practical limitations, the task would then become to make wise use of our powers to self-modify. In other words, the challenge would shift from being primarily scientific to being primarily moral. If that moral task seems comparatively trivial from our current vantage point, this might reflect our present immaturity.

One hopes he is merely indulging in some end of article hyperbole here. If not, one must ask the question, “Whose morality?” In other words, this is another example of the “objective morality” fallacy I have referred to earlier, consisting of assuming that, because we perceive morality as real and objective, it actually is real and objective. Morality is an evolved characteristic that exists in human beings because it has promoted our survival. Bostrom makes the common mistake of assuming that, because he perceives it as independent of his mind, morality actually is independent of his mind, floating out there in space as a real, objective, thing in itself. He makes the further error of confusing his conscious mind with his genetic material. Morality did not evolve because it promoted the survival of conscious minds. It evolved because it promoted the survival of genetic material. As I have noted earlier, nothing can be reasonably considered more immoral than failing to survive. The idea that one could somehow serve a profound moral cause by accepting genetic death and transferring the mind, an ancillary characteristic evolved only because it, too, has promoted the survival of that genetic material, to a machine, is a logical aberration.


Consequences: The Great Question of Should, Part II

There is no objective “Should.” There is no objective “Should,” whether a God exists or not. There is no objective “Should” independent of minds complex enough to form the notions of good and evil. There is no objective “Should” because there is no logical basis for the claim that morality can exist as other than the perception of a conscious mind. It does not logically follow from the fact that a conscious mind perceives something as good or evil that it is, therefore, really good or evil, and would remain good or evil whether that mind continued to exist or not. Morality exists only as a perception of conscious minds.

It is difficult for us to reject the objective reality of morality because we perceive it as real. We can “see” it in our minds as both real and absolute. We exist as the culmination of a process of evolution characterized by the preservation of that which has promoted our survival, and the elimination of that which has not. Morality, in the form of a perception of absolute, objective good and evil, has promoted our survival. Therefore, it exists, and it exists in that form. It is real as a subjective perception in our minds. It is not real as the absolute, objective thing that our mental programming, or “human nature,” if you will, suggests to us.

What, then, “Should” we do? The answer is that there can be no objective justification for the claim that we should do one thing, or should not do another.

However, we are mentally predisposed to be moral beings. We interact with other human beings in the context of morality. If we attempted to act amorally, we would likely succeed only in making ourselves miserable. We have a conscience. We cannot shut it off at will. We are moral beings living in a moral world. We must deal with it. I will tell you how I deal with it. I cannot give you any objective reason why you should deal with it the same way. In fact, it would certainly not be to my advantage if everyone did. However, given the nature of our species, I suspect there is little danger of that.

First, it is necessary for me to have an accurate idea of what I am. I have concluded that the conscious mind I experience as “myself” has been produced by the genetic material I carry. That mind is an evolved characteristic that has promoted the survival of the genetic material. As such, it is ancillary. Unlike the genetic material, which has been in continuous existence for many hundreds of millions of years, and is potentially immortal, it is relatively short-lived and mortal. I, therefore, conclude that “I” am not my conscious mind. “I” am my genetic material. I am hardly the first one to arrive at this insight. I like to attribute its origin to the great Bard himself:

O, that you were yourself! But, love, you are
No longer yours than you yourself live here.
Against this coming end you should prepare
And your sweet semblance to some other give.
Shakespeare, Sonnet XIII

“I”, then, am a bundle of genetic material, only aware of my own existence through a conscious mind that I have evolved as a survival mechanism. The mind interacts with the world outside itself on the basis of a moral code, which it is predisposed to develop along certain broad guidelines, the details being filled in by experience, culture and conscious thought. Morality doesn’t exist objectively, outside the mind, but is a subjective construct of the mind. Objectively, there is nothing I should do, and I have no objective purpose. I can, however, have a subjective purpose, subjective goals, and a subjective morality. These must be provided by the conscious mind. What should they be?

Let me consider the matter, subjectively, as I must, from the viewpoint of my conscious mind. The thought of my mortality is no more pleasing to me than it is to anyone else. I have a natural fear of death and wish to avoid it. I also have self respect. I do not wish to perceive myself as a biological dead end at the end of a chain of living beings that have survived for hundreds of millions of years. It does not please me to think of myself as a failed entity and one that will disappear without a trace with the death of my most recent body and mind. These thoughts of death and failure are distressing to me. Realizing, as I do, that I will exist for a limited time, it seems to me unreasonable to be miserable and unhappy during that time. The world and my existence in it seem highly improbable to me. When I think about these things, instead of taking them for granted, they seem wonderful and spectacular. It seems to me that, during the time I have to be a part of this unlikely world, it is better to enjoy the experience than to be miserable. Therefore, to the extent possible, I make it my purpose to avoid death and failure, the thought of which makes me miserable. I decide that my fundamental goal must be to survive. I realize that my “Self” is not the conscious mind thinking these thoughts. My “Self” is that which has created the conscious mind. My “Self” is my genetic material. My “Self” must survive.

I am wired to be a moral being, and cannot act amorally. I must, therefore, adopt a moral code. In view of what I have said above, I will include one good in this moral code that is greater than all other goods. That is the good of survival. The moral code only exists because it has promoted my survival in the past. It has no existence independent of the mind. To the extent to which it becomes a separate entity in itself, distinct from the genetic material that has created it, it is an absurdity. There can be nothing more immoral than failing to survive.

In a later post, we will consider the further moral ramifications of this conclusion.

Consequences: The Great Question of “Should”

Whether one believes in a God or not, there can be no logical basis for the claim that one should do anything. When I speak of should here, I am speaking of an objective imperative, not a subjective feeling. To illustrate this, let us conduct a thought experiment. Imagine an intelligent, omniscient Mind, unconnected with any life on earth, or with any of the gods or other supernatural beings mankind has come up with over the years. What possible logical basis could such a Mind have for the conclusion that any particular human being on the planet Earth should do anything? Furthermore, what logical basis could that Mind have for the objective conclusion that any particular human being on the planet earth was morally good or morally evil because it acted in one way, or refrained from acting in another? I contend that there can be no such logical basis.

Let’s assume there is a God. If the God planted morality in the brain of the human, it would not serve as a logical basis for the claim that the moral code in question was, therefore, endowed with absolute, objective validity. The Mind might logically conclude that the human was or was not acting according to the God’s mental programming, but would have no basis for making any moral judgments on account of it. Suppose the human in question had certain knowledge of the existence of the God, and was also perfectly aware of the moral law laid down by that God without any ambiguity, and the Mind was aware of this as well. It would still have no logical basis for the conclusion that the human was objectively good or objectively evil, depending on whether it obeyed the moral law or not. It might observe that the human was rebellious, or that the human’s actions annoyed the God, but that would be no basis for the conclusion that the human was genuinely good or genuinely evil. It would take note of the fact that the human did not create itself, but was created by the God. It had not chosen to be created, and had played no role in the creation of any moral law. The Mind might further note that the God, for inscrutable reasons known only to itself, intended to subject this infinitely inferior being, which the God itself had created, to a terrible torture for billions and trillions of years if the human didn’t do what the God wanted. Under the circumstances, it might conclude that the human was not acting logically if it chose to ignore the law, but, again, it would have no rational basis for concluding that the human was really, objectively evil for choosing to ignore the God’s seemingly irrational whims.

If, on the other hand, no Gods or other supernatural beings existed, the case would be clear. The Mind could have no basis for concluding that morality had an independent, objective existence of its own. As a consequence, it could have no rational basis for the conclusion that a particular human was good or evil depending on whether it obeyed some arbitrarily chosen moral code or not.

In other words, good and evil have no independent existence, other than as subjective mental constructs. Nothing is absolutely, objectively good, or absolutely, objectively evil. From our own, human point of view, that puts us in a quandary, because we perceive morality as objective and absolute. Why? Morality did not suddenly spring into existence with the evolution of man. It had evolved in other creatures millions of years before we arrived on the scene. It still exists in many other species besides ourselves. Morality evolved because it promoted survival. It would not have functioned very effectively if it had evolved as something that creatures lacking even our limited mental skills were to act on only after long philosophical deliberation. Therefore, it evolved as something perceived as absolute, as having a real, objective existence. It was in that form that it most effectively promoted survival.

That is why the great scientists mentioned in earlier posts, not to mention many others among our best thinkers, speak of good and evil as real, objective things rather than mental constructs. That’s the way they experience them, just as everyone else does, and, like most of the rest of us, they probably haven’t taken the time to seriously consider whether there is really any logical basis for perceptions that seem so self-evident. We must, necessarily, live our lives as moral beings, constantly applying moral judgments to our own actions and those of others, because that is the way we have been programmed in the process of our evolution. How, then, should we respond when we really do start looking for the rational basis for our perception of the world in terms of good and evil and come to the logical conclusion that morality is merely subjective? Should we decide to live our lives as purely logical, cerebral beings? We can no more do that than live outside of our own skins. What, then, should we do? We will consider the matter in a later post.

“What’s Next?” Popular Science and the Narrative

Max Brockman, a literary agent at Brockman, Inc., which also represents such familiar names as Jared Diamond, Richard Dawkins, and Steven Pinker, recently published a collection of essays by an assortment of young scientific worthies addressing the question of how developments in their respective fields are likely to have “long-term and fundamental effects on the way we live.” Brockman also works with the Edge Foundation, which maintains a website that’s worth a visit. According to the site’s “About” blurb, “The mandate of Edge Foundation is to promote inquiry into and discussion of intellectual, philosophical, artistic, and literary issues, as well as to work for the intellectual and social achievement of society.” To the extent that they actually promote genuine inquiry and discussion, I wish them well.

In this post, I will look at the first two essays, and, perhaps, take up some of the rest as we go along. They are both interesting artifacts of the interaction of contemporary scientific research and the prevailing academic ideological narrative, which, at this point in our history, is the narrative of the left. As one might expect, the narrative plays a greater or lesser role depending on the social and political implications of research in a given field. For example, its influence is much greater in the environmental and behavioral sciences than in physics. As it happens these are the fields addressed in the first two essays.

The first essay, by Laurence C. Smith, entitled “Will We Decamp for the Northern Rim?” considers the potential impact of global warming on future population shifts. According to Smith,

“Here is what we know currently: First, the warming is just revving up. It is 90 percent certain that continued greenhouse gas emissions at or above the current rates will induce far greater climate change in the twenty-first century than we’ve yet experienced. In every plausible population-growth or greenhouse-gas-emission scenario for the next century (barring some as-yet-undiscovered nonlinearity in the climate system), basic physics dictates that Earth’s climate must continue to warm, with global average temperatures rising between 1.8° C and 4.0°C by the end of this century.”

I agree that, based on what we know, it is probable that the above comment is true. However, the idea that “basic physics dictates” that it will be true “in every plausible population –growth or greenhouse-gas-emission scenario” is pure poppycock. Who decides what is “plausible?” What “basic physics” is Smith referring to? Global climate is a highly nonlinear system with literally billions of degrees of freedom. The computer models currently available do not even approach the level of having a deterministic predictive capability. The data we have to feed into them is both noisy and insufficient. The idea that they could “dictate” anything is palpably absurd.

Why the unscientific lack of error bars in Smith’s dogmatic claim about what “physics dictates?” He tells us that, “In my home state of California, Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger asserted, ‘The [climate] debate is over’ – and from a scientific and public-opinion standpoint, he was right.” Again, in my opinion it is probable that Smith’s conclusions about global warming are correct, but the claim that “the debate is over… from a scientific and public-opinion standpoint” implies the nonexistent and scientifically insupportable right of a majority of scientists to dictate to the rest their conclusion that “the debate is over,” and assumes that the only public-opinion that matters is that on the ideological left. Again, what Smith is asserting is an ideological dogma, not a scientific fact. He doesn’t leave us guessing about which side of the political isle he stands on, noting that “If you saw An Inconvenient Truth or read climate-change stories in the press, you already know most of this bad news.” It seems to me that neither Al Gore’s movie nor stories in the press represent a scientific gold standard that could serve as a reliable basis for “knowing” anything. Smith’s implication that they do speaks more to the ideological slant we can expect in his essay than to the intrinsic accuracy of his sources.

In a word, I wouldn’t discount the essay’s contention that the economic significance of the “northern rim” is likely to increase, nor would I stand in the way of those who take Smith’s advice to buy land, not “in Labrador, but maybe in Michigan.” However, his comments regarding the status of the global warming debate seem better calculated to stifle and marginalize ideological opponents than to promote healthy, unconstrained scientific discussion. The goal of popular scientific writing should be to inform, not to indoctrinate.

The second article, by Christian Keysers, is entitled “Mirror Neurons: are we Ethical by Nature?” Thirty or forty years ago, the very suggestion would have landed the author in the doghouse of the ideological left, likely attracting accusations of “fascism” and related political sins in the bargain. No doubt we should consider the fact that he can now not only dare to use such a title, but actually seems unaware that it could even be controversial a sign of scientific “progress.” Indeed, not only does Keysers no longer bump up against any shibboleths of the modern leftist ideological narrative, he actually fits comfortably within it.

The topic of the essay, mirror neurons, is certainly worth writing about. These are neurons that are active during particular actions and sensations, but also respond to the sight and even sound of similar actions or sensations in others. For example, Keysers cites the case of neurons in a monkey that were found to be active when the animal grasped a peanut. In his words, “The surprise came when one of the experimenters grasped a peanut to give it to the monkey. The very same neuron that had responded when the monkey grasped a peanut also responded when the monkey simply saw someone else perform the same action.” He goes on to point out that the phenomenon is not restricted to physical movement, but to feelings and sensations as well. He maintains that the phenomena may not only promote our ability to learn from others, but may be associated with the creation of what he refers to as an “ethical instinct.”

Here, again, we can detect a gradual shift in the terms of the narrative over time. Once upon a time, the very use of the term “instinct” in connection with humans was anathema, and evidence of moral turpitude at best, and connection with the political right at worst. Anyone daring to even venture out on such thin ideological ice chose his words very carefully, preferring “innate predisposition” to “instinct,” and even then running the risk of denunciation as a “pop ethologist” unless the term was carefully hedged about with all the appropriate caveats. The young author seems blithely unaware of these once weighty distinctions. Instead, after announcing the “ethical instinct,” he suggests that the shared circuits associated with mirror neurons promote a strong feeling of empathy. In his words, “Since the same brain areas are active whether we are feeling our own pain or witnessing that of others, this means that the vicarious sharing of others’ feelings is not an abstract consideration but a toned-down equivalent of our own.” He then suggests how this might result in sharing a limited supply of food; “If I eat all the food, I will not only witness but also share my companion’s suffering, whereas if I divide the food I will share his joy and thankfulness. My decision is no longer guided only by my hunger but also by the real pain and pleasure my companion’s pain and pleasure will give me… I believe that the brain mechanisms that make us share the pain and joy of others are the neural bases that intuitively predispose us according to this maxim. Our brain is ethical by design.”

Here, of course, as readers of my previous posts will note, the author commits the common fallacy of assigning a real, objective existence to what he refers to as “ethics,” citing as an example the Golden Rule. There is also no mention of the Amity – Enmity Complex we have discussed earlier, and the author seems unaware of the very existence of the idea. He is, at least aware, of certain related incongruities in the application of his theory posed, for example, by the existence of war. The ideological provenance of the arguments he uses to finesse the issue should be transparent to those who haven’t been asleep during the debates over the Iraq War. In Keysers’ words, “In the military, the distance that separates the generals from the human suffering their armies cause minimizes their empathy and favors self-interested decisions. At the same time, the chain of command strips moral responsibility from the soldiers who do directly witness the suffering. In such a way, empathy can be bypassed in the service of efficiency. The development of weapons that kill at a distance has a similar effect. Insights into the biology of our empathy help us to realize the risk of such distancing and point us toward ways to build the natural mechanisms of empathy into our institutions.”

Before indulging yourself in any amused snorts at Prof. Keysers’ naiveté, gentle reader, allow me to remind you that his essay represents real progress. He admits a genetic basis for ethical behavior, and states very clearly that, “Humans are the result of evolution, and evolution favors individuals who will leave more offspring…” He does close with the comment that, “Mirror neurons – and their gift of insight into the emotions of others – enable us to manipulate other individuals but also prompt us to use this understanding for good and not for evil,” apparently blithely unaware that good and evil are evolutionary constructs themselves. Nevertheless, he is pursuing a line of research that holds forth the promise of eventually leading us to the truth. May we find that truth before our minds are once again closed by new dogmas.

Atheism, the Amity-Enmity Complex, and the Clouded Crystal Ball

Forgive me if I sound like the Pharisee in Luke 18.11, but sometimes I just have to shake my head. I just had one of those “shake my head” moments while reading some of the stuff Sully’s guest bloggers have been putting up. It’s not them I have a problem with. Bless their hearts for linking to posts on something other than Sarah Palin or Obamacare. No, this time its the stuff in the links that set me off. First, there’s this about chimpanzee behavior. Here’s what Sully would call the “money quote.”

[C]ooperation in chimpanzees is highly constrained. Chimpanzees will cooperate only with familiar group members, with whom they normally share food. If they don’t know or like a potential partner, they won’t cooperate no matter how much food is at stake. Humans, however, make a living collaborating, even when it’s with people they don’t know and in many cases don’t particularly like. (Do you have a boss?) This high level of social tolerance is likely one of the building blocks of the unique forms of cooperation seen in humans. So perhaps a lack of tolerance is one of the main constraints on chimpanzees’ developing more flexible cooperative skills.

In looking through the article itself, one finds similar stuff, such as,

So perhaps a lack of tolerance is one of the main constraints on chimpanzees’ developing more flexible cooperative skills. But humans have another closest relative, one who is usually forgotten and may be more like us than we know.

It turns out this little known relative is the bonobo. Apparently these creatures have not only all the ideal characteristics of the noble savage, but have up-to-date politically correct features that Rousseau never dreamed of, such as freewheeling sex lives including both hetero- and homosexual relationships. According to the article,

In contrast to chimpanzees, who live in male-dominated societies with infanticidal tendencies and other forms of lethal aggression, bonobos live in societies that are highly tolerant and peaceful thanks to female dominance, which maintains group cohesion and regulates tensions through sexual behavior.

Ah, yes, I’d almost forgotten, female dominance. It just gets better and better, doesn’t it? But wait, there’s more:

So what we have are chimps who cooperate but aren’t very tolerant, and bonobos who are very tolerant but don’t really cooperate in the wild. What probably happened six million years ago, when hominids split from the ancestor we share with chimpanzees and bonobos, is that we became very tolerant, and this allowed us to cooperate in entirely new ways. Without this heightened tolerance, we would not be the species we are today.

So, in other words, even though our “tolerant” history is one long, unbroken series of violent conflicts and wars, and virtually every tribal group we’ve ever studied or encountered exhibits anything but “tolerance” towards neighboring tribes, we are perfect candidates for whatever Brave New World the idealists among us care to come up with because, after all, some of us get along with our bosses.

I don’t mind people disagreeing with me, but when they claim to be experts in animal and human behavior but have apparently never even heard of something as elementary as the Amity – Enmity Complex, and speak of human beings as all warm, fuzzy, and tolerant as if it were so palpably obvious that one couldn’t possibly think otherwise, well… I have to shake my head. What can you say? Murmur, “Hey, whatever fits the narrative,” and just move on.

As an interesting aside, back in the days when Ardrey was writing, the behavior of the poor unoffending chimpanzees was adjusted to fit the narrative from the opposite end. For example, in this piece, written back in 1973 by one of Ashley Montagu’s behaviorist pals, after trivializing Ardrey’s work as the “Killer Ape Theory,” the author tells us that,

The balance of Ardrey’s 357-page book is taken up with indirect suggestive evidence and descriptions of territorial and aggressive behavior among animals far removed from man’s line of evolution. Curiously, Ardrey discounts behavioral studies of man’s two closest living relatives, the gorilla and the chimpanzee both of which are remarkably amicable and non-combative animals.

And you thought these latest revelations about how the “remarkably amicable and non-combative” chimpanzees really behave vindicated Ardrey. Wrong! If the chimpanzees won’t cooperate, one can always pull a bonobo out of ones hat. Again, whatever fits the narrative.

Moving right along, there’s this about fundamentalism and atheism. Again, here’s the “money quote,”

Equating fundamentalism with terrorism is loose thinking, but the biggest drawback is the loss of historical memory that making the parallel entails. Much of the state terror in the past century was secular, not religious. Lenin and Mao were avowed disciples of an Enlightenment ideology. Some will object that they misapplied this. And yet it is a feature of the fundamentalist mindset to posit a pristine faith, innocent of complicity in any crime its practitioners have ever committed, and capable – if only it is implemented in its pure, unsullied form – of eradicating practically any evil. This is pretty much what is asserted by those who claim that the solution to the world’s problems is mass conversion to “Enlightenment values”.

Other than the gross historical ignorance implicit in the claim that Lenin and Mao are somehow the quintessential representatives of “Enlightenment values,” and the notion that it’s somehow OK to lump anyone who doesn’t believe in God in with the most rabid, fanatical true believers in history because, after all, they’re all “secular,” does it never occur to people who make such statements that, after all, the truth matters?

If it is true that there is no God, your need for a purpose won’t magically create one. If it is true that there is no God, your belief that one is necessary if human beings are to act morally won’t magically create one. If it is true that there is no God, your personal inability to understand the physical universe without a divine “first mover” won’t magically create one. Similarly, if it is true there is no God, you will not magically create one by virtue of the fact that you’ve somehow convinced yourself that because a equals b and b equals c, therefore atheists are responsible for every crime in recorded history.

Group Affection and Group Aversion

In every region of the modern world, where tribes still exist as independent entities, we find two opposite dispositions at work – one being group affection, which holds together the members of a community, and group aversion, which keeps competing, evolving societies apart. These opposite dispositions are not confined to human societies; they are to be seen at work in the communities into which all social animals are divided. We may assume, therefore, that in the very earliest stages of man’s evolution, even in his simian stages, “human nature” was already converted into an instrument for securing group isolation.

Sir Arthur Keith, 1947

Consequences; Good and Evil, Part II – A World of Euthyphros

Euthyphro appears in one of the dialogs of Socrates as a man so cocksure he knew the difference between good and evil that he was prosecuting his own father for murder. Socrates, using his well known dialectic technique, revealed to both Euthyphro and his listeners that he really didn’t have a clue. It turned out he had no logical basis for his certainty in matters of morality. No one has really come any closer to providing one in the ensuing two and a half millennia, and yet, if the daily flood of moral denunciations and ostentatious public piety on the Internet are any indication, there are more Euthyphros about than ever before.

We flatter ourselves about our unique ability to reason, but it doesn’t quite live up to the hype. In fact, our intellects are blunt tools. Normally, we respond to our environments emotionally, like other animals. By “emotionally” I don’t mean “hysterically.” I merely mean we act according to innate predispositions and preconceived notions that have little if any connection with intelligent thought. We really have little choice in the matter. It’s the way we’re programmed to interact with others of our species. If we tried to apply logical thought to each such interaction, we would be as awkward as someone who tried to apply logical thought to each step in walking. Our perceptions of good and evil are part of this mental software, and we perceive them as absolutes, just as other animals do. Why? Because they work best that way, or at least they did at the time our morality evolved. There weren’t a whole lot of philosophers around in those days, and morality didn’t promote our survival as something relative we had to stop and carefully think about each time we applied it. It promoted our survival as an imperative, as an absolute. Today we still experience it as in imperative and an absolute, as something having a real, objective existence of its own outside of ourselves. In fact, it really doesn’t.

This wasn’t a problem 100,000 years ago. Today, it is potentially a big problem. We have experienced vast social changes in a time that is very short when measured on an evolutionary timescale. Our mental software has had no chance to evolve in response to the changes. It is no longer clear that the way in which we perceive good and evil and act according to those perceptions promotes our survival. In fact, in the context of our current societies, “moral” behavior may well be self-destructive. Assuming we decide survival is still a worthy goal, we can no longer afford to be as self-assured as Euthyphro.

Perhaps the biggest problem is that we are programmed to have a dual moral code. I have already mentioned it in earlier posts as the Amity – Enmity Complex. As Sir Arthur Keith put it,

The process which secures the evolution of an isolated group of humanity is a combination of two principles which at first sight seem incompatible – namely, cooperation with competition. So far as concerns the internal affairs of a local group, the warm emotional spirit of amity, sympathy, loyalty, and of mutual help prevails; but so far as concerns external affairs – its attitude towards surrounding groups – an opposite spirit is dominant: one of antagonism, of suspicion, distrust, contempt, or of open enmity.

Hate is as intrinsic to our moral universe as love. But the result of hate directed against “out-groups” containing tens or hundreds of millions of members armed with modern weapons is quite different than that of hate directed against a small neighboring clan armed with sticks and stones. If the “other” is another country, the result may be a general war in which tens of millions of citizens on either side who have been inoffensively living their lives are marshaled into armies to kill each other, or slaughtered by bombing raids on their cities, or overrun by the enemy and subjected to all the familiar horrors of war. If the “other” is another social class, the result may be the murder of 100 million “bourgeoisie,” and, as we have seen in the case of Russia and Cambodia, the annihilation of a large percentage of the most intelligent and productive citizens, effectively resulting in national decapitation. If the “other” is another ethnic group, the result may be a Holocaust. If the “other” is another religious sect, the results may be the indiscriminate slaughter and devastation of another Crusade or Jihad, not to mention the butchery of hundreds of thousands of “witches.”

Sometimes, shaken by all this devastation, we try to adjust our moral systems, creating new “evils” to combat the old ones. Irrational hatred of Jews becomes the evil of anti-Semitism. Irrational hatred of other races becomes the evil of racism. Irrational hatred of those who seem to be better off than ourselves becomes the evil of class warfare. Irrational hatred of other religious groups becomes the evil of bigotry. The creation of all these new “evils” as a way to combat irrational hatred of specific out-groups is like trying to behead the hydra. In the end, the hatred is natural. It will always seek an object, and, if one is put out of bounds, it will find a new one. We must stop treating symptoms. Instead, we need to grasp the nature of the disease itself. We must come to grips with the reality that it is our nature to hate as much as it is our nature to love. We must understand the fundamental behavioral traits which give rise to hate and control them, because hate no longer promotes our survival, it threatens it. In a world full of nuclear weapons the stakes are getting higher every day.

If you’re looking for corroborating data, visit some Internet forums. You won’t find many disinterested philosophers. Rather, you’ll find lots of people whose “points of view” are easily recognizable as corresponding to some familiar ideological dogma. They are all busily demonizing people who subscribe to dogmas different from their own, with posts and comments that commonly call the moral virtue of their opponents into question, even as they rush for the moral high ground themselves. Take a look at what any one of these specimens says about any given ideologically loaded topic, that is, any topic that happens to part of the ideological box they live in in one fashion or another, and you will find that you can predict with very high accuracy what their opinion will be on any other topic that happens also to be a part of that particular box. This does not bespeak independent, logical thought. Rather, it is characteristic of a species with a hard-wired predisposition to adopt a dual moral code, and which happens to be intelligent enough to distinguish in-groups and out-groups in terms of ideas as well as more mundane features such as facial features and smell.

If we want to survive, we will probably have to learn to do a better job of controlling these behavioral traits. It won’t be easy. One finds some of the most intelligent thinkers around, people who reject the existence of supernatural beings and who accept the hypothesis that morality is an evolved characteristic without a quibble, turning around and, virtually in the next breath, referring to morality as if it were a real, objective thing, universally applicable not only to themselves, but to others as well. Take, for example, Richard Dawkins. In chapter 6 of his recently published book, “The God Delusion,” he explicitly accepts the evolutionary roots of morality. In the very next chapter, he turns around and presents the moral Zeitgeist, a version of morality that changes with the times, but which Dawkins otherwise endows with all the characteristics of an objective moral code and an absolute legitimacy that transcends anything that could properly apply to the subjective trait he describes in the previous chapter. He treats religious believers with all the animosity normally reserved for an out-group, and, at least in my opinion, happens to suffer from a rather commonplace variant of European anti-Americanism. You can read the book and see if you detect the tell-tale symptoms yourself. If a man as brilliant as Dawkins can’t escape the moral treadmill, things don’t look too promising for the rest of us. Still, I suspect it would behoove us to continue groping for a solution.

What might that solution look like? The problem is extremely complex, and I have no infallible nostrums. However, the solution will certainly not take the form of amoral behavior, or failure to act consistently according to a fixed moral code. However, it will need to be a moral code that, while compatible with the kind of creature we are, will promote our survival, rather than our self-destruction. It will also need to be one for which even Euthyphro could provide a rational justification. We will consider what such a code might look like in a later post.