Influences

One hesitates to name those who have influenced one’s point of view in this day of ostentatious public piety.  There is hardly an individual of any significance who has not been condemned as “immoral” for one reason or another.  Often this is done by those who, if challenged, could not explain coherently why one thing is morally “good” and another “bad.”  Their moral judgments are built on a foundation of sand, but they are, nevertheless, cocksure they are right.  The writer who most profoundly influenced my own attitude towards morality and ethics was probably Robert Ardrey, author of books such as “African Genesis” and “The Territorial Imperative.”  Ardrey was a remarkable man.  Trained as a statistician and later employed as a playwright, he turned his attention to anthropology and the behavioral sciences in the 1950’s.  He traveled widely, met and learned from a great number of scientists in the field, and thought deeply about what he had seen.   The overriding theme of his work was the deep connection between human behavior, and our evolutionary past, the “animal” basis of what we are, if you will.  Ardrey popularized the work of many scientists and students of animal behavior, noting the frequent human analogs of that behavior, especially in the primates.  He also hypothesized about the influence on human behavior of our evolutionary past, suggesting that “innate predispositions” influenced a host of human behavioral traits, such as our tendency to perceive the rest of humanity in terms of “in-groups” and “out-groups,” the predisposition to acquire a morality, conditioned by culture, but with many common features in all human societies, and even apparently “altruistic” behavior.  Ardrey was attacked by those who claimed he put too much emphasis on traits they objected to, such as aggression.  However, they missed the point.  Ardrey himself never considered such notions more than hypotheses, as evidenced by the title of one of his books, “The Hunting Hypothesis.”  The fundamental point of Ardrey’s work was that there is a genetic basis for human behavior, that we act the way we do and perceive the world the way we do, in part, because that’s the way our brains are wired. 

 

In fact, Ardrey’s most bitter enemies, people of the likes of Ashley Montagu and Richard Lewontin, did not merely differ with him about the nature of the genetic influence on human behavior.  They denied, in works such as Lewontin’s “Not in our Genes,” and in Montagu’s claim that the human brain at birth was a “tabula rasa,” that such an influence even existed.  One might consider the decades since Ardrey’s death in 1980 a triumphant vindication of his work.  Research has generated such mounds of evidence supporting his fundamental ideas that the Montagu school of behaviorists has now all but disappeared.  However, in spite of the current almost universal acceptance of the notion that genes influence behavior, a fact that would have seemed astounding to anyone following the debate in the 60’s, Ardrey has hardly been proclaimed a genius in retrospect.  The reason for this is probably one of the very human behavioral traits Ardrey pointed out, the amity-enmity predisposition, the tendency to categorize our fellow human beings in terms of “in-groups” and “out-groups.”  For a host of reasons, Ardrey’s ideas were unwelcome to the political left of his day.  Leftists preferred to believe that human beings had an unlimited capacity to acquire whatever traits were needed to make them perfect denizens of the Marxist and other utopias that were being concocted for them.  For that reason, they put Ardrey into their “out-group,” identifying him as a “fascist,” a “racist,” and a supporter of all the sinful tendencies the political left of that day associated with their enemies on the right.  He remains in that out-group to this day, even though modern leftists have been forced to accept the truth of his fundamental ideas, and there he will probably stay.  He is still, like many other thinkers who have been condemned for shaking the ideological cages on the left or the right too harshly, well worth reading.

 

Introduction to a World View

 

Why am I writing?  I suppose for the same reasons that others write.  Perhaps, in the process, I will provoke an occasional thought, or entertain (intentionally or not), or record something useful, to justify the effort.  I will try to avoid being too self conscious, and worrying overmuch about the effect my remarks may have on others.  I will try to be truthful, and avoid self-flattery.  Finally, I will try to remain uninhibited by the real or perceived moral judgments of others.  In short, I will try, as best I can, to reach an unreachable ideal; objectivity.  In the process, I will try not to delude myself about my capacity for discerning the truth.  I have watched many others before me come to grief as they wandered far from the realm of facts demonstrable with repeatable experiments into swamps of speculation about the complexities of human existence.  Like them, I am human, and, therefore, fallible.  I will try to avoid the intellectual hubris of unwarranted certainty, and preserve an appropriate sense of humility in my remarks.

 

My intent is to record my perception of the human situation, to set forth my thought and reactions to what I have experienced as systematically and coherently as possible.  Beyond that, I will set forth my observations on subjects that interest me from time to time as the spirit moves me.

 

Our world views are conditioned by religious beliefs, or, in my case, the lack of them.  I don’t believe human beings can ever be absolutely sure they know the truth in such matters.  However, with that caveat, I don’t hesitate to call myself an atheist.  I am in what Richard Dawkins refers to as the sixth of his seven milestones in the spectrum of religious beliefs; I consider the likelihood that God exists “very low probability, but short of zero.  De facto atheist.  ‘I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.’”  Again, with Dawkins, “I am agnostic only to the extent that I am agnostic about fairies at the bottom of the garden.”

 

Why don’t I believe in God?  I doubt that I have any substantial reasons that haven’t been set forth many times before me by others who have come to the same conclusions.  It seems to me those conclusions tend to occur naturally to anyone who is willing to devote some effort to reasoning about the existence of God or other supernatural beings, assuming they haven’t made up their minds in advance.  They were set forth very simply, clearly and convincingly by the brilliant French cleric, Jean Meslier, in his Testament, which was given the title, “Superstition in All Ages” after his death.  According to Voltaire, Meslier’s Testament was written “in the style of a carriage horse.”  I take a more charitable view of this astounding man.  He demolished the rational basis for belief in the supernatural more than a hundred years before Darwin published “On the Origin of Species.”  His style may have been unpolished, but his Testament was, nevertheless, a thorough and concise refutation of religious belief in general and Christianity in particular. 

 

More recently, Dawkins, Hitchens, and others have reasoned convincingly against religious belief.  Many books and articles have been published against them in response, but none of the authors that I have read have made a serious attempt to even address their most significant arguments.  The fact that they have failed to do so indicates that they are unable to do so, further confirming me in my own beliefs.  

 

For example, believers seem incapable of telling us why it is logical to explain something as admittedly complex and intricate as the universe by assuming the existence of a God who, by his/her nature must be even more complex and intricate.  In other words, they would have us believe that something complicated can be explained by assuming the existence of an even more complicated creator.  They fail to explain how it is that a God intelligent enough to create the universe can be motivated by human emotions such as anger, jealousy, and love towards creatures who must be, as Voltaire pointed out, as inferior to him as insects are to us.  One can only assume they have no explanation.  Certainly, none occur to me.  The existence of emotions in human beings is easily understandable.  They are there because they have promoted our survival.  However, as attributes of a divinity, particularly as directed against creatures, as Voltaire put it, infinitely more inferior to Him/Her than insects are to us, they can only be understood as a simple-minded attempt to assign human attributes to an imaginary Supreme Being.

 

The fact that the prevalence of various religious beliefs is so obviously a factor of culture and geographic location is further evidence that they do not result from any process of logical thought, particularly in view of the fact that these beliefs are often mutually exclusive, as in the case of most versions of Christianity and Islam.  Each side firmly believes that their God will punish those on the other for beliefs those others are convinced are true.  In other words, they believe God will punish the others for beliefs which they cannot change at will, and which they are convinced are in accordance with His will.  Obviously, both sides can’t be right.  It seems more logical to conclude that they are both wrong.  The same can be said of miracles and supernatural manifestations, which all major religions claim.  Both sides cannot be simultaneously right in claiming that their miracles are performed by mutually exclusive Gods.

 

I find the continuing prevalence of religious beliefs, including recent manifestations of extreme fanaticism, disconcerting in view of the continuing accumulation of scientific evidence that flies in the face of, for example, scriptural accounts of creation.  One feels as if one were living in an asylum, surrounded by lunatics. 

 

In a word, then, I am not a religious person.  I have concluded that the existence of supernatural beings is extremely unlikely.  The world view that I will set forth in the following sections is based on the assumption that there are none.