On the Imagined Existence of Things Unseen

Our species has a whimsical tendency to firmly believe in the existence of imaginary things. If beliefs happen to increase the odds that we will survive, then we believe. Gods, goods, evils, rights, and values are prominent among these imaginary objects. We are often dumbfounded if anyone suggests these objects aren’t real. The fact that we can’t see or detect any of these things existing independently of our minds should be a broad hint that our minds have invented them, but it doesn’t matter. We simply imagine they exist in some higher dimension, inaccessible to our limited human senses, or that a higher power deliberately hides them from us as a test of faith, or that they simply must exist because they present themselves so powerfully to our imaginations.

None of these things exist other than as subjective constructs in our minds. If we are forced to consider the possibility that this may be true, however, we often react with irrational fury, or scorn, or despair. Consider, for example, the following question posed at Yahoo Answers:

If human life evolved without any input from a higher being, then why does human life, or any life, have value?

In fact, human life did evolve without any input from a higher being.  It is entirely plausible that all of the subjective constructs mentioned above, including the impression that value and higher beings exist as objective things, enhanced the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce. Natural selection can account for the existence of subjective impressions, but it cannot account for the existence of objects corresponding to these impressions that somehow exist independently of the minds that generate them. The answer to the question, then, is no. Neither human life nor any other life has value that exists independently of the subjective impressions in conscious minds. Furthermore, the answer is a natural fact. It represents an “is,” not an “ought.” It implies no “ought” one way or another as a matter of objective fact, for the simple reason that no such “oughts” exist.

Of course, this poses a problem for the questioner. It is unlikely that the illusion of value would do much to enhance our odds of survival if all of us recognized it as an illusion. Evidently it has had that result, however, when imagined as a real thing, an object, existing independently of the mind that imagines it. This, of course, is the reason it has never occurred to the questioner that he is quite capable of assigning value to human life or anything else just as he pleases. In reality, this is the way we have always assigned value, but we have been bamboozled by our minds into believing our assignment of value needs a “higher” validation, via a god or some other imaginary flim-flam. Since we imagine value as a thing, it is always necessary for us to come up with some whimsical reason to explain to ourselves how and why the thing actually exists. Unfortunately, it doesn’t.

The reaction of the questioner to the possibility that the above might be true is typical. He imagines that, if value is just a subjective construct, then we can’t value human life or anything else. You might call it “value nihilism.” However, to embrace “value nihilism,” or “moral nihilism,” for that matter, is to reject Darwin and natural selection. It is tantamount to the suggestion that there is no reason for the existence of subjective constructs such as value, rights, good, and evil. It should be obvious that pieces of paper have no real value. However, if a sufficient number of people share the subjective impression that they are valuable, then they will be very effective as a medium of exchange in spite of that. By the same token, pieces of gold will be ineffective as a medium of exchange if it is generally agreed that they are worthless. Value doesn’t exist as a thing in itself, whether associated with gold or paper, but that doesn’t alter its effectiveness as a subjective result of natural selection.

The same may be said of good and evil. They, too, are subjective impressions that only exist because of the innate predispositions that give rise to them. Like value, they are artifacts of natural selection, and are only effective to the extent that a sufficient number of people agree about what is good and what is evil. That is a fact, an “is,” but the idea that this “is” implies the “ought” of moral nihilism or moral relativity is the purest fantasy. Good and evil aren’t going anywhere. The evolved mental traits that give rise to them spawn a powerful illusion that they are objects, independent of any evolved mental traits. That illusion is just as powerful today as it was eons ago when we were all hunter-gatherers. Let the post-modernists invent as many fairy tales as they like about moral relativity. Then, observe their behavior. They behave as some of the most puritanical moralists in recorded history. Now cast your gaze at the philosophers. Most of them are at least vaguely aware of the connection between morality and natural selection, but it doesn’t matter. The greatest “moral nihilists” among them end by pontificating about our “duties,” and all the things we “ought” to do, completely contradicting all their fine theories. The rest are busy concocting fables to “prove” that the good and evil objects they imagine really do exist.

Since these illusions continue to function just as effectively as they ever have, is there any reason for us to briefly step out of the land of magic into the real world and recognize them for what they really are? There is if we want them to continue to have the same survival benefit as they did in the past. In the modern world the illusions of good and evil have, in effect, become dysfunctional, because they no longer exist in the environment in which they evolved. They will continue to become increasingly dangerous to us, actually posing a threat to our survival, unless we step back, recognize the illusions, and consider how we might go about constructing a moral system that minimizes the danger. By doing so we would not usher in an age of moral nihilism or moral relativity. Moral nihilism and moral relativity are what we have now. The trick is finding a way out of the chaos. My personal preference would be for a morality treated as an absolute, changeable only infrequently according to rules understood and agreed to by all. It seems to me that would be an improvement over the current chaotic process of moving the moral goalposts on an almost daily basis according to the passing whims of whatever ingroup is most adept at manipulating moral emotions that have long since lost their relevance to the environment in which they continue to function.

Again, what I am suggesting here is not some variant of postmodernism. It is more nearly the opposite. I do not believe that truth is socially constructed, or that there is no objective universe existing independently of what I imagine it to be. There are definitely objects and truths out there that exist without regard to whether I believe in them or not. We cannot say with absolute certainty that we know the truth about anything. However, I think we can say it about many things, including things we cannot see, such as subatomic particles, with a high degree of probability that we are right. I have little doubt that atomic bombs actually work, even though I can’t see neutrons. I deem it reasonable to base my actions on what I consider probably true, regardless of the fact that I cannot know that it is true with absolute certainty. I believe in the existence of objects existing independently of my subjective consciousness. It just so happens that the set of those objects does not include unicorns, leprechauns, and Santa Claus, nor does it include value, rights, good and evil. Those things actually are subjective constructs. In my humble opinion, the sooner we come to grips with that reality the better.