The Origin of Morality

In theistic / non-theistic debates, the short list of contentious topics invariably includes the issue of morality. More specifically, how does the non-believer know what is right and wrong without the edicts from the supernatural? Many enlightened theists acknowledge that [their particular] religion is not the sole arbiter of morality. Other, less enlightened, theists proclaim that non-believers, by definition, are variously amoral, immoral, degenerate or evil. In a recent discussion that on-line discussion, a newspaper letter writer stated (as though factual) that “atheists deny God to justify their degenerate lifestyle”. I must say that I cannot resist confronting the rantings of a bigoted simpleton so I jumped into the conversation. You can read it here. The letter writer was, pretty much, universally condemned, but there were those that thought the letter writer “was hinting at” a bigger, important question. If you read his original comments; it is clear that he was not asking questions, but rather condemning and demonizing…all with no evidence.

That conversation seemed to winnow itself down to two or three contributors, so I suggested that we move the conversation here. The ‘Cliff’s Notes’ of my part in that conversation is a follows:

My contention is that the core impulses that our advanced brain interprets as ethics and morality are evolutionary traits. To my mind, the concept of “The Golden Rule” or “Do unto others …” is the distillation of [what is known as] reciprocal altruism. I have the great fortune to have a very good body of empirical knowledge on the matter to back up my contention that morality (or at least proto-morality) exists in other higher species and not only pre-dates Christianity, but predates our species. In fact, every species tested for altruistic traits or empathetic behavior exhibited such traits.

Such a contention is in stark conflict with theistic claims that human-kind was created uniquely and separately from other animal species, created in God’s image and imbued with special privileges, responsibilities, and concepts of right and wrong. (Just calling the human species an ‘animal’ is offensive to some). I don’t have a problem with the last concept…that we, possibly uniquely, know the ethereal philosophical concepts of right and wrong, but the evidence shows that other species also know right and wrong even if those other species don’t understand the concepts. Our mutated larger brain allows us the ponder such abstract concepts to, apparently, the exclusion of all others.

Nicholas Wade (a science reporter for the New York Times) had a nice distillation of some of the empirical evidence that we have. He writes:

“Some animals are surprisingly sensitive to the plight of others. Chimpanzees, who cannot swim, have drowned in zoo moats trying to save others. Given the chance to get food by pulling a chain that would also deliver an electric shock to a companion, rhesus monkeys will starve themselves for several days.”

These are just two examples of many that show actions that benefit others with no direct benefit to the actor. It is hard to take those types of behaviors and paint them with something that does NOT include core components of (what humans would call) ethics, morality, and empathy.

In these discussions, I do NOT take the stance that “Morality IS an evolutionary trait and you are stupid to think otherwise”. My stance is that the theory that morality is an evolved trait makes sense and has broad empirical evidence that supports it. I only feel this is worthwhile to discuss because there are some that will dismiss the evidence that there is (if they know about it) and claim that their particular deity is responsible for right and wrong. This, in itself, is perfectly within the rights of any person to believe. The rub comes when, by extension of their theistic claim of ownership of morality, the theist demonizes non-believers by claiming that, by denial of their religious creed, the non-believer is (as I said before) variously amoral, immoral, degenerate or evil. This stance victimizes a segment of society that is demonstrably as moral and ethical (sometimes more so) based on NO EVIDENCE BEYOND A BRONZE-AGE TEXT. This latter position, I consider to be immoral in itself. I operate on this simple code: "If there is a victim to my actions, then it is probably wrong". Demonizing a person or a group without warrant creates a victim, hence it is wrong.

Book Review: “On Being Certain: Believing You Are Rights Even When You’re Not” by Robert A. Burton, M.D.

Book Review: “On Being Certain: Believing You Are Rights Even When You’re Not” by Robert A. Burton, M.D.

In my theistic discussions; I am often fascinated (stymied) at the level of certainty that some theists have in the validity of their religious narrative…often in the face of clear contradictory empirical evidence. Over the years, I have taken a keen interest in neurology and how the brain works; enough so that I have a passing regret for not having gone into neurology instead of engineering (it’s never too late, right?). Over these years, I have amassed a mental library of various illustrations that show how malleable and unreliable the mind (as manifested in the brain) can be. Still; the inexplicable certainty that some possess was never addressed directly in my readings. Hence, when I saw a brief blurb about the book “On Being Certain”, I immediately went and bought a copy (my library had ordered it, but they did not yet have it ready for lending).

Dr. Burton’s sole focus of “On Being Certain” is that sense of certainty that we all recognize. He provides evidence that the feeling (or ‘emotion’ more accurately) is a ‘primary emotion’ and refers to it as the “feeling of knowing” (he did not shorten it to an acronym, I think, because of the obvious, awkward acronym that would result).

Burton cites the rapidly accumulating knowledge that we have with regard to brain function and perception to good end. The less diligent reader, though, might not find the reading deeply satisfying as we cannot, based on our current knowledge, fully answer specific questions (i.e. why do we create gods to address the unknown). Still, the empirical evidence cited is often clearly in conflict with some common presumptions. This, in my mind, is the true purpose of the empirical method. While we may be unable to answer a specific, granular question on a topic, we can effectively eliminate the wrong answers…and Burton’s book does go a long way in eliminating some of those wrong answers (at least for those open to empirical evidence).

One interesting point Burton makes is there are some emotions that we can induce through direct electrical stimulation of very specific regions of the brain. One example is the “sense of another presence” (i.e. that there is someone or something nearby). Another example is the disruption/manipulation of the “sense of self” where we can feel separate from our bodies (floating) or feel “at one” with our surroundings. The point of his book, of course, is that “feeling of knowing” which can be elicited through electrical stimulation. Burton calls these “primary emotions” and are localized to very specific areas of the brain. On the other hand, we have no evidence of being able to similarly induce higher order emotions such as the “sense of irony”. Burton effectively demonstrates how these primary emotions (particularly the “feeling of knowing”) do not necessarily reliably correlate with facts or reality.

Reading the book, while mentally critiquing it, is a bit of a mobius-like conundrum. You are simultaneously judging and amassing knowledge, while you are reading about how your judgment and knowledge is not reliable. WHEW! I will confess; I feel that Burton, on one or two occasions, overstepped the implications of bits of evidence. In his defense, the book was written for a more general audience and some background that might have been omitted might justify his positions. In all, the book offers some fascinating insights as to how our brains and minds work and an astute reader can learn much from it.