Monthly Archives: March 2014

Have We Flown Evolution’s Perch?

The Moral Landscape is one of those books in which you find little gems of insight that are only tangentially related to the main subject. Here is one of them.

As with mathematics, science, art, and almost everything else that interests us, our modern concerns about meaning and morality have flown the perch built by evolution.

Is this true? Have we really flown the perch?

The Goldfinch (Fabritius, 1654)

The Goldfinch (Fabritius, 1654)

In context, Sam Harris was emphasizing that “the view of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ [he is] advocating … cannot be directly reduced to instinctual drives and evolutionary imperatives.” For example, “The temptation to start each day with several glazed donuts and end it with an extramarital affair might be difficult for some people to resist, for reasons that are easily understood in evolutionary terms, but there are surely better ways to maximize one’s long-term well-being.”

The mechanism of evolution is so simple as to be almost tautological: the fittest survive and reproduce. How could we possibly escape it? Are we not chained to our perch just as securely as Fabritius’s poor goldfinch?

Yes and no.

Evolution has bred many strong drives into us, and those aren’t going away. Harris mentions two: eating fats and sweets, and sexual desires that conflict with inbred sexual jealousies and taboos. Like it or not, most of us will be chained to perches like those for the foreseeable future.

Are we utterly stuck, then?

If we were the only ones evolving, we might be. Fortunately, we host a class of parasites that we have met before on this blog: the memes. You’ll recall that a meme is a unit of cultural evolution: a custom, an idea, etc. Like genes, memes are subject to mutation and recombination. The most successful memes drive their hosts to propagate them. An obvious example is a religion that includes a meme for evangelism.

Our bodies have evolved to the point where our privilege to reproduce (if we so wish) is more or less assured. Thanks our well-developed brains, we have pretty much figured out how to stay alive until the age of reproduction. Now, the evolution of the memes we host affects our lives more than any physical evolution we may be undergoing. Certainly our memes’ evolution is much, much more rapid than our continuing genetic evolution.

A clear example of how memetic evolution now overwhelms the physical is the fact that as women in a culture become more educated, their birth rate drops. (No disrespect to large families here. I have one myself!)

Also consider the rapidly expanding acceptance of homosexual and transgender behavior in the First World. If ever there was a meme that was overwhelming genetic evolution’s countermeasures, that is it!

Finally, consider that the warlike behavior that most people identify with “survival of the fittest” is steadily being replaced by cooperation. (Yes, it’s true.) The memes that produce peaceful behavior and human flourishing are winning. One might cite Vladimir Putin’s recent aggression in Ukraine as a counter-example, but the worldwide outrage over what would have been considered normal behavior 150 years ago only proves my point.

I think this is pretty cool. Evolution, mindless though it may be, has made us wings and cut us free.

 

Moral Health and Physical Health

If you’ve been with me through the last few posts, you know that Sam Harris argues in his book, The Moral Landscape, that questions of right and wrong really come down to questions about the well-being of conscious creatures *. Any other consideration is, by definition, of literally no interest.

This time, I’d like to share an analogy that Dr. Harris uses in support of his view. Here are two quotations from the introduction to his book:

Many readers might wonder how we can base our values on something as difficult to define as “well-being”? It seems to me, however, that the concept of well-being is like the concept of physical health: it resists precise definition, and yet it is indispensable.

…consider how we currently think about food: no one would argue that there must be one right food to eat. And yet there is still an objective difference between healthy food and poison.

Many of us have a strong sense of right and wrong, even absent religious traditions or holy books that supposedly spell it all out. Statements like, “It’s all relative” or, “Anything goes” make us very uncomfortable. The analogy between moral and physical health is a welcome way to ground what we know intuitively. If valid, it neatly questions like these:

  • If we don’t believe in one, God-given moral system, what right do we have to say anything compelling about right and wrong — even to ourselves?
  • How can we be generally tolerant of other people’s moral views, yet take a strong stand against (to take the case that is always trotted out) the views of Hitler?

Analogies usually break down the more you push them, but I think this one is quite strong. What do you think?

* – To belabor a point: “conscious creatures” may include god(s) and “well-being” may incorporate an afterlife. Of course, Harris, an atheist, does not expand the terms in these ways for himself.

In Which Belief Becomes Culture and Gains Respect

Not long after I became a Christian, Hal Lindsey’s book, The Late, Great Planet Earth stormed onto the scene. I well remember being convinced by its interpretation of biblical prophecy — that the world would come to an end within “one generation” of the 1948 founding of Israel. With a biblical generation supposedly being 40 years, that would mean by 1988.

I was not alone. The book was a best-seller and the latest wave of end-times prophecy mania was on. For me, this was a positive experience: God was in control of history and great events were just around the corner.

However, some people are more compassionate than I was and are not as eager for the world to end, as we will see in a moment.

One aspect of end-times prophecy commonly taught in the evangelical church is that the original Temple must be rebuilt before Jesus will return. The original site is where the Dome of the Rock (the famous golden dome of Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Mosque) now stands. Obviously it must be cleared away before the Temple can be rebuilt. Putting two and two together, a sign of the imminent return of Christ must be the destruction of the al-Aqsa Mosque.

The al-Askari Mosque

The al-Askari Mosque

In 2006, the al-Askari mosque in Iraq was bombed. It, too, has (or had) a golden dome. When one of my daughters, who had been brought up in the evangelical church, saw this on the news, she was visibly shaken. “Dad it has begun.”

“What has begun?” I asked.

“The end of the world,” she replied.

I quickly assured her that this was only the al-Askari Mosque in Iraq, and not the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. She was relieved, but as I look back on this episode I am not relieved at all.

First of all, I am ashamed that my daughter was ever afraid of anything because of nonsense she had heard on my watch.

Thankfully, she is past that, but I am still not relieved. I am concerned that millions of people live in fear that the world is about to end. Worse, millions more are looking forward to it — with bad consequences that are beyond the scope of this post.

This fear (or joyful anticipation) is the direct result of religious belief. In American culture, religious belief is accorded an enormous amount of deference.

Suppose a father were to tell his impressionable child, “The world is going to end soon. Before that happens (and it could happen at any moment), you must agree that the Moon is made of cheese and turn your life over to the Man in the Moon. If you don’t, then when the world ends he will fling you into the Outer Darkness for all eternity and you will never see your family again.” We would call such a father abusive, wouldn’t we?

But when an entire evangelical movement says something not unlike that, we don’t call it abuse. We call it “the evangelical culture” and grant it all the respect due any religious opinion in America.

In case you are able to shrug your shoulders at that, I’ll close with a quotation* from Sam Harris’ book, The Moral Landscape. (Warning: graphic content ahead.)

If only one person in the world held down a terrified, struggling, screaming little girl, cut off her genitals with a septic blade, and sewed her back up, leaving only a tiny hole for urine and menstrual flow, the only question would be how severely the person should be punished, and whether the death penalty would be a sufficiently severe sanction. But when millions of people do this, instead of the enormity being magnified millions-fold, suddenly it becomes “culture,” and thereby becomes less, rather than more, horrible, and is even defended by some Western “moral thinkers,” including feminists.

Genital mutilation is not common in America, but can we reflect for a moment on the beliefs we do hold that are in themselves horrible, but have become so widespread that they gain respect as “culture”?

* – The quotation is actually Harris quoting Steven Pinker in The Blank Slate, who was in turn quoting anthropologist Donald Symons.

Speaking Honestly About Belief

What do you think of this statement from Sam Harris’s book, The Moral Landscape?

…people tend not to speak honestly about the nature of belief…

My reaction was to be brought up short: How true! Sam Harris elaborates at length in the book, but here I’d like to give my own perspective.

A Community of Barnacles

A Community of Barnacles

In this context, the word belief is synonymous with faith. It is something you hold to be true, even dear, but which you didn’t arrive at by logic or science. It’s often a matter of trust (another synonym for faith).

I’ll speak of the faith with which I’m most familiar, evangelical Christianity. Most evangelicals came to faith as children, trusting their parents, Sunday School teachers, or camp counselors. When an adult converts, it’s usually the result of a personal crisis — his life is a mess and just when he doesn’t know where to turn, a trusted friend invites him to a Bible study.

Let’s follow the adult convert as his years unwind from there. Christianity offers him something beyond his wildest hopes: the creator of the universe will personally forgive him and love him. He only has to receive the free gift of salvation.

So the miserable sinner takes the leap of faith and becomes what the Bible calls a new creature. His sins are forgiven, and he feels great.

Within this new world-view, everything makes sense. “Yes, I see it now. God is in control of history. The animal sacrifices of the Old Covenant prefigured Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. How glorious! By his blood, a New Covenant was established to make even sinners like me children of God. How fortunate I am to have come into it!”

The new believer goes to church, where he makes many good friends. In fact, he finds he has much more in common with his new friends than with “the world” (as he has learned to call it). After a few years, all of his close friends are fellow Christians.

It is the nature of human beings to be suspicious of outsiders, and the tribe at church is no exception. They warn our hero, “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, … rather than than according to Christ” (Colossians 2:8).

Our friend takes this to heart. He was already socially isolated. Now, with all good intentions, and only half-consciously, he builds a wall around his mind. He does his best to make his faith immovable. He has become a barnacle.

If he has doubts, his seeks to assuage them rather than to follow the evidence wherever it leads. For example, he may wonder, as almost everyone does, “If there’s a God and he is good, why is there so much suffering in the world?” His pastor assures him that suffering and evil are the result of mankind exercising the God-given gift of free will. “God could have made us as robots, but he loves us so much that he gave us free will. We have brought suffering on ourselves by choosing war and other evils, but that is not God’s fault.” This is enough to quiet the mind of our friend who, after all, was not looking to push the issue but to resolve his doubt. He forgets about the suffering caused by natural events; and it does not occur to him that God could have made us free up to a point, setting limits on what he’ll allow us to do to each other just as we may let our children quarrel but not poke each others’ eyes out.

If something reinforces his belief, the believer will accept it without question. He may wonder, as I did, about slavery seemingly practiced with God’s permission in the Bible. His pastor assures him, “God tolerated slavery, but never condoned it. Besides, slavery in the Bible is not the same as slavery in its modern form. It was more like indentured servitude.” Our faithful friend, having done enough critical thinking for one day, continues on his way praising God. It does not occur to him to read the Bible carefully for himself, where he would discover before he had gotten a fifth of the way through that his pastor is lying. (His pastor probably doesn’t even know he’s lying because he, in turn, got his information from any number of evangelical apologists who are no better at doing their homework than he is.)

If all that were not enough, our little barnacle is told that if he ever climbs out of his shell, he will drift forever and never be able to find his old home again: “For in the case of those who have once been enlightened … and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance…. Ground that drinks the rain … and brings forth … thorns and thistles … ends up being burned.” (Hebrews 6:4-8.) If laziness does not keep him in the fold, fear will.

The foregoing is not everyone’s experience, but having spent four decades in the evangelical community, I can tell you that it is typical.

Can we speak honestly about belief? Can we admit that its aim is to preserve itself, rather than to seek truth? Can we see that it is a defensive, inward-looking, gullible mentality in contrast to the open, curious, yet careful stance of freethought at its best?

Having done that, can we agree that it is not a virtue, but a pernicious vice?

Good and Evil vs Well-Being

In his book, The Moral Landscape, Sam Harris asks a provocative question:

What would our world be like if we ceased to worry about “right” and “wrong” or “good” and “evil” and simply acted so as to maximize well-being, our own that that of others? Would we lose anything important?

Surly the strongest objection to Harris’s proposal would come from the religious. Based on my own experience in the evangelical church, I know they would protest that a focus on well-being alone would cause us to miss a relationship with God, which is based on faith, and we would be deaf to those moral truths which are spiritually discerned.

I have already written a post on why I am profoundly skeptical of “spiritual discernment” as a means of discovering truth. I would add to it this thought: if we humans are equipped with an antenna that receives spiritual insights from a supernatural being, it has proven — proven — to be so unreliable as to be useless.

Aside from the fact that the world’s “great faiths” are mutually exclusive, I consider the spiritually discerned “truths” that have been promulgated in my own, evangelical tradition. These would include everything from statements that the Earth was created in 4004 BC to firm announcements that it would end in 2011 AD (as well as by any number of other dates that have passed unremarkably into history). Between those dates, spiritual discernment in its strongest form, direct revelation, has led us to commit genocide and rape, endorse slavery, and even discriminate against the handicapped.

Can we be honest and admit that spiritual discernment does not work?

If you wish to attract people to faith, consider Pope Francis. Although a man of faith, his main focus is on the temporal well-being of the poor and marginalized. Paradoxically, he has done more to attract people to the Catholic faith than his predecessor, who was more focused on what was unique about the faith itself (i.e., its dogmas).

My answer to Sam Harris’s question is that the interests of both the secular and religious would be better-served if we were to focus on universally recognized measures of well-being rather than our own ideas of right and wrong. What do you think?