I got into another discussion with a xangan about the idea that atheists/naturalists/materialists couldn’t possibly explain something like morality because it must transcend nature, which is no different than saying 2,000 years ago that we must have a supernatural explanation for lightning because a natural one is not currently available. I do not think we should take a stand on a subject based on our own ignorance – “we don’t understand what this is so it must be that” simply doesn’t impress me, any more than a detective saying “I don’t know who committed this crime, so steve did it” would impress a judge, or even the average Law & Order fan.
Morality is not, as I said to this xangan, some ethereal goo that exists somewhere between the soul and the aura. Morality can be generally defined as the things that guide and inhibit human activity – why we do what we do, what makes us tick. And many things fall under that category, some of them nice and useful and some of them nasty and harmful. The most common is probably sympathy, we have what are called mirror neurons in our brains that make us feel what the people around us are feeling. If you see someone in physical pain, you feel psychic pain. This offers both a disincentive toward hurting others and an incentive toward helping people, cooperation, promoting happiness, etc. This is why we tell jokes, we enjoy making other people smile and laugh, cheering them up, even pleasing them sexually – because they are in a very real way an extension of ourselves. We feel their pleasure and pain as if it were our own, and this is a very profound thing. When jesus said “what you do to the least of them you do to me”, people interpret this as some kind of deep mystical comment, but he could have been expressing something as basic and human as sympathy for his fellow man. What hurts you hurts me, because I am connected to you by my nature and because as a sentient being I have concern for the welfare of other sentient beings. As someone who can feel pain and know how unpleasant it is, I believe in preventing and easing suffering.
This is the stuff of morality.
“When I do good, I feel good; when I do bad, I feel bad, and that is my religion.”
– Abraham Lincoln
People for centuries have been trying to get others to do good, or at least what they thought was good. To inspire on one hand and bully on the other. And this is also because of human nature. Our minds are the end product of a gradual process of evolution (sorry fundamentalists, but it’s true). And as a result we have many different gizmos working in our minds simultaneously which make us who we are. One of the more basic ones left over from the days when our ancestors had no higher brain functions is the ability to learn by repetition and stimuli, rather than intelligent thought or imagination. This is the mechanism which allows you to train a dog to do tricks, you punish and reward and it “learns” that x behavior is good and y behavior is bad. This is also how you raise a small child, you use positive and negative reinforcement to make them not piss on the floor like the pets until they’re old enough to learn other forms of right and wrong. But because we have higher brain functions and imagination, these different mechanisms combine and we can react to perceptions of reality and imagined threats or benefits, and not just direct stimulus. As such we can make people conform to behavior (for better or worse) by offering abstract threats like hell, or incentives like heaven.
The ancients knew that lightning hit people, fires burned people, floods drowned people – and diseases, mysterious and terrifying as they were, wiped out entire populations with varying levels of destructiveness. And much like modern people who assign patterns to things in nature, they personified that which they did not understand and took it as gods and devils and spirits inflicting pain on them. Which made them wonder why they would do such things. Maybe the gods were malevolent, maybe they did not exist, and maybe they were displeased with us. So it wasn’t long before people began thinking there might be some kind of retaliation from the powers that be if they do certain things – whether those things be murder or failing to murder the right people. Or not cutting the skin off of the end of your child’s penis, or not performing a certain ceremony. People tried desperately to please the gods and gain some sense of power over their own destiny, and their methods varied dramatically, from animal and human sacrifice to performing harmless rituals, to “god wants you to give me money”. There’s always some grift in the system I suppose.
Various cultures cobbled together a loose understanding of what the gods supposedly wanted from us, partly I’m sure based on superstition, partly based on sympathy and empathy and an idea of the kind of world they wanted to have, partly based on supposed divine revelation. But the people who decided which books were divinely revealed did so based on criteria of their own I’m sure. They had good intentions and bad intentions, selfish intentions, bias, reason and the like, just like people have today. But they codified the morality of the day as “the” morality. And now we are made to think that the only morality is religious morality – which I feel is just a snapshot of human morality. Or do you think a supreme being really thinks setting people on fire is okay or condones slavery?
Sadly most religious people won’t contemplate these ideas because if they question the divine origin of these passages they have to question the rest, which they do not wish to do.
And if you want to follow religious morality then you can do so. But don’t try to set me on fire or own slaves or make others conform to you because at the end of the day, well, what you do to the least of us you do to yourself.