The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

God and Moral Societies

Took Jason to the emergency room yesterday. He'd fallen from our little Jungle Gym, and cracked his head on concrete. Ugh. Strange: he was totally lethargic until throwing up at the hospital, then suddenly all his energy came back. The doctor said he might have a small concussion, but sent him home with instructions to look in on him every two hours. By this morning, we were tired, but happy: he's fine.


There is a minor flurry of comments on Facebook dealing with the "debate" between O'Reilly and Dawkins on evolutionary ethics or something. Basically, the question of whether God is necessary to the creation of an ethical society. More specifically, the question of religion and morality. Look. I think that the two circles called "Religious" and "Moral" overlap nicely. But then so do the circles called "atheist" or "pagan" and "Moral." Not that there is no connection, but that those on either side of the issue take the position that they are the morally superior folks.

While you most certainly can create a society without a singular or anthropomorphic deity, I'm not sure there are any societies without some Cosmological theories. What is the world? What are the stars? What is it all about? Where did I come from and where will I go when I die? These questions are so basic that attempts to answer them are more common than the Hero's Journey. But are God-centered answers necessary to morality? Don't think so. However, I think they are incredibly valuable tools for the development of a moral perspective, and a spiritual approach to life.

Can one develop morality without this? Yes. And those who cannot believe this are merely displaying their own narrow, rigid thinking. As efficiently? I have no data, but would suspect that, since such beliefs (and the word belief is definitely not used in a pejorative fashion here) are so universal, I think that it might be MUCH easier to develop a moral society if the average person believes there is an old man in the sky looking over their shoulder.

The question is: if there is no God, why should we not steal, kill, rape, and bear false witness? Anyone who asks this question is REALLY saying: "without God, I myself would find it difficult to stop myself from doing these things." Personally, it seems to me that there are multiple streams of meaning, multiple perspectives on What It All Means. If I believe in God, whatever major religion I accept, my behavior is pretty similar, given similar environments. Then there are non-deity based "religions" that look at "Mother Nature" or "ultimate truth" or "Gaia" as spiritual nexuses. And then there are others who look specifically to evolutionary biology for answers. And they all, to one end or another, work. I guess I've never understood what the difficulty was. Killing? Stealing? I want to live in a society where human life is valued, and property respected and it would seem to me that the easiest way to guide a society is to lead by example. In other words, if you don't do it, it is hypocritical to criticize other people for doing what you do not do.

Life is easiest, simplest when you are congruent: your words, thoughts and behaviors all moving in the same direction. Rape? Same thing: respect for the boundaries of others increases your ability to maintain your own. False witness? A society that does not discourage lying will have a hard time functioning. At the very least, I myself prefer to live in a society where, if someone tells me my house is on fire, I have reason to believe it.

These things just aren't difficult. On the other hand, it is perfectly reasonable to ask why every society evolves spiritual beliefs if there is no spiritual realm. First of all, I'm not saying there is no such realm--anyone who has been reading this blog for any period will know that ain't me. I don't limit spirituality to Christianity, however, which makes some people say I'm not a Christian. I could care less what they think: what I am, and how I see the word, is between me and my soul. Period. But I think that these things are fairly universal because the easiest answer for a child or unsophisticated thinker who asks "why should I be good?" is "because God is watching." It just flat works. Children live in a world in which adults have magical powers, and produce food, shelter, transportation and entertainment from apparent thin air. Taking the step to believing in God is tiny. As they age, they should be exposed to increasingly deep and wide views of morality, life, and the ethical structure of the universe. As adults, their basic moral structure should be deeply inculcated.

I think that, ideally, your moral structure should be utterly independent of the question of "is there? Or isn't there?" a God. This relates to the thingie called "Enlightenment." All the spiritual disciplines that propose a path to this state seem to pave that road with morals and ethics. It is vital, because by the time you awaken, the strictures of society and religion no longer control you, and you are governed only by whatever deep structures exist in your consciousness. You do what you do because you do it. You are what you are when no one is watching. It's just you and the truth of your existence.

Those who are afraid of themselves, who believe that at the core of their being is something ugly and brutal, will fear this. Those who believe that at the core of humanity is a positive force will be less so. None of this relates to the question of whether or not there is a God, or if so which God should be worshipped. Just what purpose morality and ethics serves...and most of the time, it seems to relate to the creation of a stable society in which children have a good chance of growing and thriving. But do we NEED God to create moral individuals? The evidence says no. Do we need it to create moral societies?

The jury is out. I suspect that it actually might be necessary to create them...but not to sustain them. What do you think?


Steve Perry said...

Well, I think that since you've already determined that you can't reasonably argue about politics and change any minds, might as well move onto a more contentious topic, like religion.

Diet and exercise, racism, politics, religion, abortion, the death penalty, gun control, best beer. Turn over those rocks, you are gonna get some real many-legged creepie-crawlies ...

Don't get me wrong. Prodding a sleeping bear with a stick can be most enlightening, and it's always good to know where the other people around you stand on such things; still, as debate topics, best you set aside the notion that Minds Will Be Changed if that's lurking about ...

Dave said...

God is needed for societies and individuals at a conventional operational level of development and below. Spiral Dynamics: blue, mythic-absolutist level. Chakras: third, intentional-mind, power chakra. Average age of emergence for individuals is at age seven to twelve. Individuals and societies at formal operational level and higher (orange and fourth chakra and up) don't need conventional God-in-second-person so much. Read Ken Wilber for full explanation.

Scott said...

Most of that sort of thing seems to come from fear of death and intolerance for uncertainty.

I accidentally cracked my college roommate's cosmic egg with the afterlife conversation; told him that a hundred years ago there was no trace of me in the universe; sometime in the future, same; no ghosts or heaven or hell or reincarnation... sorry, man.

AF1 said...

I can just imagine the wait times at an LA area emergency room. Sorry to hear about Jason, hope he's ok.

suzanne said...

using that bearded old man in the sky
watching your every move
abnd ready to punish
is the lazy way to induce a sense of Right Action in children
and anyone else
and a close reading of the monotheistic sacred literatures
indicates leess than good moral behavior by god

Anonymous said...

I pretty much agree with what S.M. Stirling posted in another forum on this subject;

Morals exist — but they exist within human heads and nowhere else. They’re feelings and opinions; entirely subjective, and largely the arbitrary result of cultural evolution through history… which like the biological form, is pretty random within the limits of natural law.

In other words, if you’d been born in another time and place, or if history had taken a different contingent path, you’d have different moral assumptions.
I make moral judgements all the time, like every other human being; we can no more help doing that than we can speak or think without using metaphors.

But just as literalizing a metaphor (eg., “the brain is like a computer”) is a bad idea, so is fetishizing your subjective emotional states and the socialization reflexes you internalized at your mother’s knee or in school.
There is no connection between “is” and “ought”; a shnattering discovery made during the First Sophistic and periodically brought to general attention again, often with amusingly drastic results.

We can prove what “is”, to a limited extent. You can never prove what “ought” to be.

Whenever you take the dissecting scalpel to an attempt to derive normative positions from things in the “is” category (Bentham or Rorty’s, for example), you come across hidden gaps, and ultimately a “well, because it just IS right to feel/do/believe that”, sort of the equivalent of “because God said so”.

You can trace the evolutionary roots of altruism (and selfishness), for instance. But you can’t get from that to saying why any individual human being should -want- to behave either way in any given situation.

Values aren’t something you think, though like anything else you can think about them. They’re something you -feel-.

For example, you can say that “enslavement is bad because it makes people suffer unjustly”, which is true.

But that argument has no comeback to the counter: “Why should I care if other people suffer unjustly?”

In point of fact I -do- care if other people suffer unjustly.

But that’s because at a critical latency period in my childhood my parents taught me to do so.

If I hadn’t been exposed to that instruction at the crucial period, or if I’d been born without that potential path in my synapses, I’d be a sociopath and simply wouldn’t care. And so would you.

Christian Lindke said...

I think that the development of morality needs some sort of transcendent construct to frame the concepts that underlie it.

At some point there must be some standard, an objective yet simultaneously circumstantially malleable one, by which to judge the morality of an action.

Morality without objective standards is "Will" and not "Morality." One must be willing to live with choices they might otherwise not choose because they are "better" choices.

Whether the objectivity comes from reason, revelation, education, is of less importance than that the concepts be constant enough for social stability.

It it better if they are true, but that they are objective is necessary for a peaceful society.

So...if by God you mean a transcendent objective standard, then yes there needs to be a God.

If by God you mean a cloud dwelling tyrant who beats up bad boys and girls, then no.

Marty S said...

Morality is completely subjective. If you picked 100 acts that are commonly discussed and had everybody vote on whether the act was moral there would be few if any where agreement was 100% and more of them would have considerable opinion on both sides.

Master Plan said...

Given that we've a wide variety of religions, and that those religions in their multitudinous splendor are practiced (sometimes a bit differently from place to place) in a wide variety of cultures and that there is no unifying (ie, specific) morality in them I find it hard to buy that God is required to create a moral system.

If God is required for morality and He\She\It\They exist then certainly we couldn't have such questions, right?

Unless of course one or more God(s) are not really real. Of course if that was the case then what of those that lead moral lives but follow a (conjecturally) false God? Are they now immoral?

I suspect not.

Similarly if we find what might be generalized as "moral" behavior across various religious and cultural groups I would think that is a strong indicator that no single deity or (and this is really the important part, imo) *organized religion* has any sort of single correct take on what morality might be.

Altruism seems to exist in a biological level if I'm reading those pop-science reports correctly. Maternal behavior (well, not ALL of it, but...) can be found in the biology. Jokes, communication, mores, forming packs\societies, etc, these all seem pretty wired in to humans and indeed are what makes us human (in that we kinda need these societies and their accompanying cultures to survive and thrive) and that all seems to (again if I'm reading those NYT poorly sourced blurbs correctly) be pretty well rooted in biology.

Further, provided that God(s, etc) did\does exist and that there is a single defacto "Right!" morality I would expect this morality to be reflected in the state of the universe (I mean what kind of douchebag God creates a universal system and then doesn't tell anybody about it but still holds them accountable for following it?) that is, if God exists and has a morality he'd like us to follow I expect you could work it out as an individual from first principles and arrive at the same place as some other guy somewhere else working from first principles.

This is sorta like how most martial arts have punches in them. First principles.

In fact, were God(s, etc) to exist, and were such a universal morality to exist, wouldn't it make sense for Him (Her, etc) to wire it right in to our biology?

I would think so. Humans are relatively empathic (think how many people cry or get stirred up at movies, which we KNOW are fucking fake as shit when we sit down) most of us don't like to hurt other people, like to take care of those in pain, etc, etc.

Isn't that morality? Isn't that biology?

Aren't they basically the same thing in the end?

I don't tend to think of right and wrong as really being terribly difficult to figure out at a basic level.

Custom, tradition, law, these are all different sorts of things, but for the most part that same essential morality (be nice, take care of each other, work hard) seems to be present in most of them that I'm familiar with.

So while we might argue about if pigs are really to be eaten. Or if women should cover their hair. Or if crack is "good" or "bad" (I think it's a chemical personally). Or whatever, that doesn't honestly seem much like *morality* to me.

Except the Objectivists I suppose. And fuck those guys! They are one their own! ;-D

I think it's much like healthcare and foreign policy, folks get lost in and confused by the details and then they mix those details up with morality, when in fact they are just policy decisions. Morality isn't that hard.

It's keeping from confusing morality with things it is not and trying to extend morality to situations where there is no actual Right and Wrong to be had that seems tricky for human beings. But I don't think that means morality has to be very tricky.

Mike Ralls said...

> Altruism seems to exist in a biological level <
>I would expect this morality to be reflected in the state of the universe<

A very fascinating experiment was done recently with self-programing robots;

Robot Evolution: Evil vs Good

The Laboratory of Intelligent Systems in the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, using an army of mini robots fitted with neural circuitry have been looking at the basis of good and evil. These robots were released in a “zone” with illuminated food and poison areas. Food areas charged the robots batteries while the poison areas depleted their batteries.

After a given time the robots were shutdown and those with the most charge were deemed successful. The programing of these robots was combined and downloaded into the next generation of robots. This process was repeated many times. The “offspring” software was downloaded into the existing robots once inhabited by their parents. A closed-circuit Buddhist style system of reincarnation that would give any robot philosopher one heck of a headache.

Fifty generations later the robots started forming co-operative communities, assisting the others find the food and avoid the poison. That was to be expected. What was not expected was truly amazing. Some robots went “rogue” and lured robots to the poison, identified the poison as food to the suckered robot and while the robot “died” the rogue went off to the actual food. More amazing still, is the fact that some robots would charge off into the poison zones and ward off other robots even as it was dying itself.

Does this prove that morality is fundamental in nature to the human condition, and what other behaviors will emerge as this experiment continues? I will definitely keep an eye on this experiment.


To me this experiment suggests that altruism and selfishness or even good and evil as commonly defined are not just built into biology, but built into the very nature of the universe itself for any creature of any type that evolves. Quite fascinating.

Steven Barnes said...

That's a dynamite experiment. Thank you!

Josh Jasper said...

Some people would say that in doing good, you're expressing the nature of God in your actions. I prefer that to the "if there's no God, there's no morality" argument.

Pagan Topologist said...

Mike, that experiment needs to be continued longer. I suspect that the behaviour you described will be mostly selected out over the long run, since it is not a viable strategy except for a small fraction of the robot population.

Marty S said...

Actually I'm not sure that the whole experiment with the robots means anything. The evolutionary algorithms work is that the humans who create the software start the process off with a set of "genes" which express the population of options the designer thinks appropriate. The evolutionary process selects from these genes depending upon a scoring system devised by the designer. So in truth the eventual result reflects the designer more than some innate nature of the universe.

Mike Ralls said...

>will be mostly selected out over the long run, since it is not a viable strategy except for a small fraction of the robot population.<

The problem arrises is that the larger % of "good" robots there are, the larger the rewards are for any bad robots (because with fewer bad robots, the good robots spend fewer resources looking for bad robots, hence the bad robots are more likely to get away with tricks and get rewarded for cheating). And the more rewards the bad robots get, the more they get to reproduce their bad programing in the next generation. This means that while the % of evil robots may grow and shrink, it will never go away.

From _Evil Genes_
pg 259. “Evolution involves a pattern of spreading into unfilled niches by using different strategies. People with different emotional makeups use different strategies, and so, in a sense, emotions themselves are subject to evolutionary pressures.”

Sociopath's have not been bread out of the human race because there are a number of instances where being a sociopath is the best survival strategy. I don't see why this wouldn't be the case with the robots in the experiment.

Both good (altruism) and evil (selfishness) are viable evolutionary strategies. The fact that a majority may go one way, does not mean that it is not a viable strategy for the minority.

Mike Ralls said...

>a set of "genes" which express the population of options the designer thinks appropriate. The evolutionary process selects from these genes depending upon a scoring system devised by the designer.<

From what I read, the robots randomly changed various parts of their programing, their "genes" if you will. And then the successful robots (who ate the most power) were transferred to the next generation and the ones who didn't weren't and their "genes" were deleted from future generations. After a whole bunch of generations, the robots were doing things that the programmers never expected because their own random programing was producing new programs. That doesn't sound like you can say it was all the programmers doing in that experiment, because the robots were programing themselves.

Marty S said...

Mike: The statement they randomly change their program is some what misleading. Typically in evolutionary methods their is a gene for a particular action. Any complex goals require many actions so many genes are needed. So the genes are combined into chromosomes which contain several to many genes. Randomness comes into the process in several ways. One each robot is initially assigned at random one of the possible actions for each gene. After the the fittest survivors of the first generation are chosen,they mate with each other. Mating consists of forming a new chromosome for the offspring by in some fashion randomly selecting which genes come from each of the parents. But the original actions for each gene that are randomly selected among are the actions the designer thought should be considered.

Pagan Topologist said...

I have had a bit of an insight on this question, after contemplating it for a week. I am going to post it over on Darkush, since this post is seven days old and many people will not read anything posted here.

Pagan Topologist said...

Sorry. I posted my response on 5MM.

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