Posts Tagged ‘Ethics’

SERMON: “A Sense of Meaning” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, January 20th, 2013

While walking on the treadmill at the gym, I watched a morning news feel-good story about an American military neurosurgeon who was haunted by an Iraq War patient he had treated.  The soldier that landed on his operating table was “the most horribly wounded soldier” the surgeon had ever seen.  But they patched up his terrible head wound and shipped him off to Germany.  Years later, the doctor was ready to re-visit his war experience.  He Googled the name of the soldier he was sure had died of his wounds and, to his surprise, the man popped up in a T.V. interview, very much alive.

The news story then showed video from that interview of a man who looked as if someone had scooped out a third of his brain and replaced a portion of his formerly-round skull with a sunken flat plate.  But the soldier could walk and talk, despite having lost a chunk of his frontal lobe.

And though the soldier was “not up to another interview” (for this current report), there were still-pictures of him and his neurosurgeon meeting.  The doctor reported (after) that he had asked his former patient what I thought was a deeply insightful question: was he happy that he had survived?  The soldier answered that, yes, he was.

This was a powerful moment.  About as profound as can be imagined.  But, of course, these kinds of news stories aren’t really about the profound (or disturbing) aspects of these stories: they are meant to be inspirational, aspirational, “feel-good” tales of that type that allows you and I to easily borrow some added confidence (in our own resilience) from hearing of the experiences of someone who’s been through real shit.

But I don’t feel good when I watch a story like this.  I see the lingering, daily struggle (that is the long shadow of the original tragedy) that looms over the “happy ending” that we are all supposed to assent to — and move on from — having snatched up our bit of “borrowed courage”.  (I felt the same way about all of the cheering for the slightest progress of Representative Gabby Giffords after she was shot in the head).

As I watched the story of the “recovered” soldier this morning, I reflexively uttered “Goddamn war”, expressing a deep revulsion at the idea that sentient individuals had worked together to create the conditions of war under which a strong, physically able young man was suddenly and irrevocably stripped of a large chunk of his capacities.

But even as I said that, I realized that other humans were very likely watching this story and having equally strong emotional reactions that were going to be the complete opposite of mine.  Some might feel a sweeping sense of admiration for the soldier, or awe at the doctor’s skill, or anger at the bastards that set off the road-side bomb that wounded the soldier.  In short, each of us who react to a story react according to different sets of moral triggers.  As Jonathon Haidt describes so well in “The Righteous Mind” (reviewed this blog), we humans fall into one of several categories on that score (meaning that — when presented with a moral dilemma — though many of us will react in similar ways, we are not safe to assume that all humans will react in the same way we do).

Everywhere you look there is, well, our physical reality.

Everywhere you look there is, well, our physical reality.

Despite this natural variation in our moral response, in practice I think that we all pretty much assume that our moral centers are the ones that are properly calibrated, and so we are often surprised when the obvious wrong that outrages us don’t elicit the same outrage in others.  This is abundantly clear in politics and social values, where, as an example, an evangelical conservative might see abortion as the moral equivalent of institutionalized genocide, yet be mystified by a progressive who sees the denial of the right of a gay citizen to marry as the equivalent of denying an African American of his legal rights because of his race.

So it would seem that the thing that we all have in common is not the particular moral issue we react to, but the strength of the reactions we have to events that outrage (or inspire) us.

It is clear to me that we are “feeling” animals.  And I would take this further and suggest today that it these sorts of experiences — when our deep emotions are attached to experiences — that are, to my mind, the source of all that we might possibly define as “meaning”.

Each of us, if pressed, could probably write out a list of the things that make life “meaningful”.  I suspect that these would be the activities (or traits) that we feel the most strongly about.  We might put on that list “a sense of purpose”, or “love”, or “meaningful work” or “kindness”.  These are the kinds of things that make us feel good in a way that we see as different from the simple satisfying of a hunger for food or a lust for sex.  These are the kinds of things that give us a specific kind of feeling — that sense of well-being that comes from a regular experience of the “higher” emotions.

What do I mean when I argue that it is the welding of our “higher” emotions to experience that forms the basis for meaning in our lives?  I realize that we might be hesitant to grant this rather mechanical-sounding point, as one of the things that makes our “higher” emotions, well, “higher” is that we attribute to them a certain transcendent quality.  Part of the reason they have such an elevated influence on us is that they come upon us in ways that are most often rare and wondrous.  They are harder to generate than the simpler pleasures of eating our favorite snack or watching our favorite t.v. show.  Like everything else, their rarity makes them precious and highly valued.  And like everything else of value, it almost follows as axiomatic that we will try to manufacture these most desired feelings (the “feel good” story I relate above is a perfect example of this).

Now to a religious person, all of this may simply sound like me trying to drag the realm of the angels down to earth.  (That’s just silly, of course, because no actual angels will be harmed by this sermon).  But many do seriously believe that a materialistic view of life (meaning that there is nothing about our experience of life that happens outside of natural processes, whether understood or not) leads to a cheapening of human life.  I hardly think this is the case, but it’s worth taking a serious look at this important point.

The fear of a materialistic view is, I think, twofold: The first being that a loss of external (divine) validation will weaken the moral bonds that moderate bad human behavior.  The second fear is that our experience of the transcendent will simply cease (this fear being a reflection of just how much we value these experiences and feelings).  Both of these fears are rooted in the assumption that morality and transcendent experience are purely products of God, of which we are passive recipients and respondents: i.e. we are not the source.

Were this to be an accurate description of reality, these fears would, indeed, be reasonable and completely valid (for then it would be true that if God were to go away, then with Him would go our treasured morality and ecstatic experience! ) But here is the tricky part of this transition from what is, essentially, our habitual practice of dislocating portions of our consciousness from inside the brain to outside of our physical selves: if we can allow ourselves to entertain the possibility that our experience of existence is actually a process occurring within the confines of our body and brain, then this deep fear of this great loss becomes meaningless and moot.  If we can allow ourselves this shift — what I would call a returning of our dislocated self to it’s true location, what actually changes is more akin to moving some colored pins on a map than actually moving any actual nations or landmasses.  Nothing essential actually changes (or goes away).  We are simply thinking about our experiences differently.

To be honest, it might be worth saying here that even when I locate (or conceptualize) my self within my physical body, I still experience my thoughts and feelings in a sort of imagined space in that body — meaning that I’m not actually sensing where each synapse or nerve is functioning when I think or feel.  So it could be argued that I am quibbling over swapping one conceptually useful inaccuracy for another, more useful one!  So why even bother with it?

As I’ve asserted before, recognizing that you and I only get this one chance at being living, breathing human beings reveals, to my mind, a truer value of life.  There is no hiding our naked vulnerability in “heavenly rewards” or “the next life”.  (Yes, our DNA carries on in our children, and our component elemental parts will be “recycled” once we no longer require them in our living bodies, but we will most likely not go on living forever as the individuals we were in life reborn by God in newly-minted heavenly bodies).

I think that — when it comes to the conscious individual experience of existence — this one life is all we get.  And it reasonably follows that there is nothing intelligent “out there” to either rely on or worry about.  An unexpected result of this word-view is the fact that I now recoil at human tragedy like I never did when I was trying so hard to be a Christian.  (Some of that may be a function of age and experience, but my Darwinian world-view is surely a large part of the equation).

None of this diminishes the value that our emotions place upon the things that are meaningful to us.  To think that would be silly as well.  Sure, what you and I value means nothing to the rest of the vast, cold universe.  So what?  (I mean that: so what?).  That also means that the rest of the vast, cold universe is incapable of passing even the slightest judgement upon us for feeling our feelings as we do (for every loss there is also gain).  We are what we are.  And a great deal of what we are is our capacity to feel deeply about things that matter to us.

All living things want to keep on living.  But we are the only animals that want — no, need — to live meaningful lives as well.  It could be argued, I think, that it is a sense of meaning that fuels our capacity to want to continue living.  And the fact that this matters to us as much as it does is, in the end, all the justification we need.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “The Source of Morality” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, January 13th, 2013

I think it’s safe to say that most people — when they ponder the issue of right and wrong — think of morality as having a basis in revealed knowledge.  (Think of the “Ten Commandments” and the way that conservatives repeatedly point to them as the “Judeo-Christian foundation” of all that is good and lawful about the United States of America).

But there are a few of us (in addition to the scientists and evolutionary psychologists who study such things) that hold the view that human morality and ethics are not rooted in revelations divine, but are naturally-evolved expressions of the never-ending search for a balance between our deeply social — and incurably selfish — natures.  The rules we live by are basically the socially-active tools we employ to get as much as we can for ourselves (and our clan) without arousing countering forces from other individuals and groups.  In short, this is what cooperation is all about.  And from cooperation flows the altruism that marks the “above and beyond” behaviors that qualify as “generous” on the scorecards of human behavior.

Those who see morality as “revealed” strongly believe that anything short of a heavenly, eternal, and immutable source for right and wrong would simply prove unequal to the task of maintaining social order.  And so they believe that were the external, revealed (read: Heavenly) authority for our social rules to prove non-existent, morality would instantly lose all meaning (and, therefore, all of it’s power to regulate human behavior).  Little wonder, then, that they hold so fast to the belief that God is behind everything.

But instead of  being the actual state of morality’s affairs, this is much more a case where the belief in a divine moral source itself can, in some ways, create the reality it claims already exists.  In short, the belief precedes the reality that is held up as proof for the belief itself.  For, according to many writers, the codes of religion developed as a way to (among other aims) make people behave better when no-one was physically watching them (as populations grew, and spread beyond direct supervisory control).  I think this makes sense: the invisible, distant God is the perfect spy (the “inescapable tyrant” as Christopher Hitchens called it) that we can never really be sure is not watching our every move (and, even better, hearing our every secret thought).

Everything evolves, even ideas of right and wrong.

Everything evolves, even ideas of right and wrong.

So it could well be that, upon a sudden mass realization that God does not exist (and, therefore, that morality is not sacralized by his imprint) a good many people might decide to run amok.  I think that this would be a short-lived phenomena, as those who behaved in a lawless manner would shortly run into serious legal and interpersonal issues of a very present, human kind (unless, of course, it became a society-wide collapse, which would be a much more serious issue, albeit one that occurs — one should note — with regularity in human societies, and that with God still firmly in his Heaven).

But on the other side of the fence (from the religiously inclined) are those who believe that we can use our reason to create a better system of ethics without God as the source.  I think this is correct, up to a point.  But sometimes those who eschew God as a source can go wrong if what they are really proposing is a belief that there exists in nature a perfect law that we can discover and align ourselves with.  As philosophers have noted, this is not much different from the religious seeking a revealed source to bulk up an authoritative claim for a particular brand of morality, only in this case the revelation is sought in nature.  Both are locked into a quest for an ultimate, unquestionable moral authority.

The fundamental problem we must contend with is that ethics and morality, which are really an evolved (and evolving) social tool for (evolved and evolving) social animals, exist in a natural world that is ever only “balanced” in an ever-shifting-mid-point-between-competing-forces sort of way.  Nothing is fixed in this world.  And that, I’m afraid, applies to morality as well.

If we are honest with ourselves, the truth of the relativity of morality is evident all around (and within) us.  Almost every sin we can conceive of exists on a sliding moral scale, even the most heinous ones (such as murder which can, in certain circumstances, be “justified”).  We cry for justice and plead for mercy with equal vigor.  (This is why we have juries to decide issues that, were they truly black and white, would require no deliberation at all).

The upshot of this reality is that with morality — as with our interactions with our natural environment — the best that we can do is to limit the inputs into the system that are pushing things out of “balance”, and hope that the adjustments we make are wise ones so that the ever-swinging pendulum swings in a more constrained, sustainable arc.

With humans this means combating the obvious abuses that increase human misery, and attempting to encourage the positive actions that provide opportunity for more and more humans to have meaningful lives.  (Now just exactly what makes a human life meaningful is going to have many different definitions to different people.  But this is part of the complexity of life that makes the idea of a sort of revealed universal morality so suspect: it won’t work equally well for all peoples everywhere).

So it seems that the best we can do is, well, the best that we can do.  Abandoning the idea of perfect law (whether given by God or revealed by nature) is a good start.  At least then we are starting off from a semi-solid common-grounding in reality.

So I don’t think humankind needs any new “holy books” or revelations.  And our future does not lie in our past.  Human morality and beliefs have been evolving for fifty-thousand years, and even the great religious world views that have imprinted themselves on our moral minds (and seem to be permanent cultural fixtures) had a beginning, a middle, and may one day have an “end”.  If they do end, they will not leave a world without ethics and morality (just as they did not come to a world without ethics and morality).  They will, like the systems of belief that preceded them, simply be replaced by the next and (one assumes) somewhat superior system.

People get pretty damn spun-up around morality.  We become indignant, outraged, ready to bring down the hammer of heaven upon those who flout our laws.  We could stand to calm down a bit.  Not so that we can coast off into lawlessness, but so that we can be more humane and effective in our legislation and enforcement of law.  And also that we may begin to appreciate just how much we humans have accomplished in creating the complex, cooperative societies that we have.  We’ve come a long way, baby, and when we accept a touch of humility in this area, we are rewarded with an earned sense of pride.  Even if it’s not God given.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “The Self” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, June 3rd, 2012

It’s an old saw about military boot camp: they have to break you down as a civilian before they can rebuild you as a soldier.  But what is it, exactly, that they are “breaking down”?

The stated purpose of military training is to develop in soldiers the capacity to act first and ask questions later.  It’s not unlike the way that a parent might hope to inculcate an immediate response to “no” in a child so that any number of potential dangers can be averted — touching a boiling pot on the stove, running into a busy street, annoying an unfamiliar dog.

And yet we also have the idea that one shouldn’t “break” a child’s spirit in the pursuit of this kind of obedience.

Clearly we carry a sense of what it means to have a “self”, and that it is a part of us that is both essential and — to some degree — subject to influence.

One of the things researchers look for in other animals is whether they have a “theory of mind” like we humans do (meaning, in short, that they understand on some level that the other animal that they are interacting with has a mind that is having its own equivalent thoughts).

We humans develop this “theory of mind” in spades, and the theory goes that we evolved such large brains in no small part because of the need to be able to read the minds of others.  Almost everything about our cognition (that isn’t geared to basic metabolic survival) can seem to be geared toward figuring out the intentions other people (and animals).  I think that this kind of thinking is so integral to us that we don’t even realize how important it is to our sense of self.

What am I really saying here?  Let me offer this example: There are many who sincerely believe that the basis of human morality is divine law, and that without the knowledge of good and evil that is given us by God, we would be cast adrift in a lawless universe, and that every individual would, in an instant, revert to rape, robbery, murder and mayhem.  Therefore, they rightfully (at least according to their world view) fear any suggestion that a) God may not exist, or; b) that morality is at all relative, or human-based.

As a young man, I joined the Coast Guard, and experienced the reshaping of self that is military boot camp.

Now what does the above example have to do with our highly complex social sense?  I use it as an example of how that social sense has been conceptually displaced from its actual location (in our psyche) and transferred to God as the focus of its activity.  We may, in practice, behave more morally in order to please the all-knowing God of our imagination, but what we are really doing is acting as a profoundly social animal could be expected to act (with or without divine supervision): engaging in only as much selfish behavior as one can get away with without damaging essential, personal relationships.  The only difference here is that we have personified (in an external way) that part of our consciousness that is our “conscience” — meaning the level of our brain with which we carry on a conversation when we “talk to ourselves” or pray out loud.

Let’s talk about the “self” that we converse with in this manner.  The dynamic is essentially the same as if we were interacting with another human being, and that is my point:  We are moral animals because we want — no — we need to get along with our fellow moral animals.  And we have come to understand (at some point in our distant past) that we will all be much better off if we behave ourselves in a civilized manner (meaning that we respect certain group-defined limits on our selfish behavior).

And this is where our sense of our “self” and the self-limiting conscience of the “social self” come together.

For our sense of self is, to a large degree, a collection of ideas about our own personality (and moral sense) that we have gathered to ourselves over the years of our maturation.  And where do most of those ideas come from?  From the way other people have responded to us.  Someone tells us that we’re pretty, or smart, or funny, and we take that to heart (our brains are hard-wired to believe what others in our social circle tell us first, and only question it later — hence the enormous potential power of the abuser that — in order to gain control of another — tells them they are ugly, stupid or unworthy in some way).

Those that are in the business (or hobby) of selling religion are really offering a balm to the wounds that a “self” is almost sure to pick up over time.  They also offer a ready absolution (or, at least, a path to atonement) for that nagging sense of selfishness that is inherent in an animal that — no matter the modern trappings — must still feed itself and see to its basic survival needs in a most primal (selfish?) manner.

(But since we are all in the same existential boat, we humans extend to each other the polite fictions and euphemisms with which we cloak the naked fact that in order to live we have to, for instance, physically consume other life, be it vegetable or animal).

But we humans need to do this for each other, as the other animals seem not to be troubled with self-awareness in the way that we are. ( Which is why — one can assume — ants don’t need religion).

All of this leads, I think, to a certain natural instability in our sense of self.  In order to be as responsive as it is to the nuances of the behavior of others, it must sacrifice a certain degree of solidity — like the narrow-bottomed canoe designed for maneuverability in white water will not be stable in placid lake waters like one designed for such use with a wide, flat bottom.

It’s impossible to know what is in anothers mind, though we know enough to know that there is certainly something going on in there.  I figure that we all live somewhere on a continuum of psychic stability, from those that have a more simple cognitive framework that is resistant to self doubt, to those that have troubled minds that make the maintenance of a stable sense of self rather tricky.  We all have friends or family that are troubled my mental or physical illness, which can also challenge the strongest sense of self.

The journey of discovering my own self has been an interesting one.  Like many, I tried on the self of the Christian believer.  I even took a stab at being one of those re-shaped by military boot camp.  But in my quest to dig down to some existential bedrock upon which to stand as my self, I have, instead, come to an increasing realization that there is no bedrock to us at all.  How can there be when we are these temporal physical beings whose entire experience of the world is mediated through an organ of flesh and electrical impulses?

It’s a troubling thought, that.  And troubling thoughts are kryponite to a coherent sense of self.  For no matter what sins we commit (or what sins are done to us), we humans have a deep, abiding, and survival-level need to maintain a coherent sense of ourselves (just notice how hard we work to restore our preferred sense of ourselves as decent people when we have behaved badly or wronged another person in our social circle).  And this is why it matters so much what the other humans we live around think of us.  They are, in fact, the only mirrors that give us glimpses of how we come across from the outside.

There are those who say they don’t care what other people think of them.  We all nod in agreement and envy them, even if we don’t quite believe them.  The reality is that a certain amount of social power or financial success can seem to insulate the self from the power of the bad opinions of others.  But fortunes can change very quickly, and our dramas are full of stories of the suddenly rich “nice guy” that then becomes an asshole, but then loses everything and has to win back all the friends that he pissed off in his hubris (and who he now needs again).

In my case I’ve come to the conclusion that the inherent sensitivities and instabilities in my own temperament are part of what enables my creativity and artistry to be so delightfully responsive and acute — just as the most aerobatic of aircraft are the most inherently unstable in straight and level flight.  (There is a reason, after all, that artists are naturally seen as living on the social margins).

But we are all vulnerable creatures.  It is only a question of degree (just as I think that artistic talent is simply our natural problem-solving ability cranked up a few notches, and not some otherworldly ability).

Whether or not we choose to recognize it, everything we do contains an almost automatic, quiet calculation of the social cost or benefit of that particular action.  To admit this seems crass, but it is the reality that underlies the smooth social functioning of a bunch of social animals like ourselves.

And that is why I don’t think that we would stop behaving morally if God were to suddenly pack up his tents and ride off across the cosmic desert.  Sure, there would be a bunch of former uptight believers who might cut loose a bit, but they would instantly discover that it was never really God who was keeping them in line at all, but their own precious sense of self, and the very real humans who would very quickly let it be known that an asshole is an asshole, whether God is in his Heaven or not.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “The Law of the Lord” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, September 18th, 2011

A Family Portrait...

“The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple.”  (Psalm 19:7, King James Version)

In the argument from belief, the subject of morality inevitably arises.  It is usually framed as a question about the validity of any morality that is subjectively formed (as human morality is theorized to have evolved — through natural means — as part of a suite of human social behaviors).  From the religious believer’s point of view, such an “earth-based” morality has no valid claim on any individual because that morality is relative and subject to change over time.  In contrast, a universal morality that is believed to exist beyond human consciousness and held to be eternal and unchanging can, in contrast, claim a certain ultimate authority over human behavior.  Of course, the creator of this law is God himself and, as the bumper sticker says “God said it.  I believe it.  That settles it.”

The problems with this second view are numerous.  For one it fails to answer the question it claims to: is the law the law because God created it, or does God endorse the law because it is (and has always been) the law?  (This is similar to the problem with claiming that God is the answer to the question of eternity, which inevitably leads to the old “What existed before God?” or “Where, then, did God come from?”   questions.  God, it turns out, gets us no closer to penetrating the depths of time than anything else).

But the major problem with the idea of an unchanging morality is that it cannot be shown to exist in reality.  There do appear to be some fairly universal features to human morality, and from this apologists for the divine draw confirmation of the Creator’s hand in human existence.  On the other hand, however, is the ever-growing body of evidence that morality is not exclusively the domain of us humans, but exists on a graduated scale across a wide spectrum of biological life.  And within that spectrum, not all that we would call “morality” requires any great level of animal consciousness for it to be useful in organism-to-organism interactions (cooperation, sacrifice, defense of blood kin, etc.).  But among social primates (as well as the higher mammals) the roots of our human morality are clearly on display.  This can mean that either God has given some sort of moral sense to soul-less animals, or that our morality is as naturally-derived as that of our ape cousins.  The evidence speaks pretty clearly, I think, in support of the latter.

But the larger problem with claiming that one is an adherent to an eternal, ultimate morality is that there is no way around the reality that all morality is understood and applied in a relativistic manner: Exceptions are always made even for the harshest of laws.  Therefore morality is never applied (nor employed) evenly.

The believer would argue that this is simply due to the weakness of humans as compared to the purity of God.  Be that as it may, the upshot of this is that even the law of God, it turns out, is — in practice — relative.

Of course this makes complete sense if you take the more realistic (or materialistic) view that morality is a part of our suite of evolved human behaviors.  Morality is, and always has been, part and parcel of the way in which profoundly social animals define both themselves and others within a group (be it a family, a town or a nation).  Morality (and it’s relative, ethics) consists of certain innate (and learned) rules that are necessarily flexible.  Tests have clearly shown that we apply rules more strictly to a stranger or someone outside of our own political or social group, and give those we know the benefit of the doubt.  Our system of jury trials recognizes this, and therefore trusts a smaller (enforced) social unit (the jury) to speak for the larger community.

Why not simply pick one person to judge all of the cases all of the time?  The answer to that question, I think, points to the recognition (by the wiser among us) of the flexibility of morality as practiced in our daily lives, as well as the danger of having a justice system that sees everything in an unreal “black and white” way.  Of course, many people believe in their hearts that this is precisely how a righteous God wants us to see transgressions!  And yet even within such rigid belief systems, there is (in the Christian tradition) Jesus, the Son of God who intercedes on behalf of us sinners, as well as the Holy Spirit that can enter into our sinful soul and guide us to a life more pleasing to God. (And we haven’t even touched upon the Angels that protect us and the saints that incline their ears toward our prayers).

The good news in all of this religious mythology is that the essence of humanity is still expressed, even as religion claims to be unsullied by such earthly influences.

One of my favorite examples is from the last presidential election.  When Sarah Palin, a conservative with genuine evangelical street cred, revealed that her daughter Bristol was pregnant (and not married) Sarah was not taken to task by her religious brethren.  Why not?  This was sexual sin, pure and simple.  But wait: the boy was going to marry the young pregnant girl (do the right thing), and mom Palin stood by her wayward daughter (which was instantly held to be an example of her own expression of God’s mercy).  Because Sarah Palin was unquestionably part of the family of God, God’s family stood by her and her daughter and, hence, no impartial, unequivocal justice was demanded.

“Black and white” morality was, in this case, flexible.

Yet I somehow doubt that such understanding would have been granted to the opposing side had one of the Obama girls turned up pregnant.

Why not?  Because morality is relative.

On one level, this event speaks to our enduring tribal nature (of which religion is a rather more expansive expression).  But on another level, it reveals that even among the believers in Absolute Truth and God’s Avenging Justice, a basic humanity persists: exceptions were made for another member of the tribe, a member of the family.  Mercy trumped Law.

I suppose one could argue that the process I’ve alluded to is not proof of the relativity of morality, but an affirmation of the strength of it.  But let us look at one more thing.

We have a sliding (read: relative) social standard for what we call “generosity”.  We expect those with more to be more generous.  This is part of our unwritten social contract.  But since generosity is not always universal, we have formed governments with tax structures and bureaucracies that enforce a sort of State generosity on both the willing and the unwilling alike.  As Americans this social welfare system causes us to struggle with our Puritan impulse to be generous only with those that are worthy of our labors.  Yet Jesus’ definition of generosity was not similarly proscribed.  According to his aspirational vision, if you have a coat and see someone who doesn’t, you are supposed to give away your coat.  No questions asked.  That’s the deal.  (Of course that now puts the other person in the position you were just in, so I suppose she should give the coat back, and you can keep trading it back and forth until Christ comes back).

For if we really took a view of generosity anything like Jesus, none of us would be driving cars and living in big houses.  We’d be giving it all away so some naked, sick and sunburned soul in sub-Saharan Africa could have a sheet of tin over his head and a scrap of meat for dinner.  But we don’t do that.

The reality of it is that we see to our own needs first, and define both those needs (and the need for expressions of generosity) within our immediate social situation.  So a Hollywood star can spend an hour making a public service commercial and call it “giving back” for the millions they spend on their own lifestyle each year.  But this is just an extreme example.  We each navigate these tricky waters every day of our lives.  Perhaps that is why part of the appeal of religious belief is the baldly impossible moral standard it sets for us money-earning apes.

And that is why it makes so much more sense to see ourselves as the selfish-yet-social evolved primates that we are.  It is about the only way that our behavior (both good and bad) makes sense.  I have long held that it is never God (nor the fear of God) that truly makes man moral, it is the practical need to get along with our tribe, our community, that exerts the most powerful influence on personal behavior.  Compared to that pressure, the law — the morality — of God ranks as a far-distant second.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Doing the Right Thing, or, What’s an Ape to do?” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, December 5th, 2010

Heading to art school at age 20. What have I learned since then?

A young musician friend sat down at my table at the coffee shop with a request for some advice.  It always releases happy chemicals in me when I’m able to generate a little extra benefit from my years of experience finding my own path as both an artist and a human being — it feels like a free bonus for work I’ve already done.

His question was about motivation.  More specifically, the how of actually getting a project finished.  I took in a breath to answer, but found myself stumped for a few moments, as the “archivist” in my brain rapidly pulled up all of the potentially-related truths and beliefs and bits of advice that I had relied on during different epochs of my life: the pronouncements of a psychic figured heavily, as well as past beliefs about the value of personal authenticity and notions of a pre-ordained “purpose” to each life.

The interesting (if not unsettling) thing about this was that I no longer believed any of that stuff.  So the first thing out of my mouth was:  “I don’t know anything anymore”.

Of course that’s not true.  I know a lot about a lot of things, but when it came to the specific mental trigger of “meaning” or “purpose” that my young friend’s question tickled in my brain case, I was at a loss.  It was only when I switched from the existential to my experience as a productive working artist that the fog of phantom belief began to lift, and I was able (finally) to use my brain (more effectively) to move back in time and begin comparing and contrasting the experiences, feelings and outcomes of the 20-year old Bob with the 51-year old Bob.

In the end, I was able to be of help, and seemed to hit upon a bit of perspective that produced that satisfying light in my young friend’s eyes that told me I’d done a bit of good.

Reflecting on the experience today, I’m reminded of an idea I wrote about in recent weeks: that our “wondrous” brain actually has a filing system that responds reflexively to incoming stimuli by pulling out of memory anything that seems remotely related to the current pressing need.  What our frontal lobes (or whatever part of the brain is active in the “meaning” realm) do with that data is try to make sense of the memories that are tossed up like mad from our archives.

(It is the existence of this mental process that has birthed an entire self-help guru industry that will help us interpret our dreams, old memories and what-have-you.  But I am more and more convinced that what is dredged up by our mental archivist — or archivists, not to slight however many neurons are assigned this duty — from our day to day experiences  has no “meaning” beyond sharing a subject heading with whatever we are experiencing in the moment.)

This makes perfect sense when we step back and look at ourselves as part of the continuum of the animal kingdom.  (Though I now wonder if “kingdom” isn’t another of those terms that just feeds our natural tendency to think of ourselves as animal “royalty”, if we think of ourselves as animals at all!)  Big chunks of our brain energy are dedicated to doing what every brain in every animal does: sense danger and escape it.  The rest is what we do between death scares.  (And we civilized humans, at least in the nicer parts of the world, have a LOT of time fill between moments of fearing for our lives!).

Which brings me to morality and ethics.

It’s become clear to me that even the most dogmatic religious believers (those that hold that there is only a single, clear, unequivocal and eternal moral code established by an omnipotent and unchanging deity) actually operate, daily, on an entire suite of moral codes, picking and choosing depending upon the context (be it social cost, danger to health or income, or whether someone is watching us at the time).

For an easy example, take Sarah Palin and her “Dancing With The Stars” daughter Bristol:  As avowed (and fully-credentialed) Evangelical Christians (mother and — presumably — daughter), their moral code clearly states that sex before marriage is a sin.  Yet once the fact of pregnancy confirms the sin, a second code kicks in, and justice takes a back seat to a stern mercy, wherein (of certain second-tier behaviors are followed) the code is considered to retain the power of it’s inviolability.  In this case, Bristol chose NOT to abort (Ding! Ding! goes the tote-board).  Add to this her mother’s social standing in the Evangelical community (Ding! Ding!).  Add in that Bristol and the baby’s father are going to get married to have the baby (Ding! Ding! Ding!), and all was suddenly (and with barely a ripple) forgiven.

I expect some to argue that this is not an example of the swapping of one moral code for another, but more an expression of a universal understanding of “If A occurs, follow steps 1-5.  If problem is not resolved, move on to plan B”.  And I agree.  Any one who’s ever served on a jury understands (or so I’d like to believe) the difference between cold-blooded murder and killing in self-defense.  Yet religious codes are famous for saying “Thou Shalt Not Kill” without mentioning the contextual niceties that we naturally bring to each actual case.  One of my big problems with the overtly religious is the cognitive split they maintain between what they say they believe and what they actually do.  Ah, but that has been annoying ethical humans forever, so we’ll let that pass for now.

Ethical humans.  Hmm.  We give ourselves a lot of credit for our sense of morality and ethics, and this has become one of the battlegrounds of late between those that accept the reality of evolution and those that cling to a creationist view: the former citing that our morality is a naturally-evolved capacity that makes sense for the social primates that we are; the latter determined that we wouldn’t know right from wrong if a god in the sky hadn’t pointed out the difference to us through the teachable moment of Eve and the apple.

But I’m taking a step back from even that argument as I consider that our sense of morality and ethics isn’t really any more highly developed (or any more reliable) than anything else in our animal lives.  Having unhitched my moral wagon from any external belief system, it’s been interesting to watch it in action.  For one thing, my actions have not taken a turn one way or the other.  I am, after all, still a very social animal who has to live and work in a complex community of social animals: if I suddenly took to acting like a complete ass, the quality of my life would plummet in a very short time.  It is in my interest to behave morally.

So what I am left, then, to contemplate is the stripping away of my posturing about morality and ethics.  With no super-natural force compelling me to behave morally, what am I about when I express my disapproval of another human’s behavior?

Morality is, and has always been, a social code.  The only leverage we have on another human’s behavior is their own innate social sense that tells them that acting like an ass will get them beat up, or not get them a mating opportunity, or get them shut out of a social group.  And it is highly unsettling for us social animals to run across another of our kind that just doesn’t give a shit what we think, or seems completely comfortable just taking things, running red lights, cutting in line, murdering other humans, etc.

So when I write about what I think people ought to be doing, I’m carrying out my cooperative, instructive role in creating and maintaining a moral society, which is, in effect, a cooperative society.  Why?  So that I can get what I want!

We know now (or we should) that even our altruism is just a way of building social capital that happens to take a longer view of things.  Almost every nicety we express could be thought of as social “grooming” behavior.

The religious purist would balk (or barf) at such an idea as just the kind of relativistic evil that must be resisted in order to maintain any sense of human beings special status in The Creation.

Well, we’re special enough without that claptrap.  I like humans a lot.  I like being with them, grooming with them, sharing meals, making up entertainments with talented others, having sex with them.  I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

Yet I can’t help but see that we are a voracious species that has achieved such a level of success that we are very likely to eat our way right out of our place on this planet.  (If you are aware of just a handful of the facts on fuel use, food-species depletion and the like, the writing on the wall ain’t good for our continued global-level success).

So where does that leave our morality?  Our ethics?

We are the ape that can reflect and notice that we’re over-doing things and try to convince our fellow apes that we should back off a bit.  We are the only animal that would attempt this.  Alaskan Orcas ran out of whales to eat (thanks to us), and then moved on to seals.  But after they ate their way through the seals, they had to move on to smaller game, and are now gobbling up sea otters.  So no other creature on earth would stop to think about what lesser food species it’s eating into oblivion, not even as it lay dying of starvation when it ran out of things to eat.

We think about it, but I don’t know what we can really do about it.  For whatever we say about our morality and ethics, we are animals born with a drive to live (like any other organism on this planet).  I think the only rational appeal, then, is one toward moderation of consumption.  But such moderation is only going to make sense if humans understand their actual place in the natural world, which brings us back to the idea of morality as a form of social capital: where it is in our animal self-interest to behave cooperatively in a way that may diminish our immediate wealth yet increase our chances at living longer — albeit more modest — lives.

But we are also sneaky primates, and no-one wants to be made the fool for giving up something when others are just going to keep on taking.  Everyone has an intuitive grasp on this idea.

You see, we really do all understand our in-born animal instincts.  And stripping away a bit of the hyperbole about our nobility doesn’t change the issues of survival we all face.

We may not have much control over the future, really.  We may end up done in by our own success.  The earth (and life, to be sure) will go on until our sun finally explodes or the next great extinction event re-shuffles the deck.  But in the meantime, I’d sure like it if more of us could see things as they are and make the best practical decisions for all concerned.  That seems like (dare I say it?) the right thing to do.

t.n.s.r. bob

REVUES FROM THE REV: “The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason” by Sam Harris

Sunday, January 31st, 2010

This is among what I call the four essential books in the current discussion of reason in a world seemingly nuts for fundamentalist religious faith.  I’d read Harris “Letter to a Christian Nation” and found it heartfelt, masterfully written and worthy of a read by every American.  Having read Hitchens, Dawkins and Dennett I thought I knew what to expect from Harris, but I was immediately surprised.  What begins as a clear and reasoned (and convincing) case that the complete abolition of religious faith would do us humans a world of good, then becomes a treatise on human ethics.  I wasn’t expecting that, but kept on reading, as I have a keen interest in human morality and ethics and how and why we came upon them.  For as Harris briefly states: the one thing that evolutionary psychology has done is show that our ethics are completely our own (meaning NOT from God).  Harris then takes another turn about a third of the way from the end, and launches into a discussion of meditation and the possibility that what we call the human sense of “self” (or “soul”) might transcend our physical death.  I found this odd, and not just for his sales pitch for meditation that is best learned (it seems) from experienced teachers.  I also found it strange that after 2/3rds of a book that boldly reveals the very real and present danger to our species that irrational faith presents Harris is hanging on to the idea that our consciousness can survive the death of the body and brain.  Of course, we don’t know what happens after we die, but I have a difficult time imagining where my soul would possibly go.

That being said, the first (and major) part of the book lives up perfectly to its title.  It is a daunting challenge when one is presented by the sheer scope and force of human “faith”, and the un-imaginable human resources that are tied up in its continuance.  What many of these authors are getting at (and what Harris comes right out and says) is that the so-called “moderates” of any belief system are, in essence, not truly representative of the religions they espouse.  It is the Fundamentalist who is determined to not pick and choose between the uplifting and horrific verses in their chosen holy text.  He also states the (often ignored) obvious:  it is the most fundamental truth about the three major religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) that they fundamentally cannot co-exist or make accommodations for each other.  They all three make exclusive and comprehensives claims to being THE truth.  This made my heart sink, because it is absolutely true.  The only reason us Americans do not live in a Christian Theocracy (under an “American Taliban”) is because our fundamentalist fellow citizens are diluted by a marginally secular culture.  And I say “marginally” advisedly, for Harris also points out the degree to which even American institutions and laws are still guided by Biblical tenants.  It’s disheartening to read this and find no fact to blunt its impact.  It’s then simply frightening to realize that — as backwards as we Americans are in terms of Faith — there is an entire region of the world stuck in the 14th century (in terms of Faith) that is in possession of 21st century technology and weapons.  There is really going to be no living with them, as the true followers of Islam cannot rest until every living human either believes as they do, or is forced to live under their religious laws.

It’s been a long time since someone was hanged for heresy in the west, but in Islam, it is still a simple law that to leave the faith is to suffer physical death.  How do we combat that level of irrational belief?

Harris touches on an interesting idea that I’ve not read before, and it refers to the kinds of spiritual practices that developed in “the East”.  In the midst of his pitch for the superiority of Eastern practices such as meditation, he makes the valid point that even meditation techniques are evidence-based (one “observes” one’s own feeling/thinking state), and supply a set of tools that can be employed by anyone and require no belief in an over-arching deity.  But the more interesting point is that these philosophies and practices were able to develop in a part of the world that was not dominated by the three major monotheistic religions!  I’d never thought of that — the East was not held back in their exploration by the rigid troika of Islam, Judaism and Christianity.  Lucky them!

So there you have it.  I’ve told you my criticisms, but the first big chunk of this book is an important read.  Plus, I’ve never read a book that had so many precisely distilled and quotable statements about us humans and our religions (his succinct summation of ethics as being what comes into play when we hold the power to do another good or harm, for example).  It’s a bold and necessary book for us and our survival.  The only remaining problem we are left with is: what can we do with the knowledge this book gives us?

the not-so-reverend bob