Posts Tagged ‘social animals’

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: “Selfish Animal, Moral Brain” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, July 3rd, 2011

It settled on me this morning: it basically comes down to getting what I want in the time I have to get it.  This is the summation of the force that propels me through life.  That it’s taken me fifty years to come to this embarrassingly simple truth is probably more remarkable than the apparent crassness of the truth itself.  I call it a “simple” truth, but we’re all grown-up enough to  know that “simple” is not always (read: almost never) the same as “easy”.

I believe that this impulse toward self-satisfaction is the logical extension (into conscious form) of the unconscious impulse toward life that exists on a genetic level.  (I pick “genetic level” for lack of a precise biological baseline where this drive toward life could be confidently described as active.  Saying “atomic level” seems to drive the point beyond any sort of identifiable intention at all, as chemical reactions are seemingly mindless, whereas biological life, mindless or no, appears to express intention.  So I settle, for now, on Dawkin’s notion of the “selfish gene”).  Life, it seems, seeks it’s own continuation through reproduction which — for all the sentiment we attach to the fact that it leads to the creation of future lives that will be lived by other individuals — is an act of self-perpetuation (as those future individuals will carry the propagator’s genes forward).

And I think it’s probably a short cognitive walk from self-perpetuation to self-satisfaction.  (Would it really be surprising that conscious brains that have evolved from mindlessly-driven single-celled organisms should mix self-perpetuation and self-satisfaction into a unified whole?)

We clever humans would never think to attribute selfishness to the profligate reproductive habits of a microscopic organism (even though we might be tempted to attribute malice to a rapidly-evolving virus, say, that vexes our own health).  But we do judge our own human kind by the standards of the social animals that we are, and that’s where the simple becomes the complex.

“All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but all things edify not.” (1 Corinthians 10:23)

Wow.  When even a writer in the New Testament gets this truth right, it must be pretty damn universal.

The "rev" sitting on a rock, awaiting enlightenment.

As I took a break from busy life and sat and followed the progress of a puffy cloud painted in tones of peach by a monsoon-sunset last night, I took stock of how far I’d come in excavating my own desires in life.  For a shy Midwestern boy I’ve done pretty well.  Now this would seem to be the ideal state for anyone who’s tossed money at a therapist at any point: to discover one’s true self as a means of lessening the expenditure of finite emotional resources on fruitless and unsatisfying neurotic demands, freeing those psychic resources for more satisfying pursuits.  But there remains — even after all of that work to free one’s true desires — a problem: everybody else.

For though there is clearly no objective, external “divine” moral standard to be either pleased or feared, we remain social animals living in a society woven of complex relationships.  And even though every single one of our fellow primates is trying to get what he or she wants, the majority of us is going about it in a way so as not to upset the vital social relationships we need in order to get the things we want.  Why?  Because we most generally need others to get those things or, more specifically, we want things from other people or (when it comes to pair bonding) we actually desire the other person.

I’ve stated before (as one who has experienced a rather dramatic declension from Christian faith) that one of the most remarkable things about reality is how little of it actually changes in the transition from religious faith to faithlessness.  I’ve described before how all of the phenomenon that we experience as the “spiritual” continues on as before, even if we call it by another name (because, to be frank, it is all natural phenomenon that we were calling by the wrong name in the first place!)  And now, as I contemplate the structure of social norms and public and private morality as it actually exists (without any help from God), I can finally see just how complex and daunting it is.  It must be, for how many people are there who are actually aggressively going for what they want out of life without any regard for the potential social cost of such a pursuit?

(The short answer could be “too damn many” as a greedy Wall Street fund manager comes to mind, or a rapist or the constant threat of the socio- and psychopathic among us.  But let’s leave those aside for now.)

I’m struck by the moderating power of our natural sense of morality, all the more impressive when we consider that it is naturally evolved in us and continually enforced by only itself (in each individual consciousness).  We do, indeed, have a conscience.  The problem is, of course, that we also have desires that are incompatible with that conscience.  Isn’t this interesting?  That both the animal desire and the checks on that desire are wired into our own mammalian brain?

That is our reality.  That is the simple truth that lives in the house next door to the other simple truth I began with: our natural impulse to get what we want in the time we have is checked within our own consciousness by the moderating awareness of our vulnerability to isolation by our fellow primates.  We really do have an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other.  (And all of that without having to invent a God to explain it all.)

Understanding evolution — and allowing that understanding to inform the way we live our lives — does not, therefore, lead to the collapse of morality and society that the religious demand that it would.  (I don’t doubt that they sincerely believe one would lead to the other, but they are sincerely wrong).

But does it make sense that we should have come to have this sort of “split personality”?  Sure, at least in evolutionary terms.  There is nothing in what we know of the way that evolution works to suggest that our animal brain and social conscience should end up in complete harmony of purpose.  Survival requires only success, not perfection.  Why shouldn’t our consciousness be a mix of new and old, layered one upon another, just as our evolved bodies are upright walking forms built upon the body plan of an earlier fish (with all of the benefits and structural problems such a transition would suggest)?

Understanding things such as this in evolutionary terms does not necessarily offer us any path out of the limits of our moral state, anymore than realizing that we evolved from fish should free us to fly like birds.  Like most knowledge, this bit does not alter the reality that we live in.  What alters is our perception of that reality and ourselves, which can lead to more of our life’s finite allotment of time, energy and attention being spent on more satisfying pursuits, within the limits of a society made up of naturally moral animals.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “The Loneliness of the Human Animal” by the not so revered bob

Sunday, October 31st, 2010

I keep harping on about we humans being “social animals” because my understanding of just what that actually means continues to deepen (as it has again this week).

We are — it seems to me — more than just social animals.  We are profoundly social, in the sense of the word’s definition as “coming from, reaching to, or situated at a depth” or “all encompassing”.  One could almost call it a pathology were it not so “normal” to us.

According to some primate researchers, it is just this over-abundance of sociability that has set us apart from our living primate cousins by driving us to become the speaking, marrying, educating-our-young, society-building creatures that we are.

And I use the term “driving” advisedly:  So deep is our social need that we have domesticated a wide range of our fellow animals to keep us company (more than that, to be our friends: we have taken the wild wolf, for example, and turned it into a loyal canine companion that — uniquely among other animals — is able to interpret our intentions with as little as a pointed finger for an indicator)!

The dark side to our profoundly social nature is our capacity for deep loneliness and anxiety.

It does not take much time alone (or apart from the bustle of a community) to get an immediate reinforcement of our soft physical vulnerability to danger in the form of weather or accident (vulnerabilities that we have been successful at ameliorating through cooperative societies and technology).  But just as threatening to our sense of well being (and, at times, our physical well-being as well) is our emotional vulnerability.  For even the lone wolf owes his very existence to the social bonding of the pack (and may well need the pack to survive).

Surely our primitive ancestors came early to an awareness of how small and soft we are compared to other creatures and nature in general, and that even the edges of our known world were only the beginnings of others that we could not fully explore.

We mistrust other humans that lack sociability, from attachment-compromised children that confound our attempts to overcome their inability to bond to the socio- and psychopathic who just don’t care about their fellow humans the way that we do.  We count on — in truth have to rely on — others feeling the way we do about things (and thereby assume a great deal about the intentions of others, becoming easily unnerved when proven wrong).

Out of loneliness we created God: a constant companion that is never far away (except when we need him to be).  And yet we shun those who display a naked need for others.  Neediness triggers repugnance, like a familiar suddenly made strange by a contagious disease.  We admire the loner, even as we romanticize his or her isolation from others (and the attendant imagined freedom from social responsibilities).

And we marry — we seek out the most intimate bond available to us (cushioned by ritual and supported by society, myth and media) yet are crushed to find that even this cannot completely obliterate the yawning void of loneliness for every place and time.

We are so powerful compared to any other animal with technology to keep us safe, warm, fed and productive.  With science we penetrate the wilds around us and the distances beyond our view to comfort ourselves with understandings and wonders of biology and scientific exploration (in the process — not altogether without irony — eroding the comforts of our pre-scientific world views).  But nothing changes about us: us large-brained, social primates hungry for touch and understanding and communion.

In the endless biological horse-trading of evolution and natural selection, then, it turns out that we ache as the price of our progress.

It is our constant teetering on the edge of debilitating loneliness that makes us what we are, and though we work constantly to bend our path away from the edge of the abyss, the abyss never leaves us.

This, I think, is one of the greatest challenges to living in an age of science and evidence.  For most of our human history (and continuing today) we have hung a picture of God (or gods or spirits or what have you) over the ever-present hole in our living room wall — the hole through which we catch the occasional glimpse of the vastness of the universe; where everything that we cannot control awaits; where we are forced to confront a sense of evolutionary/cosmic/geological time that stretches back so far it is practically impossible for our in-the-moment-survival-primate-brains to fully comprehend; where the facts of biology make it ever harder to hold on to a belief that we humans are what the universe had in mind when the earth was forming; and (most chilling of all) that we are, indeed, as alone in the universe as we feared we might be.

Of course no neatly-framed picture (no matter what attributes we may ascribe to it) can answer any of the questions posed by the great void ever-lurking outside the hole it is meant to hide from our view.  The picture may save us from staring the void in the eye a few dozen times every day, but the very fact we have to hang something there is itself a reminder of what lies beyond (and that our deeper psyche will not forget).

I suspect that I have harbored an un-expressed hope that I could overcome the chill of that “void” by looking right into that damn hole and figuring it out.  And I can attest that that approach has borne some fruit.  But reading as much science as I have has also led to two other things, (one of which has followed the other):  1) It has brought me up to date with a general sense of what we now know in science and; 2) It has shown me the limits of what we know, as well as a sense of the limits of what we can ever know compared to the totality of what is to be discovered (or what the writer Christopher Hitchens refers to as our process of “knowing less and less about more and more”).

Still, I would rather my yawning ignorance be the better informed kind.  If this life is “all I have”, I would rather be conscious of that and thereby spend what time, talent and energy I do have exploring that life for all it is worth.  I would rather not take the comfort of myths that numb and, perhaps, serve in the end to only deepen my fear of the unknown.

To put it another way, I choose (as best I am able) to not cover up the hole in my own existential living room wall.  I work on my courage to look right into it, to make peace with it, to live in solidarity with every other living thing on this planet whose fate is no different than mine.  I work to be open to the wonder of that, and the satisfaction it brings to my profoundly social self.  This blog is the expression and documentation of my experience of this journey that we all share.  For whatever the ups and downs, successes and failures of our social bonds in our daily lives, we are, truly, a part of a community beyond numbering made up of every living thing that has ever walked, crawled, slithered, swum or flown across this planet.

In other words, I leave the hole in the wall just as it is, and decorate around it.  For even the existential loneliness that is the wolf ever-dogging the heels of we the most sociable of animals is something that we all share.  And it is the baying of that wolf that can, at times, make the moments of warmth and comfort in the company of our fellow humans so much more to be treasured.  The loneliness of the human animal is not a flaw nor a weakness (nor a sin or the result of any fall from grace): it is the inescapable expression of the social urge that makes us who and what we are.

t..n.s.r. bob