The nature of morality

A recent New Scientist special was examining the role of religion in human evolution.  The research that had been undertaken demonstrated that the search for what they described as “super agents” (those factors which influence the environment in ways that we cannot immediately see) was innate.  It suggested that children at pre-language ages were able to differentiate between inanimate objects that were moving through time and space and animals and humans who moved for particular purposes.  It also suggested that children naturally look for super-agents – ie. those elements within their environment that are causing particular effects.  They posited the notion of a “natural religion” in all children; a drive to find purpose or meaning and to ascribe cause and effect to larger events and, interestingly, the idea that these super agents have greater knowledge or awareness than the humans around them.  The article focused on the difference between this faculty, which appears to be innate, and the belief in notions like Santa Claus.  The authors’ response to the notion that religion is a child like superstition that we should grow out of in a similar way to the belief in Santa Claus (as many scientists/atheists believe) , was that there are no examples of adults who previously did not believe in Santa Claus reasoning their way into an adult decision to believe in him, yet there are plenty of examples of adults who previously did not believe in religion reasoning their way in later life into a belief.  Thus, belief in intelligent purpose or design does not appear to be an evolutionary regression.  Further articles highlighted the fundamental role that religion has played in the evolution of society, in allowing groups of individuals to come together for a greater purpose than individual self-interest and to co-operate on collective enterprises.

Thinking about this, it is easy to forget how much of our society is constructed on trust and reciprocity.  Indeed our whole financial system operates on this basis.  We can travel all round the world, produce pieces of paper and based on a system of trust, people give us items and services in return.  They have no way of knowing individually whether we are trustworthy but collectively they trust.  When you consider the role that this trust and reciprocity play in our lives it is quite astonishing how much co-operation and trust exists.

One interesting mini-article also looked at atheism.  It pointed out research showing that atheists are the least trusted among religious people, more so than advocates of a different religion.  It quoted John Locke, the seventeenth century philosopher, who suggested that atheists could not be trusted because their lack of belief in god rendered them incapable of having their word or promise believed in, in short, they because they could not be trusted.  What seemed clear from the research and articles was that the belief in a natural religion preceded indoctrination in any particular religion; that the religion that individuals then adopted was simply the framework that fitted their predilection for a belief in a greater purpose.

In reading the article about atheism, I was curious to understand why atheists should be so universally mistrusted and certainly why the concern was that atheists threatened morality and co-operation.  Most religious viewpoints and certainly the “natural religion” that the scientists noted was based on a notion of a power which sees all our actions no matter whether they might be visible to others or the external world.  Jonathan Haidt makes the point in his excellent book, The Happiness Hypothesis, that all social animals rely on the concept of reciprocity.  You act to help others because it is in your interests to do so because then others (not necessarily those directly affected) will reciprocate by helping you.  He demonstrated this through the example of vampire bats who, after hunting, share the blood they have accumulated with bats who have not left the cave.  The difficulty, he suggested, is how to deal with those who freeload or take advantage of the system because of personal physical power or as away of avoiding work.  In human terms, Haidt suggested that this was dealt with by reputation.  By this he meant that if someone is physically more powerful or cannot be held to account directly for not reciprocating, we regulate them by telling others about their behaviour and influencing their reputation so that others cease to co-operate with them or allow them to be part of the collective reciprocity.

In what way is this connected to atheism?  Well, it is clear that the fear with atheism is that atheists will break the bonds of reciprocity on which society relies.  Yet there is also a moral dimension to this.  In a New Scientist article last year there was information on research into a part of the brain thought to be involved in moral judgements.  When subjects who had damage to this part of the brain were asked to give scores out of 5 to acts in terms of how immoral they were, they scored differently to those with normal function in this part.  The scenarios were of someone who had accidentally poisoned another person and someone who had attempted to kill someone but had failed and the subject was not affected.  For those with normal functioning in this part of the brain, they scored the accidental killing as low on the scale of immorality and the latter high.  For those with damage to this part of the brain they scored the accidental killing higher than the failed intent to kill.  When normally functioning individuals had this part of the brain targeted with magnetic interference their scores, while not reversing, move a point on the scale towards those with damage to this part of the brain.  What was clear from the research is that intention is critical to morality.  The difficulty with intention is that it is not visible.  This is what causes many of the problems with our system of justice is that it is very hard to judge something which is invisible through only visible means (evidence).  Where does this leave atheists?  It is clear that the concept of a super agent who can see the invisible in terms of intention is a powerful deterrent morally.  If we feel someone or something is seeing our internal workings then we cannot evade justice.  Similarly, if the world is only material (ie. it is not alive above and beyond it’s constituent components (animals, plants etc)) and random then there is no consequence to our actions so no deterrent to acting on purely selfish motives to the extent of killing others if achieves our personal aims.

Whilst much of science is tending towards the view of life as essentially random and material and scientists are increasingly mistrustful of religion, what can hold the moral fabric of society together?  Why should we not cheat, lie, manipulate others if it is to our advantage to do so?  Here we come across a curious phenomenon.  Whilst much of the reductionist viewpoint sees only a material world which is not “alive” in any sense, most of our language, sayings and intuitions contradict this.  The phrase “what goes around, comes around” is ubiquitous these days and all our film and literature reflects a desire for symmetry of moral cause and effect – unselfishness or altruism is in the long term rewarded and those who act selfishly get their comeuppance.  Why is the scientific-material world view so out of alignment with the intuitive response of individuals?  It is because the scientific-material world view fails to take account of the emotional and intuitive part of our natures.  This is what is referred to as “the heart”, the seat of our intuition and emotions.  What we think of as the “rational mind” is the rational and material (sensing) function of the mind.  It is clear that, did we not have hearts (emotions and intuition), we could act in a callous and selfish way without morality.  Indeed, anyone who acts without heart or tries to avoid the heart is instinctively mistrusted.  Science has long posited the subjective, feeling experience of the heart as the obstacle to objectivity and clarity in the world, the thing we are moving away from, yet it is clear that the heart is intimately bound up with morality.  On Chrissy Philp’s model of the brain (cf. linked to the I-Ching the rational mind (Gemini) is part of a complimentary connection with Virgo which sits at the heart of the senses, while the heart (Leo) is part of a complimentary connection with Cancer which sits at the heart of the emotions.  Thus we cannot consider morality without considering the heart because transgressions are transgressions of the heart, they cause suffering or hurt (all emotional experiences) and furthermore usually cause suffering and hurt to those perpetrating the immoral acts in the form of guilt, remorse, self loathing etc.  So what if the heart is not the source of subjectivity which interferes with a wider perspective but rather a super agent which connects us to everyone through the emotional experience of being human?  If science (and the rational mind it represents) can respect and value the heart then it has the means of unlocking the universal super agent that could create individual accountability and responsibility without the need for an external super agent.  Perhaps the heart is a super agent which can see all our actions without the need for the intervention of an deus ex machina?

So coming back to super agents through the lens of the heart, what are they, since from the research they seem to be an a priori part of our nature?  When Chrissy Philp was first discovering her pattern of the elments she presented the framework of the astrological symbolism to a scientist through a scientific lens.  His comment was that she had found the perfect description of an artificial intelligence system rather than having discovered anything, not realising that this was the discovery!  According to her work, Cancer or the Moon represented the Read only Memory function – all those processes that still continue or remain embedded even when consciousness (or a computer) is switched off.  Leo is the monitor which allows visual information to be displayed and also the on-off button which switches consciousness on and off and so on.  On this model, Virgo was the ability to discriminate discrete details as in the ability to identify different types of tree.  However it needed a different function – Sagittarius to able to identify and “pattern match” to be able to recognise that the collection of individual trees was a wood.  I can’t help feeling that super-agents might well be connected to this function of Sagittarius or Jupiter since it is connected to the the ability to see larger variables which might be affecting discrete individual actions. Also, critically, Sagittarius is concerned with religion, not the spiritual oneness of Neptune but rather with universal laws and morality.  If Chrissy’s pattern is correct it is also represented by the first line of the Creative in the I-Ching which says “Hidden Dragon do not act”.  The previous points I have been making have all been concerned with the intangible elements of the heart (Sagittarius is a fire sign and on Chrissy’s model the closest to the the emotions – which puts it firmly in the realm of the heart) so this line fits perfectly.  Sagittarius or Jupiter is what gives us our thirst for meaning and purpose and to see the big picture, being fire it is connected to the intuition.  To perpetuate a view of the world as essentially random and only composed of discrete physical phenomenon is to deny the experience of our intuition and to fail to see the big picture.  For anyone arguing from this reductionist viewpoint they would have to conclude that there is no such thing as a wood because it does not exist – at a material reductionist level there are only individual trees.  Science itself is actually a function of this super-agent facility in the human brain – it is the search to see a bigger picture and to link events in a grander theory, pattern or framework; a set of variables which influence or link all the discrete data.  I think for Science to achieve this it will have to widen it’s search to include the very things that it sees as the obstacles – the subjective experience of being human and to be open to different ways of knowing and understanding the world.  In the same way that morality breaks down without the heart, a grand unifying theory of everything cannot be understood or contemplated unless it includes the heart as well as the mind.


1 Comment

Filed under On Life the Universe and Everything

One response to “The nature of morality

  1. I think Dawkins – a famous atheist – is a ‘good’ man. By which I mean he has strong moral principles. I don’t understand why religious people think we have to be religious to be trustworthy. I don’t think it’s ‘good’ to see people as ‘evil’. Some people have sick bodies from birth and some people have sick personalities from birth. It is sad, not bad, and all you need to understand this is heart (as this blog says) to work this one out for yourself. I think many atheists have heart, it’s not a perogative of religious faith, it’s just a result of imagination. I don’t like to hurt so I can see you don’t like to hurt and I would hate it if I hurt you. Sometimes what is called badness is just a lack of imagination. It is definitely a handicap to lack imagination. There are religious people without imagination and atheists with imagination. There are religious people with imagination and atheists without imagination. I have ‘myself’ watching me and I don’t have to have a God to make me bahave ‘good’. I behave as good as I can because I would not like me if I was nasty and I like to like me. It makes me feel warm. If there is a God he clearly thinks pain is good for us and no doubt he’s right but until I can see the purpose clearly I am going to stick to being nice. What about you?

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