Saturday, 12 January 2008

Morality, mirror neurons and the "new atheism"

A common criticism of the so-called “new atheists” (who I prefer to call the "new anti-dogmatists") is the “problem of morality”: How, many religious critics ask, can we be good without God? Isn’t the fact that people are good, that people can tell good from evil, evidence for the existence of God? Even if God is a myth, isn’t He necessary to inspire people to acts of goodness and to keep them from falling into immorality? And in any case, don’t we get our morals from our religious traditions?

A key problem here is that this “good without God” criticism is really at least five different arguments jumbled together.

The argument from scripture
First comes the argument from scripture: “How can we know what's good without a book of rules, like the Bible?” This is the one that Richard Dawkins so ably rebuts with his "cherry picking" point in his recent best-seller, The God Delusion. The Bible is full of horrible acts and recommendations. It also contains some very kind and good acts and rules. Most Christians don't follow the former any more, but continue to follow the latter. How do they chose? What do they use to “cherry pick” the Bible in this way? It's not something in the Bible, it's something in the reader. If this moral sense exists in us and allows us to pick the good bits of the Bible from the bad, what do we need the Bible for except as one among many anthologies of moral propositions on which to practice our moral sense?

The platonic argument
Secondly, there's the Platonic “by what standard” argument: “Granted we have an innate moral sense, but how can we know what's right and wrong if there is no absolute standard of right in the universe?”, says the theist, “Doesn't our ability to recognise that some acts are good and others evil imply that there must somewhere exist a perfect thing of goodness to be the standard? Doesn't our moral sense itself act as evidence of the existence of God?”

Here the error is epistemological: Of course we can judge degrees of something even though a perfect sample of that something does not really exist. Nowhere in reality is there such a thing a perfectly straight line. Yet we are easily able to judge and even rank the straightness of connections between two points in the real world with relative ease – this hand drawn line on this piece of paper is straighter than that one, this rooftop is straighter than that one, the path of this meteor is straighter than that one, etc.

The argument from the mysterious origin of morality
The third argument is related to the second, the “origins of morality” point: “Granted we have a moral sense, but where did that come from?” say the critics, “It can’t have evolved, because it often gets us to do things that aren't selfish, even in the sense of enlightened selfishness.”

This argument misunderstands the neo-Darwinian insight popularised in Professor Dawkins’ 1976 book, The Selfish Gene: We are genuinely altruistic because our genes are “selfish”. A gene that causes its carriers to be genuinely altruistic will have a reproductive advantage if its carriers live in groups of largely related individuals. By risking its life for the group because of the genuine altruism given to it by the gene, one carrier of that gene will increase the reproductive chances of other carriers of the same gene. (The selfish gene explanation also works for groups where the same non-relatives regularly interact and can engage in “reciprocal altruism”.)

Evolution has given us what Dawkins calls a “lust to be good”, much in the way it has given us a lust to have sex (we’re “horny to do good,” as one interviewer put it recently). Does this mean that altruism only makes sense if it’s for relatives? Only in the sense that sex only “make sense” when it’s done for procreation – or that love only “make sense” if it’s being used to solidify a pair-bond for the twenty or so years needed to help the survival of offspring. The evolutionary explanation for an urge is not the same thing as a justification for why we should, as rational creatures, promote or fight that urge today.

Mirror neurons and moral progress
Recent research by neuroscientist such as VS Ramachandran and Marco Iacoboni have discovered what are being called “mirror neurons”. When a monkey experiences pain from, say, being kicked in the testicles, several neurons can be observed to fire in his brain. But if the monkey observes another monkey being kicked in the testicles, a few (not all) of those same neurons fire in the observing monkey’s brain.

It seems mirror neurons evolved as the means by which primates learn skills from each other: observe the other primate doing the skill, feel which mirror neurons fire, then try to make the same mirror neurons fire by doing the action – repeat, refine, learn skill. One side effect was empathy, the ability to feel the pain and pleasure of others (another side effect, according to some researchers, may have been the development of consciousness itself).

It appears that this new capacity for empathy allowed altruism to develop, and that mutation propagated because of the reproduction-enhancing properties of altruism discussed by Dawkins in The Selfish Gene. But from the gene's perspective, altruism is a two edged sword: it’s great if your carriers sacrifice themselves for other carriers, but it’s horrible if your carriers start sacrificing themselves for non-carriers. The solution seems to have been the “taming” of the empathy/altruism characteristic by the evolution of in-group vs out-group thinking. What evolved (one suspects both genetically and culturally) was a distinction between the in-group, where empathy was appropriate (and whose members were likely to carry many of the same genes); and out-groups, where empathy was blocked or even turned into its dark twin antipathy – the tendency of animals to feel the pain of others and enjoy it.

(Though I haven't read it yet, the evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker has recently published what looks to be a very interesting article on our "Moral Instinct". I may blog about it in a later post.)

The story of moral progress seems to me to be the story of the marriage between our evolved capacity for empathy and our evolved capacity for reason. As we apply our reason to our urge to be altruistic, and as we become more interconnected with strangers, we see fewer reasons to put people into the “out group”. Our psychological “in group” expands until in some people it covers not just the whole human race, but sentient non-human animals too. Of course there are gradations. Seeing my wife happy gives me more pleasure (and seeing her in pain causes me more suffering) than seeing a stranger I admire happy (or in pain). And an admired stranger’s happiness matters more to me that that of a stranger I’ve never even heard of (though I still feel bad when I witness or hear of such a stranger suffering). But most of us in the liberal democratic West have very few people in our “out-group” – and we tend to feel ashamed about feeling that way even about them.

The role of religion in moral progress
"But," asks the fourth version of the "good without God" criticism, "hasn't religion in general, and Christianity in particular, been the context in which this moral development has occurred?" And the fair answer is yes, religion in general (and Christianity in particular) has helped enormously. Just as alchemy made many discoveries that were built on by chemistry and astrology made some discoveries that were built on by astronomy (mostly in the field of cataloguing astral bodies, but still useful discoveries); Christianity made or widely propagated several moral innovations that modern secular moral philosophy has built upon (similar claims can be made for Buddhism). Not for nothing did Richard Dawkins once write an article entitled “Atheists for Jesus”.

But religion has also contaminated the stream with some very strange and unfounded ideas. Just as there is no evidence that one can turn lead into gold and there is no evidence that the movements of the planet Venus affect my destiny; there is no evidence that there is a “soul” that enters the human zygote at conception, or that there is an afterlife in which kindness is rewarded and cruelty is punished. And it is religions’ reliance on the dogma of faith that makes it so hard to use reason to sort the good ideas from the bad.

The sanction argument
This, of course, leads us to the fifth argument of the theistic "problem of morality" critic, the sanction argument: “Why be good if there's no comeuppance in the afterlife?”

This argument seems to say that people would be evil if they did not fear punishment in hell or that they would not help their fellow humans without the hope of a pay-off in heaven. Aside from being questionable theology even in its own terms, the sanction argument reveals a very dim view of human nature. Many humanists simply believe human beings are better than that and, on average, getting better all the time – that we are, as someone once said, “rising apes rather than fallen angels.”

Moreover, the argument that people would be horrible without belief in God seems to have been falsified by the experience of organically atheist societies such as Sweden. As I wrote in a previous post:

When polled, over 80% of Swedes say they don't believe in God and over 40% explicitly identify themselves as atheists. Yet Sweden has some of the lowest crime, poverty, STD and teenage pregnancy rates in the world. It is a functioning liberal democracy with very little social unrest and a near 100% literacy rate. And while Sweden is the extreme, similar figures associating atheism with societal health can be found in most of the countries of western Europe as well as in Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Moreover, even in the heavily religious United States of America, the more religious a State is (measured by church attendance), the higher its rates of crime, divorce, STD infection and teenage pregnancy tend to be.

Of course, the fact that widespread atheism doesn't lead to social chaos still leaves open the question of why it doesn't. But the neuroscience and evolutionary arguments put above do suggest that humans are more innately good than many religious people would credit.

For my part, I think the answer here was provided by the ancients – virtue or self-respect. (And isn’t it interesting that "virtue ethics" is making a comeback in academic philosophy?) We judge the acts of others, and think well or ill of them as a result. But we also do the same of ourselves. Self-hatred is actually a rather nasty psychological torture and an important part of mental health is having a good reputation with oneself. We can gain a good reputation with others either by actually being good, or by tricking others into believing we are good. But with our reputations with ourselves, the latter course involves a level of self-deception that is itself mentally unhealthy.

Good deeds, it seems to me, really are their own reward.

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