God be in my head, And in my understanding; God be in mine eyes, And in my looking; God be in my mouth, And in my speaking; God be in my heart, And in my thinking; God be at mine end, And at my departing.
Sir Henry Walford Davies put this traditional prayer to music as a hymn. Iain McGilchrist recited it as a poem after a brief setup in an interview.
I am an atheist, and the closest I get to gods is through metaphor, allegory, or allusion. And I don’t engage in it, but I understand when others invoke it. And to be completely honest, I was multitasking when Iain was reciting, and I misheard it, and this miss was more profound for me.
God be in my head, And in my understanding; Don’t be in mine eyes, And in my looking;
That’s what prompted me to seek it out and pen a post. In the original form, it’s more of an invocation. In my misinterpretation, I felt he was saying to keep God in your head as a metaphorical reference—as an archetype—, but God is not for the eyes and the looking. God is a matter of faith.
As for the rest, it flows the same. Speak as you understand it. Feel God in your heart, if you should so choose. Think about him if you wish. And carry this thought with you until the end if it brings you comfort.
Myself, I get no comfort from the notion. I don’t feel I need it, but it is a cultural phenomenon, so to be aware is a part of cultural and emotional intelligence.
I feel that I’ve always intuitively understood metaphor. I remember listening to Joseph Campbell in the 1980s as he was describing how one of his biggest challenges was to get people to understand the embodiment of metaphor and not just the vapidity of simple simile.
In the spirit of full disclosure and to set the stage, I’m an atheist and can’t remember being otherwise. I’ve discussed this here before at length. Iain McGilchrist is not.
Religion is the topic of chapter nine of The Master and His Emissary. I understand what the author is saying, and I think a question I have about a fundamental issue is coming to head. Although I’ve spoken at greater length before, I’ll recapitulate here.
An assertion of McGilchrist’s is that we should judge the hemispheres by how well each corresponds to the truth of reality. He goes on to tell us that the left hemisphere is the controller of words, so we shouldn’t get hung up on the word truth and the definition that pales relative to the intuition of truth. I have an issue with this, but I’ll return to it in a moment.
As I’ve stated countless times by now, the left cerebral hemisphere is convergent and closing whilst the right is divergent and expansive. The left is intellect whilst the right is intuition. The left is categorisation, naming, and re-presentation whilst the right is Gestalt and presentation. The left is literal whereas the right is metaphorical. I’ll return to this presently.
Before touching on religion, I’ll articulate my challenge. He makes an unsubstantiated assertion that we can’t build a whole from a sum of parts. Instead, we need to accept the whole as presented as is, and realise that we may not be able to fully account for all of the parts. Just trust our intuition of the experience.
My contention here is that neither is quite right. Whilst the left hemisphere has the possibility of leaving things out, the right hemisphere has the possibility of adding irrelevant or otherwise injected content. In the case of religion, this would be along the lines of inserting a god of the gaps. I’ll come back to this.
All religions are not created equal. McGilchrist argues that Catholicism is a right-hemisphere religion whilst Protestantism, in particular Lutherans, operates from the left hemisphere. He even cites Max Weber’s writings noting the connexion between Protestantism and Capitalism. Despite being raised in an area with seventy-odd per cent Roman Catholics, I don’t know enough about Catholicism to critique that part of his assertion, but I agree with his statement on Protestants. As for my intuition, I’d say that all of the rote ritualism is a left-hemisphere function, but I’m not sure.
As he continues his argumentation he makes a case that religion needs to be taken metaphorically and cannot be deconstructed. This is to lose the proverbial woods for the trees. Of course, this is not only precisely what the left hemisphere does it’s also what the Protestant reformation did and Protestantism continues to do today. Like Capitalism, the focus is on the individual. For Catholics, it’s communal. Although he doesn’t cite Calvanlism and the ideal of work, the result is the same. Hard work yields a preternatural payoff.
I have no problem with metaphor, whether in speech, writing, art, or music. I’ve been a musician and dabbled in art. Much of my favourite fiction is metaphorical, and I don’t need to dissect it any of these to enjoy the experience.
I am even willing to grant that religion can be experienced metaphorically. I have no quarrel here. Where his argument tends to lose ground is when it becomes prescriptive and systematised. Again, I am no expert on Catholicism, but I have attended Catholic church ceremonies. I even got ejected from CCD classes I had attended with a mate when I was eight or nine years old—not a great way to win hearts and minds.
When I lived in West Los Angeles—Palms to be exact—, my apartment was across the street from an Anglican church. Down the road, there was a Hare Krishna ashram—very diverse. I poked my nose into each. In fact, the Anglican church was my designated voting location, so I visited there on that occasion periodically. The spectacle of the smoke of frankincense and myrrh billowing out and wafting up is still a pleasant recollection. Frankly, I hadn’t thought of it in years, but writing about it returned the memories. Of course, the ashram had its own incense; only it was nag champa.
Some self-professed ‘spiritual’ people I have encountered, love the spectacle of a Catholic ceremony. There are candles, rituals, chanting, kneeling, chorals, and incantations. I can see how these can be taken metaphorically, but it’s also rote. But that’s not where my difficulty lay.
My problem is not that religion can’t be interpreted metaphorically. In fact, I can’t agree more. My problem is that this metaphor further aligns to God or to gods. But wait. I know what you’re thinking. Those are just metaphors, too. And I agree. The problem isn’t that I don’t grant or understand that. It’s that the parishioners don’t. They think there is an old bearded man in the clouds issuing commandments and listening for their prayers. And if you don’t toe the line and play nice, your eternal life prospects don’t look good.
He does argue that this fire and brimstone are artefacts of the Protestants, but this is what I see depicted in films and books. Obviously, the Southen Baptist preacher at the pulpit shrieking sermons is Protestant fare. On the other hand, Catholics have demons to exorcise and rosary beads and confession. I can see that these are metaphorical. Perhaps he’s right. I don’t know if Catholics have the equivalent of eternal hell. They do have—or did have—a purgatory. Do they have a decalogue. As far as I know, they do. Perhaps he was just speaking in relative terms—that Catholic tradition is just more right-hemisphere-oriented than Protestantism.
If this is the extent of his claim, we agree, but he goes further and invokes the divine. Yet again, I can accept this as a metaphor, but I feel he means it to be taken more literally. In any case, the followers seem to tend to.
This brings me back to God of the gaps. Metaphors are concepts or notions. I say this because, metaphors don’t, for example, answer prayers. The act of praying may be metaphorical—perhaps I could equate it to singing or meditation—, but no physical action is expected in return. With singing, the effect may be a connexion or an emotion. The music is aiming to lift spirits or make one reflective or sad—perhaps add tension in a suspense movie. With meditation—guided meditation notwithstanding—, the idea is to let go and forego attachment. What do your suspect we are letting go of? What are we detaching from? The fetters of the left hemisphere—the bastion of judgment.
Prayer is different. On one hand, there is the metaphorical aspect of compassion and sharing, But it doesn’t end there. Susie has surgery and we pray for her recovery. Metaphorically, a believer may feel consoled by compassion. Even Susie may feel better, which will lead to a more positive disposition that may lead to faster recovery and healing, even if by placebo effects. On the other hand, perhaps not. And then there’s distance healing where the recipient isn’t even aware of the prayers, but they are either brokered by God or simply permeate the fabric of the universe or Jung’s collective unconsciousness. This is where it goes off the rails.
So, when I am asked to accept religion metaphorically but am also asked to accept magical thinking as part of that equation, I’m just not on board. Sorry. It makes no sense and doesn’t even feel intuitively right.
Call me a cynic, but for me, religion is about power. Perhaps at one time, the religious experience was a feeling, but all evidence points to this being almost immediately exploited by the priest classes and then by Government and other nefarious actors. Some countries are worse than others, but that’s no consolation.
In the end, I get the religion-metaphor connexion, and I trust that Iain is not so naive to see the Foucauldian power-control angle. Besides, if culture is shifting to the left hemisphere and can’t interpret metaphors very well—something experience demonstrates—, so I’m not sure the defence holds as much water as he wants it to.
I just wrapped up chapter eleven of The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt. I’ve got only 35 pages to go to get through chapter twelve. I’ve been tempted to stop reading. Chapter eleven—and I am tempted to inject a bankruptcy pun here—has been more frustrating than the rest thus far. And yet I am glad to have persisted.
My intellectual focus these past months has been on agency. Et voilà, paydirt. Chapter eleven’s title reveals the context: Religion is a Team Sport. Let’s walk through this garden together.
A goal of Haidt is to educate the reader on his third principle of moral psychology: Morality binds and blinds. He establishes parallels between sports and religion. And here’s the thing—I don’t disagree. But here’s the other thing—I feel that are equally vapid—, with no apologies to sports fans or the religious. Let’s keep moving.
“A college football game is a superb analogy for religion.”
Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind, Chapter 12: Religion is a Team Sport
He talks about the organising and unifying functions of both. But here’s the thing. It unifies the like-minded. Haidt claims to be irreligious and not be into sports, and yet he cites these as somehow desirable. I find him to be an apologist for religion.
I am not a psychologist, but if I were, I’d be tempted to claim that Haidt’s conclusions follow from his personal beliefs. He believes in morals, society, order, intuition, and institutions. He is a textbook Modern and an extrovert to boot. I think he also falls into teleological fallacy traps. Was that a play on words?
Although he views religion through rose-coloured glasses, he comes to the conclusion that religions have done a great deal of harm over the millennia, but the good outweighs the bad, especially if you consider it through a social-moral lens. But if religion creates in-groups versus out-groups, which they do, and religious in-groups outlive even non-religious ingroups, then this is a winning option. But what if you don’t like that option?
Personally, I am a collectivist, but this is not willy-nilly any collective.
Haidt contrasts the New Atheist vantage that religious belief is an evolutionary byproduct versus a position that what started as a byproduct evolved into group selection and then, perhaps, an epigenetic phenomenon.
Here’s my contention:
Borrowing from New Atheism, Haidt adopts the notion of a “hypersensitive agency detection device [that] is finely tuned to maximize survival, not accuracy”.
The first step in the New Atheist story—one that I won’t challenge—is the hypersensitive agency detection device. The idea makes a lot of sense: we see faces in the clouds, but never clouds in faces, because we have special cognitive modules for face detection. The face detector is on a hair trigger, and it makes almost all of its mistakes in one direction—false positives (seeing a face when no real face is present, e.g., ), rather than false negatives (failing to see a face that is really present). Similarly, most animals confront the challenge of distinguishing events that are caused by the presence of another animal (an agent that can move under its own power) from those that are caused by the wind, or a pinecone falling, or anything else that lacks agency.
The solution to this challenge is an agency detection module, and like the face detector, it’s on a hair trigger. It makes almost all of its mistakes in one direction—false positives (detecting an agent when none is present), rather than false negatives (failing to detect the presence of a real agent). If you want to see the hypersensitive agency detector in action, just slide your fist around under a blanket, within sight of a puppy or a kitten. If you want to know why it’s on a hair trigger, just think about which kind of error would be more costly the next time you are walking alone at night in the deep forest or a dark alley. The hypersensitive agency detection device is finely tuned to maximize survival, not accuracy.
Op Cit, p. 292
I fully agree with the assertion that the brain values fitness over truth, and I’ve commented in several posts that pareidolia and apophenia create false-positive interpretations of reality.
But now suppose that early humans, equipped with a hypersensitive agency detector, a new ability to engage in shared intentionality, and a love of stories, begin to talk about their many misperceptions. Suppose they begin attributing agency to the weather. (Thunder and lightning sure make it seem as though somebody up in the sky is angry at us.) Suppose a group of humans begins jointly creating a pantheon of invisible agents who cause the weather, and other assorted cases of good or bad fortune. Voilà—the birth of supernatural agents, not as an adaptation for anything but as a by-product of a cognitive module that is otherwise highly adaptive.
Op Cit, p. 293
For me, this supports my contention that agency is a wholly constructed fiction. The same agency we ascribe to unknown natural events, we ascribe to ourselves. And perhaps this ability served an egoistic function, which was then generalised to the larger world we inhabit.
I have an issue with his teleological bias. He feels that because we have evolved a certain way to date; this will serve as a platform for the next level as it were. I’ll counter with a statement I often repeat: It is possible to have adapted in a way that we have been forced into an evolutionary dead end. Historically, it’s been said that 99 per cent of species that ever occupied this earth are no longer extant. That’s a lot of evolutionary dead ends. I am aware that few species could have survived an asteroid strike or extended Ice Ages, but these large-scale extinction events are not the only terminal points for no longer extant species.
So finally, Haidt essentially says that it doesn’t matter that these religious and cultural narratives are wholly fictitious, if they promote group survival, we should adopt them. This seems to elevate the society over the individual, which is fine, but perhaps the larger world would be better off still without the cancer? Just because it can survive—like some virulent strain—doesn’t mean we should keep it.
Finally, given these fictions, what’s a logical reasonable person to do? I don’t buy into ‘this country is superior to that country’ or ‘this religion is better than that religion’ or even ‘this sports team is better than that’ or ‘this company is better than that’.
Haidt does idolise Jeremy Bentham, but this is more Pollyannaism. It sounds good on paper, but as an economist, I’ll reveal that it doesn’t work in the real world. No one can effectively dimensionalise and define ‘good’, and it’s a moving target at that.
No thank you, Jonathan. I don’t want to buy what you are selling.
News Flash: From the time I started this content, I’ve since read the final chapter. Where I categorically reject a lot of what Haidt proposes in this chapter, I tend to find chapter twelve to fit more amicably with my worldview. Perhaps I’ll share my thoughts on that next.
If you’ve reached this far, apologies for the disjointed presentment. I completed this over the course of a day through workaday interruptions and distractions. I wish I had an editor who could assert some continuity, but I am on to the next thing, so…
Bonus: I happened upon this journal article, and it somehow ended up here. I haven’t even read it yet, so I’ve got no commentary. Perhaps someday.
Rai, T. S., and A. P. Fiske. 2011. “Moral Psychology Is Relationship Regulation: Moral Motives for Unity, Hierarchy, Equality, and Proportionality.” Psychological Review 118:57–75
There is a battle being waged in the United States today, but it is not centred on the lack of separation of Church and State. I suppose this may be a uniquely American issue given its Constitutional roots, but the root cause is rather a lack of separation between Natural and Supernatural, not between Church and State.
Tomorrow America is celebrating Independence Day [sic], but until we are independent of religion, we cannot be independent. The only real independence is for the politicians who are independent of British control. There is nothing more substantial than this, and nothing for the ordinary citizen, who might as well be taking orders from England. Canada doesn’t look any worse for the wear and tear. I’m not a Monarchist, but it’s no less ridiculous than the Oligarchy or Plutarchy in play today.
I’ve got nothing again churches, per se. I don’t prefer the brainwashing that passes as organised religion, but neither am I fond of the brainwashing that is organised politics. And why is it called ‘brainwashing’? It’s clearly mind-muddling. I digress.
I do believe that it’s in the best interest to separate Church and State, not least because I need freedom from religion. It is already force-fed down my throat and codified into laws. We need less, not more.
Of course, a key topical debate is the abortion issue. This is strictly a religious issue. Even if you want to argue that it’s a moral rather than religious issue, it is still the result of supernatural beliefs. This is where the separation needs to happen.
Why won’t it happen? It won’t happen because people who believe in supernatural forces—especially active supernatural forces—are easy to manipulate. This has been true historically as well as contemporaneously. It’s too convenient for politicians to pull the old Santa Claus trick—if you aren’t good, Santa won’t give you any presents; and if you’re bad, he’s going to bring you coal instead.
I’ve said my peace. In the end, I don’t really even care if you believe in the supernatural, but if you believe that you (or anyone) can interpret these forces, I claim foul and out of bounds. This belief is not different to believing that you can understand what your dog or cat is ‘saying’—or your pet unicorn in the garden. It’s certifiable.
I know that other countries have to contend with this interference. Some even don’t mind the union. Is this a problem in other countries? Is it a problem in yours? Or do you consider it to be a necessary solution?
DISCLAIMER: This post has absolutely nothing to do with the Supernatural television series.
The more I read about free will the more I feel that it is a modern invention. I don’t mean to claim that this is cut and dry, but as the image accompanying this post suggests, Sophocles’ story of Œdipus Rex is precisely about a man attempting to escape his fate. Without getting mired in a discussion about the distinction between fate and determinism, we understand that the plight of Œdipus is set in stone.
As I said, I am simplifying as I know there are authors debating free will before this, but it is also known that many people simply believed that their lives were governed. I suspect that in certain slave societies this might be a source of comfort. If Buddhist thought that life is suffering holds true, what better consolation than it was just meant to be, I might as well just make the best of it.
Enter Christianity and Aquinus. Their god may have set things up, but there can be no notion of growth or responsibility without free will, so we’d better create a narrative around this. How an omniscient creator can not know every possible plotline and twist remains a question, though rationale akin to retrograde motion has been suggested to accommodate it. Now, it seems that we’ve got a little less determined and a little freer if I think of it as a zero-sum game.
By the time Kant enters the picture, he rather spills the beans on the whole narrative. Perhaps riffing on Voltaire’s quip, ‘If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him‘. Kant tells us that if we need to blame people and presume responsibility, then we need to assume free will. And so we did.
In this day and age, most people have been marinated in this worldview, so it’s difficult to see outside of this frame. The rhetoric of free will has been particularly effective. Though we have evidence of free will not being dominant in some cultural conversations, we have little idea in preliterate societies. I’d be interested to gain additional perspective from historians or anthropologists. Some may have already been published. I’ve already been so overwhelmed with the deluge of information and opinions to date. I’ve learned much and have been introduced to many new scholars. As I wrote the other day, this is somewhat daunting. I wish I were a grad student and could justify spending so much time trying to justify my position.
The Appointment in Samarra*
There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture, now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.
I love this story of fatalism. Originally from the Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 53a, it’s a story about one attempting to alter their determined fate. An interesting side-comment on the original version. The last line attributes fate to the servant’s feet.
A man’s feet are responsible for him; they lead him to the place where he is wanted
Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 53a
This interpretation would allow for the feet to be determined but in conflict with the intellect and reason of the head, much as is said about the conflict between the head and the heart. It could be argued that the only fate this accounts for is that of death, but that’s well beyond my scope of inquiry.
Some people seem to not quite grasp the distinction between constructed and unreal. Many things are human social constructs, from money to states and countries, to nations, to governments, to ethnicities, and to gender. Even sex. All of my favourite weasel words are constructs.
But there’s a difference between money and unicorns. No amount of money can buy you a unicorn. This is the difference between fiction and figment. We can say that money is ‘real’ insomuch as it affects our everyday lives. We transact. We buy things. We sell things. It’s an agreed-upon medium of exchange. Without going into details, long before cryptocurrency, most money is in the form of computer bits and bytes—rather it has no form. The currency and coins we can touch are a small fraction of the money that exists. The money behind your credit card or debit card is not banknotes—and it’s not gold. When a central bank wants to create money, it simply has to type a number in a computer register and press enter, and it exists.
So whilst each of these is pretend, some things are manifest in our ‘real’ world and have real-world implications. Not so much for unicorns and fairies.
* The Appointment in Samarra as retold by W Somerset Maugham (1933)
As I research the agency/free will quandary, I am finding a lot of common minds, as it were. On the free will versus determinism spectrum, I can’t say without reservation that I accept determinism or indeterminism, for that matter, but I can say that free will is weak tea. Causa Sui comes into play, but I’ll get to that.
As an aside, similar to the theism versus atheism debate, keep in mind that this debate hinges on free will taking the privileged position occupied by theism. When discussing compatibility versus incompatibilism, it’s whether determinism is compatible or incompatible with free will. I feel that the privilege of free will in this debate is telling insomuch as it reveals a bias on preferred perspective.
If you’ve been reading, I like what Derk Pereboom has to say, but I feel we have a bit of a gap in our accord. But I’m very partial to Galen Strawson’s line of argumentation that doesn’t rely on determinism to declare the free will argument pointless. I believe that there is space to fill in some gaps in his position regarding social responsibility, and maybe there are no gaps; I just am not yet familiar enough with his position. From a strictly deterministic position, I find Robert Sapolsky’s position appealing, but it still ends up being a pissing match. To be fair, I think any position will be a pissing match. I’ll elaborate on this next before I touch on causa sui.
Losing My Religion
In my book, free will is an anachronistic vestige of religion. Not to go too far down a Foucauldian path, religion is a power play. As religion constructs gods, it also constructs notions of free will. Power structures like to leverage these concepts for their own ends.
Interestingly, religion first gave us determinism—at least the Abrahamic monotheistic varieties—, but it needed to construct free will or it would have undermined its ability to cast blame and guilt. When science matured, it said, ‘Hey, hold on there. There’s no room for gods in physics. Everything has a cause and was determined at the start. Your intuition was right at the start. Free will is bollocks.’
Finally. Causa Sui is the Latin name for a self-caused cause, one that is not the result of prior events. Here is where I really like Galen Strawson’s account. His argument is premised on 4 factors, the first of which is what you do flows from the way you are.
In essence, you’ve somehow got to get to be responsible for being the way you are, but you can’t you can’t get back behind yourself in such a way as to be responsible for the kind of person you are. You’ve got to somehow have chosen it, but you can’t choose it unless you already exist as a creature who has preferences.
You’d somehow have to get to be the cause of yourself to take fundamental ultimate responsibility for yourself and therefore for your actions that flow from the way you are and therefore free will—indeed more responsibility and free will, and therefore we do not have free will.
In the diagramme, we see you, and the influence of external forces, but at no point are you ever responsible for your own actions. Even if you did make a so-called conscious effort to do something else, it would still be the result of one of these other sources.
Perhaps an inapt example would be for a homosexual person to ‘decide‘ to be a heterosexual person. This is not to say just to act like a heterosexual person, but to actually be attracted to the opposite sex. It should be obvious that this can’t be done, but if you are having difficulty, imagine the mirror example where you are a heterosexual person and you ‘decide‘ to be attracted to people of your own sex. Of course, this is akin to deciding that you like cilantro when you don’t, deciding you like Justin Beiber when you don’t, or deciding that you don’t actually enjoy chateaubriand when you do. Even if you manage to act the opposite of your sexual orientation, it is still not you who is responsible for the apparent change. It’s a response to social forces and external conditioning. You are the way you are because of the way you are. You’ve had absolutely no say in the matter.
So what’s the big deal? you might still be asking yourself. If you’ve just done something morally or legally “wrong” —emphasised by big bold scare quotes, you need to be punished or at least blamed irrespective of how you became you, right? Let’s ignore that I am a moral non-cognitivist at the start and pretend that this moral indignation is otherwise meaningful.
Quarantine Justification Theory
Let’s say that someone has done something outside the bounds of social acceptance in some milieu. To make it even easier to consider, let’s imagine for a moment, instead, an autonomous robot that was designed to seek glass and smash it. This robot has no conscience and no free will. It is just a robot programmed to break windows.
This robot has been unleashed on our community. In one sense, some might blame the robot for breaking the windows, but we know that whoever programmed this robot is to blame. But we don’t know who programmed it. What we do know is that we want to stop the robot from breaking more windows.
So we track down the robot and we disable it—or perhaps it’s designed in such a way that it can’t be turned off. Even though the robot is not to blame, it is a menace and we’ve collectively decided to disarm it or quarantine it. We build a glassless room and sequester it away so it can do no more damage.
Some people find this scenario a reasonable justification to quarantine the actor, but I think that this has at least one problem, I’ll mention two considerations I have.
Not a Robot
So, let’s revisit quarantine justification theory with a human actor, and let’s presume no causa sui. As we can’t blame the robot actor, neither can we blame the person actor. As with the robot, the goal is not to punish but to quarantine.
Not to Blame
Now let’s add a dose of reality. This human is not on a window-breaking rampage. Instead, s/he vandalised the window of a shop for some reason; let’s say that s/he was short-changed and wanted to exact damage equal to the shorted change. A police officer witnesses the act and takes the perpetrator into custody. What should the judge do? Remember, the person did not create themself, but s/he did the act s/he was accused of.
The image below shows two scenarios. In scenario A, you are integrated with society; in scenario B, you are quarantined. The question is what is the justification for quarantining you.
It’s difficult to argue that this person should be quarantined because this was a tit-for-tat response, not a rampage. It’s unlikely to happen again. One might try to argue that this person should be fined or, in line with quarantine, incarcerated to be made an example, thus acting as a scapegoat to serve as an external social pressure mechanism to disincentivise this retributive action. But this would ostensibly be punishing this person for something beyond their control.
We can even loosen the scenario to consider a person who has robbed a liquor store or kidnapped a child. These events are all too common, but there is nothing to suggest that a person will repeat this activity, so quarantine cum incarceration is hard to justify.
I can envision someone reading this thinking that we need to do something. We can’t let this person get away with it, but if you find yourself drifting in this direction, it’s your programming. You can’t help yourself. You don’t even have this degree of agency.
I haven’t given it enough thought, but it feels like this is similar to the dissonance when one grasps something intellectually, but instinctually or emotionally something just doesn’t sit right. Whilst you try to get outside of yourself, your programming doesn’t allow it.
* If you haven’t sussed it out quite yet, ‘cows are suey’ is how Google’s auto-generated transcript heard causa sui in an interview with Galen Strawson on this topic, and the rest is history.
All too often, I’ll read or listen to a book and place bookmarks with the best of intents to revisit and comment. yet either never to return or to return and not recall the context and not wanting to reread to regain it. I am going to attempt to document my reaction to Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. If you’ve read some posts here, you’ll understand that I am not a moralist, so I don’t expect to like the book or agree with it. I’ve already ready the forward materials, so I’ll return to comment on that before I get too far ahead. I have done this before at university, and it is decidedly slow progress and can chase one down rabbit holes—this one, anyway.
I have a habit of abandoning books in favour of others including dropping them outright. This is one of 16 I have in progress at the moment, some commenced as many as 5 years ago. To be fair to myself, many of those books are substantially completed. I feel I got the intended message—or at least got what I wanted out of them—, and I just haven’t read the final few chapters. In some cases, the book is an anthology, and I have been slogging my way through it. A few books I’ve read before and am reabsorbing the material, so I may decide not to re-read cover to cover. I just pulled a second reading book off the list to get to 16 from 17.
I have striven not to laugh at human actions, not to weep at them, not to hate them, but to understand them.
— Baruch Spinoza, Tractatus Politicus, 1676
“Can we all get along?” — Rodney King
“Please, we can get along here. We all can get along. I mean, we’re all stuck here for a while. Let’s try to work it out.”
Born to be Righteous
I could have titled this book The Moral Mind to convey the sense that the human mind is designed to “do” morality, just as it’s designed to do language, sexuality, music, and many other things described in popular books reporting the latest scientific findings.
Straight away, I have a contention. The human mind is not designed to do anything. It has evolved and performs functions. Perhaps, this is just a matter of semantics, but it puts me on guard. Moreover, that it does morality doesn’t evaluate the relative benefit or if it should even be done. Without going down the aforementioned rabbit hole, language is a perfect example. We use language to communicate, but language as a social mechanism may be a secondary or tertiary function. As I’ve argued—even quite recently—, this is a reason I feel that language is insufficient for the purpose of conveying abstract concepts, like for example, morals and morality.
But I chose the title The Righteous Mind to convey the sense that human nature is not just intrinsically moral, it’s also intrinsically moralistic, critical, and judgmental.
A primary function of the brain is as a difference engine. This is what allows us to discern friend from foe, edible versus poison, and so on. Reflecting on Kahneman and Tversky, most (if not ostensibly all) of this is a heuristic system I process, which is good enough but only at a distance. Morals allow us to create in-group and out-group distinctions.
I want to show you that an obsession with righteousness (leading inevitably to self-righteousness) is the normal human condition. It is a feature of our evolutionary design, not a bug or error that crept into minds that would otherwise be objective and rational.
To my first point—not only his insistence on a design metaphor, but doubling down and declaring it as not a bug or an error—, this is disconcerting. And it may be a normal human condition, but so is cancer. The appeal to nature isn’t winning me over.
Our righteous minds made it possible for human beings—but no other animals—to produce large cooperative groups, tribes, and nations without the glue of kinship.
What Lies Ahead
Part I is about the first principle: Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.
If you think that moral reasoning is something we do to figure out the truth, you’ll be constantly frustrated by how foolish, biased, and illogical people become when they disagree with you. But if you think about moral reasoning as a skill we humans evolved to further our social agendas—to justify our own actions and to defend the teams we belong to—then things will make a lot more sense.
Haidt and I are much aligned on these points.
Keep your eye on the intuitions, and don’t take people’s moral arguments at face value. They’re mostly post hoc constructions made up on the fly, crafted to advance one or more strategic objectives.
Not buying the ‘go with your intuitions‘ advice. Moving on.
…the mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant … I developed this metaphor in my last book, The Happiness Hypothesis.
I’m not sure I am going to like this dualism, and I haven’t read The Happiness Hypothesis, so I’ll just have to see where he takes it. It seems like Haidt is a hardcore Traditionalist.
Part II is about the second principle of moral psychology, which is that there’s more to morality than harm and fairness.
This feels about right.
The central metaphor of these four chapters is that the righteous mind is like a tongue with six taste receptors.
OK. Let’s see where this goes.
Part III is about the third principle: Morality binds and blinds.
I like this pair.
…human beings are 90 percent chimp and 10 percent bee.
Did he say bee? I agree with the chimp reference. Maybe this won’t be as bad as I thought.
A note on terminology: In the United States, the word liberal refers to progressive or left-wing politics, and I will use the word in this sense. But in Europe and elsewhere, the word liberal is truer to its original meaning—valuing liberty above all else, including in economic activities. When Europeans use the word liberal, they often mean something more like the American term libertarian, which cannot be placed easily on the left-right spectrum.10 Readers from outside the United States may want to swap in the words progressive or left-wing whenever I say liberal.)
Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? … You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.
— MATTHEW 7:3–5
I do find myself, probably too often, parroting this paragraph.
Intuitions Come First, Strategic Reasoning Second
Central Metaphor: The mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant.
Where Does Morality Come From?
A family’s dog was killed by a car in front of their house. They had heard that dog meat was delicious, so they cut up the dog’s body and cooked it and ate it for dinner. Nobody saw them do this.
A man goes to the supermarket once a week and buys a chicken. But before cooking the chicken, he has sexual intercourse with it. Then he cooks it and eats it.
The Origin of Morality
Quick reaction for now. Details to follow…
I’m not quite buying into Haidt’s attempt to parse the nature versus nature argument into three segments: nativism and empiricism whilst adding rationalism insomuch as rationalism is seen by many as ambiguous and not a mutually exclusive option. It feels as though he’s throwing up a rationalist strawman to take down. We’ll see where it leads
Nativism the theory that concepts, mental capacities, and mental structures are innate rather than acquired by learning.
Empiricism the theory that all knowledge is derived from sense-experience.
Rationalism the theory that reason rather than experience is the foundation of certainty in knowledge.
Let’s pick up on this later. I knew this would take a lot longer.
Curse YouTube and Drew—but in a good way. Drew created a video titled I took a Christian class about atheism. It was worse than I expected. Although I don’t find I need to engage with anyone to defend my atheism, I sometimes do. Perhaps, the devil made me do it. I’ve been an atheist for decades—literally for at least half a century. (Man, that’s revealing.)
The magic gods of social media tossed this gem in my face, and I was fated to watch it—a 45-minute video nonetheless. Who posts long-format content on YouTube these days? Honestly, I didn’t think I was going to watch the entire thing—at least without skipping ahead.
I jotted down my thoughts—on paper no less—as I engaged the content. But before delving into that, I want to say that Greg Koukl is a formidable communicator. He knows how to engage his audience. Drew, the Genetically Modified Skeptic, is a strong communicator himself, employing cogent logic in defence of atheism—well-considered and articulated. Although I was watching the clock—cuz 45-minutes; plus I was stopping to take notes. Capturing a couple dozen bullet points, I’d comment here instead of in situ. I’ll link from there to here when I’ve published my reaction.
Drew responds so well that, generally, I avoid stepping on his responses, with which I am in agreement. Instead, I share my own observations either on topics Drew did not address or that I have a nuanced take on.
Below are the points I make with a time reference to the clip. In some cases, the link starts earlier than the point I am addressing if only to provide a reader with context.
3:25 Greg points out that he is going to focus on areas where Christianity can make sense but atheism cannot.
Response: Things do not have to make sense. This is a belief humans impose on the world. Even if one believes in a world of causes and effects, it does not follow that we have a privileged perspective into these causes. Some effects may be caused by any number of correlated and covariant factors, and to claim that A causes Z, because it’s expedient and somewhat linear over some more complex multifactor causal model, is weak tea. As humans, we want things to make sense. It’s effectively in our nature, but it doesn’t follow that the universe needs to comply with this need. Human psychology compensates knowledge and perception gaps with any number of tricks from Gestalt to apophenia. It may be comforting for some to use gods as putty to fill the cracks, though, in my mind, it’s rather Silly Putty.
3:35 Greg defines the terms theism and atheism. Drew points out the reduced, self-serving definitions Greg tries to slide by.
4:44 Greg tries to frame atheism as an assertion rather than an absence, so he can fabricate a strawman to attack.
Response: As Drew points out, this is sometimes, but not always, true. Here my thoughts (or soul, as the case might be—orthogonal, or otherwise) wandered to the Dawkins Scale, which parses atheism and agnosticism into a spectrum rather than a binary pair. Idiomatically, it’s a non-assertion. If you claim there’s a dog in my yard, it’s incumbent for you to provide evidence. If I claim, there is no dog in my yard, I am under no such obligation. Besides, my looking for evidence of a non-dog in my yard would require additional scrutiny. Perhaps it’s hidden.
Moreover, Greg attempts to make this a semantic issue. Drew points this out. For me, I reflected on the political situation where some cohorts within the US public decried Obamacare (AKA the Affordable Care Act or ACA) and yet were substantially supportive of its features. Obamacare acted as a pejorative to taint the act with negative connotations for Obama detractors. People’s cognitive faculties as deficient as they are, this was super easy—barely an inconvenience. Anarchism triggers the same sort of reaction. I attribute this to an unceasing negative propaganda/indoctrination campaign.
Response: Translation: We have subjective experience, and we are going to pose this as some objective reality.
9:40 Greg asks: Where did everything come from? What caused the beginning of the universe.
Response: Where is thy stuff? I don’t even need to engage this question directly because the chestnut of an argument he is presenting has a recursion problem. If everything needs a beginning, then God needs a beginning. This argument just kicks the can down the kerb. And ‘He just is‘ works just as well as ‘It just is‘. Nuff said.
11:25 Greg recounts a scenario where he purportedly asks a recently converted atheist, Do things exist? to which the subject responded affirmatively.
Response: The nature of existence and reality is not resolved science. ‘“Things” are perceived‘ is about the best we can get to at this moment in time, and this doesn’t even define things very precisely.
11:30Have things always existed? is the question posed next.
Response: I like Drew’s response here. Instead, I went to the definition of time because the notion of time is a social construct. It could be that there was a Biblical void from which the universe sprang whole cloth as depicted in the Genesis version or a Big Bang version. It could as well be that at some point time was invented. An imperfect analogy is the BCE-CE split. CE simply starts at year 1 and we’ve run with it. The universe doesn’t have an equivalent notion of BCE, but perhaps it’s similar to spinning up the universe as a virtual machine. There was a literal void of bits awaiting a cue to instantiate a VM universe. For all intents and purposes, this is the beginning of time for that virtual machine. In this example, we could extend the metaphor to a multiverse, or we could stay with a physical machine and virtual machine metaphor. Sure, the physical machine might be a god or another meta-universe—I refuse to say metaverse—, but the virtual machine has no insights earlier than its own time-zero.
The other things Greg’s approach misses are the notions of quantum mechanics and emergent properties. I won’t spend any time elaborating here.
Response: Without getting into the weeds of Kahneman and Tversky’s Systems 1 and 2, intuition and heuristics have a place, but they are very fallible for all but the most mundane of tasks. They are not very precise and are a poor foundation for any theory. I can feel it in my bones just doesn’t go very far—and that includes intuitions about reality
22:15The problem of evil is apparently the most common objection to the existence of God.
Response: This is a sophomoric position to adopt. Greg tries to frame this as an out-there objective reality affair as opposed to an in-there subjective, emotional problem. He posits that things in the world—including people—are inherently bad or evil. Again, Drew reframes this as a uniquely Christian problem. As for me, I don’t even believe in the existence of evil. Good and bad are functional yet still social constructs. Evil is just trebled bad with a metaphysical twist. The problem with evil is more of a problem with bad narrative than anything more substantive. Somebody created a storyline and didn’t run it by strong editors or continuity reviewers.
26:15 Lawmaker Transcendence: In order for there to be laws to be broken, there have to be laws…
Response: Knowing his intended audience, Greg keeps hammering on the objective reality nail. Whilst this may play well to the choir, as Drew points out, it’s not likely to score any points in a debate with atheists. Morals, as well as laws, are social constructs. And as universals, they don’t map as closely across cultures except at the most abstract of levels.
It should go without saying that even if there were a god passing out commandments, there would be no way to validate the authenticity of this exchange.
32:30 All people have souls… You are not just a piece of meat in motion
Response: Just rambling. I’m not even going to waste my time on this one except to redirect you to my previous response relative to human psychology and apophenia.
Response: This bit is juvenile, too. Here Greg explains that the soul is not the brain, that you can’t disassemble your brain to find thought. But, he doesn’t mind ignoring that your soul is nowhere to be found either. This feels quite similar to the need for a creator, but these evidentiary needs don’t apply to their positions. Drew’s computer analogy is apt here.
39:10 Existential crisis is a problem for Greg and other Christians.
Response: Because Christians are wired the way they seem to be, any modality that severs the connection to meaning sets them off. Greg confuses hubris and ego for something more substantial, attributing meaning to it. As it happens, people also cherish their pets more than some random squirrel.
40:30 Humans feel guilty because humans are guilty.
Interestingly, there is a school of belief, psychologically speaking, that the default state of humans is one of anxiety, but given that I don’t give psychology any more credibility than religion, I’ll just leave that here. People feel guilty because they are indoctrinated to feel guilt. A hypothetical person raised on a desert island or in the woods, like Victor, the feral child of Aveyron, or in the jungle, like Tarzan or Mowgli, would not know guilt, empathy, shame, or any of a host of other social “emotional” responses.
All told, Greg raised nothing new nor offered any new support for Christian belief, let alone a broader theistic defence. Ostensibly, the approach he takes is more akin to choir preaching than any other rhetorical purpose. In the end, he’s promoting a smug superiority complex in believers. He understands that although people will accept blind faith rationale for religious belief—especially those indoctrinated from birth—that people do have a mild penchant for rationality. I don’t think most humans operate beyond a cursory level of reasoning, but it’s enough to exploit and construct social reflection mechanisms as part of personal image-building. This allows Greg to propose a homoeopathic logical, rational framework and have it uncritically adopted as being rational.
As for otherwise rational Christians, they likely see through the charlatanism, but since emotion proceeds reason, they are allowed to check out and compartmentalise this nonsense whilst otherwise simultaneously retaining the ability to process the most challenging and tortuous logical conundrum.
Would human extinction be a good thing for the good of the planet? We’re all familiar with the concept of the greater good, but what is the domain of the greater? We presume it to be the domain of all humans or at least our chosen in-group. But if we dilate the aperture, we might encircle the entire biosphere. In my experience, humans rarely extend the circle beyond themselves and barely even do that, opting to extend it to their race or tribe. Whilst some humans are not as self-centred as some narcissists and sociopaths, the radius doesn’t go too far.
Is one a misanthrope if one considers the greater good to be the earth devoid of the human virus? Perhaps, yes, if stated in those terms. But if one calculates that humans do more harm than good, doesn’t the cost-benefit calculus indicate that fewer people or no people would be better for the earth. I’ve long been fond of the late George Carlin’s routine where he proses that we don’t have to save Earth; the earth will remain long after humans no longer inhabit it. It’s been said that 99.9% of species that ever occupied the earth as no longer extant. Humans are past the mean duration of a species. Perhaps it’s time to move on.
I started to write this post some time ago after having had a discussion on antinatalism. Rather, I defended anti-natalism in the course of a conversation on the inherited notion that humans as sacred.
I supposed I am not a strict antinatalist, but neither do I feel that life is somehow sacred. Mine, of course, but except that. Just kidding. If you are reading, yours is, too. Just kidding, not you either. Interestingly, this ties into the post on the narrative gravity of the self.
As I write this in a world with a population of almost 8 billion people dominated by a handful and no picnic for that lot either, there are likely enough people already. I do feel that even if population trends continue upward—given offsetting depopulation trends in some regions—, humans will cap out at around 10 billion anyway. Perhaps in a Malthusian manner, but I am thinking in terms of deer herds and population limiting factors as expressed by equations like Xn-1 = rxn(1-xn).
Life does appear to have at least common characteristics and perhaps only one: the need to procreate. The second is the need to live, but that can probably be reduced to the need to live long enough to procreate. This is core to Richard Dawkins’ Selfish Gene theory. I like Robert Sapolsky’s treatment of the subject in Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst.
The concept of ‘sacred‘ is a religious vestige. I’m not sure why this needed to be codified, but religious dogma seems to capture the notion ‘thou shalt not kill’, as if it needed to be said. I won’t spend any time on the hypocrisy of the many people who espouse this edict.
It may be a valid position to consider me a misanthrope, but that’s probably overstated, but I’m generally not a fanboy. I guess what bothers me most is the hype and self-promotion. I don’t find it to be particularly inconsistent to see the small positive aspects humans bring and still consider them to be parasitic. This is a compositional challenge–a dimensional consideration that moves away from binary-trending heuristics, the age-old right and wrong, good and bad, good and evil, and on and on.
As with geocentrism, we put ourselves at the centre because this is how we experience life—inside out. All else seems to extend from this model, except there is no centre. It’s just our perspective. I experience life the same way. I’m no exception. Nonetheless, I don’t seem to need to cling to this central notion—this notion of centrality.
When all is said and done—when the last human has made their exit, there will be no epilogue or postscript, afterword, or coda. Humanity is a story in need of a narrator. The ongoing codicil will cease, and to copy-paste the high art of Monty Python’s parrot sketch:
E’s not pinin’! ‘E’s passed on! This parrot is no more! He has ceased to be! ‘E’s expired and gone to meet ‘is maker! ‘E’s a stiff! Bereft of life, ‘e rests in peace! If you hadn’t nailed ‘im to the perch ‘e’d be pushing up the daisies! ‘Is metabolic processes are now ‘istory! ‘E’s off the twig! ‘E’s kicked the bucket, ‘e’s shuffled off ‘is mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible!! THIS IS AN EX-PARROT!!
I expect that consciousness is a human nominative concept. Like religion, it will become smaller as science encroaches. In 1994, David Chalmers presented his idea of the hard problem of consciousness in a lecture, Toward a Scientific Basis of Consciousness, but I feel this is more due to the insufficiency of language than anything else. To me, consciousness isn’t well defined. It’s like a medical syndrome. It’s just a grouping of seemingly related conditions that haven’t yet been parsed. In time, it may be determined that they weren’t even related in the first place. Apophenia and cognitive dissonance are two significant human biases that affect perception.
At core, consciousness might be functionally reduced to that of an interpreter. Some have posited that the only thing that exists is ‘information’, whatever that means, so there only needs to be an interpreter—a translater. If that interpreter is defined as consciousness, then so be it. This appears to lead us to a Cartesian place—though it doesn’t follow that the self or ego exists. This would be a second-order event.
Anyway, just rambling. As seems to be the case lately, I’ve got little time to develop my thoughts. At least I’ve captured them for now.