God: the inflated ego of nature and reason

A steadfast opposition to natural or rational claims (particularly ones that impinge on the domains of religion) is that a natural perspective somehow removes the grandeur and the value of the thing. The argument then seems to follow that the grandeur is a transcendent and objectively real thing, hence God. I once held a similar view; never being religious, however, the logic was patently nothing more than wishful thinking. One of the clearest examples of this is within evolution. I agree with Richard Dawkins that evolution is very elegant, all expect for in one domain: morality.

Don’t get me wrong, I still see evolution as a very apt mechanism by which we derive our moral intuition; societies are greater than their component people, so natural selection will favour behaviours that act to encourage a society (or group), hence our moral intuitions. As many religious apologists (in the context of claiming that objective morality is the exclusive domain of religion because God prescribed it) have pointed out, this evolutionary moral intuition is subject to change; it is the whims of natural selection that decide what is moral, not some inherent immorality in killing – hence God (as above).

I wish to make a number of rebuttals.

Firstly, note that I did not say evolutionary moral intuitions are ‘subjective’. Indeed they are not. These evolutionary intuitions objectively follow the reproductive (and, by definition, propagative) success of a group. It is true to say that, given certain circumstances, moral intuitions will change. That is to say that stealing from a neighbouring rich tribe may become morally intuitive because it will increase the wealth (and therefore reproductive success) or a poor tribe. This is not ‘subjective’ morality; it could always, in principle, be said that any action either does or does not contribute to reproductive success. That is objective; it would be a truth about the universe. The discussion becomes this: the point of reference is a zeitgeist i.e. it is the evolutionary pressures that change.

I also did not say ‘moral truths’, I said “moral intuitions”. There are many reasons to draw the distinction between the “truth” and the “intuition”: this is most explicitly illuminated in the phenomenon Richard Dawkins refers to as the “Middle World”. It is not intuitively true that on the very very small-scale matter is made up of mostly nothing i.e. space in and between atoms. However it is physically true. It is less intuitive still that on an even smaller scale the stuff that is matter is made up of waves of energy. This is our intuition breaking down in the “Small World”.

The same is true of the “Big World”; the sheer incomprehensible vastness of space is both true and not available to our intuition. The massive density and gravity of black holes is also outside the realms of our intuition, but mathematically held as true1. The effect that relativity has on these phenomena truly staggers imagination; consider for a moment this simple fact: due to relativity, light reaching earth could be light from the moments immediately after the Big Bang – that light has not necessarily gone past earth yet.

Consider now the difference between moral intuitions and moral truths. Moral intuitions are the evolutionarily (and culturally) inherent thoughts we have about right and wrong. It is true to say that, for the most part, our moral intuitions follow moral truths (which I will come on to explain) because natural selection seeks out a theme similar to moral truths.

Natural selection favours memes (propagative units). Functioning societies propagate better than warring people. Functioning societies, the theme natural selection selects for, rely on characteristics like trust, shared resources, health and altruism. The similar theme that moral truths are built on, as Sam Harris argues in his book The Moral Landscape, is wellbeing. Wellbeing can be objectively measured in functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) machines, and thus moral truths are expressions of how actions made by conscious beings either objectively heighten or lower wellbeing2. I don’t think it should take explaining, then, to notice where the overlaps between moral intuitions and truths come in.

My point however is this: when people hold a phenomenon, like morality, as the exclusive domain of God(s), even in the face of logic and reason, it is likely to be for simple reasons. Natural explanations remove the grandeur of certain issues, but people hold that grandeur to be something that is true about them. So, when the evolutionary explanation of moral intuitions removed the grandeur of morality people rejected the claim because it could not be reconciled with the grandeur they thought to be an objective truth about morality.

God, in this example, is a way of inflating natural and rational phenomena to hold a level of grandeur equal to how we have, ironically, evolved to value them.

1 the point I wish to make about the term “mathematically held to be true” is twofold. Firstly, once a domain of science enters a “world” beyond our comprehension it is necessary to invoke maths to guide our understanding, not just express it. This proved to be true from the infancy of astronomy, cosmology and is the main tool for understanding quantum mechanics – all of which are correct and verified by experiment. The second point I’d like to make is that of “model dependent realism”, an epistemological model popularised by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in the book The Grand Design. The mathematical models work to predict observation, and have not been successfully falsified. It is therefore rational to hold the concept as ‘true’.

2 Sam Harris makes the claim that morality can be defined based on wellbeing from a few assertions, each of which are well supported in his book The Moral Landscape, and all of which admit themselves to potential falsification. The claims are these:

  1. The state of wellbeing is held in the mind
  2. The mind is influenced by the state of the brain
  3. The brain is influenced by the external world
  4. The state of the brain can (at the very least in principle) be measured in fMRI scans

7 thoughts on “God: the inflated ego of nature and reason”

  1. Very good conclusion. Very good, indeed. We simply want life to be more elaborate than what it truly is. We see examples of this everywhere and every day. We don’t even call it for what it is, a lie. We instead soften it to be ’embellishment,’ or ‘exaggeration’ which are less offensive terms. Excellent post.

  2. If you were to scan a one-year-old’s brain immediately after he or she received a necessary inoculation, I doubt it would exhibit what you would characterize as well-being. How do you (or Harris) account for this in your theory of objective morality?

    1. To be honest I over simplify Sam Harris’ argument when I say “increase in wellbeing = morally good”, because it misses a subtle point, which is this:
      The goal is to keep wellbeing high. It is possible that a person is in a situation where all the options lead to a lower wellbeing, but when some lead to greater depths of suffering than others, it is the option that minimises that suffering that is moral. Subtle, but definitely important distinction.

  3. My point is that scanning the brain for evidence of well-being might be “objective,” but it won’t be accurate because some things that contribute to a “functioning society” result in pain, hardship, and suffering. A functioning, surviving society will be one that is able to defend itself well against those “warring people.” This will result in the deaths of some, bringing pain and suffering to them as well as to their loved ones. A functioning society will be one wherein its citizens work hard and forego certain luxuries and pleasures that would make their lives easier and promote their personal well-being, so that their families can benefit. Scanning their brains might reveal fatigue, irritability, and worry that they’re not doing enough.

    People who have a lot going for them and much to be grateful for can become very despondent and even suicidal. I assume a brain scan would conclude a low sense of well-being in that state, but if they received good counseling which gave them a new perspective and resulted in a new attitude, I suspect a brain scan at that point would suggest something different, though nothing else had changed.

    I just see the notion that you can accurately measure the well-being of a society and from that infer objective morality as seriously flawed.

    1. I’ve read my post again, and I think I’ve pin-pointed the cause of some of the confusion: I’ve not done a good job of highlighting that a moral intuition, which evolves as a result of the benefits of a functioning society, is different from objective morality.

      I’m not sure of your point about the well-off but suicidal people; Yes, a brain scan would reveal their low wellbeing. One of the options to heighten that is counselling, and that is a moral choice. If there really is not greater underlying issue, then it is the only moral choice.

      It does take some thinking to separate out the differences between hedonism (always looking after your own wellbeing) and a wellbeing based morality. But it seems that’s worth mentioning: if me forgoing a certain luxury (like, say, slaves) lowers my own wellbeing by 4 (arbitrary units*) but heightens the wellbeing of 10 slaves by 2 (arbitrary units**) each, then my drop in wellbeing (of 4) has achieved a higher wellbeing (by 20) elsewhere. That would mean a wellbeing profit of 16 (and therefore moral).

      *as a discipline, there aren’t yet units and measures of wellbeing. But there is the in-principle idea.

      If me forgoing a luxury doesn’t benefit anyone then it wasn’t a moral consideration. Yes, in order for society to function I have to pay tax. But for that I get healthcare (I’m British), police, fire service, roads to cycle on, street lights, bin collections etc. People are happier with these services.

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