Tag Archives: evolution

god doesn’t give us morals

ChurchMorals How do we know what is moral and what is not? It is the view of religious advocates that religion defines morality and virtue. They say that without religion society would breakdown and immorality would become systemic. But if religion contains so much stuff that we regard as immoral—how can it define our morality? The fact is that religion does not provide our morals what really happens is our internal sense of right and wrong goes though the text of the bible, koran or whatever and tells us what is good and what is bad. Churches have been editing the religion’s morals by picking and choosing what they regard as moral and disregarding the rest or explaining it away with some fancy ecclesiastic double-talk.

Think about it for a second—would you suddenly become feral if one day you were walking home from a night out and were run over by a car and suffered amnesia. Imagine waking up in hospital not knowing where you are or what has happened all your long term memory is gone—you don’t know what the bible is never mind what is in it. Would you no longer feel love for your family? Would you become cruel and violent? This reminds of what Sam Harris had to say in The End of Faith[1]he suggests that if suddenly all man’s knowledge was lost due to some event that cleared our minds of everything that we have learned— at what point would it be necessary to know that the source of morality was born of a virgin?

This all begs the question—where do our morals come from? We know the story of Huckleberry Finn[2] by Mark Twain where a young Huck is confronted with a dilemma—helping his friend Jim escape slavery is stealing—Huck knows that stealing is wrong and he could be damned to hell for it—he is so afraid of it and so indoctrinated by religion he even contemplates handing over his friend by writing a note to Miss Watson however, in the end Huck’s own moral code rules and he tears up the note and helps Jim escape. We all know that Huck did the right thing but what is it that made him do it? It surly was not religion because Huck thought he was going to hell—Huck’s sense of moral duty came from a primordial code of ethical actions built into him that was able to overrule his religious indoctrination.

It might be hard to imagine how we got this moral code. For some they see morality coming from society and being instilled into a child from birth. All children are born a blank slate to be written upon is their morals and ethics. This is the argument made by the philosopher Thomas Hobbes in seminal work—Leviathan where he looks at the nature of man and he concludes that man’s natural state is of war—every man against every man—and in this state there is no justice or injustice because as he sees it there is no government to give us justice. One place he regarded as living in this state was America[3] however, things have come along since he wrote this in 1651—he regards the Native Americans as ‘brutish’ and without a system of government no sense of good or bad. Now clearly we know this not to be the case the aboriginal Americans have a sense of moral decency and are not embroiled in a war all against all.

Consider then if our biology has any place in giving us a sense of right and wrong. In Moral Minds[4] Marc Hauser gives us a look at a biological explanation of our morality. He looks at our morals as being very similar to any other organ or our body. He draws on the work of Noam Chomsky and his revolutionising theory of linguistics that showed that human beings have a built-in set of principles that are used to learn a language no matter what it is. To give an example of these rules consider the sentence “Frank is foolish” and the same sentence but with the ‘is’ shortened so “Frank’s foolish”—ok so they both make sense but what is I said “Frank is more foolish the Joe’s” now you know that there is something wrong with that sentence but nobody has ever told you that you cannot shorten the ‘is’ at the end of a sentence and yet you still know not to do it that is because you have a rule in your head that tells you that the ‘s sound is too short and it need to be followed by something.[5] This rule would be the same no matter what language you learnt. The fact that you know this rule but, you do not know how exactly how you know it is what Hauser suggests is is happening with your morality.

The same—what is termed ‘grammar’ of morality—can be found inside us. Hauser takes this argument from outside the realm of philosophical thought and does experiments using the old philosophical fact scenarios like—a train is driving along the track and it is unstoppable it can either keep going and kill five people or take a off-shoot track and kill just one—most people choose instinctively to take the off-shoot track. This is not to suggest that every society has the same morals because this is obviously not correct but, it sets up a basic rule system like killing babies is immoral and has room for variances from person-to-person—society-to-society.

How does this square up to the Darwinian survival of the fittest? How can one be the fittest and therefore spread your genes if you are helping other? Richard Dawkins—one of the world’s most outspoken atheists and leading evolutionary biologists—has written extensively on the subject of the evolution of altruism and morality. In Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene[6] the author explains the process of natural selection and puts into a context the development of altruistic behaviour and how that the genes responsible for that behaviour can be favoured by evolution and thus populate the gene pool. It may be difficult to imagine how some behaviour is beneficial to a gene’s promulgation when on the outside it seems counterintuitive to that ends.

You are made of genes—each one of these genes programmes how you are—what you look like; how tall you are; how you behave virtually every aspect of you is controlled by your genes. Genes make copies of themselves and are spread and mixed with other genes i.e. we have children. But, in this process mistakes are made—small mutations. Long ago imagine there was a single type of gene making copies of itself then one time it made a copy that let it get together with another gene that mutated and by being together they were better off—say for arguments sake the two of them together were able to take the sun’s rays and turn it into their own food like plants do during photosynthesis—this means that these two cells are not better able to make copies of themselves and their ‘children’ can do the same thing they are doing so over time they become stronger and the weaker ones die off. I do not want to give the impression that these genes are alive—they are not making the decision to do anything it is just that they happen to be the best at making sure that they are spread. Over time more complex genes start to mutate and for example form legs to move around and a mind to help think and get away from danger—they are changing and mutating all the time—but building on past successes—creating the best ‘survival machines’[7] for them to be in—if they do not make a good body to live in then they do not get passed on so are wiped out the genes that make the best body get passed on so there are more of them. Eventually these genes formed a survival machine that is us.

So you see that the gene is not trying to keep us alive per se it is just that we do the gene the most good because we are alive long enough to spread it around. So you can imagine a gene that says ‘You are to sacrifice yourself to save ten people with the same gene as me in them.’ This gene would do well because by losing you it has saved 10 other copies of itself and thus made itself fitter—that is the survival of the fittest. But how do we know if them ten people have the same gene in them? Well we don’t—we can guess—our children have half our genes in them so there is a 50%[8] chance that they have that gene in them—this is a why we are so protective of our children—our brother and sisters have the same chance ½—there is a breakdown of all these relationships and why perhaps we feel more protective of our children than our brother and sisters even though the chances are the same in Richard Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene.[9] Some of us would sacrifice ourselves to save 100 strangers is that because the chance that they have the same gene is higher than if it was just two?

Now imagine again Thomas Hobbes’ state of nature—war all against all—imagine now a gene that said ‘help people that help me’ could spread. If we lived in Hobbes’ state of nature we would be under treat all the time so if perhaps we had this gene to help each other out if they help us we would do much better than the people that did not have this gene so this gene would start to spread. Now perhaps imagine one of us in this society had a gene that mutated to say do not help other but take their help then that gene would start to flourish. But then it would just go right back to the start again however, there is a point where an optimal number of both is reached and it would begin to steady out.[10] “’The ants and termites,’ wrote Prince Kropotkin, ‘have renounced the “Hobbesian War”, and they are better for it’”[11]

Let’s take a look now at some of the principles that are genes have given us. So it is one thing to care for your kin because there is a high probability that they share the same genes as you but, the trouble comes when you look at non-family altruism. Where is the Darwinian advantage in that? Well again Prof. Dawkins’ books try to give us an understanding into this process. The first theory of altruism that Prof. Dawkins discusses is the old saying ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’—indeed a very utilitarian adage that has huge merits for a gene that is trying to get passed on. You can see how a society could grow on this concept—if I have the ability to make pots but don’t know how to cook and you need pots and can cook by working together we ensure both of our survival. This concept can be seen to work throughout nature—flowers can’t fly so the pay honey bees to spread their pollen around[12] and we have all seen on wildlife documentaries small birds that are cleaning the parasites from hippopotamuses that cannot do it themselves. In human society the division of labour[13] has allowed us as a species to flourish and has thus caused the spread of the gene that causes this through our generations. It is really quite clear how this system of helping others fits in with our theory of natural selection.

Reputation plays a part in altruism if I build up a reputation for not buying a round of drinks in a pub nobody’s going to include my when they buy a round. It is observable behaviour in the animal kingdom for reputation precede you—in the stickleback fish population there is evidence that shows that the fish will tolerate defection of fish that have stuck by them in the past over fish that have been wimps when they are going to inspect a dangerous predator—they even choose fish to join their expedition parties that have shown high standing in previous situations.[14] Human beings have a much greater ability to remember who was good to them in the past even to the most to people that you only met briefly—we can all run a list down in our heads of people that have ripped us off and we will be very wary of helping them in the future.

Now this brings us to how our genes influence our morals in a general way. Our genes are too slow to make the decisions all by themselves and there are too many situations—infinite numbers—to all be coded for in our genes. So our genes make more general rules i.e. principles. A good analogy here is communicating over great distances—it takes four minutes for messages to get from Earth to Mars travelling at the speed of light—there is no way to make that faster the speed of light is the maximum speed anything can travel—so imagine now we have sent a robot to mars that is remotely controlled from Earth—as it goes about its business of exploring the Martian landscape[15] it takes four minutes for us to get its information and four minutes for it to get our instructions which is clearly too long a time if the robot encounters cliffs for example—so what do we do? Well we build in rules into the robot e.g. if you come to cliffs avoid them. This is sort of like what are genes do for us. However, what are genes are able to do also is allow for parameter input—that is to say the general principles are set out but they allow for more data to be used in order to make the best decisions. So take for example the principle of ‘be fair to people’—this is a general principle that is set by our genes say—now the parameter can then vary from society to society depending on how it works best—there is no universal definition of fairness but it uses the details of the particular society to set its standard.[16]

For a further demonstration our inbuilt moral judgements—consider two scenarios

1) You are driving along in your new sports car and you see a little girl at the side of the road bleeding. He can take her to the hospital but it will cost you time and money to clean the bloody seat—€200.

2) You see video on TV of children in some poor country that need €50 to save 25 of their lives.[17]

Now most of you will say that in case 1 you are obliged to help the little girl and in case 2 most of you will not believe that you are obliged to send the money—although most of you will sympathise you won’t be under huge moral pressure to help. What this indicates is that our genes have not adapted with our psychology to the ever increasing distances that we can communicate in the modern world. Our genes are no used to dealing with great distances and our psychology is having trouble with it too.


[1] Harris, S., “The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason” (Free Press, 2006)

[2] Twain, M., “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (Adamant Media Corporation, 1999)

[3] Hobbes, T., “Leviathan” MacPherson, C. B. Ed. (Penguin Classics, 1985) p 187 Part I Chap XIII

[4] Hauser, M. D., “Moral Minds” (Harper Collins, 2006)

[5] Ibid. ( pg 40

[6] Dawkins, R., “The Selfish Gene” (3rd ed Oxford University Press, 2006)

[7] Ibid. ( at chapter 3

[8] For a look at the statistical relationship of family look at Ibid. chapter 6

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid. ( chapter 5

[11] Quoted in Ridley, M., “The Origins of Virtue” (Penguin, 1996)

[12] Dawkins, R., “The God Delusion” (Transworld Publishers, 2006) at p216

[13] Smith, A., “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations” (Regnery Gateway, 1999)

[14] Ridley, M., “The Origins of Virtue” (Penguin, 1996) at p82

[15] This analogy is loosely based on Prof. Dawkins’ analogy in his book: Dawkins, R., “The Selfish Gene” (3rd ed Oxford University Press, 2006) at p55

[16] Hauser, M. D., “Moral Minds” (Harper Collins, 2006) at p71

[17] Ibid. (

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Ontological Argument


This is the third argument about god’s existence that I am going to look at. Of the last two arguments this is perhaps one that might be a bit of a head ache. Unlike the last two arguments this is what is called a priori—meaning an argument where the knowledge is gained independently of experience.

Descartes’

Imagine god as being perfect—what are all the qualities of perfection? Would you include existence as one of these qualities? Surly if something is perfect then is exists or else it is not really perfect because, it doesn’t have the quality of existence. It might have all other great qualities like beauty and kindness but, if it doesn’t exist then it is not perfect because things that exist are better than it. If I said to you do you want an imaginary cake or real one which one of them is better?

So the argument goes:

  1. God is perfect;
  2. Existence is a quality of perfection;
  3. Therefore if god is perfect he exists.

Well what is to be said if we say that he doesn’t exist? Well theists will say then what you are thinking of is not god because god is perfect and has to exist because he is perfection. This is called an argument!

Let us then define a thing called a ‘shunicorn’ it is exactly like a unicorn except we also say it is perfect therefore shunicorns exist[1]Shunicorns do not exist they are just made up and defined like this but this is the exact same argument used to ‘prove’ god exisits.

There is also argument about if Desecrates can use existence as a property of something. If I say ‘Mary is nice’ you assume that she exists because if she didn’t she couldn’t be nice—things that do not exist do not have properties. All existing things by nature exist we do not have to give them the property. There is a much more detailed attempt at what I have tried o say in this paragraph in Everitt’s[2]book—I am not going to try and do justice to it here.

Anselms’

Think of a something in which nothing greater can be thought of—now think of that thing existing—that is greater than what you were thinking of before; hence god exists.[3]

Right really not much to say on this one. Gaunilo[4] had a retort to this argument. Think of the greatest tropical island perfect in every way; now think of it existing wouldn’t that be better? Don’t pack your bags just yet!


[1] Everitt, N., “The Non-Existence of God” (Routledge, 2004) at p38

[2] Ibid.

[3 Plantinaga, A., “The Ontological Argument from St. Anselm to Contemporary Philosophers” (Macmillan, 1968)

[4] Everitt, N., “The Non-Existence of God” (Routledge, 2004) at p33

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Teleological

The second argument I am going to deal with on the existence of god is called the teleological argument. Teleology is the philosophical study of design and purpose. For a list of the Arguments of god’s existence see here)

Imagine you were walking along on an alien planet somewhere far away and you stumbled across a pocket watch on the ground—you pick it up and look at how intricate it is and you say to yourself that it must have been made by something intelligent. Now we are more complicated than a watch—we look like we were designed ergo we were designed by a creator. Fred Hoyle’s idea of a whirlwind blowing through a scrap yard and making a Jumbo Jet from the parts he says is a demonstration that complex things need a more complex creator and cannot be created by accident because it is statistically tantamount to impossible. This idea is both wrong and right. Let me explain; we all know that a jumbo jet being created by chance would be more-or-less impossible the same goes for humans as we are more complicated than jets but the fact is this analogy doesn’t apply to our creation because we aren’t suggesting we were created by chance. Anyone that suggests evolution is a process that is similar to a whirlwind in a scrap yard either doesn’t understand evolution or is trying to deceive you.

Evolution does not rely on chance to create complex systems like us. How evolution works is that a simpler organism when reproducing (replicating) will have random mutations if these mutations mean that the new mutated organism is fitter then it spreads its jeans and then the process goes on again. The big difference is that it is not all happening at once no one thinks that a simple organism went to a very complex one all at once like the jumbo jet—what is happening is it is gradually getting more and more complex and it is not just randomly getting like this nature is picking the best one and of the random changes. It is important to see the distinction between random changes and randomly evolving—if five random mutations happen the ones that get passed on to the next generation are not randomly picked—nature picks the best ones. How can nature pick the best ones it’s not alive? Well, by pick I don’t mean consciously choose it is blindly choosing—the ones that aren’t as good at passing their genes around will lose out to the ones that are—so you see it is not a random choice on which ones will get passed on it is the best ones that will get passed on and what is more we don’t need any conscious being to choose the best ones.

This argument is of no real merit now that we can explain how things are they way that they are by using scientific methods and not have to resort to dulling our own intelligence by providing a story of creation as a fact when it has no evidence to support its magic claims.

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I Need a Miracle

Where have all the miracles gone? It seems we were inundated with the stories of all the unearthly things that have been done by the power of god. He can produce rabbits form his hat all day long—we have Jesus rising from the dead and ascending into heaven; he was born of a virgin and turned water into win; healed the sick; multiplied loaves and fishes and so on and on. Now my question is if god saw fit to cater a wedding in Cana why won’t he supply food for the starving in Africa?
There are people that claim latter day miracles but, are unable to supply any verifiable evidence. The annual liquefaction of the blood of San Gennaro in Naples is all but impressive—it is pathetic to see hundreds of faithful all staring at a little vile of congealed blood while some old clergy man shakes it with all his power trying to force a small amount of blood to turn to a less solid state. The magician and sceptic James Randi is able to demonstrate the processes involved with this deception and to be honest it is not even that impressive.

Long gone or the resurrections and flying horses—no more are the parting of oceans to let people cross. You see we are no longer fools—if we take a look at less scientifically advanced cultures we can see how the first person to figure out when the eclipse was going to happen might seem like he had the power to do it or when he was able to know when the days were going to get longer or shorter he might have seemed powerful. We don’t need any of this mumbo jumbo anymore because we are able to explain it without resorting to magic spells and incantations.

If god was going to give a vulgar display of power to the people of times-gone-by why didn’t he give them video equipment to make better records than second hand butchered reports in scattered manuscripts? What we need is—to coin a phrase—shock and awe tactics of god—if he was to display he power as he did in times gone by we would have the whole Earth worshiping him—if an angel came into my room at night demonstrating some unexplainable powers of huge proportions then I would be the first to be prostrate on the ground flagellating myself. But, no I am expected to be content that the time of all these impressive miracles are over are over we have to put up with bleeding statues of the virgin Mary. There is the classic story that is told by believers that goes: there was this guy who was working away in a shop and he was very unhappy but then some random person came in off the street and stood on his head in the middle of the shop floor—the shopkeeper rushed over and took the man’s hand and said ‘thank you, thank you—just before you came in I was going to kill myself but before I done it I prayed to god that if he was real to make someone come in off the street and stand on his head’. Now besides the fact that this sound like a my-mother’s-hairdresser’s-aunt’s-husband’s-granny heard that… story it is not very impressive why couldn’t that man say ‘god if you are real fill the bellies of all the starving children’? Surely god’s powers can be put to more impressive tricks than this parlour game—sure I have seen the Hypnosis-Magician Darren Brown make people think that they were dead or make people forget that they had played the piano their whole life. God’s miracles: they don’t impress me much.


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