Instinct and Morality

For better or worse, the murder of innocent children is a contentious debate topic between Atheists and Christians. This is usually in relation to Old Testament commands from God, and how modern people should “instinctively know that premeditated / brutal murder of innocent children is wrong.” A lot could be said about whether events recorded in the Old Testament really happened or not, but that is a post topic for another time. I wanted to briefly dig into how “instinct” is mis-used here.

Whether killing children is wrong or not is a question of morality, not instinct. Instinct is a pattern of behavior in response to stimuli. Instinct would not look at a child and say “it is wrong to kill this child, so I won’t.” Instinct would kill the child if it was perceived as a threat, or otherwise just leave the child be. To instinct, murder is not right or wrong – it is only a response to certain stimuli.

This is important because we have to realize that morality is not something we are born with like instinct. Morality is a social construct that we can give a definition for at any given time, but that definition also changes over time. The people that recorded the premeditated / brutal murder of children in the Bible did so because their social construct of morality at the time did not see this as wrong, or even “brutal” per se. Again, this is a huge topic to explore, as the ancient world was often dog-eat-dog, might-makes-right, you-died-too-bad-who cares. But the reality is that they had a different moral standard back then.

The point being: morality is not some absolute truth that we are just now figuring out the one right construct to apply to it. In order for there to be one right moral code that we have to figure out as a species, morality would have to be a rational being that can understand thousands of languages and historical culture changes in order to let us collectively know what is “morally correct.” In other words, in order for there to be a universal morality, this morality would have to be able to understand new inventions like the Internet, and let us know how moral codes apply to our actions there. It would also have to have learned English at some point in order for us in America to understand it, as well as for it to understand the unique way Americans think about morality in our language.

Some would say that this is proof that God exists. Well, not really. it just proves that you can’t reject the idea of God while relying on the concept of “Universal Morality” as a global guide for humanity. Universal Morality would need to be a rational being – i.e., a god – in order to do so.

The more accurate way to look at morality is that it is a social construct that is evolving all the time. For example, the ancient Israelites had a different moral view on the killing of innocent children than we do now. Did you know that term “genocide” wasn’t coined until the 1940s as a way to describe the atrocities committed by Germany in World War II? Why didn’t Universal Morality have us label it a thing before that? Because Universal Morality is not a thing – we evolved the social construct of morality to say that this thing Germany did was wrong, and then we gave it a new word (genocide).

I know that some people are really convinced that across all time and all cultures, certain moral codes have remained true. Kind of… but also not really. It is true only if you generalize these concepts to gloss over important cultural norms. But that was not day-to-day reality for most people that had to live with those norms, and there are also still big differences across the globe and back through time. Overgeneralizing practical morality to derive Universal (historical and cultural) Morality erases cultural differences than made each culture unique.

It also means that in 100 years, people will look back at even the most enlightened among us and say “wow, did they get morality wrong!”

To me, this does not prove God exists in the least, but it also makes it pretty inappropriate to take 2019 Western American sociocultural normed moral codes and apply them as proof for or against God or Goddess or gods or supreme beings. Calling your sociocultural moral codes “instinct” is just passing the buck to some nonexistent Universal Morality or Supreme Being, claiming that one of these genetically programmed you to believe what is right and wrong. You and I need to take responsibility for how we have been influenced by our modern sociocultural context, and how we have chosen to follow those influences as a guide for what we do or do not believe in.

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Becoming Less Interested in Truth and More Interested in Reality

Truth is a concept that gets thrown around a lot these days. What is the Truth of this political situation? What is the Truth of that famous person’s claim? What is the Truth of this scientific study? On and on it goes.

Much has been written about Absolute Truth versus relative truths. For the record, I believe that there is Truth and there are truths. But how many times have we gotten lost in the search for Truth or truths that are still “out there” and “illusive,” all the while missing “reality” that is right in front of us and needs to be dealt with?

Science is one area where we debate Truth, truths, and “alternative truths.”

Let’s talk Truth in science a bit, and the concept of “what science says” is Truth. What you hear in school or on the news is not necessarily “what science says” in an exact and specific manner. It is usually a condensed, simplified, and amplified version designed to be easily shareable or to gain viewers/readers/etc.

For example, you hear people say that one week that scientific Truth says coffee is bad for you, and the next week science says coffee is good for you, so that means facts and truth are relative and science is not trust-able… right? However, science never really says “Coffee good unga unga!” or “coffee bad unga unga!” What science says is something like “under these circumstances in reality, those that drink this much coffee are 30% more likely to develop these possibly negative factors” or “under these circumstances in reality, people that drink coffee this many times per day are 52% likely to live 4 years longer than those that don’t.” People in the news and media simplify that to “Scientists say coffee may be good for you!” because, well, we have short attention spans and they have to catch our attention quickly. But that is not what “Science says” – it is what a reporter say about a scientific report. To dismiss science because of this is a bad idea, because you are not dismissing scientific Truth but how some report on science.

Or for another example: people say that they were taught in school that scientific Truth says that Saturn was the only planet in the solar system with rings, but that ended up not being true, so scientific facts and Truth must be relative. However, “science” never said Saturn was the only planet with rings. In 1789, William Herschel reported seeing rings around Uranus and got several details about them correct. No one else saw them again for hundreds of years until the 1970s, but the idea that there could be other planets with rings has been a scientific possibility for hundreds of years. A few decades ago, science textbooks said things like “based on our current reality and abilities to view space, Saturn is the only planet that we currently know of that has rings, but it is possible that others will be discovered.” Your teacher might have shortened that to save time to “Saturn is the only planet with rings,” but that does not mean that is fully what science said in Truth.

So in order to critique science, you have to look at what science actually says and not how it has been summarized by non-scientists. To throw out scientific evidence just because you don’t like it is just reckless at best. I mean, really – scientists spend their whole career studying something, using thousands if not millions of dollars in funding and hundreds of full time hours to come up with their science… and you come along with no experience or funding or employment in the field and spend a few minutes or even a few hours reading about their work and just decide “I don’t buy it” and that means science is wrong or relative or whatever? Ummm…. nope.

But if that is the case, then great. We can reject any facts simply because we don’t like them or they don’t add up in our minds. Awesome! I will now call everyone that believes this “She-ra Princess of Power” because the evidence that your name is Jeff or whatever just doesn’t “seem right” to me. Your birth certificate and decades of experience being called your name is now irrelevant to me, She-ra – sorry. I disagree with your name and that is all that matters.

But, of course, the reality is that you are called Jeff at this moment, so the Truth of your name is irrelevant to me at this moment. I have to focus on your name being Jeff because that is what the reality at this moment is.

So that is why I am growing less interested in talking “Truth” and more interested in talking “reality” in most circumstances where practical solutions are needed. Of course, I would be glad to sit over a meal and chat Truth with those that like those kind of deep talks, but those rarely solve the problems in the world. What we need as a country is to face reality.

For example, the Truth about Trump’s involvement with Russia is that we just don’t know for sure what the Truth is. But the reality is that there is a lot of concerning evidence that many laws were broken, so we need to fully investigate those concerns to find out either way.

The Truth about climate change is that there is much we do not know about what is going on on our planet in general. But the reality is that the numbers and signs are not good and pointing towards imminent global catastrophe. So we could argue the Truth about blips and problems with the Science, or live in the reality that we currently have and do something about it.

Truth is something that is always true and any changes to it will cause massive crises of faith, thus revealing it to have never been “True.” But a reality is something that is real right now, but it may change in the future and still be real.

For instance, the Truth about the DNC rigging the Democratic nomination for Clinton is that we just don’t know if that was really true or possible. The reality is that the evidence for that idea that we currently have was mostly fabricated by WikiLeaks. I can’t say that is a Truth either way right now because something could be released tomorrow either way to prove me a liar. But I can say that the reality right now is that we have no credible evidence that the DNC rigged anything. That reality might change either way in the future, but all we have to act on at this moment is reality.

There are, of course, historical, scientific, and political issues that we do know the Truth about. Or at least parts of it. Time, investigation, and research have provided a solid foundation of Truth. In other cases, it depends on what you are talking about. Do you want to know the final Truth about every aspect of climate change? Can’t give you that. But we can give you a whole ton of concerning current realities. For instance, do you want to know the Truth about whether humans have caused some problematic climate change? We can provide you with that – that part of Truth is also a current reality for the bigger issue of climate change. It’s all inter-related in some ways. A bit fuzzy and hard to pinpoint depending on the angle you take, but clearer and clearer from another angle. Kind of like, well… metamodernism

metamodern-faith-avatarBut so often we are arguing current realities as if they are already settled Truth. Or arguing against current realities because they lack the ability to reach the level of settled Truth (yet). So I prefer to keep the arguments about current realities and leave the discussions of Truth to be with those that can handle that conversation without all the drama.

Lines, Labels, Signs, and Wonders

As an educator, I realize that we need labels. We can’t understand new ideas or concepts until we can label them and connect them with knowledge we already have. That’s kind of the basis for the idea of constructivism – a school of thought that examines how knowledge is constructed rather than downloaded.

The problem is, these labels are meant to be the beginning of knowledge, so you have a way to start organizing the chaos of the world around you.

The problem with our society is that we are creating a backwards culture that sees these labels as the end, final descriptor rather than the beginning. We ask questions not to further understand and refine, but to classify which predetermined box we want to put people in once and for all.

So these labels that we should use as a starting point for understanding become an ending point of division. We know this is wrong and that we should rage against these divisions, but we often don’t know why.

Maybe it is because we are devolving, walking backwards into something as if it should be a final destination, when it really should just be a beginning… cementing labels as facts when they really should be launch pads that are quickly discarded?

So really its not the labels that are wrong, but the backwards way we utilize them in society.

And I get how annoying these lines and labels can be, especially when used cruelly or with weird intentions. But to sit back and say “if you believe this, then you are different from me” just gives in and strengthens this backwards system. The more we point out how different or other we are from each other, the more we cause our world to shatter and divide. Labels are supposed to be a way to build bridges, not divide our selves into “my” camp and “another” camp.

metamodern-faith-avatarSo I guess what I am getting at is that there are ways to point out differences in ways that build bridges and understanding and community, and there are ways to label and draw battle lines and separate ourselves from those we call “another.” Left, right, conservative, progressive – we all do both and have a choice to stop doing one while focusing on the other. Which direction will you choose to go with your differences?