Do you never wonder about the immaterial things like, why you have a conscience? Why you think some things are right and others are wrong? All the knowledge you hold about the human body and at the cellular level and the intricate detail involved in development and sustaining the metabolic process, you don’t ever wonder if their is an intelligent mind behind that design? When you see you children conceived, developed in utero and then born thru this amazing process, it doesn’t make you wonder about the mind behind such a design?
These are comments that were sent to me recently in an email, they reflect questions that many atheists are asked every day. I don’t think I’ve ever done a post about this particular stuff so here it is. I’m going to break down the quote into each question and address each one individually.
Do you never wonder about the immaterial things like, why you have a conscience?
Of course I do, who wouldn’t!? I just don’t feel the need to answer every question with ‘god did it’. I can’t explain the exact parts that make us have higher brain functions than other animals but I am confident that it is something like Aristotle described it “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”.
We don’t know exactly how much ‘feeling’ other primates or other animals have. It has been shown that mice will stop pressing the button that gives them food if they find out it is causing another mouse pain. Sharing and apparent caring have been observed in gorillas. To deny that animals have morality is some sort of special pleading and denial that we aren’t completely unique in this world.
More immaterial concepts exist; love, hate, etc. These are usually brought up so I will address them beforehand. Some people claim that the skeptic can’t be sure of love because there isn’t evidence for it. There is evidence if the love is there. In the little looks and caresses you and your partner share. A kiss feels much different when the feelings aren’t there to motivate it. Hate is much the same, except for the kiss part. A lovely post I came across recently on Imgur.com recounts children’s answers to the question ‘What is love?’
I’ll link this video by Tim Minchin here and the most relevant lyrics below.
But the human body is a mystery!
Science just falls in a hole
When it tries to explain the the nature of the soul.
Life is full of mysteries, yeah,
But there are answers out there
And they won’t be found
By people sitting around
And saying isn’t life mysterious?
Let’s sit here and hope
Does the idea that there might be knowledge
Does the idea that one afternoon
On Wiki-fucking-pedia might enlighten you
Does the notion that there may not be a supernatural
So blow your hippy noodle
That you’d rather just stand in the fog
Of your inability to Google?
Isn’t this enough?
Just this world?
Just this beautiful, complex
Wonderfully unfathomable, natural world?
How does it so fail to hold our attention
That we have to diminish it with the invention
Of cheap, man-made Myths and Monsters?
To begin this post I want to start with a story from Friday night (June 13, 2014) on my way home from work. Driving down the hill of Ted Crozier Blvd, from the hospital towards the interstate, directly after the hill bottoms out just before the fire station I see a group of birds flying strangely above the road. As I got closer I saw something I soon realized was an injured bird in my lane. The birds were flying so radically that it is hard to imagine a reason other than their attempting to protect this one injured comrade. I wish my phone memory hadn’t been filled to capacity or I would have stopped and videotaped the incident, or at the very least taken a few pictures.
This situation touched me so deeply because of my recent conversations, readings, and thoughts on the subject of which I titled this post. What are morals? Why do we sometimes feel a duty to each other? Where do those feelings about/for each other originate? Is it a Who that gives us the oughts and oughtnots or could those feelings/duty have come about naturally?
In an on-going email conversation I am having with a relative stranger, I was asked what I thought morals were and I will admit that I hadn’t thought much on that before. I eventually came to respond that morals seemed to be, at the most basic level, those feelings of what we should/shouldn’t do. I don’t believe them to be given to us but are a response to our being a communal group and those things that hurt the group would hurt ourselves or even the ‘golden rule’ of do to others as you want done to you. The fact that one thing can be seen as okay, or moral, by one group of people but not okay, or immoral, (or not even thought about, i.e. amoral) by another seems to be evidence against the fact that morality was a dictate of some supreme being. Differing moral bases in different communities, or even changing morals within a community, lends credence to the idea of morals evolving with us over time.
Our global (and smaller too) community is currently under going a change in our belief about the morality of homosexuality, decades ago it was racial mixing, before that it was slavery. I am willing to bet that you have a set belief on the morality of the last two, maybe even the first, but take a minute to think about the mental position people were in when interracial marriage was discussed or slavery was abundant. Homosexuality, slavery, race, and even recognizing yourself as an atheist are perfect ideas to reflect the golden rule; if you were in the position that was frowned upon or you were the person in servitude you wouldn’t like to be looked down upon or beaten so it’s logical that you would be less inclined to do it to someone else. That is a pretty good basis for the evolution of morality by the golden rule. Empathy is the ability to recognize feelings in someone else even if you’ve never been in the same situation, and is the reason we can imagine being in that other position and imagine our reactions in those situations.
I have recently finished the book God’s Not Dead by Rice Broocks, check back to this blog for a thorough review hopefully soon, in the book he attempts to make the case that all morals come from the god of the Bible. Through a few conversations I’ve had, and a few that I’ve read through that other people have had and posted online, along with the position presented in this and a few other creationist books I’ve read I can only infer that the creationist position is that god gave morals to humans and it follows that they would be specific to humans. I am unsure if that is the position held by the specific people I have had conversations with or Mr. Broocks but as they have argued the humanity of the feelings it seems logical that would be their position.
This is an extremely deep conversation that, admittedly, I do not know more than a skimming about. I like to talk about it but going deeper into Hume’s Guillotine or Moore’s Open Question Argument is beyond me. The experience I had with the birds seemingly protecting an injured fellow combined with a TED Talk that I heard months ago led me to be confident that morality was an evolved trait and can be observed in the lower animal kingdom. The talk was given by Franz de Waal, linked HERE, in 2012 and describes multiple instances of observed morality or empathy in the animal kingdom. I really encourage you to watch it.
It seems easy to say that humans are the only animals with empathy and morality or a sense of duty to each other but it is, to me, encouraging and even mind altering finding out that other animal groups/communities are known to show similar behaviors. I don’t know how much deeper I can go with out giving myself a headache so I’ll end with this: The word morality has a deeply religious connotation but it doesn’t necessarily mean those feelings or senses are derived from religion. In fact, the ability to see differing levels of those feelings in the animal kingdom seemingly goes directly against that argument. Perhaps we need a different word to explain what is happening but for now it’s just the one word available and we’ll have to be careful of our definition when talking about it. I want to know what you think morals are, where they originate, or if you’ve seen an instance of morality in the animal kingdom.
Have a great day and i want to hear from you!