Posts Tagged ‘religion’

tl;dr

Wednesday, December 1st, 2010

Can’t be bothered to wade through that last entry? Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered. The basic argument is actually pretty simple; I just went off on lots of tangents about the evolutionary history that has led us to this point, and I also ran through some of the implications of these ideas, and how they relate to everyday life. Here are the key points:

- The historical and evolutionary evidence indicates we are in the process of evolving from a violent civilisation to a nonviolent one. Also, the evolution of our attitude towards violence is closely tied to the evolution of religion. Religion greatly reduced the overall violent nature of our societal groups, but it also gave rise to war when these societal groups clashed, which is why we are now moving on and seeking new alternatives, in order to build on the progress that has been made.

- There are two characteristics which all pro-violence viewpoints have in common: they are reactionary, and they come equipped with a system of ethics designed to eliminate the problems associated with all the other pro-violence worldviews that have failed in the past. This ethical code allows people to feel superior to other practitioners of violence, which is why they can sustain their position even as violence continues to cause problems throughout the world.

- Whenever this system of ethics fails, people simply refine their ethical code and start again. But in reality, there is no such thing as a system of ethics that can prevent the harmful consequences of violent behaviour.

- Violence is a fear response: we experience fear, we try to enact control, violence is usually the simplest act of control so it is the first thing people turn to (ie. it is the path of least resistance, which is something our brains always find appealing). But modern violence carries an unusual quirk: because nonviolent ideas have already permeated society to a significant degree, people are now trying to regulate their violent behaviour. This means that when they experience fear, and thus the desire for control suddenly makes violence seem an attractive option, they try to repress that response, because they have been taught that it is wrong. This is the key mistake. Repression only delays the response; it doesn’t eliminate it. In order to properly move on from violence, we need to stop repressing these actions, and learn to let go of them, and embrace the feeling of inner peace that stems from this action. Then we can all go frolicking together in meadows, etc.

- Because we are still in the process of evolving from a violent civilisation to a nonviolent one, most of the pro-violence worldviews that exist today can be viewed as the memetic equivalent of transitional forms. Many of them will provide useful, if rather unstable, stepping stones on the way to that long-term goal, but they are clearly unsustainable, and we will eventually have to complete the transition. And yeah, I know it’s probably hard to look at some of the wars and such that exist today and think “well, at least we’re making progress”, but it seems that that is indeed the case, even if we still have a long way to go.

Anti-violence post #2

Wednesday, December 1st, 2010

We have come a long way. Even a study of recent history will reveal remarkable changes, but when you look back at the last 100,000 years or so, in which we have gone from a few thousand tribespeople on the African savannah to almost 7 billion people spread all over the planet, you really just have to sit back and marvel at the extraordinary changes which have occurred. Not least of which because this has all happened with only relatively minor changes to the human genome; as far as we can tell, there have been a series of superficial adaptations to environmental conditions, but aside from those, we are essentially still the same as the first people to look up at the stars, all those thousands of years ago. All the subsequent changes, the evolution of civilization, technology, and everything else we take for granted today, are the product of cultural evolution, derived solely from the tenuous transfer of memes from one generation to the next.

This evolutionary process shows no signs of slowing – quite the opposite, in fact. We are even today caught up in this vortex of inexorable change, running as fast as we can just to try and stay in the same place, as the saying goes. Naturally, the question arises: where exactly are we headed? It is a difficult thing to predict, but by looking at some of the selective pressures in play today, we might gain some insight into where we’ll find ourselves tomorrow.

Perhaps the most significant driving force behind the changes that have taken place is the fact that our exploding population has put immense pressure on our traditional territorial tribalism. When we grow tired of our neighbours, we can no longer just pack up and find somewhere else to live, as we’ll simply run into more humans who are likely to be just as defensive about their land as the people we left behind. Varied responses have arisen to deal with this pressure in the past: war, politics, diplomacy, and perhaps most interestingly, the expansion of social groups to include members of many different tribes. These supertribes required a powerful rallying point for social cohesion, and so we began to exaggerate the abilities of our leaders, so that their stature would match the size of the tribe, and everyone would gratefully serve them due to their unmatched power. But this line of thought soon required extending beyond the realms of human possibility, necessitating the invention of a concept above nature – the supernatural. These mythical leaders grew ever more powerful as social groups increased in size (the bigger the group, the better the odds of survival, marking a new evolutionary paradigm directed towards group selection), spurred on particularly by tales of past leaders, who were no longer around and thus could be exaggerated without any fear of being proven wrong by a need for real-life demonstrations of power. Eventually, they were removed entirely from reality, and we had ready-made gods inhabiting an imaginary realm, laying down the foundations for religion. (Ancient Egyptian culture provides a famous transitional form, exhibiting both gods and the god-king pharohs. And let’s not forget that modern Catholicism is at least partially derivative of Egyptian mythology…) But ideas that worked well in the past can wear out their welcome, such as when religious warfare leads to violence on increasingly unprecedented scales, creating marked conflicts with our kin-selected propensity for altruism and empathy. Expanding social groups gave us the ability to extend empathy beyond our immediate kin, and so ironically, turned us against the very thing that opened our eyes to the concept of a wider culture in the first place. The evolutionary march continues, and religion is on the way out, having been supplanted by nationalism and hopefully, eventually, a single, worldwide, humanist culture.

Population growth opens up other sources of pressure: the need for sustainable food sources, the need to consciously limit our impact on the environment, the need for more efficient infrastructure – and, especially when aligned with our increasingly devastating arsenal of weapons technology, the need for effective conflict resolution. It is now necessary not just to end conflicts after they arise but to figure out why they occur and how they can be prevented. A thorough understanding is required to ensure that we don’t bumble into a catastrophic and irreversible war – which, as close calls in the past have illustrated, is an all too real possibility.

Naturally, the pressure to finally put the concept of war to bed has brought forth many proposed solutions, some of which will ultimately be seen as having played a part in uncovering the final answer; others will merely be smirked at amusingly or maybe even scoffed at incredulously (*cough*pre-emptive self-defence*cough*). For mine, I would put my money on a fairly basic idea: the promotion of the positive aspects of human potential (trying not to use the term “human nature”, it is a fairly misleading concept), coupled with a comprehensive understanding of the motivations behind violence, greed, and other negative behavioural traits, which is now being brought to light through modern scientific discoveries. This understanding will allow people to make properly informed choices, and will highlight the absurdity of choosing to pursue violence, when its predictable consequences are fully laid bare. This is more of a long-term strategy, obviously; people who have already developed violent behavioural patterns are likely to be too fearful to change in the short term, because their fear has been magnified by their violent actions. But over successive generations, changes which seem impossible to us will become inevitable and unavoidable. Widespread education and rapid advancement of knowledge, coupled with constant reinforcement of empathy and other positive aspects of human behaviour, have already worked significant changes over the course of history, and this pattern shows no sign of stopping – indeed, it is only accelerating.

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Only A Matter Of Time

Thursday, August 19th, 2010

I didn’t watch last Monday’s Tony Abbott-fest on Q&A (GNW was on, and besides, an hour of watching Abbott speak? I need at least three hours of preparatory meditation before I can endure something like that, and I don’t have that kind of time), but I just caught his answer to that question about gay marriage – quite poignantly posed, if you also missed it, by a man with a gay son who overcame his own prejudices as a result of being exposed to this alternate point of view. Funny how empathy can change people like that. Abbott, perhaps realising that the sympathy of the crowd was dangerously against him at this point, was suitably effacing in his answer – but in doing so, highlighted the absolutely absurd position this debate has reached. He praised gay relationships, not a bad thing to say against them, seemingly drawing no distinction between them and their straight equivalents – except for the fact that he believes straight relationships are special for some arbitrary reason, and therefore they are the only ones deserving of the title “marriage” (itself a completely arbitrary social construct). That’s where we are now. “I believe marriage is between a man and a woman because I believe marriage is between a man and a woman.” That’s all it takes to justify social oppression. Not even so much as a Biblical citation, let alone some actual logic.

The fact that the human brain is actually capable of sustaining such a position should be a cautionary tale for us all. It’s easy to cite the deeply ingrained memes surrounding homophobia passed down from a patriarchal society which automatically devalues anything that threatens aggressive masculinity, because these memes are still so prevalent that even many gay people still display latent tendencies towards them, let alone their straight allies – so people who have been taught that homosexuality is somehow a lesser form of sexual expression certainly do have a lot of memetic baggage to sort through, especially if they’ve been insulated from alternative arguments, as people raised in a religious environment often are. But there’s more to it than that. This strange desire to cling to a pre-existing viewpoint despite all logic to the contrary is a hallmark of religious thinking, and it stems from the rarely-spoken assumption that the system of morality put forward by the religion in question is the only thing standing between a stable civilisation and total societal collapse. In other words, if you were to suddenly take away religious morality, there would be no more civilisation, and we would return to a state of barbarism, if not outright savagery.

This view is plainly false. Morality is a product of evolution, and evolution does not just unravel itself like that – not when the same selective pressures which produced this behaviour are largely still in play today. True, memetic information exists in a far more tenuous state than genetic data, but even so, we have reached a level of development where only a truly catastrophic event, like nuclear war, could make such an impact on our progress as to undo it completely. Gay marriage is not, safe to say, the equivalent of nuclear war, though you could be forgiven for assuming as much if you’ve listened to some of the rhetoric from those who oppose it. And even in the event of an ACTUAL catastrophe, we would still be human, and thus still possess our kin-selected ability for empathy and a natural tendency towards social co-operation. If we survived, we could rebuild over time. We’re kind of bad-ass like that.

Aside from discussions surrounding proper problems with an actual scientific basis, like nuclear war or climate change or death by intergalactic space laser, conversations about morality should revolve around determining what is best to make people’s lives happier and healthier, not what must be done in order to avoid self-destruction. This fear that a loosening of moral standards will result in an inexorable backwards slide is really quite ridiculous. Cultures have been built around far less developed types of morality than that which exists today, and whilst they certainly weren’t perfect, they survived okay. This is kind of like when people argue for action against climate change by saying that we have to “save the planet” – it’s not about saving the planet, it’s about preserving its current state to the extent that is physically possible, so that it remains comfortably habitable for humans. That’s still a worthy goal. And the inherent selfishness of it might actually be more appealing than a Captain Planet mantra (since unironically caring about things beyond our immediate concerns is apparently still an embarrassing trait to publicly display). In the same way, people should be putting forward moral arguments in order to make the world a better place for us, the self-centred, fear-driven weirdos who live here. And arguments against gay marriage do not pass that test – they only promote divisiveness and oppression of people who don’t line up with arbitrary social norms. There is a reflex to automatically treat religions as though they have the moral high ground, because for much of our history that was actually the case (hard to imagine, I know), but morality has continued to evolve, and the major religions have – through their harmful actions and their unwillingness to catch up with this forward progression – clearly relinquished the ground they once held. There is no moral high ground for those who discriminate based on sexual orientation. It is bigoted, it is logically indefensible, and it is wrong.

You know what this “I believe because I believe” bullshit reminds me of? A school bully in the playground, playing keep-away with the socially-outcasted kid’s hat. There is no rhyme or reason to this behaviour; the bully is simply afraid, and is trying to placate that fear by wielding power over others, since that is what his greater physical stature allows. He does it, because he can. But as is the nature of power, it does not release that fear, it simply feeds it, and causes it to grow stronger. The pursuit of control only highlights what an impossible goal it is, causing him to pursue it even harder, only for it to move even further away – and so the cycle continues. The bully becomes even more strongly attached to these behaviours he has developed to try and cope with his fear, and yet he does not understand why. The bully’s hierarchical worldview is a type of morality, albeit a highly flawed one, just like the religious argument against homosexuality is a type of morality, albeit a highly flawed one. People cling to these views because even as their fears are being fed, they are even more afraid of what would happen if they had to face these fears completely exposed, without the behaviours they have developed in the past to try and cope with that fear. But the funny thing is, if you stop feeding these fears, they will genuinely stop growing, and they will become easier to deal with. Over time, you will find that you are able to develop new patterns of behaviour, and if you meditate on the consequences of your actions, you can try and ensure these new behaviours don’t have negative effects on others. That is actually a key point, because actions which harm others will also harm you (especially if you follow your natural impulse to try and create ethical justifications for your harmful actions – ironically, you’d do less harm without an ethical approach). Of course, you will always continue to make mistakes, there’s no getting around that – but as long as you acknowledge and learn from these mistakes and keep moving forward, you will notice a gradual improvement not only in your own life, but in the lives of those around you.

In other words, if you stop trying to force morality onto others and instead just learn to chillax so that productive discussions can take place, and you ensure any high-minded ethical meditations are backed by an intuitive and empathetic approach in addition to a scientific understanding of human behaviour (not just one or the other), you will quite likely find that a lot of your fears are simply figments of your imagination.

Regression

Wednesday, April 21st, 2010

I was listening to Dream Theater’s Metropolis Part Two: Scenes From A Memory the other day, for the first time in a while. It’s been almost a decade since I was first introduced to what most fans would agree is Dream Theater’s best album (it’s either that or Images And Words), but even today, it still sounds as sweet as it did back then. I don’t want to understate this: from a purely musical perspective, it is an awesome feat, and demonstrates the ability of metal to convey a wide range of emotions, far apart from the narrow and angst-ridden, anti-social view that most people have of the genre. Indeed, it’s one of the main reasons why I first became interested in metal, back in the day.

From a lyrical point of view, however, the intervening years have not been kind.

It is a concept album, recounting a somewhat convoluted story involving hypnosis, past lives, reincarnation, and just in general, what happens after you die. But whilst they might have avoided specific Christian imagery and instead opted for more of a generic spiritual…ness, make no mistake, they are a Christian band, and this album is a fairly transparent representation of their views. I mention this because the end result is actually a conveniently straightforward list of reasons why religion is still a Thing – so it may prove to be a useful resource for anyone who looks at these bizarre monoliths of ancient dogma still attached like barnacles to the whale of our glorious civilisation and asks the inevitable question: WHY?? (Especially if you want your ponderings to be accompanied by excellent music.)

I’m not going to bother with a detailed analysis of the lyrics, because it’s all fairly basic stuff (I mean, thematically – trying to follow the actual storyline takes a more concerted effort). If you’re pressed for time, though, then just go to the penultimate track, “The Spirit Carries On“, because it acts as the summary sheet for everything that you’re supposed to learn from this story. LaBrie even states quite unironically that he used to be afraid of death until arbitrarily deciding that some ethereal part of his being will survive into eternity, and then like magic, his fears disappeared. That’s religion in a nutshell, my friends.

The line that really gets me, though, is when he says “I may never prove what I know to be true.” No. Just… fucking no, man. Not being able to prove something is the exact opposite of knowing it is true. And I have to ask, if you’re just going to decide that something is true without any evidence to back it up, then why do you even care about proof at all? If the presence or absence of proof has no bearing on your beliefs, then the whole concept is irrelevant anyway. It’s as if he sees proof as some sort of window dressing that he is happy to display when it lines up with his worldview, but if it doesn’t, then, you know, whatever. It’s not important. Because he knows that he’s right.

The significance of this logical trap is somewhat deceptive, I think. People tend to see faith as either a sort of security blanket (the argument I have used in the past) or alternatively, as some sort of noble dedication to higher ideals. But I have come across a better definition: it is the only known cure for that most annoying of existential problems, doubt. In other words, it is one of the dumbest acts of self-sabotage you can inflict upon yourself.

Like most people, I’ve spent a disproportionate amount of my time searching for ways to get rid of doubt. I can be quite hesitant and indecisive even at the best of times, I have social anxieties and other problems, and it just seems like everything would run a whole lot more smoothly if I could just jettison all that doubt and get on with things. But I’ve come to realise lately that that would actually be a disastrous achievement. Doubt is good. And the only reason we don’t realise this is because the only doubt we encounter on a regular basis is our own. Everyone else keeps theirs safely hidden away in their own minds, because we are all operating the exact same delusion – that everyone is more confident than us, and that our doubt is somehow unique. I can pretty much guarantee that the only people who don’t feel this way are those select few who are either too ignorant or too deluded to realise how frighteningly small their own depth of knowledge is compared to the unimaginably vast amount of information that exists in the universe. And while they may seem to be better off, with their false confidence and all the rest, they really aren’t. They are trapped in their own vortices of circular logic, which they will in all likelihood never emerge from. They will never get to experience the entirely new and uncharted delusions of the free-thinking individual, amiright lol.

So when you introduce faith into this equation, to quell that quiet voice in the back of your mind that is incessantly asking “but what if I’m wrong?”, what you are really doing is shutting down your capacity for growth. This is why religion closes people’s minds. You’ve found a nice little cottage, everything seems to be in working order as far as you can tell, so you just say to yourself, fuck it, I’m going to live here, I don’t care if there might be nicer places further down the road. Doubt, as it turns out, is actually the force that keeps pushing you down that road, because even if you passed some decent places along the way, you just want to go and check if there’s something better around that next corner.

Okay, yeah, people certainly have a right to set up camp wherever they wish. My main complaint here is just that it is just such a fucking waste. Billions of years of evolution have given rise to an immensely powerful tool which is, right now, decoding strange patterns in the beams of light being emitted from the screen in front of you and translating them into a language of its own devising, triggering a cascade of electronic pulses and chemical reactions which result in you reading a sentence about what is happening when you read this sentence. And that’s not even one of its main functions. I don’t care who you are, if you have a brain, you can do some amazing things – if you open yourself up to all possibilities, including the ones which make you uncomfortable or fearful. Which means that instead of trying to force everything to fit in with some kind of pre-existing idea, you have to sit back and let your brain do its thing. Your brain is designed to take in information, analyse it, compare it with information it already possesses, and finally, to produce new ideas from this raw data. That is its friggin’ job, and the delusions of faith and certainty only serve to hinder that process.

I mean, do you have any idea how incredible brains are? Just think about it, you guys. These things arose through entirely natural processes, with no guiding hand or pre-existing blueprint. That’s fucking amazing. Fuck! I’m tripping myself out just writing this, man. I’ve gotta go lie down for a while.

ETA:

Okay, I feel bad for ragging on Dream Theater in this post (I’m just frustrated because the music I like so rarely has lyrics I can relate to). There are a couple more points I should add: perhaps the most important being that their religious views played a major role in helping singer James LaBrie and drummer Mike Portnoy overcome some pretty serious personal problems (specifically, depression and social anxieties for LaBrie, and alcoholism for Portnoy). When people find a way to deal with such problems, regardless of the nature of that solution, they tend to latch onto it wholeheartedly, and naturally become blinded to any faults present in their newfound beliefs. But for most people, this levels out after a while, and once they begin to feel like they’ve really put their problems behind them, they may feel comfortable enough to start asking some harder questions about their own views. I think, to their credit, you can see this evolution occurring in some of Dream Theater’s later albums, where they start dealing with some of the more problematic issues surrounding religion. They are still operating from a decidedly deistic viewpoint, but they are at least adopting a more questioning attitude, and personally I think there is only one inevitable destination once you start down that road, so long as you pursue it honestly.

So basically, it is interesting to compare Scenes From A Memory with songs like “In The Name Of God” or “The Great Debate” – and even more interesting to think about where these questions might lead them in the future.

Depression

Tuesday, March 2nd, 2010

A few weeks ago, in that entry I wrote about happiness and belief, I briefly mentioned depression and how it may be related to a breakdown in the way the brain processes belief, and I also linked to this article which explains some of the physiological changes the brain goes through during depression, and the possible evolutionary causes behind this changes (it’s not the only thing I’ve read on the subject by the way, it’s just a convenient summary). I’m going to expand on that part a little more here. I’ve been trying to decide whether or not I really want to talk about this, but I guess we’ll see how it goes.

As I said in that previous entry, beliefs act as a sort of interconnected network of proven, reliable thoughts, and we use this network to interpret new information. We build up our beliefs through experience and education, and strengthen them through repetition – which is not always a good thing. Due to our limited knowledge, we are forced to adopt illusory beliefs in order to function. But whilst in an ideal world these could just be necessary stepping stones to increased knowledge, in the real world we tend to buy into these false beliefs, and fall into repetitive patterns of behaviour, stunting our growth. Human behaviour often moves in repeated patterns, after all, because the overriding influence on our psyches is fear – the central survival instinct – and anything we can do to placate that fear is something we naturally want to stick with and reuse over and over. We all have our individual tics, unique ways of doing things, flaws, bad habits. Sometimes these patterns are relatively harmless; sometimes they are an inconvenience but still bearable; other times, they can significantly impact our ability to function.

This network of beliefs exists on a deeper level than conscious thought, and so we don’t normally notice its existence or reflect on it at all. Moreover, if you were to try and analyze your own beliefs, you would have to use your belief network to do so, which means it is not possible to gain a truly objective view of them. This is important to keep in mind, because the result is that reflecting on your own beliefs usually just reinforces them, even if you are genuinely trying to find fault. If you could see the flaws in your beliefs you would have accounted for them already; it’s the flaws you can’t see that are the real problem. And considering our finite knowledge, you can be quite certain that such flaws do exist, and that you’ll probably end up encountering them at some point in the future. What happens next, however, is far more important – because you can either acknowledge your mistakes and learn from them, or you can try and preserve your beliefs by rationalizing the discrepency away (in other words, you can turn justified belief into blind faith). This is why most people generally don’t change their beliefs much, because unfotunately, rationalizing them is simply the much easier option. After all, our brains are extremely powerful rationalizing machines. This gives us a rather astounding capacity to understand the universe around us, but only if we employ this power wisely.

When people do change their beliefs – and I’m talking about major, significant changes here, like switching religious or political allegiances – it is often the result of a rare and devastating blow to their entire belief system, which leaves them with little choice but to change their ways. This is not always the case, of course, but it accounts for most sudden and short term changes. When people change their beliefs through reflection and personal growth, it usually takes a lot longer for the changes to manifest, as they sort through all the details at their own pace. For example, I gave up my religious beliefs quite voluntarily, but I also did it over a very long period of time, as I was never faced with any direct challenges to my beliefs. I just gradually changed them on my own terms, as I learned more about the world and decided that some of the things I had been taught to believe were wrong. I realised fairly early on that the idea of a “god” in the conventional sense was a rather tenuous concept, but I held onto other aspects – like an afterlife of some sort – for quite a bit longer, purely because of the basic appeal of the idea. And that’s the thing with a lot of false beliefs: because they have no basis in reality, they are free to appeal to our emotions without being constrained by truth, like any good piece of fiction. They can be extremely hard to dislodge – except under special circumstances, when you encounter something which breaks through your rationalizations and brings the whole structure down at once.

It is this sudden and short-term collapse of the belief network which I will be focusing on here, because it seems to be one of the primary causes of depression (perhaps there are other causes as well; it probably manifests in a variety of complex ways, but this is the one I am interested in today). And as an aside, I think that this type of breakdown of beliefs also accounts for the “light” that people claim to see when they discover religion. It doesn’t have much to do with the intrinsic properties of their new belief system (all you need is a concept that carries its own internal logic, as I discussed in that previous entry); rather, it is just the enormous sense of relief that comes with finding a replacement for their old and broken beliefs. Because make no mistake, when your belief network breaks down, the pressure to build it back up again is quite severe. I know, because I have experienced it firsthand. And personally, I’m just glad that I had already tried seeing that particular light – and I didn’t find any answers there, either.

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Morality and Ethics

Thursday, February 4th, 2010

What is the difference between morals and ethics? When I was a kid, this question really bothered me, mostly because I couldn’t actually see any difference between them. As far as I could tell, they were both just sets of rules designed to make sure people treated each other nicely. At that time, I still believed in God; I’d only been exposed to the friendlier parts of the Bible through the Catholic school I was attending; and I was only just starting to have my beliefs unwittingly moulded by our racist, sexist, partriarchal society; and so it all just seemed like common sense. The logic behind the Golden Rule is quite easy to grasp, after all, even for a child (and even with all the obfuscating religious propaganda surrounding it). And yet people still made this big deal out of morals and ethics, and the apparent differences which I couldn’t make sense of at that time.

I get it now, though.

What we now consider to be moral behaviour is a set of rules, usually revolving around definitions of “right” and “wrong”, that naturally emerge when social animals learn to cooperate for mutual benefit. These rules are much more highly refined in humans than in any other animal, but they are still a product of evolution, as I was attempting to explain the other day in that huge post about violence. They have since been co-opted and distorted by a long line of religions, usually without any overtly malicious intent, but more through unavoidable ignorance. One of the reasons why religion has played such a long-lasting role in human development is because it is a social behaviour formed around these basic moral rules, which allows people to live together without their more selfish tendencies taking control and destablising the group dynamic (hence most religions revolving around love, the strongest of the social emotions). That is also why most religions preach peace and tolerance, and yet so easily go to war with one another – because they are really just social groups vying for survival in much the same way that individual organisms would. Peace is fine within the group, because it provides social cohesion, but outsiders are still fair game (so you get rhetoric about chosen people, sinners, the damned… anything that justifies treating certain people differently whilst still maintaining an overall belief system that is ostensibly directed towards treating people in very much the opposite manner).

This traditional approach to morality breaks down in a globalised, increasingly-borderless world, like the one that we are now beginning to create. You can’t have Us versus Them when all people are held to be equal. That is very much the problem that most societies are now struggling with, because up until quite recently, one of the defining properties of social behaviour was an outside source of pressure that forced people to work together, because the only other choice was to be overwhelmed by that pressure. That’s why social behaviour arose in the first place, and without that outside pressure, we seem to be a little lost. Presumably this is because there is nothing forcing people to join in with social groups, and so they inevitably start to ask themselves, well, why should I bother to? What do I gain from it? Would it be as advantageous as a more selfish path? This is also one of the reasons why people like to manufacture and exaggerate foreign threats, like terrorism, immigration, etc – because counterintuitive though it may seem, it makes them feel safer and more connected within their own insular communities. We have grown so accustomed to fearing external threats that when we can’t see any, we just make them up – and because these fears have little basis in reality, they are easily distorted, and before you know it, a ragtag group of poorly-trained terrorists is being held up as a dire threat to the entire civilised world. And people accept this, because it comes naturally to them. It might seem kind of ironic that moral behaviour relies on having an oppositional force to keep it in check, but when you look at the long history of violence between religions and social groups, all these weird behaviours and fears start to make a bit more sense. (The Watchmen graphic novel captured this struggle beautifully, and carried it through to its logical conclusion – but the movie completely fucked it up, so steer clear of that.)

Of course, the other problem with traditional morality is that, as a result of its religious associations, most people see it as a sort of high-handed, impossible-to-live-up-to set of rules, and so they don’t really see it as something that is worth pursuing. This situation is no accident: for centuries now, religions have held control over their followers specifically because their rules were unrealistic and impossible to follow. This creates a feeling of guilt in those who are taught to believe in this type of morality, which the religion then exploits by offering a way to assuage that guilt. All you have to do is surrender yourself to a higher power, and your sins will be forgiven. This might not be a deliberate manipulation in all cases – it’s very easy to start believing your own hype, after all – but regardless, this distorted morality has become a problem not only for the established religions, which are currently finding it much harder to convince people to believe in their ridiculous rules now that we’ve been freed from the external pressure that would have previously motivated people to join in with social groups they disagreed with; but also for anyone who rejects these rules, and is subsequently left with no moral viewpoint to believe in at all.

You might assume that this is the part where I say, okay, it’s time we reinvent morality for the modern age – but the thing is, there are plenty of people who have already done that. Violence is being increasingly rejected the world over; there are lots of Christians who now accept and support homosexuality and other types of behaviour once held to be unthinkably immoral; there are lots of Muslims who promote women’s rights and reject the fundamentalist (and inaccurate) interpretations of their religion that have been popularized in the West as the source of all evil and terrorism; there are Jedi who have started to question the black-and-white dogma surrounding the Force… in fact most definitions of morality tend to be quite flexible and adaptable (for better or worse, in some cases). Social behaviour is a product of evolution – and therefore, unsurprisingly, it continues to evolve. Moreover, cultural ideas are no longer confined by the extremely slow pace of genetic evolution, and so they can change very rapidly. It might not seem like it from a human perspective – but just compare the massive social upheaval over the past fifty years since the rights movements began with the millions of years it usually takes for evolution to weave its magic.

So we don’t need to worry so much about trying to change morality, because that change is unavoidable and inevitable. Morality is really just the lump sum of everyone’s selfish desires, broiled together until a mutually-beneficial and fairly unselfish product can be produced (which has traditionally just meant that people were able to accept their place in the social hierarchy, but then, if morality was perfect to start off with then there would be no need for it to evolve). It think it’s actually somewhat poetic that such a cruel and wasteful process as natural selection could give rise to such a thing. And it’s obviously quite reassuring to know that there is a logical progression to this point, too. But that doesn’t mean we can take it for granted. The real trick, now, is to try and monitor this process of change, and ensure that it doesn’t get skewed too far in one direction. Because whilst this process is self-correcting and mostly balances out in the long run, when you look at the history of social upheaval and revolution throughout human development, you see that these corrections more often than not come at great cost. If we intend to avoid repeating these mistakes over and again, our new goal should be to try and take the process of change out of the hands of natural selection – as I said, it is a horribly cruel and wasteful process – and turn it into a system of artificial selection, which will hopefully not only be more beneficial to humanity as a whole, but also greatly accelerate our development into the future. This is already happening to a certain degree, but I think we are kind of stuck between the two systems at this point in time, and the process is still very ill-defined and poorly understood.

It is here that we run into a somewhat unexpected problem, and we also return to my original point – the difference between morality and ethics. In broad terms, ethics is usually defined as the philosophical analysis of morality, but when we look at it from the perspective of the natural, evolutionary development of morality, what we actually see is that it is a shift from mutually agreed-upon moral rules to a more individually-deliberated set of ideas. It is no longer a social behaviour, but an exercise in self-justification (quite possibly brought about, or at least influenced by our newfound freedom from the external pressure that had previously motivated social behaviour). Which means that all too often, unfortunately, it’s just a form of cognitive dissonance. Strange though it might seem, this is actually where a lot of bad ideas get their foot in the door.

Of course, due to the ever-changing and increasingly-sophisticated nature of morality, we are left with little choice but to study its nature in order to determine the best course of action. I’m not saying that ethics are a bad idea, just that we need to be very careful in avoiding some of the pitfalls that arise when an individual tries to determine what is best for everyone. The tendency to avoid questioning our own beliefs is so strong that it is almost impossible to avoid falling back into patterns of self-justification. It would be a good idea to learn from the traditional system of moral development, and expose ourselves to as many alternative ideas as possible, in the hope that the best ideas can emerge and succeed on their own merits. Wishful thinking, sure, but then, in a system based around constant change, perfection is impossible anyway, so we don’t need to worry about trying to obtain it. We are not arming ourselves to try and reach some kind of ultimate goal; we are instead preparing for a never-ending journey, with no destination. The competing forces of other people’s views should help balance out our individual shortcomings, in the long run.

Perhaps the most illustrative example of the problems with our current approach to ethics is the way the subject is often pursued in a highly specialized and narrowly-focused way. So people will tell themselves that they are developing an ethical approach to behaviour, but what they are actually doing is inventing an alternate set of rules that can be applied to a specific situation in order to justify something which otherwise would have been considered unacceptable. The results speak for themselves really, when you look at, say, the world of business ethics, where people routinely make decisions that literally ruin other people’s lives, and they justify it by telling themselves that it’s “just business” and that’s simply how the system works. In any other setting these same people probably would have made very different decisions, but because they have given themselves over to the capitalist ideals of profit and the pursuit of success at any other cost, they blind themselves to the very real consequences of their actions. Whilst there is certainly logic behind their actions, when viewed as part of the bigger picture you would have little choice but to call it selfish logic, and therefore, from a moral standpoint, wrong. Hence the need to invent an alternate set of rules, and label them as “ethics”. Which is for me quite fascinating: even when participating in activities which are hilariously and obviously wrong by any sane definition of the word, people still have this innate desire to justify their actions, even if only in their own mind. This might have been a useful safeguard against harmful behaviour, if humans were rational beings – but unfortunately that is clearly not the case. Which means what we are left with is significantly worse, because a person who believes they are justified in holding harmful ideas is much more dangerous, and much harder to argue with, than someone who is incapable of justifying their actions.

And if you still don’t believe me, then note the “E” in PETA*. Enough said, motherfuckers. ;)

If you find yourself with no other choice but to invent an alternate, contradictory set of rules to deal with a specific situation, then that is a pretty sure sign that there is a problem somewhere along the line. It’s just a question of whether that problem lies in the situation you are trying to justify, or in your overarching moral viewpoint. So to go with an obvious example, if you believe that people shouldn’t have sex before marriage, and yet 98% of the population does exactly that, then there is clearly a conflict that needs to be resolved. You have to ask yourself, are your moral views unrealistic, or is there some other problem preventing people from living up to them? In this case we can obviously trace the moral viewpoint back to unrealistic religious morality (perhaps caused by panic over the consequences of sex, in the time before reliable contraception and birth control) and the attempts of a patriarchal society to exert control over people’s sexuality, to maintain familial order. These views are no longer in line with modern morality and therefore need to change – and in the minds of many, they already have. This is just one of many ways in which we hold ourselves to a different level of morality than previous generations ever considered. But whilst in this and the vast majority of other cases, things have definitely improved, it’s worth remembering that evolution doesn’t equal improvement; it just means change. Which is why we have to pay close attention to this process, and ensure it doesn’t go off the rails.

Despite what the major religions would have you believe, morality is not synonymous with virtue; and indeed throughout history it has had much more in common with the tyranny of the majority. When you throw everyone’s selfish desires into a melting pot, some are inevitably going to outweigh others. The main force counteracting this has been our gradual empathetic awakening, which I detailed in that violence post, but progress on this front has been extremely slow and patchy. So whilst we may now look back into the past and think that people were shockingly or bizarrely immoral by today’s standards, the thing is, they were likely living up to the moral standards of their day, too. Their behaviour only seems worse to us because morality has evolved since then – which raises some pretty serious questions about why people think it’s such a good idea to turn to ancient religious texts to try and build their moral viewpoints. Even if they did have a few good ideas back then, why you would want to discard all the moral development in the intervening period is quite beyond me.

Hmm, I’ve lost track of whether I was trying to build up to some kind of point here. Mostly I am just so sick of arguing with people who are so caught up in the desire for self-justification that they completely shut down any chance of rational debate. How do you break through this mental shield, and open people’s minds? Answer that, and you’ll probably solve a whole bunch of problems right then and there. Thing is though, we are not only wired to resist facts that challenge our beliefs, but we are also taught to do that very same thing from an early age. Right the way through school, we are constantly told that we need to perform well to get into good classes next year so we can get good marks and go to a good university and get a good job and earn lots of money and if we screw up even once along the way then our lives will be ruined forever. Mistakes are punished, and treated as a source of shame. The fear of being wrong is drilled into us unrelentingly, and finds a welcome home in the hardwiring of our brains. What we need, instead, is to teach people that no matter where they’re at, the only thing they can truly be sure of is that their existing beliefs are either largely wrong or at least erroneous – and that by trying to deny this fact, they are shutting down their capacity for growth. Maybe then, we could finally free ourselves from the mistakes of the past.

*In case you’re unfamiliar with my views on this, I don’t have anything against animal rights – I just prefer them to be promoted by non-sociopathic organisations.

Positive Psychology

Sunday, January 3rd, 2010

If you follow my twitter or liverjournal then you’ve probably seen me linking to videos from TED.com in the past. I love that site. It is basically an ideas forum, featuring short speeches by a variety of experts on diverse subjects relating to technology, entertainment and design (ie. T.E.D.). Some of the speakers are quite prominent (Al Gore, Richard Dawkins, etc) whilst others are simply there for being experts in their field, even if they aren’t celebrities. Because the speeches are generally short (usually around 18-20 minutes), I find it’s a convenient site to visit when you need to take a quick break from whatever you’re doing, or if you need something to do over lunch or whatever. Taking this approach, I’ve gradually worked my way through a large number of speeches, most of which have been really fascinating, and some of which have even been quite astounding (mushrooms! Who knew?!). There are inevitably a few weird and silly ones which really don’t seem to belong there, but for the most part, the quality has been high. I’ve been toying with the idea of writing a long post linking to a whole bunch of my favourite talks, but for today, I’m just going to focus on one: Martin Seligman On Positive Psychology.

So, uh, it would probably help if you went and watched that now, but if you can’t be bothered or if you’d rather find time for it later or whatever, then here’s a quick summary: Seligman is a psychologist working on the idea of positive psychology, ie. studying what makes people happy, as opposed to the more traditional approach to psychology, studying what makes people unhappy. He briefly runs through some points on why this seemingly-minor switch in focus is actually quite important to psychology in general and has opened up new areas of understanding about what makes humans tick, but he also makes note of the advances made by the older model of psychology and why they are still important as well, even though they were only part of the larger picture which is beginning to unfold. He then explains that there seems to be different types of happiness, which can be approximated by three broad categories. The first and most obvious category is things that provide an immediate pleasurable reaction, the second revolves around activities which you can lose yourself in and become completely immersed by, and the third relates to the desire for meaning and knowledge. This is the part that I found most interesting, and the reason why I decided to write this blog entry, because I can really relate to a few of the unexpected findings his studies have revealed.

Perhaps the least surprising of his findings is that the first category – things that provide an immediate pleasurable reaction – is the most superficial and short-term form of happiness. The example he provides is the experience of eating something which is delicious to start off with, but you’re sick of it by the time you’re done eating it. This is a very fleeting form of happiness, and interestingly, you can’t really stretch it out by continually moving from one pleasurable activity to the next – it is simply not enough to provide real and long-term satisfaction. This is probably a conclusion that most people eventually reach on their own anyway, even if they don’t give it much conscious thought. People tend to naturally gravitate towards certain things which provide a deeper and more fulfilling sense of happiness, and gradually leave behind more superficial pursuits. Or else they don’t, and can’t figure out why they are unhappy.

The second category is kind of a subtle one. Again, it’s not something that usually receives much conscious thought, but I can certainly relate to the idea of losing yourself in an activity and feeling better afterwards. For me, I can most easily accomplish this through playing videogames, especially a platforming game like Mario, which doesn’t require too much planning and forethought, and instead revolves around simply being in the moment. But I can also reach a similar state of flow through writing, and occasionally, when I am drawing, though I’m still not very good at that one. There have, however, been times in the past when I’ve spent several hours in Photoshop bringing some silly comic to life, and then I look back at the time that has passed and wonder how the heck that happened. It’s easy to understand why people would seek out activities which provide that feeling of accomplishment, even if it’s not always easily obtained.

The third category, though, is the one that really caught my attention. There is a definite sense of satisfaction and contentment that comes from having an understanding of how the world works, and from searching for the meaning behind what you see around you. The important thing to remember, though, is that this feeling is subjective, and entirely separate from reality – ie. it doesn’t matter if your explanations are objectively correct, it only matters that you can convince yourself that they are accurate. And because your head only contains a finite amount of knowledge, it is often very easy to convince yourself to believe in the accuracy of your own thoughts. I think a good illustration of this is religion. As an atheist, you will often find me arguing that religion is illogical, but from a certain point of view, that isn’t really accurate – all religions contain their own internal logic, and that is what makes them so appealing. They offer answers to just about any question you can think of, so if you accept that internal logic, you are essentially given a complete worldview, which is a very basic human desire. I think this stems from the fact that our brains evolved to understand the real world, and it wasn’t until they had grown much more powerful that we started turning our thoughts towards abstract concepts. Hence, we had no mechanisms for discerning objective truth, because until then, everything had been literal and there in front of us. Additionally, because we lacked a true understanding of the world anyway, we really relied on illusions for much of our development, until we could finally advance far enough to supplant these illusions with the real answers. Modern scientific progress is largely just a process of stripping those illusions away, one by one, so that hopefully we can make some progress towards a more accurate understanding of the universe.

So uh basically, the problem is not that religion is illogical, but that in order to accept the logic it offers, you need to ignore reality, which inevitably contradicts it.

But I’m digressing from my original point here. Regardless how and why this desire for understanding developed, it’s safe to say it definitely exists. We have an undeniable curiosity, and a need to at least feel like we understand things, even if we are merely operating under illusions because we’ve reached the limits of our comprehension. This desire to learn is what makes us so intelligent, but also what leads us into logical traps that provide that contented feeling, despite being built around inaccurate logic. In many ways, the goal of a skeptic is to avoid that feeling of contentment, because there are still so many things that we don’t know, so however much we feel like we understand the world, the only thing we can really know for sure is that we are still held under the thumb of illusions that we don’t even know are there. That, I think, is the real strength of a skeptical worldview: not that it explains everything, but that it reminds you that you can’t explain everything. In spite of our awesomely powerful ability to rationalize abstract concepts, we are not truly rational beings, and our preconceptions can’t be trusted.

Interestingly, there could well be a fine line between this type of happiness, and depression. According to one possible explanation, depression is the result of a breakdown of that feeling of understanding, so that the world doesn’t quite make sense anymore. It stems from encountering a problem or problems which can’t be easily solved, thus sending the mind off in all different directions in an effort to find that elusive explanation, so that a more stable worldview can be reestablished (hence, depression of varying levels being common amongst teenagers, as their childish illusions crash headlong into the real world). This often happens on a much deeper level than we are consciously aware of, which is why it can be difficult for depressed people to really articulate what the problem is, even though they are acutely aware of it. This makes illusions such as religion even more attractive, because without that feeling of understanding, we are lost and confused. So an explanation, even if it is merely an illusion, becomes a much more agreeable alternative… until that illusion becomes the source of the next problem, of course.

The main reason I brought up this possible link with depression is because even though the pursuit of knowledge can be a deeply satisfying form of happiness, it doesn’t necessarily result in the smiley-cheerful kind of happiness. As I said, the line between happiness and depression in this sense seems quite fine, and is largely dependent on whether your search for knowledge is yielding any results. Staring down the barrel of a particularly large problem can be quite daunting and frustrating, blurring this line even further. But just because the outward indicators of happiness are absent, doesn’t necessarily mean that a person is unhappy. Personally, I am often told that I need to smile more, or receive enquiries as to why I am not all happy and cheerful. Often these comments are motivated by genuine concern, of course, but it can still be kind of annoying, because I actually find it far more satisfying to search for knowledge than to content myself with illusion, even if the result is that I’m sometimes too distracted to be appropriately, superficially happy. And certainly, I don’t want to discourage people from speaking up if they think someone really is depressed, because sometimes it can be vitally important to intervene when a person’s problems are getting the best of them, but just keep in mind that there are other forms of happiness aside from the more obvious and friendly kinds.

So anyway, how do you build up a stable worldview, as free from illusion as possible, when there are still so many things that we don’t know yet? You need to recognise what beliefs actually are. Despite the significance that religious folk place on their faith, the fact is, the brain processes thought and belief in the exact same way. Beliefs are merely thoughts that we hold to be unquestionably true, so much so that we don’t even really reflect on them. Which, again, makes sense in the context of brains that evolved to deal with real-world problems – once you’ve established that your prey behaves in a certain way or that certain weather cues indicate an approaching storm or a variety of other things, then it is helpful to have a method of mental categorisation that allows you to recall these tried-and-true facts immediately. So we build up webs of belief, interconnected thoughts which operate as a filter for new information, allowing us to immediately recognise familiar patterns and to interpret new patterns to the best of our existing knowledge. But when beliefs are built up around illusions, it distorts the way we view the world. An easy example is stereotypes, which cause us to place greater significance on behaviour which lines up with the prescribed stereotype, even if it is not actually typical or significant at all. Once illusions have distorted our worldview, they pave the way for further illusions, burying us under the weight of false belief.

The answer, then, is to ensure that no beliefs are held to be unquestionable. And instead of desperately clinging to our existing beliefs, we need the courage to let go of them, and search for the truth, as best we can determine it. Which, in the short term, may mean letting go of that feeling of contentment that comes from having a working understanding of the universe. Illusions, ultimately, are just another form of fleeting happiness, which cannot be sustained. And if I’m really honest, I think the ability to be consistently, superficially happy in such a flawed world as ours is something of a delusion anyway. Which doesn’t mean that I don’t think it’s worth pursuing, or anything like that. I just think it’s important that we don’t lose sight of the bigger picture when trying to carve out our own little place in the world.

And you’d be surprised at how much happier you feel when you let go of your illusions, and make peace with your incomplete understanding of the universe, safe in the knowledge that there are still so many things left to learn – for an animal with a natural sense of curiosity, that is perhaps the most exciting prospect of all.