thinking makes it so

There is grandeur in this view of life…

A secular imperative to love

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This post responds to yet another interesting dialogue with Terry Sissons, the author of The Other I.

Karen Armstrong: The case for God

Karen Armstrong: The case for God

It followed from the last of a series I had written about Karen Armstrong’s new book The case for God: What religion really means.

In a previous conversation, either on Terry’s blog or my own, I’d written – probably in the context of rejecting transcendent spirituality as a foundation for ethics – ‘Love is hard enough. But it is also enough.’ (For clarity, read the second sentence as ‘But love is also enough – of an imperative’.) Then later, as part of the Case for God exchange, Terry asked me why I thought that. Below is an attempt to expand on my original response.

The first step is to state my belief that humans have probably evolved to be the entities they are: sentient, social, interdependent, mortal etc. I say this not because I particularly want an evolutionary explanation to be true, but because an evolutionary explanation seems more sound, and to require less metaphysical baggage and/or wishful thinking than any other explanation currently on offer.

The next step is to say that, because humans are (have evolved to be) the sort of entities they are, they feel emotion, they can use reason, and they can make choices.

In this context I don’t think I am presupposing any specific philosophical or scientific perspective on free will, just making the observation that humans do make choices – whatever ‘making a choice’ actually boils down to. As it happens, I have no problem accepting as an assumption that humans evolved, by natural selection, to be the sort of organisms who have free will and are able to make conscious choices. The reason I am happy to assume this is that convincing and coherent evolutionary explanations are available for such a broad range of other features of living organisms, and no other (eg theistic) explanation for ‘free will’ is any more acceptable even on its own terms, let alone being able to fit into a more general explanation of human existence.

At risk of over-egging the pudding, I will try to spell out exactly what I am trying to say here. I think the combined evidence for evolution as an explanation for the diversity of life is overwhelmingly convincing. This does not mean it is unassailable truth. No science is unassailable truth – it wouldn’t be science if it was. But no other explanation comes near it in explanatory power. It therefore sets the benchmark.

Raphael: Adam and Eve

Raphael: Adam and Eve

‘Setting the benchmark’ means that another kind of explanation – eg for a specific feature of a specific living organism – will need to be consistent with the overall evolutionary explanation if it is to be taken seriously. Take for example the hypothesis that free will has somehow been given us by God. This hypothesis would need to include an explanation of how this gift would have been possible in the context of an overall developmental path driven by natural selection. I have not yet come across any explanation which is remotely convincing.

I have also not come across any remotely convincing argument to the effect that what we know as ‘free will’ could not have evolved.

It is for these two reasons that I feel no discomfort in accepting that ‘free will’ probably evolved without having much idea how it evolved.

We can now return to the main thread.

Some of the choices open to evolved human beings fit inside other choices. Because I have chosen x, then further choices can or need to be made, choices which only appear as choices because of x. (We do not always choose consciously – we are not purely algorithmic all the time – but most of us cannot live by unconscious choice alone.)

Some of those higher-level choices can be very difficult, both to make and to live by. I think that whether to love is one such choice, perhaps the highest-level choice there is. In this context I mean ‘love’ in an ethical sense – as an orientation of the self. Love as in ‘love thy neighbour’, as shorthand for the ethical imperative to ‘exercise practical compassion’ as in the Golden Rule.

But I do not think we have any reason for thinking that this choice (which includes the choice to see it as a choice which needs to be made) comes to us from anything outside us. We are not justified in thinking there was any teleological intent behind the fact that we evolved to have this choice and/or to be aware we have the choice.

It is possible that for some people, in order to make a choice like this, it is important to believe that the choice does come from something outside, and/or that there is or was a teleological intent behind the fact that we have this choice, and have evolved to have this choice. But my own position is that I think any belief like this is unjustified and irrelevant, and ultimately detracts from the choice itself.

Terry thought my explanation seemed like a justification after the event. I had obviously not been clear enough.

My point is not exactly that love has evolutionary value. Yes I would claim we have evolved by natural selection to be a kind of organism capable of choosing whether to love. But that does not mean ‘love is enough (of an imperative)’ is the same kind of thing as (and therefore comparable to) other potential principles which could also have an evolutionary foundation, eg ‘getting enough food is enough (of an imperative)’ or ‘procreating is enough (of an imperative)’ or even ‘enjoying life is enough (of an imperative)’.

Herbert Spencer

Herbert Spencer

I am also absolutely not claiming an ethical imperative (as I intended ‘love is enough’ to be) could in any way be deduced from a statement of what was evolutionarily valuable. That would not only commit the naturalistic fallacy, but it could also commit to awkward implications like Herbert Spencer’s universal natural law of progress or worse.

Alternative imperatives like feeding and procreating are not ethical imperatives in the same way. All organisms feed (in the sense of taking in material and energy from their environment). All organisms procreate. An organism which mutated such that it did not feed or procreate would go extinct in a generation. This is true both of organisms which can make choices and those which cannot.

Humans however can make conscious behavioural choices, and they are also social and socially dependent creatures. (They have evolved to be able to make conscious behavioural choices and to be social and socially dependent creatures.)

In the context of human social existence as it is (and as it has evolved and developed to be) there is a spectrum of behaviours open to an individual human. An individual can be ‘selfish’ or ‘unselfish’ – or of course something in between. There is a whole continuum between two extreme ‘poles’, which we could describe as ‘sociopathic’ (at the selfish extreme) and ‘saintly’ (at the unselfish extreme).

At the ‘sociopathic’ end, the evidence suggests that a small proportion of individuals are just ‘made that way’ – it is not that they choose to be selfish to the point of callousness and cruelty, but they just do not have the capacity for empathy. They are unable to put themselves in another’s shoes.

Now although very few people are ‘saints’, very few are extreme sociopaths either. The vast majority of people feel at least some empathy, and act on it.

It would be intriguing – in fact quite horrifying – to speculate what human life would be like if all people were sociopaths and sociopathic behaviour were the norm. Or is it even possible to speculate, without coming to the rapid conclusion that human life would not only be hellish, but it would actually be impossible? The life of Homo sociopathicus would not be just a hellish but still feasible and therefore theoretically available variant of the life of Homo sapiens. It would be the life of an entirely different organism. It would be an organism without the capacity for empathy and, as a consequence, also without the capacity for trust.

If this thought experiment is sound, it suggests that humans have evolved to have the capacity for empathy and trust, just as they have evolved linguistic ability, consciousness and opposable thumbs. Empathy and trust are just part of what it is to be human.

This is not to say that somewhere ‘deep down’ we are perfect creatures with innocent generous selfless souls. Our conflicts are glaringly obvious. Every day our empathy and trust are compromised if not defeated.

But this, for me, is where the ethical imperative to love originates – from our complex, evolved nature. We are social and socially dependent. We have a capacity for empathy and trust. But there are other key components: we have memories; we recognise and remember each other as individuals. Trust and reputation are – or at least were – important to our survival. (I am touching here on the algorithms of reciprocal altruism, explored in greater depth in works of evolutionary psychology like Marc Hauser’s Moral minds [Abacus, 2008].)

We do not need an ethical imperative to feed or procreate – we have these motivations anyway. We have to have them in order to continue to exist. We can choose this or that meal, but we cannot in general ‘choose to feed’.

Procreation is slightly different: we can choose this or that mate, but as individuals we can also choose whether or not to procreate. There are circumstances where ‘to procreate or not’ could be an individual ethical choice – for example whether or not to bring another mouth to feed into an overpopulated world. But an individual decision to feed could also be an ethical one, eg if made by an anorexic child out of empathy for a desperate parent. But neither feeding nor procreation is an ethical imperative per se. Individual decisions like these are arguably exceptions to prove the rule: examples where feeding and procreation provide the context and content of specific ethical decisions which are actually about something else – eg caring for parents or the planet.

Arthur Rackham: Alberich

Arthur Rackham: Alberich

But the imperative to love, where ‘love’ = ‘exercise practical compassion’, is ethical through and through. In theory at least we can choose not to love at all, like Alberich in Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Far more commonly, we can choose whether to love in any particular circumstance, and we can choose how much to love. We can choose where to be on the continuum.

I have tried to demonstrate elsewhere (in The ethics of belief, and particularly in the sequence from Three wise mentalities to Not I my lord) what I see as important structural similarities between Kant’s Categorical Imperative, the Golden Rule, and the evolutionary algorithms of reciprocal altruism.

What I am here calling the ‘imperative to love’ is no more nor less than the Golden Rule. I think Kant was mistaken in dismissing the Golden Rule as banal (German trivial) and elevating the more abstract Categorical Imperative. He did this because he was eager to formulate a universal principle which held for all free rational beings rather than one which specifically applied to the kind of free rational beings which humans are (see for example Categorically imperative). But once we allow ourselves to make this move the universality of the Categorical Imperative can get its heart back. Evolutionary theory then suggests reasons for thinking that although we may find the imperative to love inside ourselves, we do not have to assume it was put there by a god.

Last word on the naturalistic fallacy. To say we find the imperative to love (the Golden Rule) inside ourselves is not to commit the naturalistic fallacy. It is not to deduce an ought from an is. We give ourselves the imperative. We do this because of what we are, and if we choose to give ourselves the imperative. Kant got the first bit wrong but the second bit hugely right.

© Chris Lawrence 2009.

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Written by Chris Lawrence

24 November 2009 at 11:57 pm

7 Responses

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  1. I’m back from my cyber-break during which I’ve continued to think about several of the issues you cover in your post. Here are my somewhat sketchy thoughts up to this point.

    First of all, we seem to be totally agreed on evolution. Not that it is the right answer in any absolute sense. But that it is the best explanation by far we currently have for the reality and diversity of life. This includes what are sometimes called our “higher faculties,” and that are often supposed to emanate from the “soul.”

    We are also agreed that the meaning of our existence is not bestowed on us by some supernatural power. I find myself particularly revolted by the idea that Someone Out There has a great plan that we are supposed, somehow, to discover and fulfill. So I too do not think the mystery in which we inevitably live was “put there” for some purpose, somehow for our own good. It is we – and we alone – who must decide on the purpose of our lives, who must take responsibility for the consequences of our actions. It might be comforting to think there is some power out there who will make it all better, but I think that position is a childish abrogation of responsibility. (Not that every believer is childish or irresponsible; I am speaking about the idea itself.)

    I think that is where you are coming from when you say that you reject the idea that “mystery is in any way related to the meaning of existence” We are in agreement if that is what you mean.

    But if you mean that for you it does not have any implications for our understanding the meaning of our existence, then I seriously disagree.

    Because even if there is a possibility (which I don’t see, but perhaps there is) that the universe is potentially totally comprehensible to the human intellect, you and I at least are inevitably going to die without answers to many of our most pressing questions. One of the big questions that we will not get answered is what happens after we die. If anything.

    One can refuse to accept that this ignorance is inescapable. We can find “certainty” in some kind of faith that tells us what life means and what is going to happen to us.

    I reject the possibility of that kind of certainty whether it is purportedly offered by religion or by science. For me to accept it would be a lie. In actual fact, I think the human condition is to live, inevitably, unable to know some things which we desperately would like to know. Nonetheless, sheer existence requires that we make choices about which we have incomplete knowledge. The choice to love does not seem to me to be self-destructive or unreasonable generally speaking. But that’s not the whole explanation of why I make it. It’s a choice made partly of philosophy, partly poetry, partly psychology, and partly probably sheer intuition. Ultimately, I think I make because I have found it to be the most enriching thing I have ever experienced. Not easy. Not always sensible. Not always clear how to do it. But I see it as a choice I risk. And one about which I might be wrong. But I’ll take that risk.

    We live in mystery. But I’ll live with the mystery rather than a set of pseudo right answers that are beyond our present ability to answer. And in that sense, I find mystery – or uncertainty, if you prefer – liberating, seriously freeing. Because it is founded on what seems to me to be reality.

    I am, as always, interested to hear your thoughts.

    Terry Sissons

    10 December 2009 at 10:37 pm

    • An addendum to my comment above. The reason I prefer to use the term “mystery” instead of “uncertainty” is that mystery has a dynamic positive quality, which is essential in my meaning of the term. I see the relationship between certainty and uncertainty as dynamic, rather than passive. Rather like the relationship between the positive & negative electrons. Negative electrons aren’t the absence of positive electrons; rather their interaction creates energy whose uses are boundless.

      I think knowing & unknowing are like that. The unknowing – the mystery – is as important as the knowing.

      Have I said enough to be understood? I will stop in any case – I feel myself descending into incoherence.

      I’m going to stop saying thank you. You must know by now that I appreciate hearing your point of view or I wouldn’t keep responding.
      Terry

      Terry Sissons

      11 December 2009 at 12:34 am

    • Thanks again Terry.

      I don’t think there’s any significant difference between us in terms of potential disagreement. If there is a difference it’s probably one of focus.

      I was careful to specify that I was referring to ‘love’ in an ethical sense (as shorthand for the ethical imperative to ‘exercise practical compassion’ etc) not to discount other kinds of love but purely because, as you know, the relation between ethics & faith is something I find fascinating. I’m particularly intrigued (& repelled) by arguments suggesting that the existence of ethical imperatives presupposes a divine &/or transcendent reality or at least belief in such.

      One of the arguments which proponents of faith-based ethics put forward is that in the absence of a divine law-giver there is only the anarchy of moral relativism, which ultimately boils down to no ethical imperatives at all. I think this ‘God or nothing’ dichotomy is false, defeatist and self-serving; and that it is possible to establish a principle which is effectively the Golden Rule, but with a status something equivalent to what Kant was attempting with the categorical imperative.

      It still requires a choice – but choice is intrinsic to ethics – and so I think it ends up not dissimilar in structure to Kierkegaard’s ‘leap of faith’. The big difference is one of direction – the leap does not have to be into Christianity or indeed into any faith with any transcendent content.

      As far as uncertainty, mystery, unknowing are concerned I think we’re on the same page – except perhaps that for you the uncertainty, mystery, unknowing may have a trace of ‘substance’ (?) which I don’t think I would verbalise.

      To be specific, I don’t think I would find myself saying ‘mystery has a dynamic positive quality… I see the relationship between certainty and uncertainty as dynamic, rather than passive… The unknowing – the mystery – is as important as the knowing’. But it is not that I disagree, more that I am not sure what I would mean by words like that.

      I don’t think I’m particularly optimistic that we’ll ever get a complete understanding of the universe and our place in it. But I think our ignorance is contingent – ie there’s no reason in principle that I know of why we shouldn’t know ‘the full answer’, even if it’s very unlikely in practice &/or in the foreseeable future. What is perhaps more important is that I think we know more than we did, and in the future we will know more than we do now – even if at least some of that knowledge is that we will now know that we do not know (& therefore did not know) what we thought we knew.

      Where I think I would certainly concur about uncertainty/mystery/unknowing – & on second thoughts this may have been what you were specifically referring to? – is the significance of uncertainty/mystery/unknowing to our ethical context. If we only knew what we knew, and did not also have at least some ‘knowledge’ of what we do not know, our ethical awareness & possibly our choices may be very different.

      A specific example of this: as you know, I think a ‘Golden Rule’ ethical imperative can be established as an available ethical choice based on our understanding of ourselves as social and socially interdependent beings. Inside that ethical imperative is an imperative to consider our scope as universally as possible (& as universally as necessary). So for example there are times when we should think ‘is this right for my family?’, sometimes ‘is this right for my community?’, ‘is this right for my country?’ etc. I think there is an imperative to get that level right – not to be blinkered against ‘the others’. Now although I think that our ethical imperative (as available choice) derives from our nature as Homo sapiens, we do not have the right to blinker ourselves to other sentient creatures. There is a whole area (Do animals have rights? Do all animals have rights? How can we tell how much different animals suffer? …etc) which can be correctly described as one of uncertainty and unknowing, and where I think I would definitely agree that ‘the unknowing… is as important as the knowing’.

      Hope this makes some sort of sense!

      Thanks again,
      Chris.

      Chris Lawrence

      13 December 2009 at 7:50 pm

      • Chris – I could not agree more. Or rather, I wholeheartedly agree with your disagreement with those who think that a concept of God is a non-negotiable requirement for the highest moral values and behaviour. It is, in fact, one of my “high horse” subjects.

        You have mentioned several times that you think perhaps “uncertainty” or “mystery” has a substance for me that it does not possess for you. Do you mean that for me “mystery” possesses an intrinsic force of its own? That would make it, I think, a kind of God hypothesis, which I don’t mean to be making. Because if there is a god, it/he/she is unknowable. What I mean about mystery may be inexhaustible but it is unendingly knowable.

        The dynamic of mystery, as I mean it (at least at the moment, but my ideas change about things like this) is that there is a dynamic, creative tension between knowing and unknowing. Recognizing what we don’t know changes our experience of what we think we do know. The dynamic isn’t in the mystery itself. In fact, I suppose if what we don’t know is what Donald Rumsfeld infamously called “the unknown unknown,” there is no dynamic. It is only when it is a “known unknown” that there is a tension with “the known.”

        On a slightly different subject, I think we won’t – can’t – ever know “the full answer” because human knowledge always exists within a perspective. We can look at something like a pencil, for instance, and know what it is from an endless number of perspectives – it can be a gift, a writing utensil from last century, composed of wood and lead, made in the Lake District, an antique, a piece of firewood – and so on ad infinitum.

        As you must know by now, I find both your posts and comments thought-provoking and stimulating. Your last comment is no exception. It’s a wonderful opportunity for me to think about things from a new point of view. Thank you.
        Terry

        Terry Sissons

        18 December 2009 at 6:10 pm

        • Thanks again Terry.

          Not sure if this is the response you wanted but I think I agree on all this!

          Certainly on the important creative tension between the ‘known unknown’ and the ‘known’.

          And I think you are right about the impossibility of knowing the ‘full answer’. It’s almost a logical or metaphysical impossibility to know everything that can possibly be known, as that domain is of course infinite.

          When I said there was no reason in principle that I know of why we shouldn’t know ‘the full answer’ I was specifically referring to our understanding of the universe and our place in it. But in retrospect even that was probably a bit careless. I should have worded it perhaps more in terms of incremental knowledge (and, yes, in terms of a specific chosen perspective) – that if you take any particular area of known ignorance (eg how life began on earth) then there’s no reason in principle why we should be ignorant forever.

          I’d be interested though in hearing more about what you mean by ‘What I mean about mystery may be inexhaustible but it is unendingly knowable’. I’m not saying I disagree but they’re not the kind of words I would find myself using.

          Thanks again, Chris.

          Chris Lawrence

          19 December 2009 at 1:50 pm

          • Well, what I mean when I say that mystery is inexhaustible but unendingly knowable isn’t very profound, and I would be surprised if you wouldn’t agree. What I mean is taken unabashedly from Einstein’s description of space – finite but potentially without limits. Just as, as the universe and space get bigger, the outer limits around which it may continue to expand also gets bigger, so too, I think, does mystery – or to put it less poetically, the known unknown.

            I mean, just think of the kind of questions we can now contemplate as a result of our current understanding of the quantum level of matter and at the other end of asto-physics.

            I was thinking the other day that as a child I was introduced to the mystery of the trinity – that there are three persons in one god – and taught that it was something that we can never fully understand. That was a mystery which, frankly, never fired me with much enthusiasm. But look at the universe that science is now revealing. It’s mind boggling! incredible even, astonishingly awe-inspiring. It does fire me with enthusiasm.

            And instead of blocking the door with a mantra of “you can never understand this,” the mysteries being unfolded by the explorations of human endeavours are a wide open invitation always to learn more, to explore more.

            This is only tangential to what we have been talking about, but one of my favourite quotes is from Einstein who said “If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.” That’s what I love about science: it’s possible to entertain the most wild, heretical, potentially contradictory ideas. Things like parallel lines meeting and time being relative, and a good number of other hypotheses that I don’t begin to understand.

            In summary, I am now faced with one problem: we will have, I think, to find something else about which we disagree. Or more accurately, I suspect, that we don’t understand.

            It’s a great trip. Thank you.
            Terry

            Terry Sissons

            19 December 2009 at 5:02 pm

  2. Chris — Thank you for an extremely thought-provoking post. I did not think such a rich argument could be made without resorting to either the kind of “other world” assumptions I have rejected, or simply accepting a pretty waffly concept of “mystery” at the heart of the world in which we live.

    Although I do not find myself speechless at this point, I do want to think about your ideas more thoroughly before I blunder in with further comment. My participation in the cyber-world is going to be radically reduced for the next ten days or so, but do not mistake my silence for lack of interest.

    Or for total acquiescence. That could, indeed, bring the whole enterprise to a juttering stop which would – for me anyway – be most regrettable.

    In the meantime, thank you again. Terry

    Terry Sissons

    25 November 2009 at 2:45 pm


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