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February 12, 2012 / J A Burrows

Moral Imperatives and God — or — “Why I Sometimes Want to Place You in Harm’s Way.”

C. S. Lewis would have thought the moral sense referred to in this meme was one of the strongest evidences of God’s existence.

One can, like C.S. Lewis, posit this evolved moral sense is a signifier of God’s existence. However, this is misusing a perceived correlation as a causation. Even this error hinges on interesting factors for it to even be made.

Tribal societies or hunter gatherers had a great incentive to treat their own members nicely and have fond feelings for one another. The biological mechanism backing this is mediated by oxytocin.1 One would be tempted to say that this extends to all members of our society. Sadly, as evidenced by people’s tendencies through history and by modern biological research, oxytocin plays a dual role.

An increase in oxytocin tends to produce fond feelings only for those that are part of your tribe. Those who share your culture or share a more similar appearance (a phenotype symbolizing a desirable genotype, suitable for reproduction). The other side of this, is an increase in oxytocin also increases the instinct to distrust others who do not share a simliar phenotype. It breeds xenophobic tendencies in people.2

Many other regulators of behaviors exist, but it turns out that this is a fairly primary motivator of a healthy and happy group of people:

As it turns out, the needs that are most linked with everyday satisfaction are interpersonal ones, such as love and respect. Our troubles, conversely, relate most to lack of esteem, lack of freedom, and lack of nourishment. Only when we look back on the quality of our lives thus far do basic needs become significant indicators for well-being.3

The other regulators basically cluster around having real and felt needs met. A lot of these needs are met through society and access to the proper resources. If these needs aren’t met for prolonged periods of time, the organizational unit (either the individual or group) will exhibit behaviors associated with self preservation and increased stress. This means acting more out of self interest than out of respect for others or any other moral imperative (theft, war, violence, distrust, etc. are all game here).

I think it is safe to say human biology doesn’t change much over time unless there is an adaptation to some external change or new constraint in the environment — in other words evolution. Even then, biology has noted the similarities of certain basic structures and chemistries of living organisms. I think it’s safe to extrapolate our modern biology back some 10,000 years (since that is a fairly short time scale, evolutionarily speaking). Under this extrapolation using the young earth hypothesis as a postulate, it is a logical conclusion that our biology was the same or very similar at creation. Which implies that the only way for our biology to have changed so suddenly is through an act of God.

If this was by God’s design, who said he intended us to love our neighbor and by extension all people, there is a severe disconnect between the biology we were “created” with and how he intended us to behave. If this was the case then the garden of eden would not have been perfect. As soon as groups split off there would be fighting in a perfect world and not as a result of “the fall in the garden”. There was no need of an apple for this to happen — and it is doubtful that an apple could change a human’s biology that much.

If God intended to rescue a race that was sinful, because of it’s own choice, why would he choose to change their biology intentionally to make sure they were inherently prone to distrust? A change like this would lessen the efficacy of free will to choose a moral imperative over natural tendencies. Also, why would this change in biology persist past the time of what Christianity defines as the final sacrifice for all time, meant to atone for all sin?

A contradiction such as this is most readily remedied by looking to evolutionary processes, where such tendencies would tend to promote group cohesion and the desire to protect itself when encountering a foreign group, thus ensuring its survival and the ability to reproduce and grow. As a result of continuing growth and constant interaction and breeding with differing phenotypes the level of hostility toward different groups has decreased over time. For more on this, please see Steven Pinker’s excellent TED talk on the myth of violence. 4

Through this process of increased interaction with foreign groups, moral imperatives regarding the treatment of people from other cultures arose. These moral imperatives are abstract high level constructs people create for themselves outside of and, sometimes, in opposition to their natural tendencies. Moral imperatives are not natural and take energy and practice to maintain. They are only good so long as reason can beat the lizard brain. As studies with Tibetan monks have shown, it takes time to develop strong pathways between the prefrontal cortex and the rest of the brain (the prefrontal cortex being the area that is understood to mediate higher level planning, decision making, and reason).5

This ability to use reason over natural tendencies is willpower. Willpower is the basic determining factor if someone will choose to act on a higher moral imperative or if they will go with their own path of least resistance. It has recently been observed that willpower is limited. This ability quickly depletes if the underlying biological mechanisms are no longer being fully supported. Willpower is entirely dependent on all of the biology supporting the brain and requires one’s body to be well nourished and in good health.6

Where scarcity is not a daily concern, it is easy to see how humans are becoming better people. We are able to make better decisions because we are not in survival mode. Without scarcity and with plenty of close social interaction, it is easy to think moral imperatives are natural. It however takes a “leap of faith” to believe they signify God’s existence.

  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oxytocin
  2. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/11/science/11hormone.html
  3. http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2011/08/maslow-20-a-new-and-improved-recipe-for-happiness/243486/
  4. http://www.ted.com/talks/steven_pinker_on_the_myth_of_violence.html
  5. http://www.news.wisc.edu/13890
  6. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/21/magazine/do-you-suffer-from-decision-fatigue.html?pagewanted=all

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