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

Thoughts on “Knowing” and “Knowledge”

What is knowledge?

Opaque answer: Knowledge is the sum of neural activity occurring after one has learned.

Clearer answer: One can only gain knowledge by building it. One can only build knowledge through experience. Experience is the constant stream of information from our senses modulated by our inner state (emotions, hunger, thirst, health). Inner state corresponds to our inner senses. Emotion can be reduced to a sense organ that monitors the levels of certain neurotransmitters. Hunger, thirst and satiation are functions of specialized sense organs in the digestive tract. Our inner sense of health is indeed collected by many nerves throughout our body (deep innervation of organs). One can then generalize the totality of experience is indeed the stream of all information from all of our sense organs.

If emotion is a sensory organ, then it is feasible to say that we build sensory organs for thoughts and ideas in our brains. If a sensory perception is a pattern of electrochemical stimuli, and likewise an emotion, then thoughts themselves can be perceived in the brain just as real objects are perceived by our senses. Knowing in the abstract then becomes the process of sensing thoughts in the inner world of the brain.

One can only come to know something through contact with the senses. For example, imagine a toddler playing with a ripe, yellow banana. Fist, he sees it and then grabs it. Hears it as he smacks something with it, tasting his fingers after he feels and sees mushed innards come out of the it. Then he gnaws on it, smelling it while noticing how his deep inner senses feel after he’s consumed part of the mush he inadvertently made. Smiling, like he’s found treasure, he squeals with joy at the knowledge he just built about that fruit. Full knowledge comes from full sensory experience.

To come into contact with something else is to form a relationship with it. Knowledge can only be built out of relationships. Information only means something in context. It only is meaningful if it is taken in relation to something else – something known. A pattern is only distinguishable because of the relation of each element to the next element of the pattern. Something else is only distinguishable as something else in relation to self or self in relation to it (think about how much more you could learn about a fish by imagining to be one!).

If information is given with no relation to other information, it needs to be taken in relation to knowledge. If there is little knowledge, like our toddler in the above paragraph, his brain seeks out all the information it can get to tease the relationships out of the patterns so that knowledge can be built.

Relationships and Knowledge

Innately, we have a deep connection with other people. I have a hunch that it stems from our motor cortex, and the so-called mirror neurons. These neurons correlate perceptions with inner states. They let us try to imagine what is going on in other people’s heads based on what they’ve done. At the most basic, when someone else is eating, our motor neurons fire in preparation for doing the same. Out of this basic mechanism, we build shared knowledge.

People in many cultures have traditions and other ritualistic behaviors. These are mechanisms for creating closeness and a sense of unity. They create similar thoughts and feelings, a resonance, within the people involved. Though the thoughts may be similar, each person comes with their own knowledge which shapes their thinking and creation of knowledge within the experience.

Divorce this behavior from ritual or traditions and substitute shared process, and one sees beginnings of a powerful mechanism for creating collective knowledge around shared experience. At this point, lines delineating boundaries between minds start to blur. The collective becomes just that, a collective. The process creates coherence and focus, and the collective becomes a coherent cluster of photons on the same wavelength, traveling in the same direction – a laser beam.

People work most effectively when arranged into this type of super-organism. The connections between people help optimize the flow of information, and the relationships between people come to embody knowledge as large inter-personal synapses. The more connections amongst the team members, the more intelligent the becomes. The flow of information through the team makes embedded knowledge spark. The people with pertinent knowledge can then start to share information and create experiences where knowledge is created in the other team members – thus knowledge is transferred.

Often times it works like a holographic memory, where the whole can be retrieved in great fidelity from small fragments. Each person can remember parts that help other people recollect more fuzzy memories. Then the process of corroboration works its fuzzy magic and knowledge increases in the group.