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Is morality possible without religion? Since German philosopher Immanuel Kant offered a “what-if-everybody-did” rule in 1788, modern philosophers have cracked their skulls against the problem without success. Kant’s rule requires you to tell the truth at all times, for example, when a pederast inquires as to your child’s route home from grade school. It was not a popular idea. Twentieth century secular philosophers declared the problem irrelevant. According to existentialists like Martin Heidegger, another German philosopher, authenticity rather than virtue is what is important, even if leads to Nazi party membership, while pragmatists like the just-deceased American philosopher Richard Rorty assert that we cannot make objectively true statements about anything.
Most atheists still want to know how to tell right from wrong, however. They are alarmed by the return of religious wars and the violence associated with religious fanaticism. Sadly, the withdrawal of the philosophers has put the secular morality project into the hands of mere mechanics, the so-called brain scientists. Those who think abstractly about thought, the metaphysicians, can offer no secular solution, and the matter has gone by default to the lab technicians.
Call it the kindergarten of good and evil. The invention of gadgets that show us which neurons light up when we think happy thoughts has convinced some secular thinkers that they have found the solution to a problem unsolved by thousands of years of philosophical speculation.
As Canadian-American political and cultural commentator David Brooks observed in the May 13 New York Times, “The real challenge [to religion] is going to come from people who feel the existence of the sacred, but who think that particular religions are just cultural artifacts built on top of universal human traits. It’s going to come from scientists whose beliefs overlap a bit with Buddhism.”
Over the past several years, the momentum has shifted away from hardcore materialism. The brain seems less like a cold machine. It does not operate like a computer. Instead, meaning, belief and consciousness seem to emerge mysteriously from idiosyncratic networks of neural firings. Those squishy things called emotions play a gigantic role in all forms of thinking. Love is vital to brain development.
Researchers now spend a lot of time trying to understand universal moral intuitions. Genes are not merely selfish, it appears. Instead, people seem to have deep instincts for fairness, empathy and attachment.
Scientists have more respect for elevated spiritual states. Andrew Newberg of the University of Pennsylvania has shown that transcendent experiences can actually be identified and measured in the brain (people experience a decrease in activity in the parietal lobe, which orients us in space). The mind seems to have the ability to transcend itself and merge with a larger presence that feels more real.
American Sam Harris’ 2005 bestseller The End of Faith makes a nearly identical argument, that “there will probably come a time when we achieve a detailed understanding of human happiness, and of ethical judgments themselves, on the level of the brain.”
It seems strange to assert that “people have deep instincts for fairness [and] empathy.” Research summarized by British-born Nicholas Wade in his 2006 book Before the Dawn shows that continuous warfare dominated prehistoric life, such that 40% of males died in warfare. Even stranger is the association of such an approach with Buddhism, given that Zen Buddhism took hold in Japan as a warrior religion.
If we leave aside such quibbles and focus on the nub of the matter, it all comes down to what Brooks calls the measurability of “elevated spiritual states” and “transcendent experiences.” It is not very difficult to induce such an experience, nor is it particularly interesting. If you deprive a test subject of sight, sound and all other sensations, you will have a case of temporary insanity on your hands.
Sensory deprivation is a cruelly effective form of torture. Something like this can be achieved by taking certain drugs, or by staring at one’s navel and repeating a mantra long enough. Our identity depends on a set of relationships, and if we block out those relationships, we lose our sense of identity, or dissociate. One also can employ sensory deprivation for enhanced concentration or relaxation, which is why Zen is so useful to warriors and yoga is so useful to mystics.
Transcendental experience, though, may not have anything to do with a sense of dissolving into the All. Western classical music can induce a transcendental state of an entirely different kind. Musicians often experience an entirely different sort of transcendental experience while playing or singing an individual part in an orchestra or chorus. Each musician’s identity remains in sharp delineation while hearing the other parts across space, and the progression of the composition in time. One hears oneself play, and overhears one’s colleagues, within the teleology of the composition. The totality of the composition has a life of its own, but it enhances rather than dissolves the individuality of the individual performer, without whose unique contribution the totality could not exist.
Whether the same neural paths light up for the alto section singing German composer George Frideric Handel’s Messiah as for a Zen master I do not know, but the transcendental experience is entirely different. That is the experience of Christian or Jewish worship: the more one identifies with the congregation, the more one’s individual personhood if magnified. Now that 30 million Chinese study piano and another 10 million study violin, Western classical music well may have become the dominant form of transcendental experience for Asians even while Western neuroscientists dabble in what they think is Buddhism.
When the kindergartners speak of “consciousness” and “transcendence,” they approach the matter as handworkers: whatever their instruments can measure is what comes to their attention. The idea that the same neurons might light up for entirely different sorts of consciousness never appears on their mental horizon.
It is a shibboleth that consciousness is social. One may have an oceanic experience of joining an ocean of humanity shouting “Heil Hitler!” at a rally, while charging the machine guns at the Somme, while singing hymns on Sunday morning (or Psalms on Saturday morning), or while watching the fireworks at a small-town celebration of July 4. All of these are social forms of consciousness, but they have radically different contents. One dissolves into the mass at a Nazi rally, but shines through the choir at a Christian service, because one feels loved as an individual, up close and personally. That is why (as I mentioned last week – America’s special grace Americans love their country in a unique way, because they believe it was instituted to protect their God-given rights.
The kindergartners cannot concede that humans have a soul, and struggle to find an explanation for why we are conscious of an individual identity. “While we know many things about ourselves in anatomical, physiological, and evolutionary terms, we currently have no idea why it is ‘like something’ to be what we are,” Harris wrote. To investigate consciousness he suggests “fasting, chanting, sensory deprivation, prayer, meditation and the use of psychotropic drugs”, as “some of our only means of determining to what extent the human condition can be deliberately transformed.” English writer G K Chesterton’s quip comes to mind that if you don’t believe in God, you will believe in anything. The term “deliberately transformed” makes my hair stand on end, but let us leave that for later.
Consciousness for the kindergartners is the mental state of the test subject in the laboratory. But our consciousness extends far beyond the walls of the laboratory, to all our countrymen or co-religionists, and in time to our ancestors and our progeny. We exist not for ourselves but for those to whom we owe our existence, and for those who will owe their existence to us. We communicate through languages that are woven together out of innumerable aphorisms, quips, and metaphors that bind generations together. We share songs, stories and dramas that provide points of reference across time.
When Sam Harris uses the word “faith” to mean the same as “superstition”, a belief to which we hold irrationally and without foundation. But faith is just as social as consciousness: it is participation in the life of a people. As Warsaw-born American rabbi A J Heschel said, Judaism is a continuation of the life of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; British-Irish writer C S Lewis wrote, “In Christ a new kind of man appeared: and the new kind of life which began in Him is to be put into us.” Christianity is not a belief-system but a life lived in anticipation of the Kingdom of God. Resurrection in the flesh, the tenet of revealed religion that most offends modern sensibility, is an outgrowth of belief in the eternal life of the People of God, as Jon Levenson and Kevin Madigan showed in their recent book [Life and Death in the Bible, Asia Times Online, May 28, 2008.]
In revealed religion, the consciousness of each member of the congregation resembles the playing of the individual musician in the classical orchestra: it is a sense of belonging combined with a deep sense of individual importance arising from God’s particular love of each individual. The difference between this “transcendent experience” and that of a mob may or may not measure on the kindergartners’ instruments, but that is of little concern. Classical music is the most Christian of art forms, as I wrote in an early essay (Why the beautiful is not the good Asia Times Online, May 17, 2005 ). Polyphony combines contrasting lines of music into a harmonious whole as Christian society preserves the sanctity of the individual within the congregation.
Different faiths entail radically different forms of consciousness, and different faiths are different lives; the life of the Qahal and the Ekklesia are different from the life of the ummah. Harris imagines that Muslims blow themselves up to gain entry to paradise, yet pagans have immolated themselves for the perpetuation of their tribe with sickening regularity. It is in the existential experience of Muslim life rather than in the declared tenets of Islam that the motivation of suicide bombers must be sought..
This brings us to the aspect of human consciousness that the kindergartners never will explain, namely its penchant for self-destruction when its life loses hope of continuity. At least half of extant cultures (defined by languages) will cease to exist during the next century, and perhaps nine-tenths of all spoken languages will become extinct a century later. Thousands of years of human consciousness simply will expire for lack of desire to continue. No barbarian invasion, no drought or famine or pestilence has brought about the Great Extinction of the Peoples, but rather a desire to perish.
How many thousands of cases of cultural extinction are required to impress the self-styled empiricists of human consciousness is a question to which I expect no answer. Nonetheless it does prove something important, namely the existence of Free Will. At very least human communities can choose to will themselves out of existence. One can explain behaviors based economics, geography, genetics or some other material circumstance with a degree of plausibility – American Jared Diamond attempts to do so in Guns, Germs and Steel – but the singular and unrepeatable act of cultural suicide can find no material explanation whatever.
It goes without saying that the self-annihilation of nations also makes short work of what passed for “natural theology” during the Enlightenment, for it shatters the premise that humankind has an animal instinct of self-preservation. Saint Augustine’s anthropology – that the heart is restless until if finds God – also can imagine a heart that sickens unto death in the absence of God.
Free will, to the kindergartners, is an abomination, for if man has no soul, and consciousness has no origin but the conflux of influences, the concept of a will is absurd. “No one has ever described a manner in which mental and physical events could arise that would attest to its existence,” complains Harris.
In the absence of Biblical morality, what instruction should we take from the kindergartners? To his credit, Harris rejects the evolutionary view of morality. “Nature has selected for many things that we would have done well to leave behind us in the jungles of Africa. The practice of rape may have once conferred an adaptive advantage on our species – and rapists of all shapes and sciences can indeed be found in the natural world (dolphins, orangutans, chimpanzees, etc.).” For similar reasons he rejects pragmatism and relativism.
What sort of ethics do the kindergartners propose? Harris’ chapter, “A science of good and evil,” simply repeats Kant’s creaky categorical imperative with a few exceptions thrown in, for example, the right to torture terrorists or inflict collateral damage on civilians where anti-terror actions require it. In short, Harris wants to have his Kant, and eat it, too. This would earn a D-minus from any introductory course on philosophy, but that is of no importance to Harris, who knows that atheism has been hung out to dry by the philosophers, and has no reason to care how they might grade him.
What he wants is an unspecified code of ethics that eventually will arise from brain science, such that people can be “deliberately transformed” by appropriate conditioning. Why is that different from English writer Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World dystopia? It does not seem to occur to him that that most hideous crimes against humanity on record have been committed not in the name of faith, but in the name of science – Karl Marx’s dialectical materialism or Adolf Hitler’s race science. Communism, he asserts, “was little more than a political religion.” That is an instance of the True Scotsman fallacy (if a Scotsman takes sugar with his porridge, he is not a “true Scotsman”); if an ideology does harm, then Harris thinks it must be a religion.
Fortunately the kindergartners of brain science never will have the opportunity to put human society into their machines and “deliberately transform” our consciousness. Once the secular philosophers retreated from ethics, the white-coated laboratory types who were left in possession of the asylum can watch neurons light up all day, without having a relevant word to say about the existential condition of humankind.