The golden rule blows!

I’ve mentioned in the past that while I agree with atheism I find the notion that you can have morality without religion to be, well, less obvious than many make it out to be. (I tackled this idea in detail here.)

A lot of secular humanists point to the golden rule as an easy source for morality. That rule is, of course, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Over at Andrew Sullivan’s blog a reader makes the case.

…we also have deeply ethical atheists, agnostics, and secularists who debate the fine points of moral behavior with as much rigor and passion as theologists do, and who are building great ethical revolutions such as environmentalism on the surprisingly robust foundation of a practical, secular ethics.

Much of this success rests on the self-explanatory Golden Rule. No fear of damnation is needed to explain why it’s a good idea to treat others as you would like to be treated. It’s a contract, and you get security and stability only if you obey it. The obviousness of this contract also makes it a firm basis for moral innovation.

The problem is that while the golden rule might work some of the time, it really doesn’t work all of the time. The idea is that if I don’t want to be screwed, I shouldn’t screw others. But really you just don’t want others to know you’ve screwed them. If you can screw over other people without them knowing it, then you get all the benefits of the golden rule, plus a little extra for yourself. Also, the premise of the golden rule is that your security and safety will be harmed if you violate the golden rule. But what if I am strong enough that I cannot be harmed? Say I’m a king, or some kind of mafia boss? Then I can break the golden rule with at least some impunity and not fear for my security. As an incentive for morality, the golden rule does not work consistently and seems to have many caveats. Counter to the writer above, there are cases where one can get security and stability without obeying the golden rule.

There’s a third complaint I’d make which is the golden rule isn’t really moral in any kind of purist sense. According to the golden rule, you should treat others well not because you really want to but because you wanted to be treated well. It’s selfish. This may be acceptable, but I think the realization takes a bit of the wind out of the sails of people like the above person who righteously tout the golden rule as something almost holy.

Is religion the way to morality then? As I’ve said in the past, even it is flawed. The Christian argument is that one should be good to avoid burning in hell. Again, the is really a selfish argument: Do this to avoid pain (and lots of it!)

I do suspect morality evolved as a social practice that tended to work for most of those who engaged in it. Those who followed the golden rule flourished and were successful at passing on their genes etc. I presume it is, in some hard to imagine way, encoded into our genes. But morality and the golden rule are not really “logical” in any sense.

The war within!

I’ve argued that there’s a certain disconnect wired into the human body. On one hand, our genes want us to engage in certain behaviors that ensure the continuation of our genetic material. These behaviors are basically eating, sex, and the pursuit of status (status essentially being a tool to get people to have sex with us.) But we are in some ways at war with these voices prodding us to feed and get laid. We know that if we eat too much we get fat. We know that simply pursuing hedonistic sex ruins our relationships.

A recent NY Times article captures this.

From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense that we are wired to seek fame, wealth and sexual variety. These things make us more likely to pass on our DNA. Had your cave-man ancestors not acquired some version of these things (a fine reputation for being a great rock sharpener; multiple animal skins), they might not have found enough mating partners to create your lineage.

But here’s where the evolutionary cables have crossed: We assume that things we are attracted to will relieve our suffering and raise our happiness. My brain says, “Get famous.” It also says, “Unhappiness is lousy.” I conflate the two, getting, “Get famous and you’ll be less unhappy.”

But that is Mother Nature’s cruel hoax. She doesn’t really care either way whether you are unhappy — she just wants you to want to pass on your genetic material. If you conflate intergenerational survival with well-being, that’s your problem, not nature’s. And matters are hardly helped by nature’s useful idiots in society, who propagate a popular piece of life-ruining advice: “If it feels good, do it.” Unless you share the same existential goals as protozoa, this is often flat-out wrong.

Enjoying Audioslave?

A band I’ve never been impressed with is Audioslave (comprised of members of Rage Against the Machine and Soundgarden.) But a while back I was jogging and put on some of their music. After I finished my run I was listening and thinking, “You know, I’m kind of enjoying this.”

But it occurred to me that maybe I was just experiencing a pleasurable runner’s high and then attributing that enjoyment to the music I was listening to. Maybe it was that the music put me in a pleasant state of mind but rather I was in a pleasant state of mind and attributed it to the music I was listening to.

The truth is, I suspect many things were happening there. Maybe the rocking Audioslave music did help boost my already exuberant feeling. Maybe to enjoy some music you need to be in a certain physical state. But this opens up a whole other debate—does much of our reaction to art and entertainment have to do with things outside those products? If I eat a Twinkie and watch “Game of Thrones” (which I’ve never seen) how much of my pleasure is from the Twinkie and how much from the show? If I take a soothing bath and listen to Mozart, again, from where does the pleasure originate? I think the answer is a little of both sources, but it does seem we are more willing to give credit to the entertainment product than our pleasant environment.

This would explain these experiences we’ve all had where we listen to an album we’ve loved in the past and for some reason it just doesn’t do it anymore. Maybe the enjoyment was never in the album.

The artist as madman

I continue reading “The Immortalist” and discover an interesting passage that both lauds and condemns “the artist” in society. Harrington, the book’s author, argues, as many have, that the artist creates art to achieve immortality, to live forever, if only in name. When this dream is foiled, ugliness ensues.

The artist still risks his identity and self-respect to an extent undreamed of by the man of business. He must always live with the fearful possibility that his work is no good, his daring departure from the safe world a bore to everyone else. And if he lacks talent, no one will care one way or the other what revolutionary notions he may entertain. Even after he attains some success, he can go dry and lose his talent. Or he may be taken up and dropped as tastes change. He remains exposed and on the firing line. When things go wrong the outcome becomes doubly unbearable. He fails twice—in his own mind dwindling alarmingly before the gods, and also in the public mind. The sensitive failed artist runs the risk of dying twice, spiritually and materially, which is why, as Eric Hoffer has shown in The True Believer, frustrated individuals of this kind have turned into the most dangerous people on earth: Hitler, Goebbels, Mussolini, etc.

I am, by any fair definition, a failed artist. Am I on the verge of becoming a power mad dictator casting millions to their doom?

Hmmmm…

The death of the cd?

One thing you notice about the Macbook Pro, like the one I am typing this on, is that there’s no CD player. I’ve found this to be a minor hassle since I have several cd playing devices around. But the removal of the cd player from the PC seems a curious decision on Apple’s part. It struck me, and I’m sure it has many of the conspiracy minded, that Apple may have done this to push their iTunes revenues. Users may find themselves in a situation where they want to play their favorite Tom Waits cds, but lo and behold they have no way to. So they say, “Fuck it, I’ll just buy an mp3 version from iTunes.”

Does this trend point to the death of the cd? It’s interesting to contemplate. I still burn cds of my music to give to people. How will I force them to enjoy my music when that option is gone? People have theorized the idea of “beaming” music to various devices for a while but I don’t see much progress there.

It’s worth noting, the death of the cd has been predicted before and it’s still around. But doubtless someday the silver disk will fall. And what will a world without cds looks like? Will it be a joyous utopia where people pluck music wirelessly out of the air for their enjoyment? Or will it be a savage realm where men are dragged from their houses and sexually violated before their families? I fear the latter…

Art and lies, damned lies

I enjoy reading insightful and provocative commentary. But how do I know a piece of writing deserves such accolades? Often because its ideas mirror my own.

Case in point: I just stumbled across this interesting passage in the book “The Immortalist.”

Martin Buber said that “The lie is the specific evil which man has introduced into nature.” Why evil necessarily? Lying helps us to deal with an unsatisfactory reality. Its purpose is to improve somebody’s chances of surviving.

Lying as a device of survival? I made the same point in my piece “The Devil Paints” in which I argued the skills of deception were rewarded by evolution. I stated:

Some years ago I read about one scientist’s observation that the world of birds was full of deception. The primary example was a breed of birds who would use a high-pitched squeal to warn each other when predators were lurking. Birdwatchers observing this breed began noticing that if an individual bird found a bush rich with berries, he or she would emanate this squeal. The other birds would fly off in fear and this bird could eat all the berries for him/herself. Thus, this bird was more likely to survive and pass his or her genes on through reproduction.

But as time went on, the other birds started to figure out the trick. They realized that they had to be a little more critical every time they heard this squeal. And, as these birds wised up, they increased their chance for survival and thus passing on their genes. So the trickster birds had to get even more clever in their tricks, and the birds being tricked had to get even smarter. As such, trickery was essential to these birds evolving into more intelligent creatures.

It’s not hard to extrapolate this anecdote to human beings — we too have used deception to increase our odds for survival. And in fact, lying, or at least glossing over the truth, is still part of our mating ritual. A guy buys a fancy car to imply that he has a big bank account and can easily provide for a mate. Women use makeup and hair products to maintain the look of youth, youth being ideal for childbearing. Duping someone into sleeping with you is a great way to ensure that your genes last another generation. (I’ve long blamed all my romantic failures on the fact that I am inherently an honest person.)

From there I argued that these skills for deception were used in the creation of art.

So how does this relate to art? Well, art is a kind of deception. Let’s look at the written word, particularly fiction. Fiction is largely the act of describing events that never actually happened. Fiction is lies, albeit well-intentioned lies. As evolution rewarded good liars, it was helping propagate the genes capable of writing good fiction.

And check this out, dawg. “The Immortalist” makes the same point a few paragraphs after the one I quoted above.

Reflecting upon is, the lie is an amazing device. To think that members of our race should actually go to so much trouble as to invent what does not exist. Consider the provocation, the enormous anxiety weighing on our species for thousands of years, that could produce such an extraordinary breakthrough as the decision to reject one reality and substitute another. Of course it was the same dimly realized obsession that created our myths and poetry.

Myths and poetry my friends. That’s what it’s all about.

Our obsession with accomplishment

I continue to read Alan Harrington’s “The Immortalist.” One of the books argument is that man, faced with the modern observation that god is dead, tries to achieve immortality by becoming famous, thus ensuring that he (man, not god) will not be forgotten. We do this not consciously, of course; this drive for celebrity and status is buried somewhere in the nether-regions of the subconscious. This leads to a certain kind of craziness as Harrington notes in one paragraph:

Middle-class people in particular have always competed for the god’s notice, but today, with religious authority on the wane, this competition has become frantic, in some arenas unbearable so. We have a merciless obsession with accomplishment. Millions are caught up in the neurotic new faith that a human being must succeed or die. For such individuals it is not enough to enjoy life, or simply do a good job or be a good person. No, the main project, pushing all other concerns in the background, is to make a name that the gods will recognize.

I have to say this summarizes my internal battles explicitly. On one hand I derive pleasure by obtaining skills—musicianship, writing, drawing, speaking foreign languages, being a skilled lover etc.—but other the other I realize the fruitlessness of it all. These skill have little value in the job marketplace, they are only good for generating a certain kind of respect. But why earn respect? I suppose Harrington would argue because on some level I feel it will lead to some form of immortality. But if that is a false belief, as it almost certainly is, shouldn’t I just chill out and enjoy life?

He has an interesting phrase in there: “succeed or die.” It sounds very Darwinian. I would if this human obsession with skills and accomplishment became stronger after Darwin put forth his “survival of the fittest” theory?

The nature of work

There’s a book that came out recently arguing that people are working more than ever and this is causing a rise in anxiety. It certainly seems a sound premise. But I’ve seen few rebuttals saying, no, people are in fact not working more than ever, we actually have more free time. And, when you think about all these stories you’ve heard about people in 1750 getting up at 6 a.m. and working on the farm until dusk it also sounds true. People of the past did not live leisurely lives.

Can both statements be true? I think, in a sense, yes. It comes down to how we work. In the past, you might work a lot but it was a fairly uninterrupted process – you woke up, knew what you were going to do and did it. You might be working a lot but there was a certain flow to it. Nowadays, you might start to work on editing a Word doc, then you get an email saying there’s an emergency and you have to track down a powerpoint doc, then you finish that and you have to get the kids to soccer practice, the you got back to the Word doc and 20 minutes later you need to answer another email, then a call comes in… etc. I’m overstating for dramatic effect, but you get the picture. Though you may be working less in pure volume of hours, it’s a harried, distracted kind of process. And one that probably takes more cognitive energy than running tasks on a farm 15 hours a day.

I have at certain points in my life been in situations where the entire day was spent doing computer work (often for weeks at a time). I would wake up, sit down at the computer and be there all day, aside from eating and bathroom breaks. It sounds awful and in some ways it was but you brain achieves a certain kind of clarity. You can basically ignore all distractions, phone calls email etc. There’s really something almost meditative about that state.

The Immortalist

I recently stumbled across a rather interesting looking book: The Immortalist, written by Alan Harrington in 1969. I’ve just started reading it and it seems to be a treatise on the idea that man should be making a furtive effort to live forever (or at least a really long time.) By googling the book, I’ve gathered that The Immortalist is considered essential reading by the movement known as trans-humanism, which is dedicated to the effort of transcending the limits of our biological state.

But this is not some dreary science tome full of calculations and chemical compounds. In the first chapter, Harrington lists what he believes are the various psychological strategies man has employed to avoid confronting the finality of death. (Religion is an obvious one, but also hedonism, fame and destruction of the ego.) I don’t quite know what to think about the content but the writing crackles. Check out this passage in which he argues that the modern* youth culture—rock clubs and discotheques, LSD etc.—is all about overwhelming the senses to create an “eternal now” (and thus obliviate an awareness of our impending doom.)

* Modern at the time I mean; late sixties.

…all this too amounts to one more attempt to hide from the end—by substituting Dionysian togetherness for romance, and a bombardment of the senses, lightworks of the soul, a sort of electronic Buddhism in place of sequential perception. The use of kinetic environment as an art form removes death, creating the illusion of an Eternal Now—an illusion in that it seems to guarantee eternal youth, which, of course, is what this generation is really after.

This actually ties in with something I’ve been thinking about. I’ve always felt something of prisoner of time. I hate deadlines and I get anxious when I have only limited time to get somewhere. But I know many people who seem to have the opposite problem; they seem oblivious to how long things take and are thus often late or have to skip activities altogether. There does seems to be a brain component to our ability to understand time. (Neuroscientist David Eagleman has done a lot of work on this subject.) And, as Harrington argues, overwhelming our senses (with drugs, loud music and bright lights) seems to knock out that component, thereby creating a kind of “eternal now.”)

Do we force the real world into being a “just world”?

First of all, I’m back in the saddle again so to speak. Was out of town for several weeks and neglected blogging.

While away I read most of a book I’ve been meaning to tackle: “Brainwashed – The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience.” It’s a book coming from the “neuroskeptic” school—a viewpoint arguing that many of the claims neuroscience makes are inflated. It’s hard to argue with that basic point; you do see seemingly unlikely predictions coming out of neuroscience (and science) all the time. But that said, I find the book rather mushy. I just read through the chapter on free will and found it hard to follow the arguments. Sam Harris’s eBook called “Free Will” seems more cogently argued. (He argues against the existence of free will, the opposite view of “Brainwashed.”)

The free will chapter did have an interesting anecdote about Martin Lerner, a sociologist who developed the idea that people like to believe in a “just world hypothesis” (e.g. that the good are rewarded and the bad punished.) It seems a harmless enough delusion, but what if we alter our perception of the world to map it to a just world. And in doing so, what if we presume people who suffer deserve to suffer? The book states…

In one of his seminal experiments, Lerner asked subjects to observe a ten-minute video of a fellow student as she underwent a learning experiment involving memory. The student was strapped into an apparatus sprouting electrode leads and allegedly received a painful shock whenever she answered a question incorrectly (she was not receiving real shocks, of course, but believably feigned distress as if she were). Next, the researchers split the observers into groups. One was to vote on whether to remove the victim from the apparatus and reward her with money for correct answers. All but one voted to rescue her. The experimenters told another group of observers that the victim would continue to receive painful shocks; there was no option for compensation. When asked to evaluate the victim at this point, subjects in the victim-compensated condition rated her more favorably (e.g. more “attractive,” more “admirable”) than did subjects in the victim-uncompensated condition, in which the victim’s suffering was greater.)

I think it’s possible to extrapolate too much from these kinds of experiments, but this does kind of jibe with my sense of the world. We see someone suffering for whom we can do nothing and as a result we lower our opinion of them, basically saying, “sucks to be you!”

Ha! Humans are scum!