Monday 17 August 2020

Day 154 of self-isolation - Morality, religion, atheism and theism

 Morality, religion, atheism and theism

I was listening to a debate between an atheist and a Muslim, and the Muslim put the following question.

"Why would it be wrong to hit a human with a hammer, but not a snowman, since they are both just collections of atoms, according to atheism?

In my naivety, I would have thought it was obvious. But clearly not, because the Muslim needed to ask the question. So let's examine this question, because it goes to the root of morality.

Theists claim that there is an objective morality and that it's objective because it came from God. The problem with this view is that there are 4000 religions, each with different Gods and different moralities, and the choice between them is subjective. Also, many of these "moralities" include slavery, homophobia and misogyny, which any decent person would condemn as immoral.

But where does morality come from, if you're an atheist? Obviously, I can only speak for myself here, but you're free to agree if you do.

First, let's talk about "collections of atoms". Water is just a "collection of atoms"; hydrogen and oxygen. The atoms collect together into molecules, as governed by the laws of electromagnetism and quantum electrodynamics. The molecules of water attract each other via the "Van de Waals" forces, and at room temperature we see a liquid, with properties that, in the mass, are quite different from the properties of individual atoms. This is called an "emergent property".

And we've all seen snow, and have seen the complexity of a snowflake, and how each snowflake is different, but they have strong similarities. Another emergent property.

So now let's talk about evolution (by the way, at least 10% of educated Muslims accept evolution, at least to some extent). It is clear that a brain confers an advantage; that's why so many animals have one. And when you look at the evolutionary success of humans, a big brain and greater intelligence is a BIG advantage.

When we discovered fire, that led to a big leap forward. Fire lets us get more nutrition from our food than leaving it raw. Fire means that we can devote less energy to digestion, and more to our brain. Human brains grew and grew until now they are so large that birth is only just possible (ask any mother). So there we are, great apes with large brains.

Monkeys and apes (including us) live in tribes, because we survive and flourish better in tribes than as lone individuals. And animals that live in tribes (packs, flocks) need to be able to communicate. Humans invented structured language, which is a much better way to communicate than noises or grunts. And to communicate more effectively, you need what is called "theory of the mind".

Theory of mind is what lets us recognise states of mind in ourselves (fear, anger, desires) and in other people. That introspection is what leads to the emergent property of self-consciousness. I think that I exist. It also leads to the recognition that other humans have the same states of mind - I think that they exist.

So I know that when I stub my toe, it hurts. And I also know that when someone else stubs their toe, that will also hurt. This is the emergent property of empathy. I can guess how you will feel.

Empathy leads to the "Golden rule". I should treat you in the way that I would want to be treated, because I know what would hurt me, and therefore what would hurt you. But, not everyone behaves in accordance with the Golden Rule. So we need rules. Don't murder. Don't steal from other people in our tribe. These rules, whether written or just agreed, lead to better coherence in the tribe, which leads to better survival. Evolution, once again, prefers tribes that cohere.

And that, by the way, is where religion comes from. The small number of humans that are reluctant to follow the tribe's rules, are told that they will be severely punished after they die as an incentive to keep the tribal rules. Or rewarded if they do keep the rules. Most people don't need this carrot-and-stick, because we have empathy, but there is always a tiny percentage of people whose empathyis inadequate, and need additional incentives. Today, we use fines and prison for this incentive, and we are able to agree on more precise and widespread rules.

So that's where morality comes from. It is am emergent property of evolution, intelligence, self-consciousness, theory of mind and, ultimately, empathy.

So now, perhaps theists can explain to me where their morality comes from? How did you realise that slavery is bad, even though your Holy Book says it's OK?

I'll tell you. If you're a human, your morality comes from the same place as other humans - from your empathy. You wouldn't want to be a slave, so you know that it's wrong to enslave other humans.

And that's why it's OK to hit a snowman with a hammer,  but not a human.


  1. No need to go to such effort to refute that argument. The proposition makes the classical mistake in logic of begging the question. The way the question is asked presupposes that atheism holds that a human being is "just" a collection of atoms. That is a false premise. "Since the Empire State building is falling over, why do we build so high?" Just call out the guy on his false premise. He may not want to see it, but anyone with a logical mind must.

    1. I didn't just want to refute his argument, I also wanted to explain the basis for morality that many atheists accept.