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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Religion Against Ethics?

I am putting the finishing touches on a presentation I want to offer to TED when they open up applications.  The title is "My Holy Grail: A Universal Ethic."  I might also call it "Why an ethical person does not need religion" and/or "Why many of the most religious people are not ethical."

In my presentation, I reject moral relativism by discovering an invariable structure for truth, including moral truth, in the uniquely homo sapiens way of coming to terms with our environment.  This structure is uncovered in experimental biology and psychology, most recently in the developing new disciplines of neuroscience and evolutionary psychology.  (See Terrence Deacon's latest book on the brain's evolving capacity to use symbols.)

I also reject moral certainty.  The way we approach truth is by "conjecture and selection" (Karl Popper).  We imagine models or theories in ways that can be falsified through experience and then we test them and ask others to do the same.  Through the testing we either reject the theory, refine it, or accept it as true--provisionally, not absolutely.  We are realists using experience to know and move in our universe by solving problems we encounter or set up from out previous solutions.  But we are also idealists using symbols--images, models, theories, ideas--to pursue knowledge and adaptation to our environment.

Our organism adapting with its environment, mediated by media, establishes us in a whole bunch of tensions that can lead to both pitfalls and victories.  By pitfalls I mean fallacies, mistakes, errors, evils, setbacks, i.e. expressions and actions that hold us back and actually undermine our human existence.  By victories I mean insights, truths, findings, discoveries, goods, advances, i.e. expressions and actions that lead us on to the progress and growth of our humanity.

I put this structure of our human way of knowing and being into an ethical/political model that shows many of the tensions and explains both setbacks and victories for humanity.  I attempt to show that the model meets the criteria of a good scientific theory.

As part of the elegance and consistency criteria of the model, I try to formalize it to show an invariable structure that unites many dimensions of human living and acting in the universe.

As a part of the comprehensiveness criteria of the model, I try to show how all previous and present ethical/political theories relate to and can be explained by this model.

As a part of the testability for this model, I try to use the model to deal with current big ethical and political issues, e.g. bio-technology, economic disparity, community building, earth change, war and peace, crime and punishment, population growth and urbanization, artificial intelligence, and postmodern religion.

So....  since this structure is universally available (we live it after all), a person with an evolved homo sapiens brain does not need a religion or a philosophy or any special training, beyond good nourishment within a loving community (which I realize is no small matter), to be ethical.  In fact, I argue that "conscience" is nothing more or less than the inner awareness or consciousness of knowing and acting in the world with us all the time.  No need for special revelations from on high or for dictates from authority or from some absolute mind or holy book.  (Though I hasten to add that mythology and fiction, including gods, goblins, gremlins, ghosts, can stimulate consciousness and even moral behavior.)

At the same time, this structure and its awareness is somewhat elusive because it is not usually focused upon when we go about our daily life and action in the world.  In some sense it is most experienced when we are focused outside through our language and images and symbols.  It is only in the secondary reflection of meditation, art criticism, and philosophy that we bring it into focus.

It is this obvious but illusive character of the structure of our behavior that sets up the underlying fallacy of fallacies, sometimes called the "objectivist fallacy" (Dewey) or the "illusion of absolute" (Merleau-Ponty) or "true belief" (Hoffer), or "historicism" (Popper) and many more.  I see it as "misplaced principlism"where one confuses the structure of human knowing and acting with its formulations.  These formulations, including theories, models, explanations, emerge from that structure (religion, art, policy, science), may even attempt to articulate that structure (philosophy including epistemology and ethics), but are NOT that structure.

Often people motivated by religion are morally certain victims of misplaced principlism.  They take the formulations that they have imagined or inherited as absolute.  They are principled in the wrong place and that leads to all sorts of mischief.  Just read "God's Jury" by Collen Murphy.  War, torture, racism, genocide, totalitarianism are inhumane, violate the principle of our human being in the universe.  They and other atrocities can all be attributed to the fallacy of moral certitude which is often sanctified by religion.

Such religiously motivated people are usually antiscientific as well because they see advance in truth as infallible, not-to-be challenged propositions rather than as continually to-be-refined and verified-in-experience propositions that often conflict with previously accepted ones.  They are therefore usually pessimistic with human life and history, hoping for the return of a nostalgic past or the arrival of a utopian future from some outside intervention or death.  They often abdicate personal responsibility for the sordid parts of our past and for our collective future.  (See David Deutsch on this.)

This is why I say that many of the most religious people are unethical.

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