Comment on Good, Evil, and Self
The following comment was written in response to a theist named Bridget from the last Dawkins post [here is her original comment]. I wanted to present this on its own page since I think it begins to address some core issues in Sacred River.
Where does the evil and good come from?
“Evil” and “Good” aren’t substances or states, but moral judgments on behaviors and ideas. All judgments are products of the human mind grounded in the evolutionary necessity of primates to live together in a reasonably harmonious way. We are beginning to find the basic building blocks of human ethics, which are related to such issues as fairness, resource/mate protection, incest avoidance, and reciprocal altruism (to name a few).
As in language, the moral building blocks have evolved into complex structures that are now largely culture-based. These structures form in every group (churches, schools, workplaces, clubs, and even whole cities and nations), and the majority of them are implicit, meaning they are unspoken mandates and rules of thumb that guide how group members behave and interact. When someone violates a rule, everyone knows it, even when that rule isn’t written down. Humans are simply wired this way.
Although the underlying purpose of morality is logical—the creation of social rules that allow humans to live together in groups—individual morals or moral sets are not always rational or even beneficial. At one time, for example, slavery was considered perfectly acceptable by many Americans and was even justified with the Bible. Many people would now consider slavery to be an unambiguous evil.
This is why there is a movement to push morals into a principle-based system rather than attempting a set of absolute rules. For example, increasing fairness and decreasing suffering are “good” principles, but what those look like will change along with a changing society, just as the acceptability of slavery changed with the Civil War. This is but one benefit of a non-theistic perspective—we can approach goodness from a reasonable and compassionate place rather than by attempting to fulfill rigid decrees, regardless of their relevance or logic.
Where does the “self” come from? And please don’t say the self is a set of neuronal connections…that is ridiculous and has not been proven.
The experience of self does indeed stem from complex neural nets in the brain, although the total self certainly includes the whole body. This might seem ridiculous to you, but there is a great deal of empirical evidence for it (and no evidence to the contrary). True, we learn more about the creation of self all the time as we learn more about the brain, but it isn’t the mystery you are making it out to be.
What we call the self is constructed from many psycho-neurological mechanisms, including temperament, emotions, personality (a la the Big Five), subjective perception and awareness, motivations and bodily needs, working memory and long-term memory, worldview and heuristic sets (e.g. social roles), and what you would call thinking. The self is an emergent phenomena that arises from the integration of all these functions, each of which are borne in the brain and derive from a combination of genetics and experience, and shifts according to environmental priming (a great example of this is an experiment with Chinese-Americans: one group was shown American symbols and the other Chinese symbols: each group then interpreted a single image, with the first group preferring a Western concept of individualism, with the other preferring an Eastern communal perspective. So based on how they were primed, different “selves” came to the fore).
To learn more, I strongly recommend “The Developing Mind” by Dan Siegel.
I’m afraid you might be falling for what our ancient ancestors fell for: the assumption that anything we don’t fully understand in nature must be due to a supernatural agent. It’s as if to say that if something in nature is amazing and beyond our comprehension, it couldn’t have “just happened”. But why not? There is no reason to think that anything in nature required an external agent, and the more we learn about the universe, the more we must conclude that indeed no agent could have caused any of it. Nature is self-sufficient; that is part of its majesty.