Hildegarde

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Just Another Animal, Part 2

with 5 comments

So, anyway, here I am finally, for real.  John said:

>>>Intellectually I believe we evolved from animals whose behavior was governed by
instinct. And I don’t believe in a personal God who takes an interest in human
beings. This means I can not say “God saw that humans had evolved intelligence
and discovered agriculture, so God reached down from heaven and turned off all
our animal instincts.”
>>>

And I agree with him.  In fact, I agree with all the above.  He also says:

>>>Consider tolerance. A group of 10 or 20 hunter- gatherers living in a cave need
a large amount of territory. (IIRC, something like 100 square miles per person.)
If another group moves into their territory, tolerance of strangers is NOT a
virtue. There simply are not enough resources in the territory to support both
groups.

But I am not a hunter-gatherer. I live in a city of 200,000 and we don’t have
20,000,000 square miles to live in. Things like art, literature, music,
education, good medical care are only possible becuase so many people are
crowded into a small area.

For us, tolerance of strangers is a virtue.

I would say the relious narratives provided a general cultural basis for
fighting our animal instincts and developing the skills and restraint necessary
for large groups.
>>>

I agree with this too.  I’m simply pointing out what ought to be obvious to common sense–the very fact that we can think in terms of “virtue” and act in ways that contradict our instincts means there’s a difference of kind, not just of degree, between us and even our closest animal relatives.

There’s no contradiction here.  It doesn’t really matter whether we can think in abstractions–do musicology as well as music, aesthetics as well as art–because God gave us the ability or because that was the way the evolution cookie crumbled.  It only matters that we do it, and in fact can almost not help doing it.

It doesn’t matter if we need narratives to survive as an offshoot of the pressures of natural selection or because we were made in the image of God, it only matters that we need them.

One of the problems with scientism–as opposed to science, see previous posts–is that it thinks that when it says “you make art because your second tier neurons fire in response to an instinctive memory for landmarks that you needed when you were farther down the evolutionary tree,” it’s saying something useful about human being.

And yes, I know that was not science.  It was babble.  But you know the kind of thing I mean.  I truly love the books of Steven Pinker, but he’s constantly saying things like this, “explaining” love or art or whatever by describing the physical process of producing it.  And the physical process doesn’t get us anywhere.  Our ability to make art, and to make theories about art, and to anticipate death, and to need it all to “mean” something will not go away, or become less urgent, because we know how the neurons move around to produce the effect.

As for secular humanism–I’ve got a problem with terminology here that I don’t know how to solve.  Traditionally, a “humanist” is a scholar in the humanities.  He can believe in God or not, it really doesn’t matter.  In fact, the first humanists were definitely believers, and we usually call their movement The Renaissance. 

So I feel compelled to add something to the word “humanist” to indicate that I’m talking about people who do not believe in God but who are committed to one of the various non-theistic philosophical movements (rather than people who don’t believe and don’t think about it).

On the other hand, say Humanist these days and everybody thinks you’re talking about nonbelievers, and the American Humanist Association definitely calls its members Humanists without qualification.  And there’s another organization, called the Council on Secular Humanism, which advances similar but in some ways distinctly different ideas that they brand as “secular humanism.”  And then there are the US Christian organizations, who call everybody who isn’t praising Jesus in the middle of math class a “secular humanist.”

As for the philosophies underlying the two major “humanist organizations–the AHA and the CSH–my problem is twofold.

First, both of them are very trendy politically, well to the left of anything I want to be a part of, although CSH has a more wideranging membership and seems to be open to more dissenting voices. 

But the trendiness hurts them.  There’s a book out there, by Paul Kurtz–founder of CSH and the Centers for Inquiry, as well as Prometheus Books–called Forbidden Fruit:  The Ethics of Secularism that drove me nearly out of my mind for a while.  Kurtz started by saying that it would be possible to approach ethics by looking at the things almost all human societies have agreed on over time, what he called the “common human decency.”

And I think that’s a good idea.  For one thing, I think it would dispel, pretty quickly, the idea that morality is something we all just make up as we go along, completely subjective and without objectively grounded foundation, because it’s truly amazing how consistently human societies affirm a small core of moral values, over and over and over again.

In fact, what looks like differences in moral values from one society to the next often comes down to a difference in something else–in the people who are granted the deisgnation “human.”  All societies believe it is wrong to kill innocent human beings.  Not all societies agree that women, for instance, are human beings.  And most of them, in time, have not believed that outsiders were human beings. 

The progress of Western Civilization can be seen as the progressive extention of the deisgnation “human” to more and more people in more and more categories.  To restate something I said in the first couple of posts or so, that started with the Greeks,  who first came up with the idea that all people shared a common humanity, and was nailed into place in this culture by early Christianity. 

There’s a man named Nat Hentoff, a writer for The Nation, a secular Jew, an outspoken atheist, and a complete socialist, who opposes legal abortion for reasons based on this–because he sees it as a move backwards, a wthdrawing of the designation “human being” from a category of humans (fetuses) who have had it up until recently.

I’d say that most of the weird death obsession that seems to have erupted among a certain group of people in the West is in fact just this–an attempt to withdraw recognition as human from categories of people who have had it up to now:  the very old, the very sick, the very disabled. 

And I think that desire is inherent in all of us.  Because the other thing that is inherent in all of us–the other thing that all human beings share merely by the fact of being born human–is a kind of radical solipsism.  We’re all convinced that the world is really about ME.  One of the things morality is supposed to do is to knock this idea out of us.  We really do not–as a student of mine said yesterday–have the right “to do whatever we want.”

Paul Kurtz, however, having started with a good idea (common human decency) goes off the rail in no time at all, because actually acknowledging common moral values over time lands him in a place where he does not want to go:  the fact that all societies before the twentieth century West severely circumscribe sexual activity. 

And not only do they severely circumscribe sexual activity, they circumscribe the sexual activity of women moer than they do that of men.  Every literate society on the planet–every society that has developed and handed down writing–has insisted on the chastity of women, both inside and otuside of marriage.  Women have been more or less free in other ways–to own property, to practice a profession, to a place in the line of monarchical succession–but when it came to sex, there was no give and take.  Women were expected to be virgins until they were married and sexually monogamous afterwards.

Now, this is an interesting fact, and it would help us a lot if we could deal with it honestly, but instead of doing that Kurtz simply pretends it isn’t there, and declares as “common human decencies” equality of the sexes and even a right to abortion.  He does it because he believes in these things–well, so do I–and so he has to find a way to wedge them into the moral code he is attempting to construct. 

Sexuality is the most interesting aspect of human moral codes, and it goes to the heart of what every such code is really about–not “living with each other,” but being and becoming more fully human.  All such codes are heavy on self-control and self-restraint, on “not acting like an animal.”  They forbid gluttony as well as promiscuousness, but they definitely forbid promiscuousness. 

If human beings are going to revert to “acting like animals,” the two biggest arenas will definitely be sex and violence.

Both the present-day humanist organizations, though, have signed on to the idea that man is just another animal, and everything that comes with it.  They’ve also signed on to the idea that once we’ve described the evolutionary path of a trait or the physical process that produces it, you’ve said as much as can be said about it, and that what you’ve said is useful.

So even if it weren’t for the rather predictable politics, I probably wouldn’t be a fan.

Written by janeh

December 4th, 2008 at 11:08 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'Just Another Animal, Part 2'

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  1. It looks as if Jane and I have very similar ideas. But she is much better at expressing them and I really do not have much interest in religion or atheism or separation of church and state whereas she does. That’s fine, a matter of intellectual taste isn’t worth fighting over.

    Jane wrote:

    “I agree with this too. I’m simply pointing out what ought to be obvious to common sense–the very fact that we can think in terms of “virtue” and act in ways that contradict our instincts means there’s a difference of kind, not just of degree, between us and even our closest animal relatives.”

    Yes, the difference between animals and humans is that we cna think, we have concepts of virtue and instinct.

    But just before that paragraph I was writing about tolerance for strangers. I would suggest that many of our serious social problems involve fights between our instincts and our intelligence. For example, our instincts say “Stranger! Danger!” and now we have fights over racism, migrants and multi-culturalism.

    Jane commented on

    “the fact that all societies before the twentieth century West severely circumscribe sexual activity.

    And not only do they severely circumscribe sexual activity, they circumscribe the sexual activity of women moer than they do that of men. Every literate society on the planet–every society that has developed and handed down writing–has insisted on the chastity of women, both inside and otuside of marriage. Women have been more or less free in other ways–to own property, to practice a profession, to a place in the line of monarchical succession–but when it came to sex, there was no give and take. Women were expected to be virgins until they were married and sexually monogamous afterwards.”

    Many years ago, I came across a book or article which pointed out that human babies cry. Rather self evident isn’t it! But the author also pointed out that there are animals such as deer where the mother has to leave the baby alone for long periods of time. The babies do not cry. If they did, they would attract predators and wouldn’t survive.

    Conclusion, our species must have evolved from animals where the mother had prolonged close contact with the infant, so that a crying infant got immediate help rather than being eaten.

    A hunter-gatherer mother has a problem. A crying infant will ruin the hunt, and carrying an infant reduces the area she can cover while out gathering food.

    A long term partnership with a male provided the mother and infants with the protection and food they need and provides the male with sexual satisfaction. It makes evolutionary sense.

    So I do have my doubts about the long term success of child care centres and marriage as a short term form of sexual gratification. And I don’t think those doubts can be explained by “male chauvanist pig” or “Patriarchial society.”

    jd

    4 Dec 08 at 3:14 pm

  2. I’ve noticed the ‘we’ve found a biological explanation and now we understand everything’ response myself, and it’s remarkably irrelevant to the sorts of things that interest me. It’s mildly interesting to learn that there are hints of the brain chemistry involved in certain kinds of religious experience or aggression or depression, but it doesn’t really get you anywhere in grappling with this phenomena in question.

    I think there are successful ways of raising children that don’t require the child’s biological mother to be always within earshot – in small or family groups, childrearing must surely have been shared more than it is now. I also seem to recall that the typically female gatherers provided more of the food (although maybe low-status food) than did the typically male hunters. We can adapt to a lot of different living arrangements.

    A common explanation of why female chastity should no longer be required is that it was originally tied to the need of the male to know that his descendants were benefiting when he helped raise a particular child. I’m not entirely sure about that – there have been a lot of weird inheritance patterns developed that don’t depend on nuclear families. And yet, it does seem that actual biological ties work a bit better than adoptive ones. I wonder how good the data really is on the slightly higher rate of child abuse and child murder among stepfathers rather than biological fathers? I’m reading that book Jane mentioned, Rachel Weeps, and if I needed any confirmation of the elasticity of statistics used to prove a political point, that would provide it.

    As an old-school, equal opportunity, equal pay feminist, I do think that the sexual restrictions on women have all too often extended to encompass crippling social restrictions as well.

    Where do we find the balance? We seem to be saying that restrictions on sex (and violence, which would seem to go without saying) have been or are essential to civilization. But liberty and the rights (however you define them) of the individual are also essential to at least our vision of civilization. So what do we do about the conflict? Long ago, we could talk of duty and self-sacrifice, but all that sounds so dated now – if not actually psychologically unsound! And yet, I don’t think we can have a civilization at all if we are entirely individualistic and self-centred – or at least not one I want to live in.

    cperkins

    4 Dec 08 at 3:36 pm

  3. I call it “animal instincts”, I think the Christian religon calls it “original sin”. What we call it doesn’t really matter but I think we need a society that doesn’t require us to continually fight our basic drives or instincts.

    2500 years ago, Aristotle proposed the idea of a “golden mean” between extremes. It makes sense but he didn’t have any suggestions for finding it.

    We need a society somewhere between rejecting all strangers and imbracing all migrants with open arms.

    We need something between expecting a woman to stop work when she marries and expecting all mothers to go back to work.

    And I’m no better than Aristotle at explaining how to find the rught balance.

    Talking about duty and self-sacrifice may sound dated but I grew up thinking that duties and rights came as a package. A right not to starve implied a duty to try and support yourself.

    jd

    4 Dec 08 at 6:02 pm

  4. Oh, I’m with you on the importance of duties. I just don’t think they have much importance to a lot of people.

    I don’t think original sin = animal instincts. My current idea on the subject is that original sin is that part of you that urges you to mis-use your nature – eating is an animal instinct, over-eating to the point of gluttony may be a result of original sin. It’s the perversion of animal instincts.

    Ok, I’ve checked the Articles of Religion (Anglican statement of faith, although techincally only clergy have to actually agree with all of them, and a lot of clergy, well…let’t not go there.

    The authors seem to move pretty quickly from a general ‘of his own nature inclined to evil’ to the statement that ‘concupiscence and lust hath of itself the nature of sin’ by way of a statement that a certain term in Greek (I don’t know Greek) might mean wisdom, sensuality, affection or desire of the flesh. Hmmm, that seems pretty focuses on sex.

    The short RC handbook (I’ve got a long version, but it isn’t to hand) simply describes original sin as a ‘downward pull’ that has to be combatted using free will. No mention of sex at all. I’m sure there was a nice discussion of the topic in that book I finished not long ago, but it’s back at the library,

    I do think that while we need to struggle against original sin, we also need to keep a sense of balance and proportion. The Catholics have a term for over-zealousness leading to error, which I keep forgetting although I think Mique knows it. Scrupulosity, I think that’s it. I like the acknowledgement that it’s possible to be too obsessive about sinfulness.

    cperkins

    4 Dec 08 at 10:26 pm

  5. Scruples is the word. A schoolteacher colleague of mine in PNG way back in the early 1960s was within 24 hours or so of ordination as a priest when he had an attack of scruples and abandoned the priesthood forthwith.

    Mique

    5 Dec 08 at 1:21 am

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