Materialist morals

We have recently been discussing deep philosophical matters, such as the ‘uncaused cause’. Not surprisingly we do not arrive at satisfactory answers. Such questions have been explored over two thousand years, and I do not doubt they will still be unanswered in 2000 years time.

But today I want to explore moral decisions. The answer is important because our understanding may have eternal consequences. There are two potential approaches. One approach starts from the assumption that the universe only contains matter. This belief necessarily excludes the spiritual, not just in its religious sense but in all of its meanings. We may not know how characteristics such as consciousness develop from matter but some would say that that may simply be because we do not know enough about matter itself. But this of course leads to the exclusion of freewill. That conclusion has a major difficulty because it is at odds with morality: if our decisions and our sense of right and wrong are caused by matter alone we cannot condemn or praise any moral decision. At a pinch the best we can do is to apply greater punishment to the offender since the threat of this changes the balance between desirability and undesirability of our decision.

In fact we know from experience that moral decisions involve two elements. We are, or should be aware, that many such decisions may be affected by our internal tendencies. For instance the way we were individually brought up will affect our values. We will be influenced by recent happenings and longer term experiences. We will also be influenced by the social groups to which we belong (people like us). And a myriad more. We need to be fully aware of such tendencies because they may interfere and confuse our moral decisions which should always be guided by reason.

I notice that distinguished atheists such as Russell or Dawkins appear to have strong opinions on the morality of others often religious people or religious organisations. Somehow they forget that their targets are not responsible for their views since they are not free to make decisions. I am waiting to listen to the trial of some foul gangster. His defence might be to quote several philosophers over the last two millennia who would claim that the prisoner was not guilty because he was not free to do otherwise.

In fact everyone who has reached the age of reason accepts free will in practice, while agreeing that moral choices may be contaminated by other factors which need to be taken into account. Contingent to this is the ability to distinguish between the good action which ought to be followed and the evil action which ought to be avoided. The word ‘ought’ has no moral meaning for the material atheist. Believers of course may well argue that the obligation to behave morally can only be explained by a superior, spiritual, being who created us.

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Church and Society, Moral judgment, Quentin queries and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

56 Responses to Materialist morals

  1. galerimo says:

    Definitely a blood curdling and chilling observation this one.

    Framing human behaviour in terms of materialist morals shines a very penetrating ray of something on our world. Certainly not light.

    Of course you can make sense and give foundation to Dunblane, Sandy Hook and the latest bullet targeting of the young in California with such a moral platform.

    Any “stuff”, including the physical human substance can be disposed of for recycling in a world based on materialist morality. Even brutally.

    Clearly this morality is the operational base for racism, imperialism and unbounded manipulation.

    Refugees threaten our borders; in terms of materialist morality they must be seen not as human beings but physical, material threats.

    Forget the holocaust, the first world war or WWII – commodify the species and you can do whatever the hell you like with it. Its just “matter”.

    You can casualise the workforce, alienate your country or militarise it to make it the most dominant – use your nuclear material or your hard monetary currency – all tools to sharpen and shape a materialist morality.

    Nothing surprising to learn how that handsome young man reading the news to a section of the Chinese nation turned out to be a robot. It will be easy to cut his hours or “fire” him. Eliminate the human factor and you have complete control.

    The most valuable human being is the one who has the most gold fillings in their head.

    Come on everyone sing up with Madonna “ And I am a material girl -You know that we are living in a material world”.

    By contrast with this horror there is such a thing as “material intelligence” and it operates well in the context of a free human choice for the dignity of a humanity based on its purposes of freedom for the love of God and all God’s creatures.

    Under this light, phones and TVs are not the only smart “things”. My chair and my fingernails are smart too. Well designed for purpose and to ease the living of life in so many delightful ways.

    How beautiful when a human being gives shape and meaning to stuff – even the simplest or most common of material.

    I am looking at a beautiful piece of wood given to me by my daughter and it has the richest of significance for me, always. Just looking at the “thing” gives me the deepest sense of connection in love.

    Things after all are what we make them to be – not the other way round.

    • Alan says:

      Galerimo – “Refugees threaten our borders; in terms of materialist morality they must be seen not as human beings but physical, material threats.”

      I cannot understand this from any materialistic/naturalistic point of view. If I think that everything is material then how could I think of something as relatively less worthy/valuable “because it was ‘only’ material”? That would be like showing someone 5 prospective homes all made from brick and them saying they didn’t like the first two specifically and only “because they were brick built”!

      It’s just “matter” doesn’t make any sense when everything is “just” matter.

      • galerimo says:

        True. However a system of morality is a system of value.

        Materialist morality values material reality exclusively.

        But it does not necessairly attribute the same value to every material thing.

        Some things are or more material value than others.

        Physical borders as a barrier to what is of low value viz. unsavoury human beings are therefore of greater value in the minds of material moralists than such material human beings.

        Materialism does not remove choice is just excludes the choice for God.

      • Alan says:

        “Materialist morality values material reality exclusively.
        But it does not necessairly attribute the same value to every material thing.”

        That seems like a much fairer assessment of the materialist’s point of view to me. I do value things differently, I do make judgements about things and it does exclude, as you say, the choice for God. But I do find that how I value things often lines up very closely with how many people who do believe in God value things. I doubt this is merely a coincidence. If my materialist goals and interests are things like health, security, progress, learning, art, family etc. would you think that stealing, lying, cheating and murdering were clearly an effective means to that end? Might not such qualities or choices as co-operation, support, justice, work, charity, be at least as effective – especially in the long term? Gold fillings seem of little material value in comparison.

    • galerimo says:

      These goals you mentioned are spiritually significant on many levels too.

      But if viewed in terms of material morality solely then lying, cheating and killing have no more importance than scratching, coughing or sneezing – it’s a human way of acting materially and only materially.

      On the other hand If I approach health as life enhancement and therefore a good I could never justify anything that diminishes life in pursuit of such a spiritual value.

      God is seen as the giver of life and as the foundation of its Goodness in this moral perspective and so health could not be pursued to the detriment of anyone else’s life or even my own.

      I would argue the same for your goals of security, learning, progress, art and family.

  2. Nektarios says:

    Galerimo

    I can agree with all the points you raise regarding materialist morality.
    Perhaps in addition to what you have said, Galerimo, if I may, I would add the following.

    Most importantly, If we deny God, then it is only too easy to forget that people have souls, which gives them their primary value in relation to God. This awareness of our unique relationship with God is what makes us fully Human and denying it leads us down the path to dehumanization and its consequent indifference to our responsibilities to each other as made in the image God.

    These are facts. Those liberals and atheistic people seek to get rid of God at every point that Galerimo has mentioned and more seek to destroy nations, peoples, create wars, famine, destroy economies, political dissent, religion and faith, should not believe that they alone will be exempt from the mayhem they have engineered.
    All this is already being perpetrated on the peoples and nations and economies of the world.

  3. dsmth says:

    “I notice that distinguished atheists such as Russell or Dawkins appear to have strong opinions on the morality of others often religious people or religious organisations.”

    I’m listening to a book of Dawkins’ memoirs now. Near the beginning, he makes a remark something like, “science has the answers to all the deep questions”. I’m afraid that shows a lack of common sense. Science, at least as the term is being used today – at least, as I understand that – is simply a collection of observations on the physical universe. The cultural and intellectual establishment of the Western world ranks science at the very top of the pyramid of knowledge and intellectual worth, but that’s just where we are today. In another few centuries, science may be regarded no more highly than bricklaying is today. Fads come and go. Humans are changeable and shallow creatures.

  4. Vincent says:

    But we should remember that science is concerned with causality. For instance finding the cause of gravity. And that would would be right: a physical question will expect a physical answer. Their mistake is to assume that a ‘spiritual’ question should also have a physical answer. The question of human consciousness causes a great flap because they do not know how to tackle it. They call it ‘the hard problem’.

    • Alan says:

      They don’t quite call it or talk about it as “the impossible question” though. That stress on the problem comes much more often from outside of the scientists/neuroscientists I’ve heard discussing it.

    • Alan says:

      I heard a view recently about consciousness that surprised me. In a talk between an atheist and a theist on the subject the theist used ants as an example. He said that he was “sure” that ants weren’t conscious. I could understand someone saying that they thought it possible or perhaps even likely that ants were merely unconscious, biological mechanisms, but to be sure about it? If an unconscious mechanical process can manage the things that ants can (simplistic forms of farming, slavery, medical care, triage, war, self sacrifice etc.), then what, apart from my own personal experience of it, is going to identify consciousness in anything?

      I don’t know exactly how this might relate to the current topic, but it’s a curious – and quite wide – difference of opinion. Not on the point about consciousness itself, but between “sure” on one hand and “very far from sure” on the other.

      • dsmth says:

        Ultimately, we know nothing. We accept something as true once it’s passed a personal threshold of evidential adequacy.

        Hypothesis:

        In the modern world, there’s so much data in the air and people feel compelled to talk and write so much that they have lowered their evidential thresholds about nearly everything to avoid appearing ignorant.

      • milliganp says:

        When the ants build an ant hill in the shape of Michelangelo’s David, I will allow the possibility of consciousness.

      • Alan says:

        There is an experiment that has been conducted with monkeys. Given the same reward for the same task two monkeys will happily repeat the exercise for the payoff. But where the two monkeys are given different rewards, one of which is much preferred, the one seeing his fellow worker receiving better pay for the same job will no longer accept the lesser reward. They show signs of frustration (as, I believe, does my cat when he suddenly realises he isn’t going to get something he wants!). Is this purely a mechanical process or does this show some rudimentary awareness of his own experience and that of the other monkey? What potential is there if it is the latter? A sense of fairness, equity, deserved reward, appreciation of another’s experiences as well as ones own, some essential component of empathy … and more perhaps.

        Similar reactions to this experiment can be observed in dogs and birds apparently.

  5. Peter Foster says:

    Quentin says: “One approach starts from the assumption that the universe only contains matter. This belief necessarily excludes the spiritual, not just in its religious sense but in all of its meanings. We may not know how characteristics such as consciousness develop from matter but some would say that that may simply be because we do not know enough about matter itself.

    But this of course leads to the exclusion of freewill. That conclusion has a major difficulty because it is at odds with morality: if our decisions and our sense of right and wrong are caused by matter alone we cannot condemn or praise any moral decision.”

    The idea of the exclusion of freewill is based on Laplace’s Newtonian view of the world as deterministic in which the present is determined by the past through the laws of physics.

    A demolition of this notion can be found in Karl Popper’s very readable book, “The Open Universe”, in which he surveys the various theories of determinism. The idea of determinism is of religious origin connected with ideas of divine omnipotence and omniscience which imply that the future is known to God now and therefore is fixed in advance. Since St Augustine, at least, Christian theology has for the most part taught the doctrine of indeterminism; with the exception of Luther and Calvin.

    Laplace proposed that the world consists of corpuscles acting upon one another according to Newtonian dynamics and a complete and precise knowledge of the initial state, positions, velocities etcetera, at one instant of time should suffice for the deduction of its state at any other instant.

    In contradiction to Laplace, Popper offers convincing arguments for indeterminism.

    His arguments are accessible but the essence of one I prefer is as follows: a post-Newtonian
    indeterminate physics is not enough to make room for human freedom. We need at least the causual openness of what he calls World 1 towards World 2, as well as the causual openness of World 2 towards World 3, and vice versa.

    By ‘World 1’ he means the world of physics: of rocks, and trees and physical fields of forces.
    By ‘World 2’ he means the psychological world of the human mind, but also of the minds of animals.
    By ‘World 3’ he means the world of the PRODUCTS OF THE HUMAN MIND: abstract things, such as problems, theories and arguments, including mistaken ones; works of art, ethical values and social institutions.

    But we can see that World 3 can produce an effect in World 1.
    Aeronautical theories are products of the human mind in World 3; however, they result in an aeroplane. An aeroplane is an object in World 1 whose existence is NOT a deterministic outcome of World 1 through its laws of physics. So causual openness is established.

    Therefore the world is open; it is not analogous to a clockwork mechanism.
    We are free to think and to act and make moral judgements. We can apprehend God through the wonder of creation. We can pray, and love and do good or bad. We CAN have a spiritual life.

    To me it seems there is no need to make a distinction between matter and spirit. Spirit must be inherent in the structure of matter.

    Nobel prizewiner Denis Noble’s book, “Dance to the Tune of Life: Biological Relativity”, introduces an example of openness. To quote from Anthony Kenny’s review (Tablet 13 May 2017), “DNA is not sealed off from the outside world: it is subject to modification from within the organism and from the environment. Human beings and other animals…(are) AUTONOMOUS agents who can affect not only their environment but also the make-up of their own genome.”

    • dsmth says:

      “In contradiction to Laplace, Popper offers convincing arguments for indeterminism.”

      Interesting. Thanks. Probably over my head, but it looks like an attractive way to think about thinking. But does Popper believe he’s actually solving a puzzle, or is he just using his probably very capable brain to play word games?

    • dsmth says:

      “To me it seems there is no need to make a distinction between matter and spirit. Spirit must be inherent in the structure of matter.”

      Not sure what you mean by “spirit”, but if you mean thought, that seems intuitive. And doesn’t that imply that the material universe really *is* “closed”? If thoughts are just stuff that happens inside brains – product, output, excrescence – and airplanes are just the results of actions taken in response to thoughts, then both thoughts and airplanes are part of “world 1” after all, no? An ape eating and a human building an airplane are pretty much the same thing, no?

      • Peter Foster says:

        Firstly, the main drift of my argument was to give access to Popper’s arguments and dispose of determinism.

        Secondly, my suggestion regarding matter and spirituality is a SPECULATION.

        The concept of soul is well established in the Gospels and through centuries of Church pronouncements.

        Is it simply a metaphor for man’s mental life which gives us a mechanism for the promised afterlife? To give a place in our vocabulary for matters to which we have no access to understand? At least in the sense that it does not satisfy our need to apprehend a mechanism.

        In Quentin’s proposition, matter and spirituality are at odds and presented as separate “things?”.
        My speculation comes from reading Denis Noble’s ideas.
        Living organisms operate on multiple levels of complexity, They are comprised of networks: of molecules; of cells; and of organs all on vastly different scales. Each network is observed to behave independently and purposefully yet also in co-operation by constraining its chemistry, including its genes, to serve the organism as a whole especially in its interaction with its social environment.

        My speculation is that the mechanism of God’s design, apparent in nature, which so troubled Darwin, may be embedded, including mental and spiritual activities, in the structure of matter.

  6. Nektarios says:

    Those cosmologists that study the universe have reached, not the science but the philosophy where they assert that the universe is matter, plus energy, plus chance.

    They and other scientists cannot abide an outside the universe agency, God, who brought it into being and upholds it simply by the power of His Word.

    • milliganp says:

      A scientist who does not believe in God is understandable, a theist who denies science is not – since science is merely the search for knowledge of the underlying nature of creation.

  7. dsmth says:

    Nektarios writes:

    “They and other scientists cannot abide an outside the universe agency, God, who brought it into being and upholds it simply by the power of His Word.”

    Yes, for me, too, that’s the direction in which the simple answer lies. Why so many “scientists” (a funny word, with great prestige in this determinedly naturalistic, materialistic society but with no unambiguous meaning) believe that studying the material universe will yield answers beyond the material universe – or why, perhaps, they believe there can be nothing beyond the material universe – is a puzzle only a psychologist from Mars might be able to solve. It doesn’t take an extraordinarily high IQ to understand that if you simply posit the existence of something outside what’s generally known today as “science” – the study of material and mathematical stuff – you’ve left “science” behind. Completely. It’s only common sense, no? And yet, we live in a society in which the most highly revered of the “best brains” have long been convinced that it’s all matter, all the way down. They actually *believe* that. It would be a religion if there were a holy scripture.

    Oh, well, there we are. We science skeptics are an undistinguished and thoroughly disparaged minority trying, mostly, to stay under the radar of a community of materialist, naturalist fanatics.

    How do we all, believers in the omniscience of science and science non-believers living together, reach a consensus on the basis of the proper sort of rules for living? Clearly, we don’t. One group will do whatever they decide the most recent emanations of scientific knowledge point to, and we in the other group will look to our native cognitive abilities – our collective common sense – sometimes aided, we believe or imagine possible, by the assistance of something far beyond our understanding. For us in this second group, the science skeptics, the experience and thinking of our ancestors matters a lot. Humans have been pondering the meaning of life and death for at least about a hundred thousand years. That’s a lot of thought water over the cognitive dam. For about the most recent three thousand of those years, people have been writing down their best thoughts. We’re privileged to be able to read much of that, think about it, build on it, learn for ourselves. Aided by what we’ve learned from those who have lived before us and from friends and acquaintances and by what we’ve thought for ourselves, we keep working up rules for living. We’ve made some progress. We may eventually be buried by the science fanatics. Impossible to know. But we’ll keep doing our best.

  8. G.D says:

    “A fundamental conclusion of the new physics also acknowledges that the observer creates the reality. As observers, we are personally involved with the creation of our own reality. Physicists are being forced to admit that the universe is a “mental” construction. Pioneering physicist Sir James Jeans wrote: “The stream of knowledge is heading toward a non-mechanical reality; the universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine. Mind no longer appears to be an accidental intruder into the realm of matter, we ought rather hail it as the creator and governor of the realm of matter. Get over it, and accept the inarguable conclusion. The universe is immaterial-mental and spiritual.” (“The Mental Universe” ; Nature 436:29,2005)

    Then of course you have God who set it all in motion … God as ‘Consciousness’ and us mere mortals as reflections of it free to chose??

    “I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulating consciousness.” – Max Planck …..

    • Nektarios says:

      G.D

      The universe as such existed before mankind was ever created. Prior to the present universe God created, there was the Kingdom of God which indeed is immaterial and spiritual. What we have now is generally an observational aspect of the known universe.
      As for the implicational aspects of the known universe is speculative and philosophical.

      You write, “Mind no longer appears to be an accidental intruder into the realm of matter, we ought rather to hail it as the creator and governor of the realm of matter.”
      Whose mind are we talking about, ours of God’s?
      I don’t think the scientific community generally, philosophically would agree with you.

      God does not expect us to fully understand the universe or indeed our own planet
      but to see the glory of God in it.

      • G.G says:

        From my previous posting ….. Then of course you have God who set it all in motion … God as ‘Consciousness’ and us mere mortals as reflections of it free to chose?? …. which answers your question … already. The quotes i posted are from scientists. General scientific community won’t agree with them, because they don’t accept the proven scientific data; threatens their materialistic ‘doctines’ (please note the quotation marks!) too much.

  9. Nektarios says:

    dsmith

    I would only qualify a bit by saying, science has a place, but like so many other faculties they don’t know their place. The media is all over any minuscule tit-bit of scientific discovery and promise great strides in health, the well-being of mankind.

    Living in their academic world, cut off from what is really happening around the world and the downright sinful and human degradation their work is producing. I am surprised within the science community they would not be ashamed what some of their fellow scientists are doing. But then, political life dependent on the same need the work, money prestige and power and influence and back the scientist up and giving the public what amounts to a deadly cocktail of sops to the public

    The poor scientist dears need the work, the funding of their pet projects, they need academic work, with all the prestige, money influence and affluence such positions give them.
    They spend money like water on crazy projects and deadly ones too, yet take no responsibility for it protected by the State.

    • dsmth says:

      Nektarios writes:

      “I would only qualify a bit by saying, science has a place, but like so many other faculties they don’t know their place.”

      Tennyson:

      Who loves not Knowledge? Who shall rail
      Against her beauty? May she mix
      With men and prosper! Who shall fix
      Her pillars? Let her work prevail.

      But on her forehead sits a fire:
      She sets her forward countenance
      And leaps into the future chance,
      Submitting all things to desire.

      Half-grown as yet, a child, and vain —
      She cannot fight the fear of death.
      What is she, cut from love and faith,
      But some wild Pallas from the brain

      Of Demons? fiery-hot to burst
      All barriers in her onward race
      For power. Let her know her place;
      She is the second, not the first.

      A higher hand must make her mild,
      If all be not in vain; and guide
      Her footsteps, moving side by side
      With wisdom, like the younger child:

      For she is earthly of the mind,
      But Wisdom heavenly of the soul.
      O, friend, who camest to thy goal
      So early, leaving me behind,

      I would the great world grew like thee,
      Who grewest not alone in power
      And knowledge, but by year and hour
      In reverence and in charity.

  10. Nektarios says:

    Peter Foster

    When God created the heavens and the earth, was it a speculation on God’s part. By the same token, that would also mean that Mankind is nothing more than a mere speculation.

    I suppose by your mind, soul and spirit do not actually exist, just mere speculation. I am sure that you more worthy than what you have just posted.

    • Peter Foster says:

      Necktarios. I don’t follow your argument, it is I that speculate.
      God created the world. In Darwin’s religious milieu this was held to mean that all things were created at once and in relation to each other. He became aware this was contradicted by the fossil record. Holding too literal a view of Genesisit troubled him. This was followed by the various concepts of evolution; a latest proposing random mutations in DNA as the mechanism. A new era was born in Karl Popper’s lecture to the Royal Society, which I was fortunate to attend. He proposed a completely radical interpretation of Neo-Darwinism by proposing that organisms themselves are the source of the creative processes in evolution, not random mutations in DNA; as developed by Denis Noble.

      Consulting the Catechism of the Catholic Church
      We find:
      363 In Sacred Scripture the term “soul” often refers to human life or the entire human person.230 But “soul” also refers to the innermost aspect of man, that which is of greatest value in him,231 that by which he is most especially in God’s image: “soul” signifies the spiritual principle in man.
      230 Cf. ⇒ Mt 16:25-26; ⇒ Jn 15:13; ⇒ Acts 2:41 231 Cf. ⇒ Mt 10:28; ⇒ 26:38; ⇒ Jn 12:27; ⇒ 2 Macc 6 30
      Later in Twelfth century it had developed:
      365 The unity of soul and body is so profound that one has to consider the soul to be the “form” of the body:234 i.e., it is because of its spiritual soul that the body made of matter becomes a living, human body; spirit and matter, in man, are not two natures united, but rather their union forms a single nature.
      234 Cf. Council of Vienne (1312): DS 902.

      Put another way, my question is how to regard the concept of “soul” if the organism (matter) itself is a creative agent?

      • Nektarios says:

        Peter Foster

        Karl Popper’s lecture is both speculative and philosophical, not on the doctrine and teaching of the Holy Apostles which is the revealed will of the Creator, but on Neo- Darwinism. I doubt very much if Darwin would have agreed with him.

        The soul is not matter as we understand matter. To push the argument that matter is the creative agent is to see the soul of man in an earthy manner with a beginning, middle and an end. The soul knows no end.

        Let me put it simply this way, Mankind are beings with a soul and inhabits a body, which one day it will have to put off and the organism will die. It is not the other way around where the human organism is the creative aspect of the soul. The soul is independent of the physical, though it inhabits it.

        There is a natural growth physically as there is with plants and every other organism, infancy through to adulthood.

        Growth in the soul is very different and can suffer contraction as well as expansion. It is either dead or alive to God its creator. But the soul will live wherever, forever.

      • dsmth says:

        Peter Foster writes:

        “This was followed by the various concepts of evolution; a latest proposing random mutations in DNA as the mechanism. A new era was born in Karl Popper’s lecture to the Royal Society, which I was fortunate to attend. He proposed a completely radical interpretation of Neo-Darwinism by proposing that organisms themselves are the source of the creative processes in evolution, not random mutations in DNA; as developed by Denis Noble.”

        Do I gather more or less correctly that both hypotheses explaining evolution – random mutations and self-guided mutations – do without an external creator? Assuming that’s at least in the ballpark, Popper’s hypothesis (self-guided) seems to me to beg the question: where did the self-guidance come from? Random mutation? If so, there is, it seems to me, no difference between the two – Popper is just building on the random-mutation hypothesis. What am I missing?

        “Put another way, my question is how to regard the concept of “soul” if the organism (matter) itself is a creative agent?”

        Yes, that seems to me to follow. How do you think would Popper answer that question?

  11. Alan says:

    Quentin –

    Thank you. An interesting subject for me. Far too interesting and far too wide reaching after only a few days for me to cope with as I would wish. With no great confidence I’ll take a stab at it.

    “But this of course leads to the exclusion of freewill.”

    Compatibilists would disagree I assume, but I don’t know enough about their position to understand why. It has something to do with how we define freewill I hear.

    “I am waiting to listen to the trial of some foul gangster.”

    Although I might think of the gangster differently, should my freewill turn out to be an illusion, it doesn’t seem like only “at a pinch” would I want to take some action to safeguard against him. If my (selfish) goal is for mankind to flourish and that flourishing is how I recognize or estimate what I consider good from bad then I am inclined to act. It does, after all, seem that the “better or worse” imagined outcome for our society as a whole is the needle on the dial by which you and others often spot God’s moral code as it is manifested in the material world after.

    So what action would it be reasonable to take in such a situation and with such a belief? I’m wondering how the “trial” would go for a jury with your point of view should the defendant not be found responsible for their repeated, unrepentant, violent crimes. The person wouldn’t walk free I would guess. And if the sentence they were handed down could, conceivably, alter the environment in which other crimes were or weren’t committed in then more than merely restraining them might be considered appropriate/effective.

    This is a much briefer comment on this complicated point than I would have liked to make, but I cannot spend as long on it as I would prefer.

    “Believers of course may well argue that the obligation to behave morally can only be explained by a superior, spiritual, being who created us.”

    But I find no explanation of what morality is when I explore the idea. Morality is part of God’s nature. It isn’t created. It isn’t planned/intended. It isn’t some separate thing that He has knowledge of which He then imparts. No creation/intelligence/knowledge required to explain its basis or origin! God is good. Good is God. If I remember correctly, you recommended substituting love for morality/good the last time I asked about this. Does that feel as if it might help with the apparent tautology?

    I don’t doubt there are books I could be reading that would give me some clues. I would have questions for the authors too. Or there are other books that would likely cement my current view of things as open to possibilities and “not all that well understood by anyone”.

    • Alan says:

      “… the dial by which you and others often spot God’s moral code as it is manifested in the material world after.”

      Should have been “after all.”

  12. dsmth says:

    Alan writes:

    <>

    “How we define.” Natural language, proceeding from human thought, is always the problem, no? Every person uses words differently at different times, Communication is always tentative, iffy, fuzzy. We’re fine so long as we limit ourselves to talking about counting sticks and stones, but when our thought and talk wander into the abstract (are sticks better than stones, or more beautiful?) we stumble.

    <>

    There will always be competing goals. How we order and combine and act on them is the stuff of social dialogue and democratic governing. The traditional Christian starts with “thou shalt not kill” and “honor thy father and thy mother” and “thou shalt have no other gods before me”, the “modern” Christian (as I understand it) starts with “whom do I love more, the killer or the victim?” and “what would Jesus say?”, and the naturalist starts with “how do we feel about this” and “what do the data say?”.

  13. dsmth says:

    Darn. Ignore my previous post, please. I used angle brackets to set off quotations, and WordPress failed to understand that. I’ll try again, with different quote separators. Sigh.

    Alan writes:

    START QUOTE
    “But this of course leads to the exclusion of freewill.”

    Compatibilists would disagree I assume, but I don’t know enough about their position to understand why. It has something to do with how we define freewill I hear.
    END QUOTE

    “How we define.” Natural language, proceeding from human thought, is always the problem, no? Every person uses words differently at different times, Communication is always tentative, iffy, fuzzy. We’re fine so long as we limit ourselves to talking about counting sticks and stones, but when our thought and talk wander into the abstract (are sticks better than stones, or more beautiful?) we stumble.

    START QUOTE
    “I am waiting to listen to the trial of some foul gangster.”

    Although I might think of the gangster differently, should my freewill turn out to be an illusion, it doesn’t seem like only “at a pinch” would I want to take some action to safeguard against him. If my (selfish) goal is for mankind to flourish and that flourishing is how I recognize or estimate what I consider good from bad then I am inclined to act. It does, after all, seem that the “better or worse” imagined outcome for our society as a whole is the needle on the dial by which you and others often spot God’s moral code as it is manifested in the material world after.
    END QUOTE

    There will always be competing goals. How we order and combine and act on them is the stuff of social dialogue and democratic governing. The traditional Christian starts with “thou shalt not kill” and “honor thy father and thy mother” and “thou shalt have no other gods before me”, the “modern” Christian (as I understand it) starts with “whom do I love more, the killer or the victim or society?” and “what would Jesus say?”, and the naturalist starts with “how do we feel about this” and “what do the data say?”.

    • Nektarios says:

      dsmith

      “The modern” Christian…… it just goes to show the confusion unchristian views held by ‘the modern Christian hold and the myriad opinions floating around today produces.

      We are not made the judges, but such views as the one posited above certainly lie at the door of social dialogue and so-called democratic governance.

  14. Quentin says:

    I have not put up my usual post this week. This was partly because of time problems but really because I think we may have more to say on the current topic.
    I was particularly interested in Alan’s comment on the consciousness of the lower animals — in this case, ants. (Alan, November 22, 2018 at 11:03 am) Trying to understand how and what consciousness means for them, and comparing this with consciousness in humans may prove useful. We may not get indisputable solutions but we may get closer…

  15. ignatius says:

    Interesting topic this.
    Peter:
    “My speculation is that the mechanism of God’s design, apparent in nature, which so troubled Darwin, may be embedded, including mental and spiritual activities, in the structure of matter”

    In many ways you must be correct. It is very clear that the human being is overwhelmingly a function of matter and energy (if the two can be at all seperated that is) That the soul is deeply and inextricably entwined with the body as per the catechism, can be seen from Neurology and Behavioural science. I meet, frequently, in prison, individuals who might match Quentins description, numbers of them profess a deep faith and attend a variety of services in chapel. This kind of encounter tends from time to time to make one consider the nature of ‘freedom’ and its limitations particularly in relation to Personality Disorder.

    My own view is that we are fundamentally embodied spirits and that the encounter of spirit and matter somehow enlivens and enlightens the soul. Thus it is quite possible for the activity of our spirits to be muffled by the condition of the body and soul, this is pretty clear in scripture I think and also from the experience of milleniums of mystics..not to mention the average person whose awakening to their own deeper reality comes gradually.
    We Catholics freely speak of the mystery of Faith, Peter and, in doing so confess the impenetrable mystery at the core of things. I don’t think any endeavour either in theology or philosophy of science can penetrate that mystery, it seems to work the other way round.

  16. dsmth says:

    Quentin writes:

    “I was particularly interested in Alan’s comment on the consciousness of the lower animals — in this case, ants. (Alan, November 22, 2018 at 11:03 am) Trying to understand how and what consciousness means for them, and comparing this with consciousness in humans may prove useful.”

    Well, that will be all speculation. You can measure pieces, aspects of these organisms (chemical changes in response to stress, electrical activity in the brain, behavioral characteristics), but that can hardly give you an insight into something so indeterminate as “consciousness”. I’m sure we’d even find it impossible to agree on an initial definition of “lower animals”.

    But maybe we should try. What’s a “lower animal”? Elephant, dog, flea, microbe? Retarded child?

    And can we agree on at least a working definition of “consciousness”?

    • Alan says:

      dsmth – “Well, that will be all speculation. You can measure pieces, aspects of these organisms (chemical changes in response to stress, electrical activity in the brain, behavioral characteristics), but that can hardly give you an insight into something so indeterminate as “consciousness”. ”

      It does seem like a huge challenge to examine it in this way with the hope of finding anything very conclusive. Be that the limits of current science or the very limits of science itself. Yet people are still “certain”! This is why I find it so surprising that the person I heard talking about it (and milliganp here in his reply above) are so sure when they rule it out for a particular animal. I begin to suspect, rightly or wrongly, that faith is at work … and not in a good way.

      Perhaps there are other approaches that can give us some insight. What would we require of something in order for it to demonstrate that it was conscious? Like a variation on the Turing Test could we, in a blind test, describe the sorts of tasks or challenges something would need to complete in order for us to be confident either way? Would it need to be able to create a statue of David or the ant equivalent?

      • dsmth says:

        “Like a variation on the Turing Test could we, in a blind test, describe the sorts of tasks or challenges something would need to complete in order for us to be confident either way?”

        Even if so, that would be a consciousness like ours, no? Of course, we could simply define “consciousness” that way. Perhaps that’s what a researcher would have to do.

  17. Nektarios says:

    It seems we are tying ourselves into philosophical/scientific and the Reason argument on what we mean by ‘consciousness’. The philosophic Reason argument, ( one I don’t agree with).
    Imagine a triangle, bottom left we have the bacteria and microbes ascending stage by stage to the apex of the triangle, man. The trouble one can turn this triangle on its head and one is back where we were before.

    All those developments from the bacteria to the man, with the sum total of its experiences, is generally accepted what the definition of what consciousness is.

    I wonder do you see a problem with this Reason argument? It leaves God the Creator totally out of it. Yet the definition of what consciousness is and accepted stands.
    If we are truly conscious, awake spiritually alive, we cannot exclude God our Creator as He is part of our experience.

  18. Quentin says:

    This is speculative. The OED adds the word ‘awareness’ as an alternative to consciousness. Does this help us?
    When I turn the TV off at around 10pm the cats run for the kitchen in order to get their supper. I can easily understand that they have developed a little neuron circuit in their brains which provides the connection between stimulus and reward. I would think of them being aware of the effect of the link, because they respond to it. But I do not see them thinking about the situation because that requires abstract concepts. ‘I wonder whether it will be hot or cold?’, ‘Perhaps I’d prefer to scratch myself a while longer’, ‘I wonder whether my brother will eat it before I get there.’
    If I’m right then we can claim that humans and cats are both conscious, but the cat’s consciousness is limited, while human consciousness can think and choose and take responsibility.

  19. Nektarios says:

    Quentin
    Ah, yes, cats. There are so many poems, cartoons even a film or two about cats. We had a cat when I was ministering on the Isle of Coll. She was fascinating to observe as she grew up from a kitten.
    Emotionally we were very attached to her and the tendency to put our human emotions on her was irrational, I know.
    Sometimes she would act like a cat, next if sheep cam in through the fence she would act like a sheepdog and herd them all out through the fence by the way they came in.
    Other times she was utterly fearless and she drove and otter out through the fence.

    In cats as with dogs, there is a learned behaviour, especially where food is involved, or if they want to go out. I would call this instinct rather than consciousness.

  20. dsmth says:

    Quentin writes:

    “The OED adds the word ‘awareness’ as an alternative to consciousness. Does this help us?”

    Perhaps, though probably not a lot. I imagine most of us already pretty much assumed that the two are synonymous. The problem remains, I think: to what organisms do we properly apply the terms “aware” and “conscious”? Humans, yes. Dogs and cats, I think so, but that’s just my preference, and others likely don’t share it. Trees? Trees respond to stimuli, but they don’t have brains. Is an organic brain, on the model of the mammalian brain, a prerequisite to being conscious or aware? What characteristics might an electronic appliance that in one manner or another mimicked some features of the mammalian brain be said to possess consciousness? This is all very fuzzy. Words are about the only tools we have to communicate with, but natural language is, when you reduce it to its essentials, practically meaningless. I suspect that we can never agree on mutually satisfactory air-tight definitions of “consciousness” and “awareness”.

    But we’ve been talking about morality, good and bad, right and wrong, moral and immoral. This involves something more than consciousness, however we define that, though certainly without consciousness we can’t have a moral sense. First C, and only then then MS. Though a dog, I think, has consciousness, I choose to absolve him of the obligation to think and behave morally, and I’m almost certain most others would, too.

    On the issue of whether a purely materialistic or naturalistic view of existence excludes the possibility of free will, I think I may disagree with Quentin, at least in a practical sense. Even if one says that there is nothing about a human being that can’t be observed, explained, and manipulated by tools, that still, I think, does not free human beings from developing a moral sense and choosing consciously to think and behave according to it. I suspect that Quentin would agree with that. Perhaps he would simply say that under these limitations, a human being choosing one thing and rejecting another is not exercising free will because ultimately, far down the chain of causation, the choice must be said to be determined. That’s an essential difference from a religious point of view, certainly, but I don’t see how it ought to permit the pure materialist, the pure naturalist to absolve anyone, for that reason alone, from being declared to have thought or acted immorally, improperly, wrongly.

  21. G.D says:

    Again i pose the possibility of …… Max Plank, the originator of Quantum Theory said “I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness.” …… Could God be ‘Consciousness’ and all that is created ‘consciousnesses’ as a reflection of life created by God?

  22. dsmth says:

    G.D asks:

    “Could God be ‘Consciousness’ and all that is created ‘consciousnesses’ as a reflection of life created by God?”

    We’re back to defining “consciousness”. Here, it has a spiritual meaning, beyond the material. Maybe. I vaguely remember that Yuval Harari located something like a “cognitive revolution” in Homo sapiens about eighty thousand years ago. External intervention? God-implanted consciousness?

    My sense is that the human mind often tries too hard to find meaning in existence beyond its simple observable boundaries. We live in an age of excessive labeling. Instead of simply accepting the universe and our place in it, we insist on taking it apart, into smaller and smaller bits, naming and categorizing them all, as if the universe was an enormous machine and our “scientists” little monkeys swarming endlessly through its innards. It seems to me a kind of disease, a sickness inherent in the brain, an inability to sit still and meditate, an compulsion to engage in endless cerebration and tool and system building. And the only end of it all is to create increasingly clever tools for manipulating the material world. The end is most certainly not greater wisdom, and spiritual growth.

    The only moral code that can result from this is a provisional morality rooted in utilitarianism, and that what we’re seeing. I’m reminded of a line from a poem by Robert Lowell: “The breath of God had carried out a planned and sensible withdrawal from this land.”

    • G.D says:

      dsmth … Sadly, I agree with you. … And yet … God ‘as Consciousness’? Would that not transcend any definition possible? As Planx said ‘We cannot get behind consciousness’. By which i assume he meant can’t define it. …. Sitting with ‘it’ in silence, devoid of our minds duality, is the only way to realise ‘it’; or rather, to allow ‘it’ to reveal Itself in us.

  23. ignatius says:

    I was once in a traffic accident . The insurance assessor asked me if I was sure I had not drifted out of my lane a bit and hit the other car. My answer was that as far as I was aware, no, but I would have had to have been outside of the car to tell for certain. The same is true of this discussion, the answer does not lie within ourselves.

    Remember the saying: “God is the ground of our being”?

  24. Nektarios says:

    Yes indeed, God is the ground of our being with all that that means in reality and theologically.
    But God is also unground, that is, where He dwells in light unapproachable and what He is, was and will be, for He changes not before there was anything created by Him.

    Our consciousness as I have said before is, the sum total of all our life, living, experiences, and into the subconscious in ages past and into our very creation by God when He created the form of the dust of the earth and then breathed into us and we became a living soul.

    • G.D says:

      What do you mean by your last paragraph (.. and into the subconscious in ages past)? I don’t comprehend it’s meaning – i am not conscious of it.

      • Nektarios says:

        G.D
        As I said, consciousness is the sum total of all our experiences. Until we are born again, regenerated by God spiritually we are not totallly conscious only conscious of the world around us. Frightening isn’t it?

      • G.D says:

        We will never be ‘totally conscious’ there will always be more of God to know … quite a refreshing thought … as for ‘only conscious of the world around us’ .. when we relate to God experientialy through contemplation, we are aware of God in us around us and with us … doesn’t bear thinking about does it? Just as well, God can’t be experienced through our brains and minds.

    • G.D says:

      “We are created, we emerge. And as we emerge, as we grow, as we develop, we become more conscious of ourselves – as where we have come from, or what we are emerging from and what we are returning to, or what we are feeling ourselves linked to. It’s not just a mathematical problem or philosophical question. It’s an existential journey that takes time and in which we change… “The Experience of Being. Laurence Freeman OSB”

  25. Alan says:

    What would we expect to see in other species that, given the limitations of their ability to communicate and our ability to examine these things, by way of abstract thought or awareness? Apes that could recognise that the image in the mirror was a reflection of themselves rather than another ape? A bird or another mammal that could grasp the concept of zero? Signs that a lower animal had a sense of fair (just!) and unfair reward for relative effort?

    I can’t be sure of the truth of the story I heard, but I’m not sure I can quite rule it out as a tall tale either. A gorilla with some aptitude for sign language would often take part in tests with his scientist keepers. One day the tests that had been planned were delayed. When they finally began the tester asked the gorilla if he were ready. The gorilla reportedly replied “past ready”.

    What if we consider the top end of the lower animals instead and work back? “Human” itself is a fuzzy term. We’ve learned recently of our own historical interbreeding with other species/sub-species. Is our own evolutionary development finished? I find it difficult to see us being singled out as “special” based on the information alone.

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