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Nov 13 2009

Altruism may be hard-wired

A particularly pernicious point of contention in innumerable theological conversations involves whether morality can exist outside the framework of a creator acting as a lawgiver. Well, coincidentally enough, science has answered that question back in 2007. Neuroscientists have performed experiments to determine where morality — specifically in this case, altruism — works within the human brain. It turns out, the same region responsible for “basic selfish urges” like the desire for food and sex. That’s right folks, altruism is selfish. Atheists and evolutionary biologists have argued for a long time that social structures like the ones we enjoy stem directly from the evolutionary advantage of being altruistic, and some have even postulated that supporting one’s society is a selfish action — because it increases the likelihood that society will support you back.

The results were showing that when the volunteers placed the interests of others before their own, the generosity activated a primitive part of the brain that usually lights up in response to food or sex. Altruism, the experiment suggested, was not a superior moral faculty that suppresses basic selfish urges but rather was basic to the brain, hard-wired and pleasurable.

Their 2006 finding that unselfishness can feel good lends scientific support to the admonitions of spiritual leaders such as Saint Francis of Assisi, who said, “For it is in giving that we receive.” But it is also a dramatic example of the way neuroscience has begun to elbow its way into discussions about morality and has opened up a new window on what it means to be good.

Grafman and others are using brain imaging and psychological experiments to study whether the brain has a built-in moral compass. The results — many of them published just in recent months — are showing, unexpectedly, that many aspects of morality appear to be hard-wired in the brain, most likely the result of evolutionary processes that began in other species.

Not terribly unexpected to me. Nor likely many of the folks that have been suggesting as much for years. This is only an unexpected result if you think humans are somehow exceptional, or if you think we’re the creation of some all-powerful deity.

Interestingly, such experiments show some signs of such morality mice.

No one can say whether giraffes and lions experience moral qualms in the same way people do because no one has been inside a giraffe’s head, but it is known that animals can sacrifice their own interests: One experiment found that if each time a rat is given food, its neighbor receives an electric shock, the first rat will eventually forgo eating.

And this despite, to my knowledge, there never having been a Mouse Jesus.

Something else that’s been suggested, tangentially related to this, is that empathy — the ability for humans to construct mental images of what others are experiencing, and thus to construct mental images of other people period (and sometimes with little more to go on than the word of another), could have led directly to the ability for humans to conceptualize a creator deity. Consider also that humans are hard-wired to detect agency whether there is something there or not — e.g. to try to determine the cause of the bush rustling nearby, whether it rustling because of a predator, or because the wind is picking up. This fact, combined with the altruism that’s hard-wired in us, could easily lead to hypothesizing that a person created everything you see, and that that person is in actuality an omnipotent, omnipresent, omnibenevolent being, and suggesting that those morals that you have innately actually come from laws handed down by this being a long time ago.

That doesn’t mean such a creature exists. Just that we might be hard-wired to think that this is so, for the same reasons we’re hard-wired toward other superstitious behaviours. We will, hopefully, eventually outgrow the concept of a creator deity, just as we’ve outgrown the idea of witches, or causal relationships between crushing spiders and sudden rain showers, or stepping on cracks actually breaking one’s mother’s back, or hot women blowing on dice resulting in rolling sevens.

That’d be nice, wouldn’t it? Humanity growing up and taking responsibility for their moral choices, instead of ascribing agency willy-nilly, and believing, fatalistically, that nothing they do can destroy this planet, this one and only support system that we humans rely upon… that’s the stuff of fairy tales.

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    Lousy Canuck » Forced morality

    [...] a foundational text to tell me so — rather, my own finely-tuned sense of right and wrong (which I have come by through evolutionary means, by the way) tells me [...]

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