For the moment, let’s assume there is a deity helping us with tricky morals. All religions that I know of state that their god or gods are much smarter than us, in some cases infinitely smart and capable of seeing future events. If we are being guided, then we should easily find clear, consistent answers to these questions.
Instead, we find the contrary.
George Tarmarin conducted a fascinating study in 1966. He presented a few thousand Israeli children with the Old Testament’s telling of the battle for ancient Israeli city of Jericho:
And at the seventh time, when the priests had blown the trumpets, Joshua said to the people, “Shout, for the LORD has given you the city.
And the city and all that is within it shall be devoted to the LORD for destruction. Only Rahab the prostitute and all who are with her in her house shall live, because she hid the messengers whom we sent.
But you, keep yourselves from the things devoted to destruction, lest when you have devoted them you take any of the devoted things and make the camp of Israel a thing for destruction and bring trouble upon it.
But all silver and gold, and every vessel of bronze and iron, are holy to the LORD; they shall go into the treasury of the LORD.”
So the people shouted, and the trumpets were blown. As soon as the people heard the sound of the trumpet, the people shouted a great shout, and the wall fell down flat, so that the people went up into the city, every man straight before him, and they captured the city.
Then they devoted all in the city to destruction, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys, with the edge of the sword.
But to the two men who had spied out the land, Joshua said, “Go into the prostitute’s house and bring out from there the woman and all who belong to her, as you swore to her.”
So the young men who had been spies went in and brought out Rahab and her father and mother and brothers and all who belonged to her. And they brought all her relatives and put them outside the camp of Israel.
And they burned the city with fire, and everything in it. Only the silver and gold, and the vessels of bronze and of iron, they put into the treasury of the house of the LORD.
(Joshua 6:16-24, English Standard Translation)
Half of them were given this passage with no changes. The other half were given the same passage but with the names and locations changed to suit ancient China instead. Tarmarin then polled the students on the actions of Joshua (or “General Lin”): did they completely approve of them, partially approve, or completely disapprove?
Of those given the unaltered passage, 66% of them completely approved and 8% partially approved.
Of those given the altered passage, 7% of them completely approved and 18% partially approved.
We already consider the moral landscape involving murder, arson, and theft to be relatively easy to answer. So why would our answers depend so heavily on the name of the person committing these acts, and very little on the actions themselves? What’s worse, Israel has a high concentration of religious believers; of the total population, 88% identified themselves as Jewish as of 1972. Their closer contact to God should make them better judges of moral issues than non-believers, if we assume a god was helping us with moral questions. That clearly is not the case.
If you think this is just a sign that Jews are immoral, let me counter with a secular version. In 2000, the Republican party of the United States of America was deciding on who they’d push for the presidency. John McCain was the frontrunner, having scored an unexpected victory in New Hampshire over his main rival, George Bush Jr., and was expected to win the critical state of South Carolina.
As he started campaigning in that state, tens of thousands of voters received a call. The person on the other side of the line claimed to be conducting a poll, and asked a few questions related to their current voting preference. They then asked:
“Would you be more or less likely to vote for John McCain… if you knew he had fathered an illegitimate black child?”
This touched off rumours that McCain had a child out of wedlock, which in turn were picked up by the press. McCain defended himself against the accusations, but the damage had been done: George Bush Jr. won South Carolina instead, and would go on to become both the Republican’s presidential candidate and eventually the president of the United States.
What happened? Cindy McCain was moved by the plight of two baby girls while helping out in a Bangladesh orphanage. After flying both children to the United States for treatment, she decided to adopt one of them, who was renamed Bridget McCain. This is clearly a moral act; indeed, John talked about his adopted daughter while on the campaign trail and brought her on-stage several times as a show of his moral strength.
This telephone “poll” was insinuating something more sinister, that Bridget was his illegitimate child from an affair, and McCain hid this by inventing the adoption story. While this too could be moral under certain conditions (say, the affair was approved and encouraged by Cindy), most people consider those as unlikely and would consider the situation immoral until proven otherwise.
Superficially, both cases have the same evidence going for them. Rationally, we should either sharpen Occam’s Razor and thus believe McCain, since the adoption story is far more likely, or dig for more evidence.
Instead, the voters went on instinct. We don’t want to be taken advantage of, so we tend to be pessimistic when we have something at stake. Voters didn’t know which situation was true, but didn’t want to assume he was clean, only to learn after he’d earned their precious vote that they’d been suckered.
South Carolina is considered a conservative state, with most residents placing an emphasis on traditional marriage and being more likely to be racist than the average person in the United States. The idea of an illegitimate black child was obscene to most of its residents, which made them even more likely to choose someone else at the polls.
While there was a rationale to the voter’s decision, it wasn’t rational.
We could shore up the god hypothesis by adding to it. Perhaps our lack of clarity is due to something else interfering with god, such as “free will” or another god. These extra assumptions only make it easier to cut down with Ockham’s Razor. So what else could explain the rest of our morality?
The Monkey Wrench
Ironically, the answer to this is also Game Theory. Not the consequences of it, however, but the fact that it exists.
Intelligence allows us to overcome problems that evolution hasn’t developed a solution to. In the chapter on the Intelligence proof, I mentioned Betty the crow, who was able to bend a metal wire to retrieve a tasty morsel of food from a tube.
Metal wires are not natural. Crows do not get their food by sticking things into tubes. Yet none of that mattered; the crow was able to understand the situation, come up with a plan that it could pull off, then put it into action. Intelligence is swifter and more flexible than raw evolution.
It can even override it. Ghandi was a strong believer in celibacy, at one point deliberately sleeping next to two nude women to prove his self control. He thought that sexual desire caused suffering, and suffering kept humans from achieving spiritual enlightenment.
I disagree. Ghandi was reasoning that because some sexual desires are harmful, all of them are. This is not true; while sex can be taken too far, it can also be a wonderful show off affection with no consequences for those not involved. Ghandi was doing this in the name of spiritual purity, yet never gave evidence that this made him “pure”. What if his view of the supernatural was wrong, having been planted by a daemon, and the tantric pursuit of sex was the real way to purity? He would have tossed his life away blindly.
Invoking intelligence for morality makes a lot of sense. Like big claws and long legs, big brains are expensive to grow and maintain. Given enough time, the result is an animal only as smart as it needs to be to get by. This explains why we don’t see intelligence everywhere, why it’s second-fiddle to instinct, and why it’s so easily mangled. Ghandi or I could be wrong, because neither of us are good at rational thought.
Even if we were absolutely smart, we might still have different morals due to different information. John McCain’s situation seems moral, but what if we learned the adoption tale was really a cover story, and Bridget was conceived a steamy affair? The moral situation changes dramatically, yet the facts of this reality are nearly identical to the old view. Those Israeli schoolchildren have been taught by family or society, that a devout Jew with a divine mandate can do no wrong, and their morality reflects this “fact.”
These intelligence-based morals will be as universal as our commonalities. I assume you’re conscious while reading this; based on that, can we agree that forcibly ending consciousness is worth banning? Yes? Then can’t we also agree that this should be a general rule applied to all conscious beings? From that simple act, we’ve generated a rule which appears universal, without once needing to invoke anything beyond us, let alone a god.
I’ll admit I haven’t absolutely proven our morality does not come from the divine. I don’t need to; so long as that mix of evolution and intelligence was at least as plausible, we could invoke Ockham’s Razor and declare the god explanation to be unlikely. The small scraps of evidence that point to the simpler theory are just icing on the cake, and the argument that a god cannot provide an absolute morality seals the deal.
There are two big flaws that remain. I’m assuming that intelligence does not come from the divine, and that no-one has found evidence for a god. Thankfully, intelligence has already been given its own chapter, and the second is nicely handled in the last chapter.
 Aaand we’re back to the Prisoner’s Dilemma. The only differences are the introduction of multiple players, and the payoffs and costs for each choice.