The thermodynamic arrow of… of morality?

On my way to Canadian Tire a few days ago I put the radio on and settled at the CBC radio show ‘Tapestry’ with Mary Hynes. It was an interview with Robert Wright (author of The Evolution of God) who spent the later portions of the interview trying to explain his way out of a sort of wet paper bag of his own making.

First Gods

In early religions in which gods were so anthropomorphic that they couldn’t possibly have been omnipotent or omniscient (for what human was?), the gods were generally on a par with everyone else.  They were fickle if not downright feeble-minded… that is to say they weren’t necessarily revered.

People just tried to get things out of them the same way they would try to get things out of their fellow humans. (“Alright, if you’ll do it I’ll give you this” sort of logic. Sacrifices).

I have to admit that this revelation of Wright’s kinda tickled me…

If only we’d stopped there as a species, eh? But there’s more to Wright’s story, not to mention my hopelessly divergent take on it…

A brief history of Religion (my super-condensed take on Wright)

As Wright goes on to spell out for the listening audience, things have a tendency of getting out of hand. In a nutshell:

  1. Sooner or later a people will sprout their own definition of (a now rather vengeful) God.
  2. Over the ages, they get a little embarrassed (for what else can it be, if not embarrassment?) and they tone him down to suit circumstances.
  3. Given enough time, everyone tones down the vengefulness aspect and ups the compassion factor in their locally accepted version(s) of God(s). Religion as a whole confers a sort of unidirectional arrow of morality unto the planet… so that:
  4. Religion is not only an inevitable thing for an intelligent species to evolve, but it also appears to be a good thing for an intelligent species to evolve. No matter that its beginnings might seem confused/warped/just plain silly, religion helps spread the idea of doing the “right thing” by your fellow human.

Wright seems to have looked at all this and decided that, on the surface of it, the end (as far as religion is concerned) seems to be justifying the means. He terms this end ‘a higher purpose’, and refuses to be goaded into calling it “God” explicitly, though the presenter did try.

Uhm… I dunno quite what to make of this conclusion. Wright is fence-sitting, starting out on a fairly atheistic footing and then shrugging his shoulders at the end of his trajectory as if to say, “wow, look where we ended up – we’re practically in the theistic camp now.  Oops. What can I tell ya?”

Having said all that, a fence is as good a place to sit as any, and he doesn’t owe anything to either camp. However it seems a bit of stretch to me that simply retroffitting ideas of compassion and ‘love-thy-neighbour’ly prose into the teachings of a previously petty, fickle, people-hating he-God can induce planet-wide morality.  I took the idea and went to town with it anyway:

On compassion, and “being good”

Admittedly, it’s too easy to question the religion-morality link in this day and age. There are lots of reasons to not kill my neighbour, for example… especially now that I don’t need him for food as badly as I might have done a few millenia ago. And I admit to being less irritated by how different he looks from me; back in the day, that alone would’ve been grounds for a stone axe through the forehead.

But even given how horridly humans used to treat each other, I still find it hard to believe that the main reason I don’t clout the nearest fool round the earhole is because my mom and dad taught me to be polite, from an early age; that I hold back because they indoctrinated me with the idea that “Jesus loves little children” who are “good”. <aside>when I was wee, I asked Jesus for a bar of chocolate to be placed in my upturned palms. I even promised to close my eyes and not look. I blame my current stance on everything that happened didn’t happen afterwards</aside><aside2>@parents: substituting Santa for Jesus is even more effective at culling ‘bad behaviour'</aside2>

I digressed. Sorry. Point I was going to make was, the main reason I wouldn’t clout the nearest fool is because 10-to-1, they’re bigger than me. It really is that simple.

So that immediately explains why half of the population is nice.  The real debate should be centered on the rest of the population. The bullies and mean-spirited no-gooders who prey on other people. These people are the fulcrum for whether religion is going to take off or not, amongst a given group of people. Ultimately, it’s up to them. They can force religion upon everyone else through intimidation alone. Far more likely though, is the scenario in which the terrorised people around them take up religion… at the core of which must be some fervent hope that a fantastic force will come and strike down their oppressors once and for all. Or liberate the oppressed. And since the survival instinct usually trumps oppression, it makes sense for the oppressed to evolve better empathy amongst themselves to help each other survive their common oppressor(s) – eg. by looking after the wounded. Transferring such caring traits to their evolving idea of God can only cultivate compassion in the latter.

In short: If you’re 6’4″ and have a reach that’s albatross-like next to my puny duck-wing, really, what is stopping you from clobbering everybody in your path and taking anything you want from them?

Two things, and two things only:
1) the presence of an even bigger and meaner idiot than yourself in the vicinity, or
2) the problem of having ran out of  any “good” people worth abusing because you’ve treated them all so shoddily they’ve either died or ran off.

You’ll notice from that list that a compassionate God… in fact, any type of God, is just not necessary as a limiting factor for a bully on the rampage. The factors limiting amorality are much simpler.

The thermodynamic arrow of morality

What the bully fails to grasp, or has no need of grasping until they meet with one of the 2 conditions I listed earlier, is that people are a precious resource, and it takes a certain type of intelligence to recognise that and go on to nurture such resources. For they (the people being nurtured) can only be useful later (to the nurturer, or the group they belong to), if nothing else. I think that the type of intelligence that recognises this grows and spreads through the population, glacially and erratically,  making it appear that there is a trend toward humanism and morality. And barring the ocassional war- / poverty- induced cesspits of backward thinking, this is generally true. <aside3>With regard to types of intelligence that recognise the usefulness and value of other humans: why would such a trait spread? Statistically, the unwashed mashes – the ones most in need of a schizoid vengeful/compassionate God, vastly outnumber their elite oppressors. They always have, and they always will. They’ll simply make more babies, period.</aside3>

The real trend is that people are figuring out that other people are, in general, useful. <aside4>useful for what, you might ask. Useful for information processing, that’s what.</aside4>It’s just wasteful to not realise this. Raw human potential. Spare information processing capacity walking around on two legs… and you’re gonna clobber it death? I think not… You’re too smart for that now, thank God.


– You can listen to the full show here.

– Disclaimer: I have not read Wright’s book, so most of this is based on that radio show. The title of this post is also not a reflection of his exact words (I stole a line from Hawking ‘s A brief history of time and tweaked it).

– Mildy related: my post on “savannah thinking“.

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