Tuesday, December 28, 2004

What does God need with a starship?

My friend Nevin sent me a link to an article in the Guardian about the psychological effects of the Santa myth. The article was inconclusive, but it started an interesting train of thought.

Personally, I find the idea of lying to children sort of distasteful, but I find it plausible that such fibs are at most harmless, and maybe even beneficial. It could be that these fibs prepare us for the social games we'll play in adulthood. However, there's another side-effect. When, as children, we realize that we've been scammed by the old Santa ploy, I think we develop a distaste for false myths. No one wants to be fooled by parlor tricks or Wizard of Oz illusions. When we leave Santa and the Tooth Fairy behind, we set a higher standard for "true" deities. True deities don't use technology to play tricks on us. True deities have something beyond technology: magic.

Alas, sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, so it would be impossible for us to distinguish between advanced technology and the divine. In other words, we wouldn't know we had really met God even if he beamed us up to his heavenly throne room. It could just be Klingon holodeck technology.

For advocates of magic, this poses a bit of a problem. Propositions about magic have nothing to do with experience because no experience can tell the difference between magic and technological trickery, and propositions about undetectable things are just piffle.

All this got me thinking about the alternative: what if God uses technology?

It seems to me that a superbeing that uses technology to do its works could easily inspire love and awe. Even mortal humans can do this. However, should technological prowess inspire worship and willing submission? Technology (or for that matter, magic) cannot do this alone. A being must possess some other attributes before it is regarded as divine. A divine being must have moral virtues to which we aspire. Also, we must feel that sacrificing ourselves for such a being serves the greater good.

As an aside, there are millions of humans who meet these criteria for divinity. Most of us see divine virtues like innocence and compassion in those we love, and most of us are willing to sacrifice our own lives to save theirs. We willingly submit, but the relationship is mutual.

My contention is that, unlike our loved ones, official deities qualify for neither reverence nor worship.

Let's say that the one true deity is actually the Devil, and he intervenes in our world in a barely perceptible way, e.g., by planting suggestions or causing the occasional natural disaster. Suppose that, by revelation, you know that the Devil exists. Suppose also that the Devil orders you to torment and kill anyone who doesn't believe in him (despite the fact that his existence cannot be proven). Like all standard deities, the Devil agrees to give you eternal life in paradise if you comply, eternity in hell if you disobey. Should you resist the Devil even if your resistance is futile? Or, does the fact that the Devil is the one true (effectively omnipotent) god change your morality, permitting you to happily commit mass murder?

According to my definition, the Devil isn't divine because he possesses no attributes to which we aspire. Manipulation and cruelty aren't objectives for us. Furthermore, for any being with the infinite power of the Devil, nothing we humans do is of any great consequence, so the greater good isn't a factor.

Of course, I wouldn't be making this argument if the gods of the Bible and the Koran didn't suffer from these same defects. First, we don't aspire to their values. These gods were all invented to satisfy Bronze Age moralities that are no longer acceptable. Take the story of Abraham. In Genesis, Abraham is ordered by God to kill his child to prove his obedience. Abraham almost does this, but is stopped by God's angel at the last minute. In today's more humane and civilized culture, we clearly see this God as evil. (Does anyone else remember that Norm McDonald routine about the guy who does the devil's bidding only to realize that the devil is really his buddy wearing a devil costume?)

Secondly, in comparison to the monotheistic gods, we're too small and weak to contribute to the greater good. God could snap his fingers and make the entire universe a paradise, yet we struggle and die pointlessly.

The might of a being with superior technology/magic doesn't make that being morally right (even if that being created our universe). Only we can determine what is right and wrong. It is our own internal moral compass that selects our religion, not the other way around. Religion inhibits our ability to make good decisions by promoting the idea that morality is given to us and not subject to reason.


dancing idiot monkey said...

Hey, I came across this article while blog-hopping.
Very interesting, and I agree with many of your points. This passage interests me however:

"Only we can determine what is right and wrong. It is our own internal moral compass that selects our religion, not the other way around. Religion inhibits our ability to make good decisions by promoting the idea that morality is given to us and not subject to reason."

I'm hardly religious, and on intellectual grounds am opposed to religion per se. Evolution makes sense to me.
But I'm curious, how has this "inner moral compass" of ours sprung up? Where does it come from? Who or what gave it to us, or if they didn't how did we get it?
Are the Nigerian and American moral compasses the same? Does the Indian compass point the same way as the German one? (And who even knows about the Innuit compass.)
Different peoples in different parts of the world have evolved different cultures, values, norms, ethics etc. The Indian custom of widows burning themselves with the bodies of their dead husbands, the custom of certain African tribes of throwing away twins as babies into a wood because they were considered "evil" -- are you saying these are wrong? Misguided? How can that be if everyone has an internal device of sorts telling them what is good and what is bad?
And also, what religion does one select if one has a properly functioning inner moral compass? (Why didn't everyone select it naturally during the course of their existence?) And what makes it better than any of the others?
Anyway, just a few questions. Perhaps I missed something in your article.
All the best.


Doctor Logic said...

Nadia, thank you for this thought-provoking question. I think the response will necessitate a full-fledged blog post!

I think that humans evolved empathy for one another, and I don't think it takes more than this sense of sympathy to create our inner moral compass. Our genetic ability for walking in another man's shoes can be nurtured or smothered by our parents. Fortunately, I think that at least 95% of us reach adulthood with this skill intact. By age 6, the skill is already well developed. In the school yard, we assume that the other kids have intellects similar to our own, and, based on this, we try to deduce how we should behave to minimize conflicts. At least, most of us did!

It would be fairly easy to derive empathy from genetics, and it would explain why people tend to agree on what constitutes moral behavior. It also explains how we are able short-circuit our morality by dehumanizing other people. Once dehumanized, our victims are no longer the subjects of empathy, and we can do what we like to them.

Is there one true and correct morality? I don't believe there is. I think that 99% of us could agree on the Golden Rule ("do unto others..."), but even then, we would disagree about what we want done to ourselves.

I don't think that morality is "flexible". Instead, we should think about morality as a science. Like science, morality requires reason and knowledge. Practices that once were considered moral, have lost their rightiousness in the light of facts.

I can make a good analogy with physics. Physics leads us to an ever deeper and more intricate understanding of the physical universe. When Sir Isaac Newton's laws of motion were superceded by Albert Einstein's theories of relativity, Newton's laws were not made obsolete. We still use Newton to build bridges and automobile engines, even though we cannot build particle accelerators without Einstein. We gained new insights without discarding earlier discoveries. No physicist would say that Einstein made physics "flexible".

Likewise, moral science, starting from the Golden Rule, should lead us to an ever deeper and more intricate moral appreciation for our actions. Along the way, new technologies and new facts will alter our perception of right and wrong. Yet, no moral analysis of, say, cyborg augmentation, will ever change our prior conclusion that the Holocaust was a moral abyss. The Golden Rule we may regard as absolute, but specific rules for behavior are not.