Date: Sun, 6 Apr 1997 18:09:49 -0500 (CDT)
From: matt malooly <email@example.com>
Subject: religion, etc.
I was reading through some of the stuff on your phoenix'd website, and your journals were pretty interesting. I was thinking about what your friend Amy had said about the questions religion answers for people.
As far as altruism goes, that's a question that has puzzled many philosophers and physical anthropologists. In terms of evolution, etc., there are a couple of explanations. In altruistic behavior towards relatives, a tendency to risk endangering yourself while saving another member of the species would be favored by natural selection if that individual shared the same (or mostly the same) genetic material. For instance, siblings have a lot of DNA in common, and so it would make some sense, genetically, for me to risk death in the process of saving my 2 brothers from a leopard or something. The more Malooly's that survive to reproduce, the more Malooly genes there will be in the world.
When it comes to altruistic acts towards strangers, that is a little more problematic, but is usually explained as a kind of "what goes around comes around" thing. For example, when chimps are sitting around in the forest, there are always a few of them acting as 'lookouts,' who sound the alarm (start screaming like nuts) if they see a predator of some sort (leopard, large snake, large bird of prey, etc.). Now, this will warn the others in the group to snatch up their babies and run or whatever, but it also draws attention to the individual that sounded the alarm, and makes their presence obvious to the predator. It seems kind of suicidal. Biologists are always theorizing about this behavior, and they generally explain it in terms of social living - to survive as individuals we must cooperate in a group, etc. - and also the relative explanation, as many chimps in the group are probably related. I will have to look this up in an anthropology book of mine for a better explanation. The above are both biological explanations, and the philosophical answers are a lot more varied and complex. I can't give you much there, as I haven't read much philosophy on the issue, but I think my reading assignment in ethics for next week deals with the topic somewhat. I let you know if there's anything interesting.
Now, 'moral absolutes' is another thing. Philosophers in the West have argued about this ever since ancient Greece. Most philosophical theories up until the last century or so have put forth some system of absolute values - Plato and his forms in a higher world of truth, Christianity and the Bible, etc. Usually such systems were given a religious basis, which made them easy to obey. "Why should I do this?" "Well, because god said so, that's why." The Ten Commandments and all that. By the time of the 19th Century, many philosophers started to either question absolute moral systems or try to give them a secular basis (like Kant). Then Nietzsche came around and really fucked shit up with his declaration "God is dead." What he meant by this was that religion did not have the force is used to have in people's lives. The industrial revolution, among other things (e.g., the French Revolution) had really changed life in the West and caused people to question their ways of life. The revolts and riots that spread across Europe in 1848 are a good example. Nietzsche saw all of these ending up in nihilism, or the lack of belief in any kind of values or moral system, which would be extremely dangerous. He predicted great wars, nationalistic movements, etc. in the future if this "crisis of nihilism" wasn't averted. Then we had shit like WWI, Hitler/fascism, WWII, the cold war, etc. in the 100 years immediately following Nietzsche's death. So he seemed to hit that on the mark. Nietzsche really hated Christianity, but he wasn't a nihilist either - he wanted to try and find some way for people to give their lives meaning without resorting to gods and the like, or dangerous religion-replacements like nationalism and fascism. His stuff is very interesting to read, but really gives your brain a workout.
Sorry for rambling on like this, but my point is that many people assume that there must be moral absolutes when that may not be the case. But, if there were no moral absolutes it would not necessarily be the end of the world - we can define values for ourselves and still live a meaningful life. Personally, I don't think there are any moral laws written in stone somewhere, and that bothers me. Well, not that it bothers me, but I am trying to figure out how to explain/justify my own moral decisions in a coherent way. I guess that's why I went into philosophy.
And I don't see why the idea of an afterlife should matter. I would rather just do what I want with my life, seeing as I will have such a short time on Earth anyway (maybe 70 years max), and not live preoccupied with what will happen once I die. Personally, I think when you're dead you're dead, but that's a matter of opinion. The carrot-on-a-stick idea of an afterlife may have worked well in the middle-ages, when everyone was told "Yeah, your life may suck now, but if you're good, you'll be eternally rewarded once you die. And every bad person will be punished in hell, so don't worry," but that seems more like a useful tool of social oppression than the way to lead a happy life.
Personally, I think it's rather egoistic for people to think they are so special - that they have some kind of infinite soul or being, but other animals don't. I see humans are just another kind of animal, and 'culture' (language, learning, etc.) is something that has evolved through natural selection due to its ability to help us survive and get through life. If humans were divinely created from scratch, they wouldn't be so fucked up. Not just in the head, but also physically. There are a lot of weird things about our bodies that are just evolutionary baggage (such as the appendix). If people were divinely created, why would our creator have let Hitler kill 12 million people? Because it wanted to give us free will? Come on. God intervenes like every other day in the Bible, and 'he' can save people crossing the Red Sea, etc., but he cannot intervene in Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, Hiroshima, etc. Religion just does not make any sense to me, and I get tired about arguing about it with people.
Just some thoughts from a barely sane philosophy major,
ps- I was thinking of starting a Mad Max page on my site, with "action photos" and best of quotes. What do you think?
"Are you the Lab-Boy?"
Matt Malooly, CSIL Labsitter
H O M E
7 April -- 1997