Tuesday, October 26, 2010

On the Genealogy of Morality

Does anything in this universe have a purpose? Is it even logical to ask such question? Philosophers have tried to answer these questions since time immemorial and yet much confusion remains. It is interesting to ask to whom the universe should have purpose, if it does have one, to a supreme being like God or to us human or to the universe itself. If the universe was created for the sole purpose of God then the debate ends there, provided you believe in God. If on the other hand you are an agnostic or an atheist, this is definitely not a good answer; In all honesty to such individuals the universe seems to be devoid of any meaning or purpose and why shouldn’t it be. It is one thing to suggest butterfly effect on earth and quite another to suggest that the exploding star in Andromeda has some bearing on our lives!

Let us for argument’s sake assume that there is a purpose in our life, that there is some great transcendental scheme and we are all moving according to it. If that is so then all particles ought to be interconnected in space-time to us, through some interactions no matter how far or how long it takes. Surely there cannot be disjointed areas in space which have no affect on our lives, since we are all part of that unifying purpose. For us to be part of that grand scheme of thing, although one has to agree it is a rather arrogant presumptuous position, no part of the universe can be superfluous; they have to be connected to us in some causal ways. Thus from an exploding nebula in milky way or in some distant part of the galaxy to the tidal waves in our ocean or volcanic activity in mount Vesuvius, must have some bearing on our lives. Now I haven’t mentioned events like WWII or epidemic or natural disasters, which obviously impact our lives. It is important to note, that connectedness is but a necessary condition, not a sufficient one, for existence of “purpose” in our lives. Now if we are to agree that there is some purpose that links us to all other events in this universe, then question arises, do we as mankind have a transcendental purpose or do we as individuals have purpose?

Let us assume that individually we have a purpose in our life; if this is so then by our previous logic universal events should have some bearing on our lives. Now we can logically speaking, although very outlandish, attribute all past events to having some bearing on our lives. Surely if stellar matters did not swirl together under gravitational force to form earth, life would have been impossible, ergo no me! This may indeed border on insanity crossing the limits of arrogance, but still possible! But what about a planet or star that is forming now and is 100 light years away from me! Surely no information can travel faster than light and therefore that event will have absolutely no impact on my life (provided I die before 100 years). No gravitational wake or light or radiation from that body will reach me in my life. Thus that star or stellar matter has no bearing on my life! Thus it is disconnected from my life, my existence, it plays no role in my purpose of life. Thus necessary condition of interconnectedness is violated ergo, my life as such has no purpose. If I as an individual human being have no purpose, and like me others don’t have either, and never had or will, then how is it possible that all together, i.e. mankind, can have a purpose? Thus logically it seems there can be no purpose either on individual level or species level.

One could further take the example of galaxies which are moving away from us at speed slightly less than the speed of light. Soon that galaxy will disappear as space in that region recedes from us at faster than light. Surely we cannot assume that galaxy ceases to exist once it crosses that threshold; if it does exist, then all events taking place after that light speed threshold has been crossed, will have no bearing on mankind. Then where is the unity of purpose, where is the connectedness of parts in the universe? Thus from the standpoint of our logical framework, it necessarily follows that our lives are purposeless. The statement makes no claim on existence of a deity or absence of a divine plan but it surely state that the universe wasn’t created solely for our purpose nor there seems to be any reason to believe that we have any cosmic purpose.

We can compare ourselves to a group of ants in some beach who were tussled over by waves generated by sinking of titanic thousands of miles away, and concluding (if they were intelligent enough) the ship sank in order to punish them! Still does it prove that they were wrong, strictly speaking no, if you are to believe that there is a divine plan. The fact is if you believe in a divine being than anything goes and you have to live with that consequence! But still you reach one conclusion, whether you believe in deity or not, in our world there seems to be no purpose and to lead one’s life according to it is the logical course of action. To selectively look for divine interventions, to understand our purpose, to fit together events in this world to your divine plan, these are simply beyond us, even if they exists, and futile to seek. So conclusively we can say, we have no purpose so far as we can understand it and to know beyond it is impossible. Thus if we wish to or choose to live only by what we know then we should assume there is no purpose and live by the consequence of that conclusion.

Now it becomes important to ask the question, if indeed our lives are purposeless and we exist because of some fortuitous accidents in the formative stage of this planet, then where is our responsibility, why act morally, what is morality? Why can’t you and I kill ourselves, or murder others, why bother adhering to laws, why should you marry, why not be a hermit, why not stay in a cave, why not rape? The answer is, because you choose not to! There is absolutely no reason why you cannot do all these and more, if only you choose to. You are free to do whatever you feel like! As Sartre said “We are condemned to be free”. In purposeless life this is a necessary consequence. One could argue that such things are evolutionarily speaking harmful and hence we don’t engage in them. But that is wrong, for we have the inclination to perform all those acts as can be seen by our prison population! The question is not, why we don’t engage in these acts, but rather how come we have developed laws which specifically prohibit these acts. Laws are after all manmade and so we couldn’t have created them instinctively! The effort of this post is to provide a hypothesis as to how ‘moral’ laws or morality may have developed and to identify what consequences it has on us and our future.

We human beings have a created a unique apparatus to protect ourselves against the mighty nature. It is our evolutionary response to natural selection. While lower animals can only rely on chance mutation to protect themselves against extinction or natural selection, we humans have developed a unique and yet highly complex set of principles, norm, values, techniques. This we call culture, the sum total of all our activities including our very tools, technologies, language, science, press, anything and everything. Now it is not the intention of this author to ascertain how cultures developed but merely that it exists as our response to natural selection. It might have been and probably is an emergent phenomenon of a complex interacting social being like humans, but we will live it at that. What concerns us is how moral codes or laws developed within the rubric of culture.

I believe what natural selection is to environment, moral laws are to culture. In our quest to protect ourselves from nature we have created an equally complex phenomenon which now imposes new constraints on our lives. Moral codes act in much the same way as nature imposes constraints on organisms. Scarcities of food or water or unfavourable climate are all natures’ tools for natural selection. For some areas fruits might be of large size and thus birds with small beak cannot survive there, ergo those with large beaks become the abundant animal there. Similarly culture imposes restrictions through its laws, codes and morality on individuals; and those who do not adhere to them get ‘extinct’. We no longer deal with nature on an individual level; it is always mediated through some aspect of culture. Being alone with nature is no longer possible, not even for savages in Amazon since even they have their own  culture albeit primitive. True some primates show rudimentary level of cultural organization but nothing reaching in sophistication close to ours.

Thus different cultures have become different varieties, if not species, of mankind. For nature it is not me and you who are being selected but rather western culture, French culture, communist culture, bangle culture, Arabic culture, Indian culture, and many more. And like any other species or varieties, they compete with and influence each other; there is cross breeding. The Arab culture in 12th century might have gone extinct but its influence was felt in 15th century renaissance Italian culture which on turn had a profound impact on our present day culture. Seeds from French revolution have spread across many cultures and subcultures that exist today and we are still evolving.

But there is a difference between the constrained imposed by nature and those imposed by culture. Culture is much more influenced by our action than nature is by it species. It is worth noting that nature itself is an abstract concept representing the sum total of its species, habitat etc. Thus we as free beings can influence culture much more than any individual animal could nature. Thus we see that cultures get born, they evolve, mutate and even perish. So at one level culture is like a species to nature but to us temporal human beings it is nature itself. The moral codes evolved as part of culture as it mediated with nature, it was an outcome of that process. Hunting gathering society’s foremost requirement was unity. They needed to be united to survive and so if it required a despotic ruler so be it, if it meant most of those in the group wanted to have many wives so be it, if it meant pillaging had to be allowed so be it. Thus moral codes developed that ensured social adhesiveness. One could assume that at the initial stages of societal cultural development moral codes were very flexible and volatile. It must be so that after sufficient time has elapsed and more members joined, did the codes crystallized and stabilized.

But as mentioned before, while many, who live in a large established culture, take most of the norms as given, there are revolutionaries who are out there plotting planning acting to change them. This is necessary if we as human being want to survive, our cultures ought to evolve, and we need these “mutanogents”. What mutant cell is to a functioning body, revolutionary or social change agents are to a culture. True not all of them will be good but there might be some, whose ideas will be essential for our survival. Imagine a world without Rousseau’s Social Contract, or Marx’s Das Kapital, or Hume’s Inquiry or Newton’s Principia! Here again there is a difference between biological mutating agent and social change agent, while the former is a product of chance the later being a purposeless free agent is a product of volition.

For society to survive we need change agents but not everybody can be one, for too many mutation is a cancer to a healthy body and similarly to a society. Since we are purposeless being, it is within us to choose: whether we should follow the norm or challenge it! But we must remember, if we do challenge the society, just like nature, we will be severely put to the test and may perish in the process, just like so many useless mutant cells. This is a risk that all social agents must bear. For if a society or culture is too relax to allow anybody to influence or change itself then it is doomed to extinction. All captured criminals are examples of mutant cells gone bad, who have been destroyed by the culture or society. But have we not seen heroes to have risen from prison like Bastille, what of Nelson Mandela? And it is precisely because these societies couldn’t control such mutations, that they perished!

For human beings to survive it needs multiple cultures and diversity. Cultural homogeneity will be the death nail for us. As purposeless beings there is no ground to believe in any of the moral codes of any cultures, everything goes. But one warning, just like any animal can choose to ignore nature at its own peril, so can we our cultures. So each society has the right to defend itself and persecute those it considers as threat. Thus it was justified to persecute Galileo for he was a threat to the Catholic Church or Tycho Brahe or Salman Rushdie or Nelson Mandela. There is no logic, no absolute, all is absurd and purposeless and yet this is how it should be, if we as human beings have to survive and be free!