Posted by Mike
In Take Me to the River (or Somewhere Nearby) [NYTimes.com July 30, 2009], journalist and scholar Robert Wright laments about his continuing to have a well developed – yes perhaps even burdensome – sense of sin and guilt despite his years of having given up on the religion of his youth and now being a nonbeliever. He concludes that “natural selection built the conscience, hence guilt, into our brains.” He seems to be somewhat perplexed as to how people without a religious-based moral code to guide them can remain moral creatures, but concludes that “you can be an atheist and feel that there’s such a thing as right and wrong, and that you’ll try to align your life with this moral axis.” He goes on to suggest that, “In fact, I think you can make a sheerly intellectual, non-faith-based case that there is some such transcendent source of meaning, and even something you could call a ‘moral order’ out there.”
When Wright discusses the possibility of a transcendent source of meaning he does leap into the mystical unknown, which he had previously studiously avoided. I have no problem with wondering about the unknown; however, prior to moving in that direction it seems to me that we should acknowledge that Wright’s original premise re natural selection holds regarding human morality. Can we not parsimoniously conclude that it was likely the survival of the most adaptive features of the human that led to the development of our moral sense? Neither the tribe or a much expanded complex society or culture would likely have been able to survive without the refined selection of moral values society in general now possesses, which among other things enables social cohesion. And whether or not we like to acknowledge it, we humans are family/group/tribal animals who would not have survived the way we are now without our intense social dependence. Lions would not still be with us had they not developed the functional-social unit of the pride, and we would not be here without the human family-tribe.
Once we acknowledge that we possess the moral sense (what Wright calls a “moral order“), that we have because it was selected by circumstances to enable the survival of the species as we know it, then we can speculate further about a mystical transcendent source of meaning. Given our fragility as individual humans and even our fragility in groups and our strong need for emotional supports, and given as well, historically, our profound ignorance regarding ourselves and the natural world, it is quite reasonable that we humans would create structures to make the unknown known and thereby increase our apparent, felt security. Part of our ability to organize and construct the world to meet our needs is derived from this innate and doubtless natural selection-driven need to organize and construct, not only the known, but to extend this to all areas of experience, to the unknown – to what is over the next mountain, to why it rains or why we have seasons, to where do we come from, and to what happens after death.
Wright does not directly suggest it, but (extending the argument in his article), it seems that believers and unbelievers alike need notion, concept, or belief in the transcendent. Though science has, especially in the past several hundred years, unlocked so many secrets of the organic and inorganic world and radically expanded the “known,” there continues the vast expanse of the unknown that we need to have organized in our minds in some way for us humans to feel safe and secure. Historically over time as the veil of ignorance about the world is lifted by human discoveries, our understanding of reality has become more objective and less subjective and we have increasingly had less of a need to create or maintain explanatory myths. The notion of a transcendent source of meaning is a rather hypothetical construct and has the features of a culturally supported, traditional explanatory myth. It may be that as individuals and as societies we will never have sufficient knowledge and understanding to let go of such myths completely. In addition, the poetics of explanatory myths and our human responsiveness to the deep inexpressible meanings inherent in poetry are hidden features of our myths which ground them so tenaciously in our psyches.