Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Fundie Confuses Belief Relativism with Moral Relativism

It appears that yesterday's blog on religious absolutism confused a fundagelical blogger to no end, since he ended up writing a veritable mini-dissertation on "moral relativism" when the issue was generic belief and whether an absolutist stance was justifiable. In other words, that a given human could cordon off his beliefs as being invested in absolute truth to the exclusion of all other contesting claims.

As I showed in the blog, this isn't possible since a specific brain region, the OAA (orientation association area) determines the belief system in each of us, to the extent that the brain ultimately plays the major role. Since each human brain is different, and the OAA will vary in cognitive function from brain to brain (Neuro-scientist Andrew Newberg distinguishes causality cognitive functions, from reductive and holistic cognitive functions, for example) then the beliefs we choose will reflect that biological brain disposition. Thus, an atheist, for example, will manifest a very high reductive cognitive function, in addition to very low dopamine levels, according to Newberg. A Fundie will typically display a very high causality cognitive function, overlaid by primitive fears issuing from the amygdala. Hence, he will make a causal link between that fear and the "God" he believes in.

Because many of these propensities are also experience-based, it means that beliefs are themselves relative. They can't be absolutely determined because the brain is not an absolute entity, or organ, say with infinite neural capacity. Indeed, even it's basic neural processing is defective.  To be specific, the brain forms some construct [C] which is derived from an original event [E] : {a, b, c, d, e} where the bracketed set denotes component subsets with likely differing time intervals t1, t2, t3, t4, and t5. Thus, the brain processing for outer events is always via the template:

[E] -> [C]

And [C] => {a(t1 +t), b(t2 + t), c(t3 + t), d(t4 + t), e(t5 + t)}

Where, say t = 1 sec, the consciousness ‘delay’ interval. This means that all our experiences, apperceptions are second hand only, not direct. There is inevitably a tiny time delay wherein we fabricate our subjective realities, including our beliefs. The particular bias of the OAA determines what these beliefs will ultimately be. They do not emerge already formed, constant or absolute, and hence must be relative only. However, this is not the same as MORAL relativism. Nor is the claim for belief relativism to be conflated with arguing for moral relativism.

To make this clearer still, the previous blog focused on religious systems. What is the central object for belief in all religious systems? It is none other than "God". But writing or saying the word is easier than defining it, hence the implicit relativism of belief. Because no two humans of different belief systems can concur on what the word means, then the quest is open ended. Citing Bible quotes to locate the identity or nature of "God" is also no use, since those ancient scripture writers were merely providing their own interpretations. Thus, it amounts to simply parroting of ancient constructs.

This is what led author James Byrne in his book, GOD, to write: 

"The idea of God as Being is the creation of the philosophical gaze, a result of the drive to objectification which is the hallmark of the history of metaphysics. It is the `God' which is argued about in theism and atheism, and which can only be a projection of humans"

In other words, a relative construct. Byrne thus endorses French philosopher Jean-Luc Marion’s ploy of only writing ‘God’ with a strikethrough, e.g. GOD. Thereby to indicate no one has the capacity to describe, grasp, conceptualize or manipulate the underlying entity. In effect, as Byrne observes “to think GOD as unthinkable is to reject the idolatry of the God of onto-theology.”

If then the entity is so de-conceptualized, it can’t be debated. (Or perhaps more accurately, such a debate will always prove fruitless or futile since incomplete definitions and contradictions will always emerge – one reason why giving necessary and sufficient conditions for existence may be preferable).   But this simply brings us back full circle to the arguments made in the previous blog: that it is the OAA that directs specific belief toward the imaged object of belief ("God"), hence rendering all such brain-engendered objects RELATIVE. This was clearly too subtle a point for the Inquisition's torturers to grasp, nor would they have been the least bit interested.  No, they'd have just set to work ripping out intestines, genitals or tongues....only concerned that THEIR "God" had been rejected by witch, unbeliever or heretic!  Recall the quote I provided in highlighted ink at the end of the last blog. Referencing it,  the authors (Newberg and D’Aquili) go on to say (p. 163):

“The God Armstrong describes is the God of witch hunts, Inquisitions, Holy Wars, fundamentalist intolerances, and countless other forms of religious persecution- all carried out with the confident presumption of divine endorsement. The authority to commit such atrocities is rooted in the assumption, made by believers – that their God is the only God and their religion is the single, exclusive path to truth. As God’s chosen people they believe they have the right to oppose the ‘enemies’ of God….”

The error is made because these ardent believers fail to see the "God" they are so diligently worshipping is a product of their OAA brain propensities!

  In the same way, the point seems too subtle for our fundie blogger to grasp, since he launches into a long jeremiad against moral relativism and for moral absolutism.  But let's pursue that line of argument, noting first that the issue of moral philosophy and dialectic is subsidiary one to the central object of belief, for the analogous reason that one's moral position is subsidary to one's version of "God". In other words, it is generally one's adopted "God"  which determines one's moral position, level of moral authority, etc.  If one's "God" construct issuing from one's OAA is punitive, then so also will be one's morality.

So what about moral absolutism? Can it be defended as the fundie claims it can?  There is perhaps no better place to start than from the Fundie's own "good Book" which he literally believes, and obviously - if he does so- it is logical to expect he will adopt its absolutist morality literally as well. If he doesn't, then we can argue he doesn't know what he really believes, and we can call his central object of belief ("God") into question as well!

Consider these examples:

2 Kings 2, 23:24  (Concerning Elisha siccing "God's She Bears'" on little children) "And he went up from then unto Beth-el: and as he was going up by the way, there came forth little children out of the city, and mocked him and said unto him: 'Go up, thou bald head, go up , thou bald head'. And he turned back and looked at them, and cursed them in the name of the LORD. And there came forth two she-bears out of the wood, and teared up forty and two children of them"

You can find a satirical re-enactment of the Kings reference here:


Also, consider:

Deut. 21: 18-21: "If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son, who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and - though they chastise him he will not give heed to them, then his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the  place where he lives, and they shall say to the elders of the city,'This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard. Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones, so you shall purge the evil from your midst"

So, by the fundie's own absolutist morality, the first example would mean that any kid or kids that diss a religious elder, disrespects him, ought to be taken to the nearest wild animal lair (zoo?) and thrown to the grizzlies or whatever. The Fundie can argue all he wants that we "can't do that today", but if he does he contradicts his own edicts of biblical moral absolutism! Is the Bible then correct to present this, or was it wrong? Well, for sure any modern day religious moral absolutist emulators would be locked up with the key tossed away today, or maybe given a lethal injection! (Say for getting a pet grizzly and sending him after some kids who were calling him “baldy”.)

The next biblical , moral absolutist example from Deuteronomy, gives moral license for parents who get sass - say from a teen - to drag him to the edge of town and let the "elders" stone him to death. Say what? Can't do that in modern times, 'cause the cops will get you? Sorry, Bubba, then you punted! You have no absolutist morality if you're not willing to faithfully follow your own good Book!

Of course, this shows that the whole principle of moral absolutism is poppycock, because when presented by its most dogmatic form the believers themselves punt. They talk a good talk but refuse to walk the walk!  The danger of moral absolutism is also what led Jacob Bronowski to remark, when he visited the remains of the gas chambers and ovens at Auschwitz during the filming of the BBC's 'Ascent of Man':

"This was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe they have absolute knowledge with no test in reality, this is how they behave."

In other words, neither the Nazis dispatching 6 million Jews to the ovens, nor the Inquisitioners who disembowelled 1 million heretics, witches and 'unbelievers', paused for a moment to think they might not possess absolute moral knowledge. Oh no, they were sure they had, so they could exterminate those they believed inferior (because of their differing beliefs) any way they wished.

Nor can we allow cultural moral relativists to have their way. Just because wives who stray are permitted to be severely beaten (and sometimes killed) in Brazil doesn't mean we allow it in the U.S. Hence, neither moral relativism or absolutism is the answer vis-a-vis morality.  On the contrary , if our moral insight has actually evolved, and emanates from biological markers and other (community) links (see e.g.  http://www.brane-space.blogspot.com/2013/01/jen-ratio-and-goodness-maybe-we-should.html ) then a truly balanced moral viewpoint is possible, when forged in tandem with the brain's prefrontal cortex.

Author Michael Shermer has coined the term, "moral provisionalism" or what I call "ethical incrementalism". As Shermer notes ('The Science of Good and Evil' p. 168):

"Provisional ethics provides a reasonable middle ground between absolute and moral relative systems. Provisional moral principles are applicable to most people, for most circumstances, for most of the time - yet flexible enough to account for the wide diversity of human behavior"

Let's look at a few illustrations:

1) Abortion:

According to ethical incrementalism abortion cannot be ethical in ALL circumstances for all conditions. Thus, since  fetal brain waves appear past 6 months, NO abortions should normally be allowed in the third trimester. The only (provisional) exceptions would be: a) the health of the mother (e.g. if she were to have the child she'd die), or b) case of incest or rape - wherein having the child would create extreme mental trauma for the victim. (By that I mean possible psychosis or severe depression, including attempted suicide).

2) War:

In the judicious application of ethical incrementalism, NO war would be permitted in the U.S.A. unless an actual DECLARATION of WAR by congress is made. This would give congress the opportunity to exercise its constitutional rights, and impart moral and ethical authority in rendering a war truly just. In this light, we'd have no more Vietnams, Iraqs, Afghanistans or other adventures...finagled outside the parameters of congressional validation.

3) Teen sexual behavior:
In the domain of ethical incrementalism, teens are warned that actual intercourse outside of a stable permanent relationship is ethically, morally toxic. As a midway position, however, teens are allowed - as former Surgeon General Jocelyn Elder suggested- to obtain sexual relief via self-stimulation. This balance would immediately stop the increasing rates of teen pregnancy, though likely not without the benefit of a good sex ed. course, which must also include removing the stigma attached (by teen culture) to masturbation.

These are just a few examples, and many more might be cited or found. The point is that there is a middle way, and ethically conscientious humans ought to seek to pursue it - as opposed to pretensions to either a facile absolutism or equally facile relativism. The problem black and white, binary thinking-believing fundies have is they are hoist on their own absolutist petards. If they disavow the applications of the moral dictates in 2 Kings 2, 23:24 or Deut. 21: 18-21 then they are hypocrites, pure and simple - preaching one thing on their blogs, and practicing another in real life!

In any case, in the future - if they are truly serious - they need to address the matter of BELIEF relativism as a function of the human brain and the OAA region. If that's too much for them to handle.....well, then it's best they just admit the "God" they worship is more a cartoon than a reality!


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