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Evil is an intrinsic part of humanity, and it seems almost impossible to erradicate it from society without simultaneously removing a significant part of our human character. There will always be individuals whom seek to gain advantage over others through harmful means. Evil can take on many forms, depending upon the definition one uses to encapsulate the concept. For instance, the popular definition includes elements of malicious intent or actions that are designed to cause injury/distress to others. But what of the individual that accidentally causes harm to another, or whom takes a silent pleasure in seeing other’s misfortune? Here we enter a grey area, the distinction between good and evil blurring ever so slightly, preventing us from making a clear judgement on the topic.

Religion deals with this human disposition towards evil in a depressingy cynical manner. Rather than suggesting ways in which the problem can be overcome, religion instead proposes that evil or “sin” is an inevitable temptation (or a part of our character into which we are born) that can only be overcome with a conscious and directed effort. Invariably one will sin sometime in their life, whereupon the person should ask for forgiveness from their nominated deity. Again we see a shifting of responsibility away from the individual, with the religious hypothesis leaning on such concepts as demonic possession and lapses of faith as an explanation for the existence of evil (unwavering belief in the deity cures all manner of temptations and worldly concerns).

In its current form, religion does not offer a satisfactory explanation for the problem of evil. Humanity is relegated to the backseat in terms of moral responsibility, coerced into conformity through a subservence to the Church’s supposed ideals and ways of life. If our society is to break free of these shackles and embrace a humanistic future free from bigotry and conflict, moral guidance must be gained from within the individual. To this end, society should consider introducing moral education for its citizens, taking a lesson from the annals of history (specifically, ancient Greece with its celebration of individual philosophical growth).

Almost counter-intuitively, some of the earliest recorded philosophies actually advocated a utopian society that was atheistic in nature, and deeply rooted in humanistic, individually managed moral/intellectual growth. One such example is the discipline of Stoicism, founded in the 2nd century BC. This philosophical movement was perhaps one of the first true instances of humanism whereby personal growth was encouraged through introspection and control of destructive emotions (anger, violence etc). The stoic way was to detach oneself from the material world (similar to Buddhist traditions), a tenet that is aptly summarised through the following quote;

“Freedom is secured not by the fulfilling of one’s desires, but by the removal of desire.”

Epictetus

Returning to the problem of evil, Stoicism proposed that the presence of evil in the world is an inevitable fact due to ignorance. The premise of this argument is that a universal reason or logos, permeates throughout reality, and evil arises when individuals go against this reason. I believe what the Stoics mean here is that a universal morality exists, that being a ubiquitous guideline accessible to our reality through conscious deliberation and reflective thought. When individuals act contrary to this universal standard, it is through an ignorance of what the correct course of action actually is.

This stoic ethos is personally appealing because it seems to have a large humanistic component. Namely, all of humanity has the ability to grasp universal moral truths and overcome their ‘ignorance’ of the one true path towards moral enlightenment. Whether such truths actually exist is debatable, and the apathetic nature of Stoicism seems to depress the overall human experience (dulled down emotions, detachment from reality).

The ancient Greek notion of eudaimonia could be a more desirable philosophy by which to guide our moral lives. The basic translation of this term as ‘greatest happiness’ does not do it justice. It was first introduced by Socrates, whom outlined a basic version of the concept as comprising two components; virtue and knowledge. Socrates’ virtue was thus moral knowledge of good and evil, or having the psychological tools to reach the ultimate good. Subsequent students Plato and Aristotle expanded on this original idea of sustained happiness by adding layers of complexity. For example, Aristotle believed that human activity tends towards the experience of maximum eudaimonia, and to achieve that end it was though that one should cultivate rationality of judgement and ‘noble’ characteristics (honor, honesty, pride, friendliness). Epicurus again modified the definition of eudaimonia to be inclusive of pleasure, thus also changing the moral focus to one that maximises the wellbeing of the individual through satisfaction of desire (the argument here is that pleasure equates with goodness and pain with badness, thus the natural conclusion is to maximise positive feeling).

We see that the problem of evil has been dealt with in a wide variety of ways. Even in our modern world it seems that people are becoming angrier, impatient and destructive towards their fellow human beings. Looking at our track record thus far, it seems that the mantra of ‘fight fire with fire’ is being followed by many countries when determining their foreign policy. Modern incarnations of religious moral codes (an eye for an eye) have resulted in a new wave of crusades with theistic beliefs at the forefront once again.

The wisdom of our ancient ancestors is refreshing and surprising, given that commonsense suggests a positive relationship between knowledge and time (human progress increases with the passage of time). It is entirely possible that humanity has been following a false path towards moral enlightenment, and given the lack of progress from the religious front, perhaps a new approach is needed. By treating the problem of evil as one of cultural ignorance we stand to benefit on a high level. The whole judicial system could be re-imagined to one where offenders are actually rehabilitated through education, rather than simply breeding generations of hardened criminals. Treating evil as a form of improper judgement forces our society to take moral responsibility at the individual level, thus resulting in real and measurable changes for the better.

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The period of 470-1000AD encompassed what is now popularly referred to as the medieval ‘dark age’. During this time, human civilisation in the West saw a stagnation of not only culture but society itself. It was a time of great persecution, societal uncertainty and religious fanaticism. It cannot be helped that similarities seem to arise between this tumultuous period and that which we experience today. Some have even proposed that we stand on the brink of a new era, one that is set to repeat the stagnation of the medieval dark ages albeit with a more modern flavour. Current worldly happenings seem to support such a conclusion. If we are at such a point in the history of modern civilisation, what form would a ‘new dark age’ take? What factors are conspiring against humanity to usher in a period of uncertainty and danger? Do dark ages occur in predictable cycles, and if so, should we embrace rather than fear this possible development? These are the questions I would like to discuss in this article.

Historically, the dark ages were only labelled so in retrospect by scholars reflecting upon the past and embracing humanistic principles. It is with such observations that we cast our aspersions upon the society of today. Even so, humanity struggles for an objective opinion, for it can be argued that every great civilisation wishes to live within a defining period of history. Keeping such a proposition in mind, it is nevertheless convincing to proffer the opinion that we are heading towards a defining societal moment. A great tension seems to be brewing; on the one hand there is the increasing dichotomy between religion and science, with sharply drawn battle lines and an unflinching ideology. On the other we have mounting evidence suggesting that the planet is on the verge of environmental collapse. It may only be a matter of time before these factors destabilise the dynamic system that is modern society past its engineered limits.

Modern society seems to have an unhealthy obsession with routine and predictability. The uncertainty that these potential disasters foster act to challenge this obsession, to the point that we seek reassurance. Problems arise when this reassurance takes the form of fanatical (and untenable) religious, philosophical or empirical belief structures. Such beliefs stand out like a signalling light house, the search beam symbolising stability and certainty in stark contrast to the murky, dangerous waters of modern society. But just as the light house guards from the danger of rocks, so too does the pillar of belief warn against corruption. For it is, sadly, intrinsic human nature to take advantage of every situation (to guarantee the survival of oneself through power and influence), and in combination with personality, (propensity towards exploitation of others) beliefs can be twisted to ensure personal gain or the elimination of opposition. It seems that such a phenomenon could be acting today. Religion provides a suitable system upon which to relieve mental anguish and distress at the state of the world (reassurance that . So too does science, as it proscribes the fallacies of following spiritual belief and a similarly blind ‘faith’ in securing a technological solution to humanity’s problems. In that respect, empiricism and religion are quite similar (much to their mutual chagrin).

In such a system we see that de-stablisation is inevitable; a handful of belief structure emerge from the chaos as dominant and compete for control. Progressively extreme positions are adopted (spurred on by manipulators exploiting for personal gain), which in turn sets up the participants for escalating levels of conflict. Our loyalty to the group that aims to secure its survival, ultimately (and ironically) leads to the demise of all involved. It is our lack of tolerance and subservience to evolutionary mechanisms, coupled with a lack of insight into both our internal nature as a person and social interactions that precipitates such a conclusion.

This brings the article to its midpoint, and the suggestion that three main factors are responsible for the development of a new dark ages.

Human belief systems

As argued above, humans have an intrinsic desire to subscribe to certain world views and spiritual beliefs. Whether due to a more fundamental need for explanation in the face of the unknown (being prepared for the unexpected) or simply the attraction of social groupings and initiation into a new hierarchy, the fact remains that humans like to organise their beliefs according to a certain structure. When other groups are encountered whose beliefs differ in some respect, the inevitable outcome is either submission (of the weaker group) or conflict. Perhaps an appropriate maxim that sums up this phenomenon is ‘if you can’t convert them, kill them’. Thus we see at one level, our beliefs acting as a catalyst for conflict with other groups of people. At a higher level, such beliefs are then modified or interpreted in varying ways so as to justify the acts committed, reassuring the group of its moral standing (the enemy is sub human, ‘infidels’, wartime propaganda etc). Belief is also a tool that is used to create a sense of identity, which is another feature that conscious beings seem to require. Those that are lacking in individuality and guidance take to belief systems in order to perhaps gain stability within their lives. Without identity we are operating at a reduced capacity, nothing more than automatons responding to stimuli, so in this respect, belief can form a useful method for providing motivation and structure to an individual. Problems arise when beliefs become so corrupted or conflict so great that any act can be justified without cause for long-term planning; only the complete destruction of the enemy is a viable outcome. The conflict spirals out of control and precipitates major change; another risk factor for ensuring the New Dark Age is a plausible reality.

Economic/Political Collapse

Numerous socio-economic experiments have been conducted over the few millenia that organised civilisation has existed on this planet, with varying degrees of success. Democracy seems to be the greatest windfall to modern politics, ushering in a new era of liberation and equity. But has its time come to an end? Some would argue that the masses need control if certain standards are to be maintained. While a small proportion of society would be capable of living under such an arrangement, the reality that some large swath of the population cannot co-exist without the need for social management and punitive methods calls into question the ultimate success of our political system. Communism failed spectacularly, most notably for its potential for abuse through corruption and dictatorship. Here we have the unfortunate state of affairs that those who come into power are also those whom lack the qualities that one would expect from a ruler. Islamic states don’t even enter the picture; the main aim of such societal systems is the establishment of a theocratic state that is perhaps even more susceptible to abuse (the combination of corrupted beliefs that justify atrocities and unification of church with state causing conflict with other populations whose beliefs differ).

Is democracy and capitalism running our planet into the ground? Some would point to recent stockmarket collapse and record inflation as a sign that yes, perhaps human greed is allowed too much leeway. Others merely shake their heads and point to the cyclical nature of the economy; “it’s just a small downturn that will soon be corrected” they proclaim. Mounting evidence seems to counter such a proposition, as rising interest rates, property prices and living costs force the population to work more, and own less. Is our present system of political control and economic growth sustainable? Judging by recent world events, perhaps not, thus precipitating another factor that could lead to the establishment of a new dark age.

Ecological Destruction

Tied closely to the policies implemented by modern politics and economic propensities is the phenomenon of ‘global warming’, or more broadly, the lack of respect for our biosphere. It seems almost unbelievable that humanity has turned a blind eye to the mounting problems occurring within our planet. While global warming has arguments both for and against, I doubt that any respectable empiricist, or indeed, responsible citizen, could refute that humanity has implemented some questionable environmental practices in the name of progress. Some may argue that the things we take for granted (even the laptop upon which I type this article) would not have been possible without such practices. But when the fate of the human race hangs in the balance, surely this is a high price to pay in such a high stakes game. Human nature surely plays a part in this oversight; our brains are wired to consider the now, as opposed to the might or could. By focusing on the present in such a way, the immediate survival of the individual (and the group) is ensured. Long term thought is not useful in the context of a tribal society where life is a daily struggle. Again we are hampered by more primitive mechanisms that have exceeded their usefulness. In short, humanity has advanced a sufficiently rapid pace that has since overtaken the ability of our faculties to adapt. Stuck with a game of catchup (that most neglect to see the value or importance of) society is falling short of the skills it needs to deal with the challenges that lay ahead. The destruction of this planet, coupled with our inability to reliably plan and deal with future events could (in combination with previous factors such as deliberate political/economic oversight of the problem) precipitate a new dark age in society.

But is a new dark age all doom and gloom? Certainly it will be a time of mass change and potential for great catastrophe, but an emergence out the other side could herald a new civilisation that is well equipped to deal with and manage the challenges of an uncertain future. Looking towards the future, one can’t help but feel a sense of trepidation. Over population, dwindling resources and an increasing schism between religion and science are all contributing towards a great change in the structure of society. While it would be immoral to condone and encourage such a period in light of the monumental loss of order, perhaps it is ‘part of the grand plan’ so to speak in keeping humanity in check and ensuring that the Earth maintains its capacity of life. In effect, humanity is a parasite that has suitably infected its host, resulting in the eventual collapse of its life-giving organs. Perhaps a new dark age will provide the cleansing of mind and spirit that humanity needs to refocus its efforts on the things that really matter; that being every individual attaining individual perfection and living as the best they can possibly be.

In a previous article, I discussed the possibility of a naturally occurring morality; one that emerges from interacting biological systems and is characterised by cooperative, selfless behaviours. Nature is replete with examples of such morality, in the form of in-group favouritism, cooperativity between species (symbiotic relationships) and the delicate interrelations between lower forms of life (cellular interaction). But we humans seem to have taken morality to a higher plane of existence, classifying behaviours and thoughts into a menagerie of distinct categories depending on the perceived level of good or bad done to external agents. Is morality a concept that is constant throughout the universe? If so, how could morality be defined in a philosophically ‘universal’ way, and how does it fit in with other universals? In addition, how can humans make the distinction between what is morally ‘good’ and ‘bad? These are the questions I would like to explore in this article.

When people speak about morality, they are usually referring to concepts of good and evil. Things that help and things that hinder. A simplistic dichotomy into which behaviours and thoughts can be assigned. Humans have a long history with this kind of morality. It is closely intertwined with religion, with early scriptures and the resulting beliefs providing the means to which populations could be taught the virtues of acting in positive ways. The defining feature of religious morality finds it footing with the lack of faith in the human capacity to act for the good of the many. Religions are laced with prejudicial put downs that seek to undermine our moral integrity. But they do touch on a twinge of truth; evolution has seen the creation of a (primarily) self-centred organism. Taking the cynical view, it can be argued that all human behaviour can be reduced to purely egotistical foundations.

Thus the problem becomes not one of definition, but of plausibility (in relation to humanity’s intrinsic capacity for acting in morally acceptable ways). Is religion correct in its assumptions regarding our moral ability? Are we born into a world of deterministic sin? Theistically, it seems that any conclusion can be supported via the means of unthinking faith. However, before this religiosity is dismissed out of hand, it might be prudent to consider the underlying insight offered.

Evolution has shown that organisms are primarily interested in survival of the self (propagation of genetic material). This fits in with the religious view that humanity is fundamentally concerned with first-order, self-oriented consequences, ann raises the question of whether selfish behaviour should be considered immoral. But what of moral events such as altruism, cooperation and in-group behavioural patterns? These too can be reduced to the level of self-centered egoism, with the superficial layer of supposed generosity stripped away to more meager foundations.

Morality then becomes a way of a means to an end, that end being the fulfillment of some personal requirement. Self initiated sacrifice (altruism) elevates one’s social standing, and provides the source for that ‘warm, fuzzy feeling’ we all know and love. Here we have dual modes of satiation, one that is external to the agent (increasing power, status) and one that is internal (evolutionary mechanism for rewarding cooperation). Religious cynicism is again supported, in that humans seem to have great difficulty in performing authentic moral acts. Perhaps our problem here lies not in the theistic stalker, laughing gleefully at our attempts to grasp at some sort of intrinsic human goodness, but rather in our use of the word ‘authentic’. If one makes an allowance and conceeds that humans could simply lack the faculties for connotation-free morality, and instead put forward the proposition that moral behaviours are instead measured by their main direction of action (directed inwards; selfishly or outwards; altruistically), we can arrival at a usable conceptualisation.

Reconvening, we now have a new operational definition of morality. Moral action is thus characterised by the focus of its attention (inward vs outward) as opposed to a polarised ‘good vs evil’, which manages to evade the controversy introduced by theism and evolutionary biology (two unlikely allies!). The resulting consequence is that we have a kind of morality which is not defined by its degree of ‘ correctness’, which from any perspective is entirely relative. However, if we are to arrive at a meaningful and usable moral universal that is applicable to human society, we need to at least consider this problem of evil and good.

How can an act be defined as morally right or wrong? Considering this question alone conjours up a large degree of uncertainty and subjectivity. In the context of the golden rule (do unto others as you would have done unto yourself), we arrive at even murkier waters; what of the psychotic or sadist whom prefers what society would consider abnormal treatment? In such a situation could ‘normally’ unacceptable behaviour be construed as morally correct? It is prudent to discuss the plausibility of defining morality in terms of universals that are not dependent upon subjective interpretation if this confusion is to be avoided.

Once again we have returned to the issue of objectively assessing an act for its moral content. Intuitively, evil acts cause harm to others and good acts result in benefits. But again we are falling far short of the region encapsulated by morality; specifically, that acts can seem superficially evil yet arise from fundamentally good intentions. And thus we find a useful identifier (in the form of intention) that is worthy of assessing the moral worth of actions.

Unfortunately we are held back by the impervious nature of the assessing medium. Intention can only be ascertained through introspection, and to a lesser degree, psychometric testing. Intention can even be illusive to the individual, if their judgement is clouded by mental illness, biological deformity or an unconscious repression of internal causality (deferring responsibility away from the individual). Therefore, with such a slippery method of assessment regarding the authenticity and nature of the moral act, it seems difficult that morality could ever be construed as a universal.

Universals are exactly what their name connotes; properties of the world in which we inhabit that are experienced across reality. That is to say, morality could be classed as a universal due to its generality amoung our species and its quality of superceeding characterising and distinguishing features (in terms of mundane, everyday experience). If one is to class morality under the category of universals, one should modify the definition to incorporate features that are non-specific and objective. Herein lies the problem with morality; it is such a variable phenomenon, with large fluctuations in individual perspective. From this point there are two main options available given current knowledge on the subject. Democratically, the qualities of a universal morality could be determined through majority vote. Alternatively, a select group of individuals or one definitive authority could propose and define a universal concept of morality. One is left with few options on how to proceed.

If a universal conceptualisation of morality is to be proposed, an individual perspective is the only avenue left with the tools we have at our disposal. We have already discussed the possibility of internal vs external morality (bowing to pressures that dictate human morality is indivisibly selfish, and removing the focus from good vs evil considerations). This, combined with a weighted system that emphasises not the degree of goodness, but rather the consideration of the self versus others, results in a useful measure of morality (for example, there will always be a small percentage of internal focus). But what are we using as the basis for our measurement? Intention has already proved to be elusive, as is objective observation of acts (moral behaviours can be reliant on internal reasoning to determine their moral worth, some behaviours go unobserved or can be ambiguous to an external agent). Discounting the possibility of a technological breakthrough enabling direct thought observation (and the ethical considerations such an invasion of privacy would bring), it seems difficult on how we can proceed.

Perhaps it is best to simply take a leap of faith, believing in humanity’s ability to make judgements regarding moral behaviour. Instead of cynically throwing away our intrinsic abilities (which surely do vary in effectiveness within the population), we should trust that at least some of us would have the insight to make the call. With morality, the buck definitely stops with the individual, which is a fact that most people can have a hard time swallowing. Moral responsibility definitely rests with the persons involved, and in combination with a universally expansive definition, makes for some interesting assertations of blame, not to mention a pressuring force to educate the populace on the virtues of fostering introspective skills.

Morality is a phenomenon that permeates through both society as a whole and also individually via the consciousness of independent entities. It is a force that regularly influences our behaviour and is experienced (in some form or another) universally, species-wide. Intuitively, morality seems to be at the very least, a sufficient condition for the creation of human groups. Without it, co-operation between individuals would be non-existent. But does morality run deeper? Is it, in fact, a necessary condition of group formation and a naturally emergent phenomenon that stems from the interaction of replicating systems? Or can morality only be experienced by organisms operating on a higher plane of existence – those that have the required faculties with which to weigh up pros and cons, engage in moral decision making and other empathic endeavors (related to theory of mind)?

The resolution to this question depends entirely on how one defines the term. If we take morality to encompass the act of mentally engaging in self-reflective thought as a means with which to guide observable behaviours (acting in either selfish or selfless interests), then the answer to our question is yes, morality seems to be inescapably and exclusively linked only to humanity. However, if we twinge this definition and look at the etiology of morality – where this term draws its roots and how it developed over time, one finds that even the co-operative behaviours of primitive organisms could be said to construe some sort of basic morality. If we delve even deeper and ask how such behaviours came to be, we find that the answer is not quite so obvious. Can a basic version of morality (observable through cooperative behaviours) result as a natural consequence of interactions beyond the singular?

When viewed from this perspective, cooperation and altruism seem highly unlikely; a system of individually competing organisms, logically, would evolve to favour the individual rather than the group. This question is especially prudent when studying cooperative behaviours in bacteria or more complex, multicellular forms of life, as they lack a consciousness capable of considering delayed rewards or benefits from selfless acts

In relation to humanity, why are some individuals born altruistic while others take advantage without cause for guilt? How can ‘goodness’ evolve in biological systems when it runs counter to the benefit of the individual? These are the questions I would like to explore in this article.

Morality, in the traditional, philosophical sense is often constructed in a way that describes the meta-cognitions humans experience in creating rules for appropriate (or inappropriate) behaviour (inclusive of mental activity). Morality can take on a vast array of flavours; evil at one extreme, goodness at the other. We use our sense of morality in order to plan and justify our thoughts and actions, incorporating it into our mental representations of how the world functions and conveys meaning. Morality is a dynamic; it changes with the flow of time, the composition of society and the maturity of the individual. We use it not only to evaluate the intentions and behaviours of ourselves, but also of others. In this sense, morality is an overarching egoistic ‘book of rules’ which the consciousness consults in order to determine whether harm or good is being done. Thus, it seeps into many of our mental sub-compartments; decision making, behavioural modification, information processing, emotional response/interpretation and mental planning (‘future thought’) to name a few.

As morality entertains such a privileged omni-presence, humanity has, understandably, long sought to not only provide standardised ‘rules of engagement’ regarding moral conduct but has also attempted to explain the underlying psychological processes and development of our moral capabilities. Religion, thus, could perhaps be the first of such attempts at explanation. It certainly contains many of the idiosyncrasies of morality and proposes a theistic basis for human moral capability. Religion removes ultimate moral responsibility from the individual, instead placing it upon the shoulders of a higher authority – god. The individual is tasked with simple obedience to the moral creeds passed down from those privileged few who are ‘touched’ with divine inspiration.

But this view does morality no justice. Certainly, if one does not subscribe to theistic beliefs then morality is in trouble; by this extreme positioning, morality is synonymous with religion and one definitely cannot live without the other.

Conversely (and reassuringly), in modern society we have seen that morality does exist in individuals whom lack spirituality. It has been reaffirmed as an intrinsically human trait with deeper roots than the scripture of religious texts. Moral understanding has matured beyond the point of appealing to a higher being and has reattached itself firmly to the human mind. The problem with this newfound interpretation is that in order for morality to be considered as a naturally emergent product of biological systems, moral evolution is a necessary requirement. Put simply, natural examples of moral systems (consisting of cooperative behaviour and within group preference) must be observable in the natural environment. Moral evolution must be a naturally occurring phenomenon.

A thought experiment known as the “Prisoner’s dilemma” summarises succinctly the inherent problems with the natural evolution of mutually cooperative behaviour. This scenario consists of two parties, prisoners, whom are seeking an early release from jail. They are given the choice of either a) betraying their cellmate and walking free while the other has their sentence increased – ‘defecting’ or b) staying silent and mutually receiving a shorter sentence – ‘cooperating’. It becomes immediately apparent that in order for both parties to benefit, both should remain silent and enjoy a reduced incarceration period. Unfortunately, and also the catalyst for the terming of this scenario as a dilemma, the real equilibrium point is for both parties to betray. Here, the pay-off is the largest – walking free while your partner in crime remains behind with an increased sentence. In the case of humans, it seems that some sort of meta-analysis has to be done, a nth-order degree of separation (thinking about thinking about thinking), with the most dominant stratagem resulting in betrayal by both parties.

Here we have an example of the end product; an advanced kind of morality resulting from social pressures and their influence on overall outcome (should I betray or cooperate – do I trust this person?). In order to look at the development of morality from its more primal roots, it is prudent to examine research in the field of evolutionary biology. One such empirical investigation (conducted by Aviles, 2002that is representative of the field involves the mathematical simulation of interacting organisms. Modern computers lend themselves naturally to the task of genetic simulation. Due to the iterative nature of evolution, thousands of successive generations live, breed and die in the time it takes the computer’s CPU to crunch through the required functions. Aviles (2002) took this approach and created a mathematical model that begins at t = 0 and follows pre-defined rules of reproduction, genetic mutation and group formation. The numerical details are irrelevant; suffice to say that cooperative behaviours emerged in combination with ‘cheaters’ and ‘freeloaders’. Thus we see the dichotomous appearance of a basic kind of morality that has evolved spontaneously and naturally, even though the individual may suffer a ‘fitness’ penalty. More on this later.

“[the results] suggest that the negative effect that freeloaders have on group productivity (by failing to contribute to communal activities and by making groups too large) should be sufficient to maintain cooperation under a broad range of realistic conditions even among nonrelatives and even in the presence of relatively steep fitness costs of cooperation” Aviles, (2002).

Are these results translatable to reality? It is all well and good to speak of digital simulations with vastly simplified models guiding synthetic behaviour; the real test comes in observation of naturally occurring forms of life. Discussion by Kreft and Bonhoeffer (2005) lends support to the reality of single-celled cooperation, going so far as suggesting that “micro-organisms are ever more widely recognized as social”. Surely an exaggerated caricature of the more common definition of ‘socialness’, however the analogy is appropriate. Kreft et al effectively summarise the leading research in this field, and put forward the resounding view that single-celled organisms can evolve to show altruistic (cooperative) behaviours. We should hope so; otherwise the multicellularity which led to the evolution of humanity would have nullified our species’ development before it even started!

But what happened to those pesky mutations that evolved to look out for themselves? Defectors (choosing not to cooperate) and cheaters (choosing to take advantage of altruists) are also naturally emergent. Counter-intuitively, such groups are shown to be kept in their place by the cooperators. Too many cheaters, and the group fails through exploitation. The key lies in the dynamic nature of this process. Aviles (2002) found that in every simulation, the number of cheaters was kept in control by the dynamics of the group. A natural equilibrium developed, with the total group size fluctuating according to the number of cheaters versus cooperators. In situations where cheaters ruled; the group size dropped dramatically, resulting in a lack of productive work and reduced reproductive rates. Thus, the number of cheaters is kept in check by the welfare of the group. It’s almost a love/hate relationship; the system hates exploiters, but in saying that, it also tolerates their existence (in sufficient numbers).

Extrapolating from these conclusions, a logical outcome would be the universal adoption of cooperative behaviours. There are prime examples of this in nature; bee and ant colonies, migratory birds, various aquatic species, even humans (to an extent) all work together towards the common good. The reason why we don’t see this more often, I believe, is due to convergent evolution – different species solved the same problem from different approaches. Take flight for example – this has been solved separate times in history by both birds and insects. The likelihood of cooperation is also affected by external factors; evolutionary ‘pressures’ that can guide the flow of genetic development. The physical structure of the individual, environmental changes and resource scarcity are all examples of such factors that can influence whether members of the same species work together.

Humanity is a prime example; intrinsically we seem to have a sense of inner morality and tendency to cooperate when the conditions suit. The addition of consciousness complicates morality somewhat, in that we think about what others might do in the same situation, defer to group norms/expectations, conform to our own premeditated moral guidelines and are paralyzed by indecisiveness. We also factor in environmental conditions, manipulating situations through false displays of ‘pseudo-morality’ to ensure our survival in the event of resource scarcity. But when the conditions are just so, humanity does seem to pull up its trousers and bind together as a singular, collective organism. When push comes to shove humanity can work in unison. However just as bacteria evolve cheaters and freeloaders, so to does humanity give birth to individuals that seem to lack a sense of moral guidance.

Morality must be a universal trait, a naturally emergent phenomenon that predisposes organisms to cooperate towards the common good. But just as moral ‘goodness’ evolves naturally, so too does immorality. Naturally emergent cheaters and freeloaders are an intrinsic part of the evolution of biological systems. Translating these results to the plight of humanity, it becomes apparent that such individual traits are also naturally occurring in society. Genetically, and to a lesser extent, environmentally, traits from both ends of the moral scale will always be a part of human society. This surely has implications for the plans of a futurist society, relying solely on humanistic principles. Moral equilibrium is ensured, at least biologically, for the better or worse. Whether we can physically change the course of natural evolution and produce a purely cooperative species is a question that can only be answered outside the realms of philosophy.

First of all I wanted to thank mjackson75 for kindly accepting my invitation for this interview. Your time is much appreciated. This transcript begins the first of my ‘Interview with a…” series where the beliefs of a wide variety of people are investigated. The emphasis of this series is on religious belief and what we can learn about it in terms of human nature. I also hope that it allows people from both sides to consider issues from an alternative point of view and contributes to a plan of action as to how society can move forward, whether through a amalgamation of science and spirituality or otherwise.

Please take a moment to visit mjackson75’s wordpress blog for more of his insightful views on theism, politics and ontology.
I thought we would begin with a clarification of your present position. In what sense do you describe yourself as a Deist? What do you mean by this term?

I consider myself a Philosophical Deist. Actually, I consider Deism more of a philosophy anyway than a religion as there is no real system tied with Deism. Instead, Deism is a thought system with some basic beliefs: Belief in a creator of some sort; belief that the universe gives ample evidence of creation; rejection of so called “revealed” religions (religions through special revelation of written documents or prophets); and a belief in the preciousness of life.

You mention on your blog that you were originally part of Christian worship. Was there a defining moment when you realised that traditional religion was not fulfilling your spiritual need? If not, have you always harboured doubts regarding the authenticity of religious teachings but lacked a suitable alternative?

There was no defining moment for me. I became serious about my Christianity when I was eighteen years old. From that time on, I went to and became very active in my church, I read the Bible, I prayed, I went to Bible studies, I sang in the church choir, I actively pursued a relationship with Jesus Christ. However, over these 10 or so years, there was always that little voice in the back of my head questioning whether I truly believed what I was proclaiming. So, I immersed myself in apologetics. I would never say I became an expert scholar, but I became pretty well armed with all of the arguments for belief.

I discovered that I truly valued intellectualism. Not to mean I’m extremely intelligent, instead I mean that I love to think, I love to be challenged intellectually. I soon came to the realization that I was faking my Christianity. I decided that wasn’t fair to me or to the church and other Christians with whom I was worshiping on Sundays. The more I tried to immerse myself in my Christianity and pray, the more uncomfortable I became. After quite awhile, I was able to nail down some of my beliefs, and Deism is where I found a fit.

What are your thoughts on an intrinsic human need for spirituality? Do the traditional religions (Islam, Christianity, Judaism etc) fundamentally satisfy this need for you or do they offer only superficial reassurance?

I believe that humans are spiritual beings. The reason I say this, is that I do believe in St. Anselm’s (I think???) argument that basically said: finite beings could never comprehend the infinite if the infinite did not exist. I probably really butchered that, but it’s been a long time. Anyway, I see truth in this statement. Man is a spiritual being in the sense that he strives to know the truth. Even Atheists, I believe, think often of spiritual things…they may ultimately reject the thoughts they had, but they do still think them. We can’t help but wonder is there something greater than ourselves out there.

As far as the religions go, I don’t believe they satisfy humanity’s spiritual appetites at all. In some ways maybe, but overall the religions are systems of belief and behavior. They can become extremely impersonal. The religious texts of these religions are thousands of years old. They were from different times, cultures, and places. This doesn’t mean that they are completely irrelevant; however, I do believe that trying to submit your beliefs to a pre-established system based on texts and prophets is not going to ultimately be fulfilling. This is a personal question. I think the answer will be quite different coming from a Muslim, Jew, or Christian. To me, the revealed religions offer superficial reassurance. I think they take the personal responsibility out of living a good life through the concepts of original sin, human depravity, sin, justification, and sanctification.

What do you think are the differences in those who adopt traditional religions vs those who do not (atheist or agnostic)?

Dangerous question here. I’m bound to tick someone off with this one. Firstly, I believe that our experiences have a lot to do with it. These experiences range from did your parents go to church, to have you been through a lot of pain in your life. Experience plays a huge role in everything we do. That said, I do believe that people who tend to be more emotionally focused, tend to choose religion; whereas people who are more intellectually or rationally focused, tend toward Atheism or Agnosticism. Unfortunately, people reading this will assume that when I speak of reason and intellect, I am referring to “smart” people. That is not the case. There are plenty of Christians out there who could debate me under the table. I’m not referring to intelligence level. I’m referring to the mode of thinking.

Do you believe humanity is intrinsically ‘good’ at heart? If so, how do you explain the occurrence of ‘badness’ (crime, greed, anger) in the world?

I don’t believe that humanity is intrinsically “bad” at heart. It’s hard to say whether I believe we’re intrinsically “good.” I think what is more accurate for me is the belief that humanity is intrinsically “selfish.” I don’t believe this is a bad thing overall.

I have become rather convinced that our actions out of our love and respect for others stems from good selfishness. I mean that I, like every human, want to be happy. What makes me happy? My wife and son and doing good for others. This means that because I love my wife and son, I will sacrifice my wants and desires in order to give them what they want and need. Through sacrificing my wants and desires (altruism) I am actually making myself happier because they are happy. I believe that humans do good because doing good makes them happy. So, if doing good makes you happy, perhaps that means you’re intrinsically good.

As far as “badness,” I think that is selfishness gone awry. Crime and greed are results of selfishness based on obtaining my wants and needs, not the selfishness of making myself happy through helping others. When one puts his or her own desires above the needs of another individual, we can easily run into trouble.

Do you think spirituality can solve this problem of human vices? If yes. how so? If not, how can we live harmonious lives if our future seems devoid of spirituality (through an increasing reliance on science and technology)?

I don’t believe that spirituality can solve the problem of human vices. The reason is that none of is likely to ever attain true good selfishness (as explained above). We are imperfect beings with thoughts, limited perceptions, and emotions. I don’t believe spirituality has to be about improving ourselves. I think spirituality could just be about recognizing what’s out there. By determining one’s beliefs, then one can begin to align his or her life to those beliefs and values. However, we are all going to have some different ideas of what is most important.

I don’t believe science and technology are necessarily the answer either. I believe that this is a human issue, some would say a matter of the heart. I don’t necessarily like that cliché, but I guess it works. I don’t think any scientific discovery or technology is going to make humanity get along better. As long as everyone has their own provincial perspectives (Steven Covey refers to it as Paradigm), we will have the basis for misunderstanding.

How would you explain the increasing trend towards agnosticism and atheism? What is causing this shift and how far will it go? Will both sides become increasingly fundamental and extremist with no ‘theistic middle ground’ for the average citizen?

I think this may have to do more with the philosophical changes taking place between generations. Modernity vs. Post-Modernity. The younger generations, X-ers like me, and the Nexers, don’t seem interested too interested in just accepting the religion of our parents. Many of us are determined to find out for ourselves. There is also a sense of rebellion, I believe, between any two generations.
I actually do think that the theistic vs. atheist/agnostic sides will become more polarized. I’m not sure that “extremist” is the right word, but I do think their beliefs will reach a greater separation and less understanding. I don’t know that there will be any theistic middle ground. The book of Revelation talks about the “Luke-warmness” of the church at Laodicea (I think). For many people of any faith, there is no interest in finding a middle ground, it’s either all the way in or all the way out. People like me are apostates that are going to hell, no matter how well I live my life and how good a person I am. For Christians, there are no “good” people, because of the depravity of man. Therefore, either you accept the gift of eternal life, or you don’t.

What aspects of Humanism most appeal to you and why?

Truly, the aspects of Humanism that most appeal to me are:

  1. The belief that man is the highest form evolved;

  2. The belief that man is not fallen in nature;

  3. The belief that man is the source for endless progression; and

  4. The belief that man is capable.

What aspects of Humanism do not appeal to you? How can they be improved?

There are a few aspects that don’t appeal to me:

  1. The politics of many humanists being nationless, borderless, and oftentimes arguing for a more socialist form of government;

  2. There are others whose politics seem to center around moving toward a more direct democracy form of government (which I believe is totally impractical);

  3. Many Humanists, instead of arguing their beliefs, seem to be engaging in more and more ad-hominum attacks against theists; and

  4. The fact that many Humanists won’t allow for the possibility of a creator

As far as improvement, I have made generalizations in the last two questions, and I am well aware that there are always exceptions. I think that just like any movement or philosophical ideal, there will always be those who desire to take things to the extreme. I would like to see the Humanist associations keep away from the radical fringe, at least in official policy. The more radical one becomes, the less influence he or she is likely to have.

How do you respond to the theistic criticism that Humanism cannot provide the type of morality offered by religion?

This is hard to respond to in a way that the theist will accept. However, because I don’t believe in the inspiration of the Bible, or any other revealed religion for that matter, I see the morality as not divinely inspired through religion’s revelation, rather I see morality in humanity as culminating from an amalgamation of both a- priori and environmental influences. I believe that humanity is endowed with a general respect for life and taught a general respect for property. Immediately the “fallen” and selfish nature of man is brought up in combating my view, however, I think the vast majority of humans do have a respect for the lives and property of others.

And finally, how do you see the future of human spirituality? Do you think that a fusion of all religions is appropriate (eg the mental principles of Buddhism and Hindu with the morality of Christianity and Islam)? Or do you think future society has no place for spirituality at all, and ‘hard science’ will come to dominate?

To be honest, I don’t see either in the future. As far as religions go, the majority of those holding to them do so because one particular religion speaks to them in a personal way. Usually, it seems that this is so by cultures. There will undoubtedly be the “freethinkers” such as myself who have beliefs that my fit into some aspects of various religions, but I think the revealed religions have too strong a grasp on the various global cultures (i.e. Christianity in Western Civilization, Islam in the Middle East, etc…) I believe there is a place for spirituality in humanity. I don’t believe that “hard science” can ever replace the never-ending search for the greater.

I would like to thank Vulcanis for the opportunity to give my views on these fantastic questions. This interview really made me think about what I truly believe. I truly enjoyed this.

Secular humanism is fast becoming one of the most popular idealogical fads of this age. An increasing unrest is brewing within the world’s intellectual elite as religion and atheism go head to head. As we stand at this crossroads, it is important to take a moment and reflect upon what this trend means to a modern society. In this article I aim to examine the current conflict between atheism and theism, and how this is dividing the opposing parties towards an increasing fundamentalism. Secondly, I also wish to introduce the life philosophy of Secular Humanism, an alternative value system that allows for spirituality and intellectual skepticism to co-exist.

Teleological thought processes seem to dominate human thought, as we attempt to look beyond what is in front of us and seek some deeper meaning or absolute truth about the world. ‘Stronger’ religions gain footholds among the populace which then snowball and spread like contagion throughout the minds of the world. In this context, a strong religion is one that 1) seems plausible to the agent, 2) appeals to human nature and 3) easily passed between people. Weak religions, by way of contrast, could be likened to cults; ideas that appeal to a small group of deluded individuals and involve overly complex ritualistic ceremonies (reducing its appeal through a lack of understanding). Thus religion as we know it is a natural emergent outcome of this process; easily communicable between individuals and groups alike, regardless of nationality or ethnicity and fiercely infectious and appealing to the inner human need for explaining the unknown.

Spirituality is undoubtedly an intrinsically human characteristic, dating back to the birth of civilisation. Therefore, it seems illogical to try and deny that which comes as second nature. It can be argued, however, that religion in its most pure and authentic form is becoming increasingly scarce. The core principles of religion are not to blame. Rather, spirituality is a human trait that should be protected at all costs. It is the distortion of religion by those in power that creates problems. The Dark Ages in medieval Europe is a prime example of such corruption. During this period of cultural and intellectual stagnation, religion came to be recognised as a source of power and control over a populace. Tapping into and exploiting the human ‘soft-spot’ for spirituality not only changed the way in which religion was taught, but created a fusion of church and state. Fortunately this has been revised in most (I use this word with emphasis due to the presence of Middle Eastern governments based on a interpretation of religion) modern constitutions and a separation of church and state is recognised as not only fair/just, but also the ethical and morally correct thing to do.

In more recent times, the rising rate of education and promotion of scientific principles has culminated in an emerging trend towards strong atheism; that is, explicitly declared, proud atheism with individuals actively asserting their disbelief in god(s) and general rejection of traditional religious ritual. Strong atheism has been spearheaded (most prominently) by the biologist Richard Dawkins and philosopher Daniel Dennet, two very vocal advocates of disbelief. While their methods and tone could be construed as (ironically) verging on the fundamentalist, it has been argued that such a strong stance is necessary in order to counter the matching (and disturbing) rise in fundamentalist religiosity. I propose that it is no coincidence that this increase (particularly radical Islamic groups) is occurring in third world countries that lag behind the Western world. Original religious teachings are becoming distorted as the evil power of theism is once again realised and abused by those in authority.

Aethism is finally becoming ‘fashionable’ (for lack of a better word). While the concept has existed since ancient Greece (indeed, Aristotle was executed for his disbelief in the Greek gods), those who spoke out against it were met with unflinching retribution. This is where we really get to the crux of the issue with religion; the way in which it can be corrupted to play out the delusions of a powerful few, and the way in which its teachings are often taken literally. Adding to the problem is religion’s unwavering stance against criticism and introspection. This is where modern society comes in, with its rising distaste for those which do not have the courage to look inward and accept the possibility of error. The education system (to a degree) promotes a healthy skepticism and questioning attitude which is finally causing a critical mass of doubters to turn around and challenge the monopoly that religion has held over our minds for so long.

There are those of us who seem to have been born with a natural deference to atheism, while others sit in the middle content to hold some belief but doubting the minor details, and finally the fundamentalists who are indoctrinated at an early age. It is to this middle group that this article appeals. Secular Humanism is not only a collection of ideas and philosophical stances, but rather matches the ability of religion to provide a framework upon which to guide conduct. Some of us seem to require such structure within our belief systems, as it seems to be human nature to hold a cynical attitude towards the behaviour of others and our own capacities for self control.

Secular Humanism was founded in 1980 by Paul Kurtz, with the original declaration undergoing several revisions and now supported by a plethora of leading intellectuals and scientists. It is an amalgamation of all things ‘science’ and intellectual; a guide to living created by smart people, for smart people who want the structure and organisation of a religion, but also desire the freedom to criticise, revise and generally act in an inquisitive manner.

Ten main principles form the basis of the Humanist declaration. None are unexpected, having been selected for their universality and applicability with a scientific ethos in mind. Secular Humanism promotes ideals of;

  • Free inquiry
  • Separation of church and state
  • The ideal of freedom
  • Ethics based on critical intelligence
  • Moral education
  • Religious skepticism
  • Reason
  • Science and technology
  • Evolution
  • Education

All are self explanatory, therefore I will not go into the finer details. Suffice to say, the nub of the proposition is that humans should have the fundamental right to choose the course of their lives. Children should not be ‘born’ into a religion; essentially, every person is born an implicit atheist (they have no knowledge of religion therefore cannot make an informed choice regarding their affiliation). Equally important principles of Humanism are the freedom to critically evaluate and also empowering the individual to make their own moral decisions.

Predictably, the first counter-blow from religion comes in the form of a cynical attack; “People are incapable of making their own moral choices, religion is needed in order for people to behave morally”. This argument equates religion itself with morality, which is simply not true. Religious advocates should be gracious enough to exert the same level of faith to their fellow humans that they do to a faceless, silent god.

Certainly, there are those in society who do lack the level of freedom required of adopting the Secular Humanist position. This lack of freedom predisposes them to commit crimes, ruminate over inappropriate thoughts and otherwise act in malicious ways towards society. Whether due to biological malformations or environmental upbringing (or a combination of both) such individuals simply cannot be held responsible (in the sense that they are free to chose the course of their actions) for the crimes they commit, therefore they should not be granted such freedom in the first place.

I am not advocating a policy of preemptive incarceration, but rather a change in mindset from lumping such people together in institutions (and arguably increasing the problem through intense exposure to other like-minded individuals for long periods of time) to re-educating them and assisting them to live a harmonious life.

But is this so called ‘rise of the atheists’ without its share of doom and gloom? We must tread carefully, or risk an increasing divide of the intellectually ‘rich and poor’. Those that can adopt the Humanist position freely and without reservation must ensure and respect the freedom of those who do not wish to participate. Human diversity, even when it results in the negative, is worth preserving at all costs. Without it, there would be no critical opinion, no discussion and a stagnation of society. Opposition breeds improvement, and Secular Humanism is only too willing to hear and learn from the criticisms that the disgruntled have to offer. The days of fundamentalist religions are numbered. Secular Humanism is at the forefront of this war, empowering society to question and challenging it to grow into maturity.