Monday, July 30, 2007

Millions Are Dying -- Who Cares?

Remember that story? A preacher tells his congregation something like, "Millions are dying and you don't give a shit -- and most of you are more shocked about my saying "shit" than you are about the millions dying.

As Joseph Stalin noted, "One death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic."

Both the preacher and Stalin recognized something that researchers like W.D. Hamilton, et al, have found to be inherant in our nature. Such studies have shown that the level of altruism a person can feel for others is indirectly proportional to both the numbers involved and kin recognition.

Basically, we can only experience compassion for (or be shocked by) an event if we can personalize it. However, we don't have to grieve for millions in order to send a dollar -- or cast a vote -- to help them. We just have to do unto others as we would have them do unto us.


Wednesday, July 11, 2007

One Reason I'm Not an Atheist

Human behavior is as much a function of genotype and environment as that of any other animal. However, our phenotype appears to be unique in a few ways. One of those is our ability to conceptualize "right and wrong" (usually defined by the tribe/tribal strongman). We have also evolved altruistic behavior for reasons similar to that of other apes. Such natural motivators, when combined with our ability to conceptualize, would appear to be sufficient to logically explain the etiology of "religion" in our species.

Yet, there are thorns.

What survives natural selection must be beneficial (or at least, tolerated). Homo sapiens sometime choose to deny their instincts for self/tribal/species-preservation. Such behavior is contrary to nature. Granted, natural selection has not (yet) deemed this sufficient cause for our extinction. However, the fact that this ability exists is quite interesting, because it presents the question, "Why?"

Now, we do not need a God to explain much of our altruistic behavior. Biology will work just fine. A mother sacrificing herself for her child and a soldier sacrificing himself for a comrade are examples of instinctive altruistic behavior. So are feelings of compassion for a hungry child and a crippled old lady. Natural selection deemed such emotion to be advantageous to our species.

However, Homo sapiens often engage in extreme, self-harming altruistic behavior. I say "extreme", because it goes far beyond the altruistic instincts we all possess. For example, it's hard to zoologically defend a man's choice to be celibate. It's obviously an artificial construct (not genetic). Another example is the kind of non-instinctive altruistic behavior exampled by Christ on the cross. It is difficult to support any premise that such behavior is zoologically beneficial to an individual animal or its species.

Natural selection does not approve of such behavior, neither at cellular nor at population levels. So, what's going on here? Maybe nothing more than our inability to understand it. Maybe something more. Maybe it's a self-sacrificial ability (and requirement) given to us by something other than evolution. If so, perhaps such self-sacrifice is required by that "something". We often define such self-sacrifice as "love". We also often define such "love" as "God".

Could it be there is a "something" that requires the one thing from humans that only humans are capable of giving, non-instinctive self-sacrifice? If so, there is no greater self-sacrifice than faith. Accepting something life-changing and life-controlling with insufficient evidence will be an intellectual self-sacrifice for anyone. If so, it may address the demand to, "Show me objective evidence for God's existence." If objective evidence for God existed, the self-sacrifice (of intellect) would not be required.

Just speculating -- but this is (part of) the reason I cannot be an atheist. Too many loose ends.