Bob’s talk presented at the Unitarian Fellowship of Nanaimo :
Only Connect: genetics, culture, and the veil of ignorance
Grow a language, grow a morality, grow a soul
I want to thank the Fellowship for inviting me to your service today. I want to welcome friends and family.
I have enjoyed speaking to you on several occasions and once again thank you for the opportunity. Most recently both Peter Croft and David Weston were present to question me. I miss them both.
The last time I talked with you I gave you a quiz. No quiz today! Today I want to talk about roots and soil and souls and growth. You will notice that I speak metaphorically at times and that there is in the talk a subtle (or blatant) attempt to suggest that growing tomatoes is similar to growing a soul. After the last talk one of you asked me if I am an agnostic or an atheist. I answered, “Neither. I consider myself an ignostic.”
I have been thinking about that question and answer for some time now. Perhaps a parable will help:
An ignostic was asked whether she believed in God, and said, “If you mean a big man in a cloud, as some conceive of God, then I am an atheist, for we have satellites now which would have surely seen such a creature if he existed. If you mean an all-encompassing God who is synonymous with the cosmos, then I am a theist… though I see no reason for having two words for the same thing.
Ignosticism is the position that there are many different, contradictory definitions for the word “God”, so one can’t claim to be a theist OR an atheist until one knows which definition is meant. I don’t, for example, believe in or worship Thor or Zeus or Facebook.
Furthermore, if the chosen definition is incoherent and makes no predictions that can be empirically tested, then it doesn’t matter whether one believes in it or not, for how can something meaningless be true OR false? (this last part is also known in philosophy as theological noncognitivism). And yet, of course, we humans speak and write of God. Some of us die for what we think is God. Fly planes into buildings shouting his name. God, I believe, is a character in literature in the same way that Hamlet is or that Sherlock Holmes is – an interesting, complex, fascinating character, but living only in stories.
Here then is a preview of today’s talk. I will point to some fascinating thought experiments and to some recent experimental work in evolutionary biology. I will mention the well-established work of linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky and his idea of a universal grammar.
I will mention the recent work of John Mikhail and his discoveries in experimental philosophy, which have led him to suggest evidence exists for a universal moral grammar.
And I will talk about one of the most powerful ideas in the 20th century: the VEIL OF IGNORANCE as developed by the philosopher John Rawls.
One of the attractions of the UU approach to religion and life is caught in the assertion that divinity and spirit are to be found not through blind faith but through finding and sending down roots to the deepest part of one’s unique self. As is true in botany, those roots spread out into the wider community and can nourish us and give us a healthy life. How do we know when we are living in the best place for those roots to grow? In so much as we do indeed “grow a soul” we should consider carefully the garden in which that soul grows.
There is a Jewish story which I understand from an online source is often shared in UU pulpits It is the story of the great Rabbi Zusha, who was found agitated and upset as he lay on deathbed. His students asked, “Rebbe, why are you so sad? After all the great things you have accomplished, your place in heaven is assured!” “I’m afraid!” Zusha replied, “Because when I get to heaven, God won’t ask me ‘Why weren’t you more like Moses?’ or ‘Why weren’t you more like King David?’ God will ask ‘Zusha, why weren’t you more like Zusha?’ And then what will I say!?”
This story reminds us of the power of particularity. Knowing our unique self doesn’t just feel good; it can set us free, offering a heaven that is not an escape from this life, but that comes about when we finally grow into the life that is truly ours.
For example, as much as I cherish my own family and my early days on earth – those days on a small wheat farm on the prairies where I learned many positive lessons about hard work, caring for animals, working together to get the job done, self-reliance, being a good neighbor, cooperating with others to solve common problems, team spirit, love of learning, good books, how to fix most anything – all positive aspects of a good life – but in addition I also learned some not so positive things that came with the territory.
Generally speaking we think of being connected to our family and to our community as a good thing. And it can be. But we need to be careful. In the introduction to “Reading the Bible…” I confessed:
” It seems obligatory in a book like this to state where I “am coming from.” I am not a Jew. I am not a Christian. I was raised in a Christian family. We attended an Episcopal church when I was a small boy; after my mother remarried we attended a Lutheran church where I was confirmed at a young age. Shortly after that we started to attend a Methodist church, but none of these changes was, to my knowledge, based on any matters of doctrine, but rather on social reasons. I remember getting in trouble with the Lutheran pastor as a child because in Bible class I would ask real questions. “Thou shalt have no other Gods before me,” it said in the catechism. Why? The canned answer was: “The Lord, thy God, is a jealous God.” “Why is he jealous?” I would ask, “what would God have to be jealous of?” “Don’t ask questions,” the pastor would say, “just memorize the material.” That was the lesson of the church: do not ask questions; just memorize the stuff. There really was no life in the church. People came in, sat down, listened quietly, put some money in the collection plate, and then left to carry on with their lives as before. After hearing a sermon on the evils of “drink” and card playing, in which the punishments for disobedience were extremely uncomfortable, we would all get in our car and go to one of my step-uncle’s for an afternoon of drinking beer and playing pinochle. I learned to hate Jews (for they were somehow responsible for killing Jesus), Catholics (for they had all the riches), and Methodists (I cannot remember why). I learned hypocrisy, racism, and sexism (now sometimes called the “traditional” values by nostalgic writers who find the word “traditional” all fuzzy and warm). I read the Bible frequently because the stories were full of violence, sex, and mystery. I remember asking my mother what `womb’ means and she was very nervous and asked me where I had heard that word. When I told her I found it in the Bible she did not seem to know what to say. I had her! She arranged for my step-father to teach me about the “birds and the bees.” He in turn sub-contracted to a teen-aged farm hand who gave me a brief but descriptive lecture about things that I already knew.
Divine Command Theory
One of the lessons taught to me in that community was the Divine Command Theory – do it because God says so!
As I grew older I came to realize that merely commanding something does not make it moral. For example, if professor Jones commands her students to buy a book, this does not make it morally right to buy that book. Defenders of divine command theory often say that we are to find God’s moral commands in scripture. But this requires a prior conception of morality to judge that a certain text is indeed revelation. And this prior conception of morality must be independent of God and God’s revelation. Third, it does not help the divine command theory to argue that the statement “God is good” is true by definition (the same way that “wives are women” is true by definition). For, the terms “God” and “good” are not identical, and to understand that statement we need a prior understanding of moral goodness which is independent of God. The same problems occur when we stipulate that the statement “God is absolute goodness” is true by definition. The believer’s choice to worship God indicates that the believer is using an independent standard of goodness by which she deems God worthy of worship. This also applies if the believer claims through faith alone that she believes God is worthy of worship.
The believer will argue that God created everything which exists, and this includes moral standards. But it is logically impossible for God to create morality. For, technically, morality does not involve what exists (or is the case) but only what ought to be the case. After many years of walking toward the grave I have come to understand that the communities that people find themselves in are not always the best. I need not go through a litany of injustices here – we see and hear of them daily in the many news reports that bombard us with mostly bad news.
Soon I realized that the Bible, though full of rich and marvellous stories, was simply a part of my culture and that there are several cultures, each with its own capital T truth in some revealed text.
In the 20th century, “culture” emerged as a central concept in anthropology, encompassing the range of human phenomena that cannot be directly attributed to genetic inheritance. Specifically, the term “culture” in American anthropology had two meanings:
1. the evolved human capacity to classify and represent experiences with symbols, and to act imaginatively and creatively; and
2. the distinct ways that people, who live differently, classified and represented their experiences, and acted creatively.
Culture is often described as an integrated system of learned behavior patterns which are characteristic of the members of a society and which are not a result of biological inheritance.
Distinctions are currently made between the physical artifacts created by a society, its so-called material culture, and everything else, the intangibles such as language, customs, etc. that are the main referent of the term
1. (Sociology) the total of the inherited ideas, beliefs, values, and knowledge, which constitute the shared bases of social action
2. (Anthropology & Ethnology) the total range of activities and ideas of a group of people with shared traditions, which are transmitted and reinforced by members of the group: the Mayan culture.
3. (Anthropology & Ethnology) a particular civilization at a particular period
4. (Art Terms) the artistic and social pursuits, expression, and tastes valued by a society or class, as in the arts, manners, dress, etc
5. the enlightenment or refinement resulting from these pursuits
6. (Sociology) the attitudes, feelings, values, and behaviour that characterize and inform society as a whole or any social group within it: yob culture.
7. (Agriculture) the cultivation of plants, esp by scientific methods designed to improve stock or to produce new ones
8. (Breeds) stockbreeding the rearing and breeding of animals, esp with a view to improving the strain
9. (Agriculture) the act or practice of tilling or cultivating the soil
10. (Microbiology) biology
a. the experimental growth of microorganisms, such as bacteria and fungi, in a nutrient substance (culture medium), usually under controlled conditions. See also culture medium
b. a group of microorganisms grown in this way
11. (Agriculture) to cultivate (plants or animals)
12. (Microbiology) to grow (microorganisms) in a culture medium
Remember the work of Noam Chomsky in the field of linguistics and language acquisition? Chomsky taught us that there is a universal grammar and pointed as evidence to the fact that even very young children seem to have the ability to apply grammar rules that they obviously haven’t been taught. Kids know more about language than we can explain by pointing to what they have been taught. During the first half of the 20th century, linguists who theorized about the human ability to speak did so from the behaviourist perspective that prevailed at that time. They therefore held that language learning, like any other kind of learning, could be explained by a succession of trials, errors, and rewards for success. In other words, children learned their mother tongue by simple imitation, listening to and repeating what adults said.
This view became radically questioned, however, by the American linguist Noam Chomsky. For Chomsky, acquiring language cannot be reduced to simply developing an inventory of responses to stimuli, because every sentence that anyone produces can be a totally new combination of words. When we speak, we combine a finite number of elements—the words of our language—to create an infinite number of larger structures—sentences.
Moreover, language is governed by a large number of rules and principles, particularly those of syntax, which determine the order of words in sentences. The term “generative grammar” refers to the set of rules that enables us to understand sentences but of which we are usually totally unaware. It is because of generative grammar that everyone says “that’s how you say it” rather than “how that’s you it say”, or that the words “Bob”and “him” cannot mean the same person in the sentence “Bob loves him.” but can do so in “Bob knows that his father loves him.”
Even before the age of 5, children can, without having had any formal instruction, consistently produce and interpret sentences that they have never encountered before. It is this extraordinary ability to use language despite having had only very partial exposure to the allowable syntactic variants that led Chomsky to formulate his “poverty of the stimulus” argument, which was the foundation for the new approach that he proposed in the early 1960s.
In Chomsky’s view, the reason that children so easily master the complex operations of language is that they have innate knowledge of certain principles that guide them in developing the grammar of their language. In other words, Chomsky’s theory is that language learning is facilitated by a predisposition that our brains have for certain structures of language.
But what language? For Chomsky’s theory to hold true, all of the languages in the world must share certain structural properties. And indeed, Chomsky and other generative linguists like him have shown that the 5000 to 6000 languages in the world, despite their very different grammars, do share a set of syntactic rules and principles. These linguists believe that this “universal grammar” is innate and is embedded somewhere in the neuronal circuitry of the human brain. And that would be why children can select, from all the sentences that come to their minds, only those that conform to a “deep structure” encoded in the brain’s circuits.
In a similar move in moral philosophy some recent work in experimental philosophy suggests that we may grow a morality in a way similar to the way we grow a language.
Do children have an innate pre-disposition to make certain sorts of moral judgement? Is there such a thing as a universal moral grammar? John Mikhail of Georgetown University suspects that there is an innate basis to our morality analogous to Noam Chomsky’s Language Acquisition Device. This theory is similar to the linguistic claims made by Chomsky about universal grammar and about the fact that even very young children seem to have the ability to apply grammar rules that they obviously haven’t been taught. Analogously, we know moral rules without having learned them, and this knowledge is universal across cultures.
For example, 3–4-year-old children use intent or purpose to distinguish two acts that have the same result. They also distinguish ‘genuine’ moral violations (e.g. battery or theft) from violations of social conventions (e.g. wearing pajamas to school). 4–5-year-olds use a proportionality principle to determine the correct level of punishment for principals and accessories. 5–6-year-olds use false factual beliefs but not false moral beliefs to exculpate*.
Indeed, even animals have feelings of empathy and expectations of reciprocity.
The UMG can help to explain some universal and cross-cultural intuitive judgments in moral thought experiments such as the Trolley Problem (almost universal acceptance) or Fat Man and Surgeon (almost universal rejection). These universal judgments are best explained by the existence of stable and innate intuitions and tacit knowledge of rules and concepts because the judgments are quick, unreflective, difficult to justify and identical across demographic groups (including children).
Many people cannot articulate the foreseen/intended distinction [between these moral dilemmas] …, a sign that it is being made at inaccessible levels of the mind. This inability challenges the general belief that moral behavior is learned. For if people cannot articulate the foreseen/intended distinction, how can they teach it?
None of this excludes the possibility that a lot of what we think we know about morality comes from teaching, nurturing, our own reasoning or even our self-interest. Furthermore, innate dispositions, if they exist, can be developed or blocked. Hence, the UMG theory is not necessarily deterministic or self-sufficient, and can accommodate other types of moral cognition as well as the less than universal factual morality of mankind (if UMG were all that mattered and if it were as deterministic as it often sounds, then there wouldn’t be immoral acts).
Can we imagine a better world?
In his book, A Theory Of Justice, John Rawls asks us to imagine a fantastic scene: a group of people are gathered to plan their own future society, hammering out the details of what will basically become a Social Contract. Rawls calls this the “Original Position.” In the Original Position, the future citizens do not yet know what part they will play in their upcoming society. They must design their society behind what Rawls calls the Veil Of Ignorance.
“No one knows his place in society, his class position or social status; nor does he know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence and strength, and the like.”
Neither do the people know what type of society they will be entering. They do not know its culture, its economic situation, or political climate.
It is important for Rawls that the planners of this future society operate behind this Veil Of Ignorance, for as Rawls says, “if a man knew that he was wealthy, he might find it rational to advance the principle that various taxes for welfare measures be counted unjust; if he knew that he were poor, he would most likely propose the contrary principle. To represent the desired restrictions, one imagines a situation in which everyone is deprived of this sort of information.” Behind this veil of ignorance it will be rational for each to agree on arrangements of fairness and equality.
The parties in the original position are presented with a list of the main conceptions of justice drawn from the tradition of social and political philosophy, and are assigned the task of choosing from among these alternatives the conception of justice that best advances their interests in establishing conditions that enable them to effectively pursue their final ends and fundamental interests. Rawls contends that the most rational choice for the parties in the original position are the two principles of justice. The first principle guarantees the equal basic rights and liberties needed to secure the fundamental interests of free and equal citizens and to pursue a wide range of conceptions of the good. The second principle provides fair equality of educational and employment opportunities enabling all to fairly compete for powers and prerogatives of office; and it secures for all a guaranteed minimum of the all-purpose means (including income and wealth) that individuals need to pursue their interests and to maintain their self-respect as free and equal persons.
Now obviously we cannot simply stop the world and start over again. Start, for example, with the notion that humans are capable of goodness and fairness, instead of being told in our genesis myths that we are evil by definition. We can however hold our political leaders accountable, suggesting that they work from behind the veil of ignorance when considering legislation and the distribution of the goods of society. (I realize that in one sense it seems politicians are often acting from ignorance, but here I mean specifically the thought experiment Rawls calls the veil of ignorance, and not ignorance per simpliciter.) As David Suzuki points out “When we elect people to office, we give them power to make and enact decisions on our behalf. They should have a vision that extends beyond the next election and the latest Dow Jones average — to our children and grandchildren. We expect our leaders to have a clear picture of our world and the conditions necessary for human life and well-being. If they don’t, how can they make informed decisions?”
Rawls has a second principle of justice to consider: Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both: (a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged…and (b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.
From this it follows that we need to make sure that wealth never becomes so concentrated as to undermine the fair value of the political liberties. Because the ability to influence the political world is vital to our understanding of ourselves as equal citizens, we must not only protect the formal (legal) equality of our political liberties (right to vote, right to hold office, etc.) but the fair value of those liberties. That is, we need to make sure that people with (roughly) equal talents, abilities, and interest in the political realm have (roughly) equal chances of influencing it, regardless of the social class they were born into. Some of this can be maintained by e.g., campaign finance laws, etc., but some of it demands that we not permit extreme concentrations of wealth.
“You’ll have a good, secure life when being alive means more to you than security, love more than money, your freedom more than public or partisan opinion, when the mood of Beethoven’s or Bach’s music becomes the mood of your whole life … when your thinking is in harmony, and no longer in conflict, with your feelings … when you let yourself be guided by the thoughts of great sages and no longer by the crimes of great warriors … when you pay the men and women who teach your children better than the politicians; when truths inspire you and empty formulas repel you . . .― Wilhelm Reich, Listen, Little Man!
“If I could, I would make it so that everyone in the world could genuinely understand the perspective of everyone else; why they are frustrated, when they are, as well as why they are satisfied, when they are. I would like to grant everyone the capacity to see the situation of everyone else, as someone occupying that other person’s viewpoint, and feel what one would feel in that situation.” – Jason Stanley answers five questions for Yale News.
“A lot of the reason why societies don’t become fairer is that those who benefit from current injustice are spared the need to think too hard about what it would have been like to be born in different circumstances. They resist change from ingrained bias and prejudice, from a failure of the imagination.” – John Rawls’s life and ideas are briefly surveyed at The Philosopher’s Mail.
Hannah Arendt’s position is one I have come to accept: “as we practice thinking, judging and willing, we become who we are. If we do so well, we remain our own friends, we achieve reconciliation with ourselves, the others we think with, and with reality”.
Arendt’s answer to “What makes us think?” is not the desire to immortalize ourselves (the answer of the Greeks), nor the desire to reconcile ourselves to the chaos of the universe through understanding and systematizing (the Roman’s answer). Rather, what makes us think (as Socrates knew when he said that the only thing he knew was that he knew nothing worth knowing) is the activity of being fully alive, of being concerned with justice, love, and happiness.
This is because these terms (‘justice’, ‘love’, ‘happiness’) express the meaning of what we seek through living.
And we should all do what we can to make our families, and our culture ones that allow for the flourishing of respect, justice, and happiness.