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Necessary Illusions

Roger Caldwell on nature’s little white lies.

Hume, in a famous passage, confesses himself at a loss as to how to overcome certain sceptical challenges he has set up. The solution he finds is, in effect, to turn back from philosophy to life. His own nature, he says, is itself such that “it cures me of this philosophical delirium.” After a game of backgammon and socializing with his friends, his speculations “appear so cold, and strain’d and ridiculous, that I cannot find it in my heart to enter into them any further.”

What he is saying, in effect, is that, even if his sceptical conclusions prove unanswerable – and many have found them to be so – in practice we will continue to live our lives regardless of them. It is possible likewise to put forward cogent theories proposing solipsism or the nonexistence of time, but in fact even those who propose them will continue to live their lives as if other people existed, and to rely on clocks and watches.

As for Hume’s scepticism, it may be said that we don’t fear it because we believe there may somewhere somehow a refutation of it, only we haven’t yet discovered it. Is it possible, however, that there are well-grounded positive theories as opposed to merely sceptical theses which, though true, we are unable to live by? Are there truths with which reason concurs but which our human nature is unable to accept?

Much of modern science – pre-eminently quantum theory – is counterintuitive. Nevertheless, though it goes against the grain to believe that photons can behave both as waves and particles, most of us do not find that an insuperable obstacle to accepting it. Similarly, we don’t find the notion that a chair, for example, is mostly empty space conflicts with our experience of its solidity: indeed, the more we understand of physics the more we see that the two are perfectly compatible. We are then able to give our full assent to the science which presents such apparently counterintuitive theories.

It is, above all, when science bears directly on ourselves that we are most likely to find a combination of intellectual assent and emotional rejection. Indeed, for various reasons, scientific naturalism as applied to ourselves has, to say the least, met considerable resistance, from Darwin to the present. Indeed, this resistance is predicted by evolutionary theory itself: our belief-systems have evolved not in the disinterested pursuit of truth but in that of survival. Clearly, in regard to the physical world, there must be a rough correspondence between facts and beliefs, otherwise we are likely to starve. But the same doesn’t apply in the same way in our relations with other human beings and in our view of ourselves: here a few fictions may be as good a guide to survival as the truth.

For example, we are often surprised by the evidently mistaken view of themselves that other people have (whilst remaining relatively oblivious of our own mistaken views). But to deceive oneself about one’s own qualities may well be useful: indeed, it may enable us to do things we wouldn’t be able to do otherwise, not least, it may help us to deceive others into thinking that we are better than we are, or that we are more capable than we are. More fundamental than such elementary psychology, however, is the possibility that we are programmed with beliefs – possibly, a whole host of beliefs – which, however helpful to our survival, are not in any objective sense true. If so, they will be necessary illusions – lies we cannot help accepting as true whatever scientists and philosophers may tell us to the contrary.

Indeed, the very notion of morality, according to the new Darwinism of Edward O. Wilson and others, is itself such an illusion. Philosophers, arguing about the nature of good, have in general paid little attention to what Nietzsche, one of the few exceptions, saw as the ‘genealogy of morals’. Why, that is, do we have morality at all? The answer of the eighteenth-century philosophers was that it was for the good of society: we overcome our natural self-love in the interest of the whole. We are imbued with sympathy for our fellow-man because without it we would not be able to live harmoniously in society.

The difficulty here, however, is that though this is a possible answer to the question why we are moral creatures, it doesn’t tell us how we were able to become so. The myth that, at some point, from a state of nature men came together and agreed to form a society, thus creating morality, can only be a myth. Clearly, from the beginning humans have been social animals, just as chimpanzees are: there never was a state of nature that was not already a state of society. Further, with the advent of Darwin, there is another problem in postulating a group origin to morality.

Essentially, natural selection operates at the level of the individual – indeed, with Richard Dawkins, at a humbler level still, that of the gene. Genes aim at their own replication; individuals are out for themselves. Survival may be as much in competition with other members of one’s species as in cooperation with them – human beings are scarcely unique among animal species in fighting and killing their own kind. (Hyenas, for example, have a far higher murder rate than that recorded among human beings.) The selfish gene theory, as with classical Darwinism, postulates a rule of self-interest. How, then, could a morality have developed that appears to go against that self-interest?

The short answer is that morality doesn’t go against selfinterest: for the new Darwinian morality is precisely a device to further the propagation of our genes by giving the appearance of altruism. It is not too much to say that hypocrisy is built into the system from the start. We do good to others in the expectation that they, in case of need, will do good to us. There is the further result that, in being seen to do good, we are liable to be held in greater esteem by others. We co-operate where we think it is in our own interest to cooperate. Where we think it is not, we defect. Where we think we can get away with it, we cheat. Typically, we feel guilt at what we have done at times when we are most likely to be caught out.

Given that the hidden purpose of morality is to better enable us to propagate our genes, our greater sense of altruism is in respect of our children and close blood-relatives. We feel obligations to friends, since friends are those we can rely on to reciprocate. To distant strangers we feel remote obligations, or no obligations at all. In many cases stepchildren will be seen as obstacles to biological fitness, and as such dispensable; thus, statistically, the appalling record of abuses of children by their step-parents, confirming the anecdotal record left us by fairy-tales.

The whole system of morality, for the new Darwinism, is based on a more or less sophisticated game of Tit for Tat, and as such would hardly seem to merit Immanuel Kant’s famous reverence for the moral law within us. Further, it is in essence a piece of trickery, in that we are being programmed by our genes to believe in an illusion. There is no space for an objective ethics. Nothing in itself is right or wrong. Rather, we are born, as it were, to see the world through morally-tinted spectacles, to read into the world what, in reality, is only part of our own genetic tool-kit. It is not, however, something we can shake off. We are moral creatures through and through – whether we wish to be so or not.

Evolution and ethics have not previously enjoyed good company. G.E. Moore’s Principia Ethica of 1903 was in large part an attack on Herbert Spencer’s evolutionary ethics which required that we should act in the interest of the “survival of the fittest” (a phrase which doesn’t originate with Darwin). Moore’s book dealt a devastating attack on Spencer from which his reputation has never recovered. He argues that Spencer has committed “the naturalistic fallacy” – that is, even if it is a fact (possibly a tautology) that evolution ensures the survival of the fittest, we can still ask whether it is good to act according to the dictates of evolution.

Does, however, such an argument hold against morality according to the new Darwinism, which is not, as it still is with Spencer, prescriptivist? Indeed, it is quite possible that evolution could have come up with some entirely different ethical (or even non-ethical) solution, so that our moral values would be different from the ones we have. If so, isn’t it possible to argue that one solution is better than the other? This would depend on what we meant by ‘better’. One might certainly be more successful than the other as a survival strategy, but it is hard to see that there is any space left, independent of this, for it to be morally better. For that space has already been pre-empted in our giving an account of the etiology of morality itself.

For the rest, such an account fits well with our moral psychology as we find it. As with Moore, we find that good is an undefinable quality, which nonetheless presents itself to us in an objective way, without our being able to justify that objectivity. We cannot simply choose our values, as the existentialists would have us do. They are already there before us. Our morality is a matter more of emotion than of reason: it isn’t reason but our passions that tell us in our heart of hearts that fairness is better than unfairness (except when we ourselves can get away with having a little more than others) or that killing people is (for the most part) wrong.

Yet it is undeniable that such an account leaves us with a sort of void. Surely, we think, that can’t be the end of the matter? Morality was one of the things which distinguished us from the animals: now we find that it returns us back to the animals again. Indeed, this isn’t the end of the matter, but to pursue its implications is, if anything, to provide further assaults on human dignity.

One of the reasons which Kant was ready to accord us freedom was because the moral law within us already presupposed that we were free. It makes no sense to have the moral law if we don’t already have the freedom to follow it. But the moral law for Kant was something objective, not a sort of sleight of hand, a cynical joke, or an illusion. If, however, morality is indeed such an illusion, then what reason have we to suppose that the freedom it seems to demand isn’t likewise an illusion?

Indeed, free will, like morality, is something we ascribe to ourselves but deny to other animals. But what right do we have to do so? We are conscious creatures, of course, but so, we think, are dogs and chimpanzees, yet no one supposes that they possess free will or are responsible for their actions, or can somehow step outside the nexus of cause and effect. For all the attempts by philosophers over centuries to pin down the notion of free will, it remains an elusive concept (perhaps because in the end it is not a coherent one).

If, scientifically, it is not necessary to posit the existence of a free will, if everything can (at least in principle) be explained in its absence, then what reason have we to retain the concept, except as a convenient fiction and because people find it pleasanter to suppose that they are free than not? Of course, because of human culture, because of language, because of all our institutions, there is a far richer array of determining causes for our actions than is available for chimpanzees, but that is not to say that we escape determinism. Indeed, if we are to study ourselves from the point of view of science, to postulate a free will would vitiate that project in advance.

The new Darwinism, then, offers us an account of morality which doesn’t also require human freedom. Indeed, it implicitly turns us into more complicated natural robots, no different in kind from other animals. The question now to be asked: is such an account, even in principle, one that, in any other than a superficial sense, we are able to believe in? That is, suppose that it were well-founded, that scientific researchprogrammes every day had more and more supporting evidence for it, to the degree that it because intellectually irrefutable? (This is certainly not yet the case, but let us suppose that it were.) What would be the consequences for the way we live?

I suggest that the consequences would be negligible, in that it is simply impossible for us to live on the assumption that we are natural robots or that morality is a sort of charade. We would continue to regard ourselves as free to act and make moral choices, regardless of the evidence to the contrary. We would continue to see the world through morally-tinted lenses. Indeed, the theory itself would fall otherwise, in that it demands that morality be already hard-wired into our genetic make-up. In this sense the New Darwinism is that most paradoxical of theories – one which, if true, is one which, in any other than a superficial sense, we are unable to believe in. It would demonstrate too that we are creatures who are intrinsically unable to live in the light of scientific truth – that we are instead forced to live our lives according to necessary illusions.

© Roger Caldwell 2000

Roger Caldwell is a poet, philosopher and literary critic currently nurturing his illusions in Essex. His book of philosophical poetry, This Being Eden, is imminent from Peterloo Press.

Rattling Good Reads
Want to know more about human nature, evolution and ethics? The following are some of the classics in this debate – don’t leave home without them.
Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (1976)
David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739)
G.E. Moore, Principia Ethica (1903)
Michael Ruse, Evolutionary Naturalism (1995)
Edward O. Wilson, On Human Nature (1978)

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