Reengineering Human Nature
"For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would."
"In order to cure most of the ills of human life, I require not that man should have the wings of the eagle, the swiftness of the stag, the force of the ox, the arms of the lion, the scales of the crocodile or rhinoceros; much less do I demand the sagacity of an angel or cherubim. I am contented to take an increase in one single power or faculty of his soul. Let him be endowed with a greater propensity to industry and labour; a more vigorous spring and activity of mind; a more constant bent to business and application. Let the whole species possess naturally an equal diligence with that which many individuals are able to attain by habit and reflection; and the most beneficial consequences, without any alloy of ill, is the immediate and necessary result of this endowment."
—David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, 1779
In 2006, I said the following in "Putting Humanity on a Pedestal":
...in the modern era, the findings of psychology and neuroscience have revealed that our minds and personalities operate due to comprehensible, material causes, not due to divine influence or demonic possession. For the most part the forces of religion have not even felt this blow yet, though glimmerings of an emerging understanding can be seen in, for example, the furious denials among the religious right that homosexuality could have any kind of genetic basis. However, when the full import of these facts becomes clear, I believe it will cause an upheaval in the religious worldview even greater than that caused by the theory of evolution.
Since I first wrote that, I've been thinking some more about it, and I've come to the conclusion that this was, if anything, an understatement. With a little work, this could be one of the most important arguments in the atheist's rhetorical quiver, one that would give us a virtually unanswerable talking point against nearly every form of theism.
If you've spent any time reading apologetic literature, you've probably come across the theologians who conceive of human free will as a blank slate, a mathematical point lacking any internal structure, such that not even God could influence our decisions without canceling our free will altogether. Curiously, many of these same theologians also insist on a doctrine called original sin, which claims that our decisions are biased toward evil - a contradiction that usually seems to pass them by without notice.
That contradiction aside, it's easy to see why theologians insist that free will is a blank slate. They want to claim that God is good, yet there's a huge amount of evil in the world that needs to be accounted for. The easiest way out is to put the blame on humans: insisting that God endowed human beings with free will so that we could achieve genuine fellowship with him, but that we went astray and brought sin into the world (and some go so far as to blame all natural evil on human sin). This serves to justify continued belief in God as the creator of all things while still holding him guiltless for evil and suffering.
But this claim, as vehemently maintained as it is, is obviously wrong. As any observer of human nature knows, free will is not a blank slate. Human beings come into the world with an innate set of psychological predispositions, desires, and tendencies to act in certain ways. In short, there is such a thing as human nature. And this leads to the obvious followup question: If there is a god who created humans, and if he created us with a particular nature, why did he make the choice he did rather than creating us with a different nature?
This question takes on special importance when you consider that, according to the moral rules traditionally handed down by religion, God has created human beings with strong inclinations to do things that he doesn't want us to do (the original-sin idea again). For instance, he cautions us against gluttony, yet creates us with an appetite for rich, sweet, fattening foods. He enjoins us not to commit adultery, but gives us sex drives that are unpredictable and uncontrollable. He warns us against wrath, but creates short-tempered people who get irrationally angry. He threatens doom for homosexuality, yet creates people who have homosexual desires.
I've tried this argument on a few occasions, and what I've found is that most theists react with bewilderment. They fail to comprehend the question, or insist that humans are the only kind of creature God could possibly have created, or claim that God could not have improved us without making tradeoffs that would have resulted in an even worse outcome (the absurdity of applying the concept of "tradeoff" to an omnipotent being is something else that never occurs to them).
Well, I think we can help them out. In an upcoming series of posts, I'll propose a series of imagination-stretching exercises - thought experiments which show how human nature could have been different, in ways that would improve it without any negative tradeoffs. These changes, while not depriving us of free will, would lead to a world with a greater sense of morality and smaller amounts of sin - and after all, isn't that what we're told God wants?
Other posts in this series:
Last month, in "Dreams of a Better World", I considered some of the immediate problems humanity could solve if we had the collective will to do so. I want to continue that theme in this post, but from a longer perspective.
Historically, humanity's knowledge has exceeded its wisdom. As soon as we invent a new technology, we begin adopting it on a wide scale, without asking whether we should or what the consequences might be. Many of our most pressing problems - multidrug-resistant diseases, global climate change, air and water pollution, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the ongoing extinctions of species and destruction of habitat - trace back to this impulse.
Our powers of reason have brought us amazing advances in understanding and controlling the world; but those rational faculties have not, as of yet, mastered the baser instincts of greed, xenophobia, violence and tribalism that underlie them. Instead, our reason is too often enslaved to that darker side of our nature, becoming the servant of our destructive passions rather than their master. Hence, we see absurdities such as Islamist fanatics, who reject every other scientific advance of the last several hundred years, struggling to create nuclear weapons. The only scientific knowledge they accept is that which they can use to destroy. Doubtless, if evolutionary theory offered the key to creating deadlier biological weapons, all the universities in Islamic theocracies would have top-notch biology departments as well, next door to the theology departments still repeating the narrow dogmas of a medieval desert nomad.
But it's not just on those easy targets that I want to pin the blame. Too often, we in the allegedly enlightened West have been guilty of similar deeds, selectively using the fruits of science that offer us the most immediate benefit rather than asking what is moral or sustainable in the long run.
We invent ever-more efficient fishing technologies to scour the ocean of the increasingly few remaining fish, refusing to recognize the downward spiral our actions have created. We fuel our economy with dirty, polluting, high-carbon coal and oil because it's cheap - at least by the usual accounting - and to get it, we think nothing of drilling oil wells in delicate habitat, or bulldozing whole mountains and dumping the rubble into nearby streams and watersheds. We drain rivers dry to build ever more lavish cities and communities in the middle of the desert. We run industrial agriculture on vast quantities of fertilizers and antibiotics, and let someone else pay the cost for poisoned groundwater, dead zones in the oceans, and multidrug-resistant staph and tuberculosis.
To build a human society that can survive over the long term, we need to turn away from this. What we need, and what I hope, is that we'll begin asking ourselves not just whether we can do something, but whether we should - and if the answer is that we should not, that we will then collectively agree to forbear.
I don't mean to imply that there will be a single global authority dictating which technological avenues will or will not be pursued. That would be an abhorrent tyranny. I have in mind a different future: a world where people have as much as or more liberty than they do now, yet where the human race can come, freely and without coercion, to a universal consensus on which courses of action should be taken and which left alone.
This may strike you as an impossible dream. I admit that the evidence so far is against me: historically, if one person or group has been unwilling to cross a boundary, there's always another that will. But that's precisely the attitude that needs to change if humanity is to survive and prosper. As technology grows more and more powerful, smaller and smaller groups of people wield destructive potential that the entire human species didn't have even a hundred years ago. We need to make the transition to a world where this kind of power is used wisely by all who have access to it, and I believe we will.
How can the human race reach this level of unanimity? I answer that the things that hold us apart are mainly irrational impulses - racism, sexism, nationalism, religion - which encourage their followers to value one group, one land or one belief more than a rational accounting of its value would suggest. Thus, the answer is simple: Humanity will come together when we learn to overrule those superstitions and fully acknowledge - and live out - the supremacy of reason as a guiding principle. When that happens, we will be able to reach agreement on all the things that matter.
This isn't going to be a single event, nor will the world be transformed overnight. It may take centuries to complete. But I believe we're on the cusp of the transition, and we may even witness the beginning of it in our lifetimes. We'll begin to see consensus breaking out, unanimity gradually developing. By the time agreement finally arrives, it will doubtless seem so easy and natural, we'll wonder why it took us so long in the first place.
The literal meaning of the word "apotheosis" is "elevation to divine status" - and as I've previously said, I reject the idea that this should be our goal. The gods are petty, jealous, easily provoked creatures; they embody our worst traits, not our best, and we shouldn't be seeking to emulate them. But "apotheosis" has another, more fitting meaning: "the supreme or the best example", and that's a goal I can support without hesitation. We should all seek to become the best example of humanity, to unleash the potential for goodness inherent in every person. This state may seem to be impossibly far off, but if each of us does what we can to bring it into being, we may find it isn't as far as we think.
Dreams of a Better World
As I've written in the past, I'm an optimist when it comes to human progress: I'm confident that we can overcome the problems that beset us. This isn't to say that I think our triumph is inevitable, or even that optimism is the only possible position for a rational person to take. There are plenty of reasons to despair, for those who seek them out. Nevertheless, I think there's one major, counterbalancing reason for hope, and that reason is this.
Simply stated, our greatest dangers are not external hazards, things over which we have no control, but rather arise from the immorality or inaction of human beings. Just think of all the cases where our only enemy is each other: racism and sexism, secular tyranny and religious theocracy, pollution, war, terrorism, overpopulation, climate change, and environmental degradation. Evils like this are not natural forces that arise of their own accord; they persist because of the inertia of human society, our stubborn self-interest, and our valuing of dogma and superstition over the lives and well-being of our fellow people. Even many epidemic diseases, like AIDS, thrive only because of our actions. If people did not act - whether out of irresponsibility, malice, or simple ignorance - in ways that made their propagation possible, they would swiftly die out.
I won't deny that changing these harmful attitudes is tremendously difficult - moral progress always is - but it can be done. If our primary enemies were natural forces that could never be persuaded to relent, we would face a much grimmer and more difficult path. But as it stands, natural disasters like floods, hurricanes and earthquakes can destroy individuals and communities, but not humanity as a whole. The only global dangers, the only threats that truly menace the entire human community, are the ones that we have created for ourselves and perpetuate through our actions.
The truth of this statement can be discerned through a thought experiment. Imagine that all of humanity was united in purpose, that all people were willing to do whatever was necessary to put an end to these evils. Take this as a given, and then ask yourself: if this were so, what could we accomplish in just a single generation? The possibilities are almost limitless. We could eradicate AIDS and all the other diseases that depend on us for their propagation, as well as all the ones we have vaccines against. We could decarbonize our economy, end our dependence on fossil fuels, and create a green civilization powered by sun, wind and tides. We could end war and tyranny and establish peace, democracy and justice for every society on earth. We could redirect all the resources and energy that are currently wasted in superstition and sectarianism, instead using them for the common good of humanity. Ending poverty would take significant investments in infrastructure and education and would probably be a multi-generational process, but even that could be done relatively quickly if we had the will.
Of course, this is a limiting case. All of humanity will never be united in this way, at least not any time in the foreseeable future. There are too many squabbling political parties, too many stubborn religions and nationalisms, and too many rigid ideologies battling each other across the memetic landscape. We are too diverse and too opinionated for one cause to ever win everyone's allegiance. But, knowing what is possible if everyone were to cooperate, the next step should be to ask what is possible with less than that. Knowing that some percentage of humanity will always react with indifference or outright hostility, is it still possible to make moral progress? And any fair consideration of the historical record would have to answer this question with a resounding Yes!
In spite of everything - all the dogmatism, the stubbornness, the selfishness, the ignorance and hate - humanity's star has been rising, these past few centuries and more. So long as there's freedom to speak our views and to lobby for change, good causes have been able to win out time and again. As slow and difficult as it is to shift the monolithic block of human opinion, it can be done. That's why I'm an optimist, and that's why I dream of a better world. My reason for hope follows the lines of the famous saying attributed to the anthropologist Margaret Mead:
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.
What I Want For Christmas
In 1897, Robert Ingersoll wrote "What I Want for Christmas". This short essay was a holiday wish list for humankind in the coming year, one that showcased both the great freethinker's wit and his compassion.
All well and good, but we can now look back at this piece from a century later and see how it's fared. Happily, some of Ingersoll's wishes have been fulfilled, but others are still awaiting fruition. This being so, I think it would be worthwhile to update Ingersoll's wish list, to highlight the areas where we've made progress and call attention to those where we still lag behind.
And so, without further ado, here's what I want for Christmas this year:
This year for Christmas, if I could have whatever I wanted, I would have a spirit of reason and tolerance take hold throughout the world.
I would have religious conservatives cease their bigotry and demagoguery against gays and lesbians, recognize that homosexuals are human beings deserving of the same legal protections as everyone else, and join us in supporting civil marriage and adoption rights for all adults, regardless of gender.
I would have churchgoers and theists everywhere abandon belief in angels and devils, witches and miracles, and all the other prodigies which cloud our sight and distract us from the things that are real and meaningful. I would have them recognize that there is only our natural world, and that religion is but myth and superstition which hardens hearts and enslaves minds.
I would have the churches and Sunday schools preach reason rather than faith, compassion rather than intolerance, and the recognition that we are all human beings alike in dignity, rather than dividing the world into the saved and the hellbound.
I would have the Pope admit that he was wrong to oppose family planning and abortion, wrong to exclude gays and women from the priesthood, and wrong to teach that he knows anything more about God's will or God's existence than anyone else. I would have him urge his flock to liberate their women, learn about and use contraception, and sell off his fabulous wealth and use the proceeds for the good of the poor throughout the world.
I would have the absolute rulers of the Islamic world close down their state-sponsored madrassahs, imprison their morality police, and then resign their thrones and teach their people about human rights and democracy. I would like to see a new flowering of science, art and culture among the Islamic people, a rebirth of the wonderful culture of tolerance and exuberant creativity they once enjoyed.
I would like to see the world's billionaires unite and form a massive nonprofit to fight poverty and disease everywhere. I would like to see the world's corporations agree that they will funnel their profits into this trust, rather than paying out further bonuses and dividends to the already wealthy.
I would like to see the nations of the world come together to safeguard the planet's remaining wilderness, agree on a comprehensive plan to stop global warming, and pour their wealth into developing new sources of clean energy.
I would like to see all politicians who have broken the law or abused the public trust resign or be impeached, and see them replaced with true public servants, men and women of honesty and integrity who will consider their offices a sacred trust, rather than an entitlement, and who will fight for reform and social progress.
I would like to see an end to belief in Hell, holy wars, promised lands, chosen people, and all the other dogmas that promote cruelty and sow division.
I would like to see the world's churches reopen as libraries and museums, institutions that teach reason and knowledge rather than faith.
I would like to see all sacred texts and divine commands replaced with a morality of compassion, one that promotes well-being and values human happiness as the highest good.
I would like to see the whole world free - free from injustice - free from superstition.
All this will suffice for this Christmas. The following Christmas, I may want more.
Improving on God's Handiwork
"With every advance in our thought the unity of the creative act, and the impossibility of tinkering with the creation as though this or that element of it could have been removed, will become more apparent."
—C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain
In the above quote, C.S. Lewis argued that even an infinitely powerful deity could not have created a world entirely without evil or suffering, and that whatever evil or suffering does exist must be an intrinsic part of creating any world at all, and therefore not something for which we can rightfully blame God. Similarly, the philosopher Gottfried Leibniz claimed that, since God was benevolent and omnipotent, this must necessarily be the best of all possible worlds.
A look around at the world we actually live in, however, should convince any rational person that these claims of Panglossian optimism are born from believers' preexisting apologetic desire to defend their faith, not from any passing acquaintance with the evidence. This world is not the best of all possible worlds, not by a long shot, and there are many ways in which it could have been improved had it been created by a wise, benevolent and powerful deity. Since we would expect goodness, harmony and happiness to be the norm if the world had been created by such a being, whereas in reality we see vast amounts of disharmony, evil and suffering, it is all but certain that the world was not created by such a being. In this essay, I will imagine some ways in which this world could have been improved, things we might have expected to see if our existence had been created by a loving divinity.
In the Christian conception, God is omnipotent. He is not bound by physical laws, but can freely alter those laws to his liking. The only limit which applies to God is the limit of logical possibility: God cannot do what is logically impossible, for example, create a world where there both is and is not evil. Other than this trivial restriction, God can create literally any self-consistent world which it is possible to imagine. In this essay, I will take this conception as a model. Claims that God lacks the power to create a world better than our own will not be considered here, since that is not the position taken by the vast majority of believers.
First, the most obvious response to Lewis' claim is that humans have already removed several elements of the world which we found uncongenial. For example, smallpox has been eradicated completely and no longer exists in the wild at all. Numerous other diseases, such as polio, have been almost completely wiped out or at the very least brought under control through vaccination and other medical advances, so that millions of people can live lives free of the fear and suffering they cause. If this task is possible for mere humans, then it must be possible for a far more powerful supernatural being. As our efforts at vaccination and medical care show, there is no intrinsic reason why our world requires the existence of tuberculosis, bubonic plague, AIDS, or any of the other infectious diseases that bedevil us. If God exists, he would not have allowed such plagues to come into existence in the first place.
To those theists who would respond that eliminating disease and other checks on human population would cause our numbers to grow out of control and cause even more people to suffer and starve, I point out that God could have made human beings so that our natural drive is not to reproduce continually regardless of the environment's ability to support them, but so the population increases only up to a sustainable level and then ceases to grow any further. Even in our world, some species have abilities like this: some bacteria, for example, have a genetic mechanism called "quorum sensing", which enables them to alter their behavior based on how crowded their environment is. God could have installed a more sophisticated version of this sense in human beings, causing either the desire to have more children or the physical ability to do so to decrease in proportion to how many of us there are.
In fact, God could have put such a sense not just in humans, but in all living things. Such a change would have improved the world by putting an end to the Malthusian struggle that currently obtains, where every species seeks to multiply as much as possible and is kept in check only by starvation, disease, parasitism, predation and other means of death. This natural order ensures vast amounts of constant struggle and bloodshed among living things, and what's more, ensures that the scythe always falls most heavily on the innocent young - both human and otherwise. A wise god could have framed the natural order differently so as to exclude this outcome.
Talking of the Malthusian struggle to reproduce, there is another area where improvements could have been made. Giving birth, for human beings, is a horrifically painful and risky affair. The large heads that give us room to be intelligent, and the narrow pelvises that allow us to walk upright, are two highly beneficial adaptations taken separately, but put together, they mean that giving birth is vastly more difficult and dangerous for human women than it is for any other mammal. A blind process such as evolution cannot be blamed for becoming trapped in this cul-de-sac of adaptation, but a foresightful intelligent designer could surely have come up with a better solution. Why not give human mothers a pouch like marsupials, so that a fetus could finish developing in safety outside the mother's womb?
I have another, related suggestion. Christian conservatives often rail against divorce, promiscuity, masturbation, extramarital sex, and other forms of sexual interaction that fall outside their preferred model of total abstinence followed by lifelong monogamy. Yet the very strength of the human sex drive makes that model extremely unrealistic and unattainable for all except a few. If monogamy is what God wants, I have a better idea: create a world where the ritual of marriage induces physiological changes in a person that cause them to forever after feel sexual and romantic attraction only towards their mate, and not toward anyone else. Such a change would eliminate at one stroke most of the social ills pointed to by religious conservatives. If God wanted us to abstain from such behaviors, he could have created us so as to naturally exclude them, rather than creating people with extremely strong inclinations to do the opposite of what he wants them to do, and then becoming furious at and harshly punishing those people who give in to those inclinations.
Likewise, if God is so angered by people hurting other people, there would be an easy way to drastically decrease the occurrence of that. Although human beings already have a decent sense of empathy, he could have given us a much stronger one, something like the emotional telepathy often found in science fiction. With this sense, which there would be no way to block, you would perceive all the emotions of people around you: not just to understand what it would be like, but to actually feel them yourself. Any fear that you induced in another person, any pain you caused them, you would feel as if it were your own. In the vast majority of cases, I am sure, this would so appall the offender that they would be unable to do what they had intended.
There are many more ways to improve this world I could think of that I haven't listed here. Perhaps some readers will disagree with some of my specific suggestions, which is fine. However, I challenge any theist readers who believe in an omnipotent and benevolent god to tell me that they cannot think of one single way in which this world could have been improved upon. I'd wager that honesty would compel them to admit otherwise.
Since time immemorial, believers in a loving and just god have looked around at the world we live in, filled with toil, strife and suffering, and have pondered how to reconcile their belief with the facts at hand. The solution which most religions have adopted is to assert the existence of another world, beyond this one, to which the souls of the good will fly in order to receive their due reward.
Poets and dreamers throughout history have filled their scriptures with rapturous visions of this distant promised land. The Hebrew Bible's imagery of a land flowing with milk and honey and of wolves and lambs lying down together in peace has been interpreted by believers to refer to the world to come. In the New Testament, the apocalyptic Book of Revelation pictures a vast cube-shaped city of gold and precious stones, while the Qur'an promises faithful believers a garden flowing with rivers of wine and a harem of perpetually virginal beauties. Most other religions of the world have heavens of their own as well. In recent years, these escapist desires have been taken to an extreme by Christian believers in the Rapture, who expect to literally be sucked out of the world and into heaven in the twinkling of an eye.
What all these heavens have in common, though, is that they are far off, hidden from our sight. Preachers and scriptures tell us that this life is a vale of tears and none can change that, but if we bear suffering with good cheer and humbly obey the religious authorities, we will receive pie in the sky by and by. Although most religions have edicts commanding their followers to aid the poor, none have any expectation that their followers will succeed at alleviating want, or even that such success is even possible. Jesus, for example, is reported as saying that the poor will be with us always (Matthew 26:11). Instead, most religions teach that misery and suffering will persist until God returns to establish his kingdom on Earth, and of course they all teach that converting the poor is a higher priority than supplying material needs. ("For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?")
At first glance, it may be hard for religious people to see how belief in heaven could possibly do any harm, but the fact of the matter is that it can and it does. The most obvious example is that of fanatics who are willing to throw their lives away in suicidal acts of terrorism, but this is just the most dramatic symptom of a more subtle and insidious trend: when one believes in heaven, one inevitably begins to view this life as poorer by comparison.
For this reason, while belief in heaven is surely comforting to those who are suffering with no relief in sight, it also has - and cannot help but have - the deleterious effect of discouraging others who have the power to help from doing so. It may even cause the sufferers themselves to passively accept misery as their lot in life, rather than demanding reform and justice. As Ed Weathers wrote in his masterful editorial "The Empty Box", "If you would have your slaves remain docile, teach them hymns." There is more than a little truth to this maxim, if one looks to history to see how religion has historically been taught to the oppressed.
There are more recent examples as well, such as the world-renowned Mother Teresa. Famed for supposedly dedicating her life to alleviating poverty and suffering among the poorest of the poor in India, in actuality she did almost nothing whatsoever to ease their pain. In fact, she wanted the downtrodden to suffer, out of the belief that they would be "perfected" for the next life by it. On one occasion, she said, "I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot, to share it with the passion of Christ. I think the world is being much helped by the suffering of the poor people."
Mother Teresa is thoroughly saturated with a primitive fundamentalist religious worldview that sees pain, hardship, and suffering as ennobling experiences and a beautiful expression of affiliation with Jesus Christ and his ordeal on the cross. Hitchens reports that in a filmed interview Mother Teresa herself tells of a patient suffering unbearable pain from terminal cancer: "With a smile, Mother Teresa told the camera what she told the patient: 'You are suffering like Christ on the cross. So Jesus must be kissing you.'" Apparently unaware that the response of the sufferer was a put-down, she freely related it: "Then please tell him to stop kissing me."
—"The Illusory Vs. The Real Mother Teresa", Freethought Today, August 1996
Mother Teresa's exaltation of suffering is perhaps the most dramatic example of how belief in heaven tends inevitably to degrade and devalue this life, but it is not the only one. Throughout human history, theists who believe in an otherworldly paradise have been willing to throw their own life away in pursuit of it, chasing the ever-receding mirage of salvation and neglecting the good they could have been doing for themselves and for others as a result.
It is time to set aside these fantasies, comforting though they may be; it is time to recognize that they were never anything more than the hopeful dreams of men. Though they may give hope and meaning to some, if we fixate on a fantasy we miss out on the very real opportunities for happiness in this life, the only one we know for sure that we have. In truth, there is a better way, another target at which to gaze. The truth is that heaven does not exist yet, but it may someday. It is not a world existing in parallel with our own, but a potential future state of our own world; not a place, but a goal.
However, this heaven will not be brought into existence in a flash of divine power. It must be, and it will be, built up brick by brick by our hands, our labor, our effort. We must work to ensure justice, to end poverty and suffering, and to establish a community that fills all its citizens' lives with contentment and joy. If we want to live in heaven, then it falls to us to bring it into existence.
This is not the religious heaven where "every tear will be wiped away". There will doubtless always be sadness in even the most perfect humanly attainable utopia, for the suffering of the past if for no other reason. But this just means we should be realistic; that we should have the wisdom and maturity to set aside unattainable fantasies and aim at the best that is within our power.
Other posts in this series: