Saturday, June 13, 2009

Technology, Science and Morality

Richard Dawkins is one of my favorite writers. I have read all of his books. There is only one thing he has ever written that disappointed me. In "The God Delusion", he wrote about how the "moral zeitgeist" (the standards of morality that are part of the spirit of the times over the centuries) has improved dramatically over the past two centuries or so. (By "morality", I mean true morality, of minimizing suffering and maximizing happiness in conscious beings, not the phony, often upside-down "morality" of religious fundamentalists, that often considers pleasure to be immoral and suffering "good for the soul".)

For the first time in history, slavery, genocide and raping and pillaging are almost universally considered beyond the pale. War is not generally looked upon as glorious anymore. Sexism and racism are widely considered beyond the pale. Women and minorities supposedly have been granted equal rights, and certainly have much more equal rights than they did in the past. Even in these relatively regressive times, we have not fully returned to the sort of economic harshness that Dickens wrote about, and debtors' prisons are a thing of the past. Aside from the U. S., all of the developed world and some of the developing world has instituted universal healthcare. In the advanced countries, the circle of who deserves rights, which finally expanded to include all humans, has even started expanding beyond humans to other conscious animals. I can remember in my childhood in the 1960s when westerns still portrayed our genocide of Native Americans as a good thing, and comedians made homophobic jokes on TV, and those things were not considered in any way controversial, but no longer.

There are exceptions, of course. This is only a trend, not absolute. Slavery, genocide and raping and pillaging still go on, but mainly in the non-developed world, which lags behind the developed world. Germany in the 1930s went back to barbarism, but notice that it did so after it was temporarily pushed backward into poverty by war reparations after World War 1 and then the Great Depression. The United States, never a paragon of virtue in the first place, despite what most Americans are led to believe, sank back into barbarism after Bush took power in 2001, and has tortured people and denied them basic rights, and started an unprovoked war. While most Americans have advanced morally, that did not stop a small number of depraved people from taking over our government. Few Americans know that even slavery still goes on in the United States, on our territory of Saipan in the Pacific Ocean. But those are just exceptions to the general improving trend. The general population's attitudes have kept advancing, even if our leaders' attitudes have not always.

Just the fact that this unprecedented improvement in the moral zeitgeist, after millennia of little or no improvement, happened at the same time as the unprecedented rise in technology since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, should make us wonder if there could be some connection. While it may be impossible to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt, it is easy to see why there might be such a connection. Desperate people who are starving and don't know where their next meal is coming from are likely to do anything it takes to make sure they have food. And since everyone is doing that, everyone is also likely to do anything it takes to defend themselves from all the other desperate people who are doing that. Satiated people with full stomachs are much less likely to be violent.

Here again, this is only a trend, not absolute. It's likely that the higher the economic level of people, the greater proportion of them will have higher moral standards. But for whatever reason, maybe genetics or upbringing, some people will continue to act desperate no matter how economically secure they are, no matter how much they have, in a form of mental illness. The billionaires and multimillionaires who have seized control of the United States, who always want more, more!!, MORE!!!!, and spend their time driving everyone else into poverty in order to get it, are the ones who drove this country back into barbarism. A likely reason for this exception is that when a whole society rises in affluence, people may feel more secure, but when just a few people rise in affluence far above everyone else, they feel less secure, knowing how precarious their extreme affluence is.

Some people, especially extreme leftists who are anti-technology and want to go back to an agrarian society, don't even buy the idea that the moral zeitgeist has improved, but think it has gotten worse. This topic could make for an essay in itself. Such people operate under a standard set of misconceptions.

They believe the myth of the Noble Savage, that primitive peoples were peaceful, and that this is the way humans are inherently. All one has to do is read the Bible to see the savagery of primitive tribes. In fact, anthropologists have yet to find a primitive tribe with a murder rate as low is in our worst inner cities. Anthropologists studying hunter-gatherer tribes in New Guinea and the Amazon found murder rates of from 15 to 60% of males, a rate 20 times higher than that of the people who were killed in all the wars and genocides in the 20th Century. Just the opposite of what these people think, people in previous centuries used to kill and torture people and animals in sadistic, ingenious ways far worse than even Bush could have done, and think nothing of it.

They claim that the 20th Century was the worst in history, and cite the Holocaust, the tens of millions of people killed by Stalin, the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and many other events, as proof. They cite the fact that Stalin and Hitler killed more people than ever before in history, and others such as Pol Pot in Cambodia killed millions. But that is only because our population is so much greater than ever before. In per capita terms, violence went way down. In fact, the greatest genocide known, in terms of the proportion of the population killed, was by Genghis Khan, who wiped out 90% of the population of Persia, and 50% of the populations of China, Russia and Hungary. And he did it without advanced technology such as nuclear weapons. Just the opposite, the fact that we could easily wipe out everyone on earth with modern technology, and haven't, shows just how peaceful we've become. If we were still as violent as we used to be, you would have long ago been vaporized rather than reading these words.

They cite how bombing people from the air and using remote-controlled weapons makes it psychologically easier to kill people, and how video games and action movies desensitize people to violence. But people had no trouble at all being violent in past centuries, whereas modern technology turns most people into contented couch potatoes, and that more than makes up for the effects they cite.

They cite all the bad uses that technology has been put to, such as in warfare, and destroying the environment, and automating away workers' jobs. But technology is by itself neutral. It depends on what uses it is put to. Notice that all of these bad uses are caused by conservatism. Conservatives are the ones who are nationalistic, paranoid about foreigners and want to defend their "tribes", now nations, against all the other "tribes". Conservatives want corporations to make profits at any cost to the general welfare, such as destroying the environment. Conservatives want policies that enable only the rich to benefit from the increasing amount of stuff and leisure that comes from automation, instead of spreading the benefits to everyone. But such anti-technology leftists somehow get confused and blame technology rather than conservatism. Just the opposite of what they think, eliminating technology would bring us back to that past barbaric world, whereas advancing technology in conjunction with the leftism they advocate would bring us to the sort of gentle world they want. Technology could improve our lives much faster, but population increase undoes much of the improvement, and here again, conservatism is to blame. It is religious conservatives who push for "family values", which include encouraging and forcing women to have as many babies as possible.

I think the ultimate reason that such anti-technology leftists convince themselves of the upside-down lie that people are inherently good, and were so before technology supposedly made us increasingly violent, is because socialism has the problem of how people will have enough incentive to do the necessary work under socialism, despite everyone being paid more equally. Since they are anti-technology, they do not believe in solving the problem by automating away the work, so they can only insist instead that people are inherently good and will do the work voluntarily.

Technological improvement has been the only thing that has improved morality. We couldn't end slavery until we invented machines that took over the work that the slaves had done. Until we didn't have to worry where our next meal was coming from, we didn't have to luxury of worrying about the welfare of animals, much less humans. The moral zeitgeist didn't improve noticeably in the first 1800 years of Christianity, or from any other religion, only started improving after technology started advancing rapidly at the start of the Industrial Revolution, around the late 1700s. Even today, the most morally backward regions are the ones that are the most religious, such as the Bible Belt and the Middle East. Most Christians today want to forget the fact that while small groups of Christians were anti-slavery before the Civil War, the vast majority were pro-slavery, and the most pious people tended to be the most pro-slavery. That continues today, for the Bible Belt contains the most reactionary people who favor an economic system little different than slavery. The most religious countries, such as the United States, have the lowest social indicators, such as crime, divorce and poverty, and the Bible Belt has the lowest social indicators within the United States. And the highly-religious Middle East and backward regions of Africa are where the most mayhem in the world occurs.

Since technology depends on science, and since religion tends to stifle science, that means that, ironically, religion slows down moral progress, the exact opposite of what religious people claim. Just imagine where we would be now if ignorant Christian mobs hadn't burned down the Library of Alexandria, destroying most of the knowledge of the ancient world that had been painstakingly built up over centuries, and if Christianity hadn't imposed ignorance upon Europe during the Middle Ages. Christianity set back technological progress, and therefore moral progress, by 1500 years. If it hadn't, we would now have had the level of technology from the year 3500, whatever that will be. Ironically, when a major thing that drives people to religion is the fear of their own mortality, and the false hope of an afterlife that religion provides, we surely would have found a cure for the aging process by now, a REAL solution to the problem rather than that fictitious one.

So the improving moral zeitgeist is one of the best arguments against religion, and I expected Richard Dawkins to use it in "The God Delusion". Instead, to my bafflement and disappointment, after talking about how the moral zeitgeist has improved in the past 2 centuries, Dawkins then said that he has no idea why it improved! He blew a golden opportunity to present that argument.

In the future, I hope that science and technology continue to advance and increase the happiness and eliminate the suffering of all conscious beings. I want to see a cure for the disease of aging. Now that slavery has largely ended, I want to see automation bring about the end of wage slavery, so that people are not forced to spend their lives doing something they don't want to be doing. I want to see meat grown in vats so that we don't have to raise animals in order to kill and eat them, or hunt them. Environmentalists want to preserve the environment, but the natural world is a horrific place filled with suffering. I want to see the whole earth turned into a giant park, carefully managed by armies of robots, where lions do not kill antelopes, but chase realistic antelope robots to keep from getting bored, while antelopes live their lives peacefully. Where all mosquitos on earth have been driven to extinction by hordes of tiny flying robots, or some other technology. Where technology maintains this world park the way we maintain a garden, rather than from the horrific processes that maintain the ecological balance. None of that will happen until enough people wake up from the delusion of religion (and related delusions such as the work ethic), and such a world will wake up the rest.

3 comments:

  1. Forget, please, "conservatism." It has been, operationally, de facto, Godless and therefore irrelevant. Secular conservatism will not defeat secular liberalism because to God both are two atheistic peas-in-a-pod and thus predestined to failure. As Stonewall Jackson's Chief of Staff R.L. Dabney said of such a humanistic belief more than 100 years ago:

    "[Secular conservatism] is a party which never conserves anything. Its history has been that it demurs to each aggression of the progressive party, and aims to save its credit by a respectable amount of growling, but always acquiesces at last in the innovation. What was the resisted novelty of yesterday is today .one of the accepted principles of conservatism; it is now conservative only in affecting to resist the next innovation, which will tomorrow be forced upon its timidity and will be succeeded by some third revolution; to be denounced and then adopted in its turn. American conservatism is merely the shadow that follows Radicalism as it moves forward towards perdition. It remains behind it, but never retards it, and always advances near its leader. This pretended salt bath utterly lost its savor: wherewith shall it be salted? Its impotency is not hard, indeed, to explain. It is worthless because it is the conservatism of expediency only, and not of sturdy principle. It intends to risk nothing serious for the sake of the truth."

    Our country is collapsing because we have turned our back on God (Psalm 9:17) and refused to kiss His Son (Psalm 2).

    John Lofton, Editor, TheAmericanView.com
    Recovering Republican
    JLof@aol.com

    PS – And “Mr. Worldly Wiseman” Rush Limbaugh never made a bigger ass of himself than at CPAC where he told that blasphemous “joke” about himself and God.

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  2. Well, at least you are correct about SOMETHING, that most "conservatives" are phonies who just use religion to further their political ends. Their ends are to concentrate wealth in their hands. They are anything but conservative, since capitalism brings about ceaseless change. Even the "morality" they promote doesn't go back to anything that ever actually existed in the past, but they are too ignorant about the past to know that. (The Bible has no problem with abortion, for instance, since people back then believed that life began with first breath. And people back then got married and had sex soon after puberty, in those simpler times when people reached economic self-sufficiency at younger ages, something religious "conservatives" today would be aghast at.)

    As for your ending part, thanks for completely ignoring what I said in my essay. I'm sure there are a number of excellent mental institutions in your area; go check yourself in.

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