The Belyaev Experiment
Posted: 09 November 2010 03:39 PM   [ Ignore ]  
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I’m just about to read the Moral Landscape, saw Harris give a lecture here and have read some of the new essays and criticisms. I like the health analogy and see most of the glaring criticisms rebutted nicely as well as the limitations, but I do still have some questions for Mr. Harris.

#1 If science shows us a way to breed morally predisposed beings (ala the Belyaev experiment), do we have a moral obligation to follow it?

#2 How do animals fit into the moral landscape?

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Posted: 10 November 2010 12:58 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]  
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Nobody? Come on… this is an important question.

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Posted: 28 November 2010 12:11 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]  
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#1 If science shows us a way to breed morally predisposed beings (ala the Belyaev experiment), do we have a moral obligation to follow it?

Religion, ethics, morals and legal systems all serve as a form of genetic social programming that is stored external to the human physiology. A brilliant invention of nature because it makes humans so unbelievably adaptable to changes in the environment. Instead of having our social behavior completely hardwired in the body—stored inside our genes, nature developed memes which serve to corral human behavior in such a way that behaviors that promote the collective good supersede one’s personal inclinations. This is the basis for civilized society.

Moral obligation is the function of social memetic codes of behavior. Humans require some kind of social religious, moral, legal and ethical code to live by. If you want an orderly society, these codes should not be arbitrarily decided in the moment. They should be instilled from infancy, because only then will these codes be able to dictate human behavior through the incredibly efficient agency of “taboos.” If you have to consciously stop to decide whether a certain action, behavior, impulse or idea is “moral” you are already too late to effectively influence human behavior. Only laws that are backed up by strong taboos that are inset into the human subconscious prior to age five, have the strength to prevent impulsive human behavior.

Since the 1960s, television and movies and now Youtube and Internet porn sites have effectively eliminated sexual taboos in younger generations that are still strong in many people over 50 years old today. The media has a powerful ability to dispel old memetic garbage but might also wipe out important and valuable memetic codes of social moral conditioning.

It doesn’t matter whether you call yourself an Atheist or a conservative orthodox Christian. Most of what you believe about right and wrong is inset in your psyche already before the age of 5 years old. Humans have an innate sense of right and wrong that doesn’t listen to logic.

Furthermore, although I applaud the neo-atheists for all their work in trying to dispel superstitious nonsense with sound reason and logic, they are making a futile attempt. The reason being that you cannot influence the part of the brain that “believes” in God with left brain rational arguments because that part of the brain - the upper lobes doesn’t directly dictate to the brain’s amygdala and limbic system. The brain’s limbic system is what we call “pre-cognitive” areas of the brain and 90% of its business is carried out without permission from our rational intellect.

The truth is that the only way that you can get into that “belief” part of the brain and make changes is through a behaviorist approach—you have to more or less brainwash the person to believe a new set of “authoritative absolutes” and “taboos.” For example, you take a fundamentalist Christian and turn him into a Scientologist.

The neo-atheists are pretty much just “preaching to the choir,” because the one’s they are trying to influence can’t “hear and understand words” with the part of the brain they “believe” with.

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Posted: 28 November 2010 01:34 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]  
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“Religion, ethics, morals and legal systems all serve as a form of genetic social programming that is stored external to the human physiology. A brilliant invention of nature because it makes humans so unbelievably adaptable to changes in the environment. Instead of having our social behavior completely hardwired in the body—stored inside our genes, nature developed memes which serve to corral human behavior in such a way that behaviors that promote the collective good supersede one’s personal inclinations. This is the basis for civilized society.”
I think I agree with most of that, though it is worded indefeasibly, which I do not hold. Some might say that the memes are just a character/expression/process of the physiology and so not really external to it (within the body in the abstract realm). To my knowledge, yes, memes and genes seem to work together co-emergently in the brain to (re)shape it, but the influence of ethically indifferent events in nature always undermine them to some extent, so I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a brilliant invention. At the end of the day, it is all (re)interpreted inter-subjectively for most, and as we see massive majorities of liberal theists ignoring the bad parts of their doctrine, for them it doesn’t matter that those memes are written down externally (outside of the body in the social realm).

“Moral obligation is the function of social memetic codes of behavior. Humans require some kind of social religious, moral, legal and ethical code to live by.”
It’s true that anthropologists say we would not have survived without coming together, but
I still think it would be better to say “society requires some kind of social…” as it belies the evidence that humans are also constantly involved in the quest for autonomy as individuals and there has always been much philosophical controversy over what that balance ought to be.

“If you want an orderly society, these codes should not be arbitrarily decided in the moment. They should be instilled from infancy, because only then will these codes be able to dictate human behavior through the incredibly efficient agency of “taboos.” If you have to consciously stop to decide whether a certain action, behavior, impulse or idea is “moral” you are already too late to effectively influence human behavior. Only laws that are backed up by strong taboos that are inset into the human subconscious prior to age five, have the strength to prevent impulsive human behavior.”
Yes, we are apparently pretty adept at appropriating the most salient experiences into hueristics, but unfortunately, we are not predisposed to incorporate all the not-so-salient data. Thank goodness scientists do that to keep us better informed, even against our insticts. This will help inform future generations to create taboos that actually correlate to the real world, rather than empirically unverifiable superstitious ones. The beauty of science is that real facts do not go away, they stick around to perpetually chip away at cognitive dissonance, seizing every opportunity.

“Since the 1960s, television and movies and now Youtube and Internet porn sites have effectively eliminated sexual taboos in younger generations that are still strong in many people over 50 years old today. The media has a powerful ability to dispel old memetic garbage but might also wipe out important and valuable memetic codes of social moral conditioning.”
Until some other force brings it back, whether it’s elevated unwanted pregnancies, STDs, inability to measure up to porn stars, etc, let alone social identity opportunities. By not sexually educating children more (because of nay-saying conservative and religious groups), this will ultimately be a boon for those conservative and religious groups, because not only do they appear to offer the moral structure (unfortunately, with some non-sequitur strings attached) that they actually denied secular institutions from manifesting in the first place, but they can also blame them for failing to help and prey on the guilt of the victims for their own agendas.
“It doesn’t matter whether you call yourself an Atheist or a conservative orthodox Christian. Most of what you believe about right and wrong is inset in your psyche already before the age of 5 years old. Humans have an innate sense of right and wrong that doesn’t listen to logic.”
That may be true, but to what extent and to what extent do we have neural and moral elasticity? It may be that much of our early exposure has mostly to do with the mere tenacity with which we hold our claims. I honestly don’t know.

“Furthermore, although I applaud the neo-atheists for all their work in trying to dispel superstitious nonsense with sound reason and logic, they are making a futile attempt. The reason being that you cannot influence the part of the brain that “believes” in God with left brain rational arguments because that part of the brain - the upper lobes doesn’t directly dictate to the brain’s amygdala and limbic system. The brain’s limbic system is what we call “pre-cognitive” areas of the brain and 90% of its business is carried out without permission from our rational intellect.”
I agree with this. Time and again, I see people influenced by emotion over reason (and/or use reason ad hoc) to the point where reasoning seems hopeless. This may have something to do with the evidence that reward and pleasure are more fundamentally tied to emotional centers, but at least there is hope in the evidence that cognitive dissonance can be broken down with repetition (unfortunately, that’s what propaganda preys on too).

“The truth is that the only way that you can get into that “belief” part of the brain and make changes is through a behaviorist approach—you have to more or less brainwash the person to believe a new set of “authoritative absolutes” and “taboos.” For example, you take a fundamentalist Christian and turn him into a Scientologist.”
My reason for asking this question was to highlight the evidence that much of our ethical misbehavior stems from aggression that is physiologically tweakable (whether by adrenalin regulation, etc- check out the Radiolab podcast “New Normal?”). This has nothing or very little to do with religion or philosophy really, as the interpretation of either would probably just take on more low redefinition. What I want to know is whether or not we have a moral responsibility to breed less aggressive humans (and/or if that can be acheived via some kind of hormone/adrenalin management/procedure).

“The neo-atheists are pretty much just “preaching to the choir,” because the one’s they are trying to influence can’t “hear and understand words” with the part of the brain they “believe” with.”
Most people like Harris though, seem to be reaching out to influence the undecided and the policy makers.

Thanks for the thoughtful reply Apologetica.

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Posted: 28 November 2010 04:38 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]  
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Thanks for your reply. I have been looking for a group of intelligent people to talk with about science/religion issues, and I certainly didn’t find it on Richard Dawkin’s forums. The atheists over there are so hostile towards anything that even remotely looks like it could be spiritual that you can’t really even have a discussion. They unfortunately feed the religious fanatics with lots of ammunition and ultimately accomplish nothing.

As for your second question:

#2 How do animals fit into the moral landscape?

Forgive me if I talk around the topic. But the first thing I feel like pointing out is that the process of evolution tends to build on what is, rather than knock over the experiment and start again from scratch. So, if you notice the evolutionary roots of the human brain, we might say that our conscious visual perception was gifted to us from our “inner fish brain,” and our sexuality and our “fight or flight” instincts come from the brain stem—our “inner reptile brain.” Our “inner mammal” gives us the limbic system we still use today, and on top of that is our more recent hominid brain modules.

We think of “animals” as something outside of our human nature and that is hilarious. Those animals really are right inside of us and dictating a whole 95% of who we are as humans (okay, I am making that percentage up but I might be close). 

You could stop and ask at this point whether we have any moral obligation to our ancestral lineage. If so, then we have to include just about everything that came off of Noah’s Ark.

Morality is a big subject, so I want to narrow it down to just sexual morals for a closer look at humans and animals.

Let’s look at our closest evolutionary relatives; the Chimpanzees and the Bonobos. From what science has been able to decipher Chimpanzees developed north of the Conga river and Bonobos developed south of the Conga River. Since neither of these two species ever learned to swim, they didn’t interbreed. As I proceed, try to keep in mind that these creatures are our blood relatives.

The environment that nurtured Bonobos was much more plentiful in food—especially fruits and vegetation. Chimps on the other hand, are known to be cannabilistic. They had a much tougher job having enough food to go around. Chimps are more mean and agressive by nature whereas Bonobos are more peace-loving and well, sexy.

Chimpanzees run a male dominant society and for females the highest status one can achieve is still lower than the lowest male of the tribe. Bonobos are a female dominant society. While they do have an alpha male, females will gang up together and defeat the alpha male every time. This is a very interesting and unique trend in evolution.

According to genetic evidence, between the Chimps and Bonobos, our CLOSEST relative is not the Chimp but the Bonobo. So lets take a serious look and the social morals of Bonobos to maybe get a better clue to our deepest, inbred human nature.

Bonobos are sexaholics. They are certainly all rapists, pedophiles, obsessive compulsive masturbators and they can’t seem to go even a few minutes without sexual touching.

Scholars have stated again and again that the incest taboo almost singlehandedly created human civilization. Up until just that past 50 years or so, religion has given us the majority of our sexual taboos. And as they break down, we seem to be reverting back to our natural Bonobo sexaholic society.

These things still seem to be politically incorrect to talk about, even with atheists. But pornography is a multi billion dollar industry worldwide. Thank God for mirror neurons so men (and much fewer women) can get the experience by just watching and without actually having to be there in the flesh.

I remember back in the 80s when Madonna came out with her exclusive photo spread where she was having sex with a dog and so forth and I commented to the guys next door (who paid a premium price for the limited edition album) that we have run out of options for “nasty” and pretty soon we are going to start breaking down the pedophile taboo.

Science knows a lot of things that it doesn’t want to let out of the bag and what I am embracing with Sam Harris’s Project Reason is the notion of intellectual honesty. I am willing to bet that not even our staunch neo-atheists will want to take a honest look at what science will tell us about the morality of having sex with children, or having incestuous relationships.

But human sexuality is fueled by novelty. The Coolidge Effect is a fact even with goats and pigs. Humans get off having sex with new partners, and it seems that the more forbidden the better the sex is. Muslims will do suicide bombing just to get at those two dozen virgins in heaven!

And even more than that, humans, atheists included, will deny the fact that men are the one’s who can’t seem to get enough of the really sadistic kind of porn, where 8 or 10 guys take turns banging a female in the ass.  The pornography that sells isn’t sweet and gentle lovemaking between two consenting adults. Its stuff that is degrading to women in the extreme and painful to her body. The only study ever done that I know of showed that 100% of all women doing this kind of porn are drugged and often also mentally ill.

The point is that we humans don’t look at these facts scientifically to make moral judgements, not even the scientifically pristine atheists!

Evolution has examples of where it reverted specific species backward. I think Richard Dawkins mentioned the example of the salamander that eliminated its precious eyes and eyesight when it began living underground. Humans seem to be reverting back to their Bonobo sexuality. Religion may have had some powerful benefits to keeping members of society from killing each other and creating law and order in the social group, but patriarchal sexual taboos have really stymied natures passion for genetic variation. The result is something along the lines of serial monogamy, where we marry monogamously but divorce and then marry into another monogamous relationship.

I think that when we all dump the religious nonsense, and stare our sexual taboos right in the eye, we will come to the conclusion that until we acknowledge our inner animal, we are not going to be able to make sense out of our human sexual appetite. We need to acknowledge the animal part of our existence because that is the most productive way to move forward into the future.

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Posted: 30 November 2010 03:35 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]  
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Thank you again for a rich and interesting response. I especially enjoyed reading about the chimps vs bonobos.

While I think it’s true that we do have many of the fundamental ingredients that these animals have, we do also have the prefrontal cortex, and as we see so often in the world, sometimes one little difference can make all the difference.

I don’t think that there is a problem admitting that humans have a predisposition to what we would call evil behavior. No one would deny that we are capable of these horrific actions. As with many negative impulses, here are good reasons why we don’t allow pedophilia and bestiality to flourish that trump physiological rewards. The main reason is that as ethics progresses, part of the progression is to recognize moral failure in history and new boundaries that were learned along the way. One such boundary that relates to both pedophilia and bestiality is consent. I don’t see a way back from requiring, in the least, mutual consent- but that’s not all; another boundary qualification we now generally accept is consent in a rational/fully developed state of mind. These two coupled together will never allow pedophilia or bestiality to be considered acceptable. Keep in mind that the ability to incorporate memes into the evolutionary equation may NOT allow us to regress in the ways you mentioned. We can never go back to that inner animal IMO. Our brains are too complex and our physiology has evolved to take advantage of it autonomously. Eventually, our improved taboos will reshape our sex drives according to the standards our rational minds help to define in less selfish ways.

Whether or not we get excited from increasing novelty is a separate question from whether or not the novelty is moral. The introduction of a new partner may be moral or immoral, depending on the context. We must also always consider how our impulses affect others and how they affect ourselves. Those are not the same standards. I wouldn’t say that “we humans don’t look at these facts scientifically to make moral judgements,” I would say that we do, but we don’t give them all equal merit in what has been a successful contribution to society.

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Posted: 01 December 2010 01:51 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]  
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“What I want to know is whether or not we have a moral responsibility to breed less aggressive humans (and/or if that can be acheived via some kind of hormone/adrenalin management/procedure).”

In search of the ultimate chemical ahimsa!

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi pioneered neuroscience and conducted thousands of experiments on the physiology of meditation (TM) and its health benefits for both body and mind.

He taught that every thought you have stimulates a chemical event in the body.

99% (or more) of the thoughts you will have today are repeats of the thoughts you had yesterday, and the ones you had the day before that. Those chronic thoughts, whether or not you like having them, they create the chemistry of your brain and your body. If your body is miscoded chemically, health problems will be the inevitable result.

Some diseases might exist because the brain is not coded to the right neurotransmitters, which could result in specific organs producing an inferior chemistry. These kinds of diseases can very well be traced back to thoughts.

The bottom line is that Christians medicate their brain chemistry with thoughts of Jesus dying on the cross for them. Belief, regardless of what religion or faith, has been proven to be the healthiest habit of them all.

What I am proposing here is that the Judeo Christian fanatic’s, outrageous nonsense, just like voodoo or astrology or New Age Quantum Health—is an elixir to the body; keeps it younger, healthier and promotes much better relationships with others. But only if you REALLLLLLLYYYYY believe, at the bottom layer level of heart and soul.

Genuine spiritual bliss, which can be achieved by some through prayer, others through meditation, others through martial arts, all work from the same basic brain chemistry. Belief seems to release a feel good chemical that maximizes the immune system and acts like janitor for the elimination of toxins in the bloodstream.

Even just repeating a mantra over and over again allows your body to get a break from chronic thoughts. Its not what we add in order to make it a peaceful social order, its the thoughts we eliminate. Health is truly created by what we think. If we nourish the mind, it will in turn,  nourish the body by creating an ideal brain/body chemistry for health, happiness and longevity..

The protestant revolution was no doubt the result of slowly breaking down the Roman Catholic taboos (such things as questioning the authority of the Pope) and now the Protestant taboos are going in the toilet. They will be replaced by religion, not science, because its the chemistry that matters, not the words.

Some religions work better than others. Some don’t work at all. Baseball got uploaded into the religion module of my son’s brain. A cat can nurse a newborn skunk, a goat can nurse a puppy.

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Posted: 01 December 2010 11:08 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]  
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Hmm. That’s not the experience I had at ALL… and I REALLY believed.What I experienced was more akin to what Nietzsche called “bad conscience.” I couldn’t wait to die for god, because I loathed myself in comparison to his holiness.

As for TM and the power of thoughts upon physical health, that remains to be established, but who knows in the future?

Another fun post- thanks.

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