I read posts here that call different things, "harmful to humanity."  Others call something, "good" or "bad" or "evil."

A very simple question, who gets to decide the definition of  "harmful to humanity" and what is there critieria? The same for "good," "bad," and "evil?" These are not material terms. If everything is material isn't there just "is" and not these moral declarations if one is being thoroughly atheist?

Help me understand your position so I am fair and honest about the views. Thanks.

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Don't assume that simply because they engender laughter and anger that they must necessarily go on to becoming common sense. There is no necessity to that progression.

I was not trying to lead you down that [dark] alley.

I like to think there is no good nor bad. What's good for me might be bad for you and vise versa. And if you think that the end of the world is bad, then I ask you, bad in comparin to what? When all is said and done, and the universe ends, there was no point, so who's to say whats good or bad? No one, thats who, because there is no good, and there is no bad.

So, Andrew, does this mean that an atheist does not have any reason to accept any position as ethical or unethical?  

This question has spurned such an interesting thread of ideas and debate I figured it a good one to throw in my two cents.  First off I am not a neurobiologist and if any of you can correct any glaring errors please weigh in.  I have learned all of this in the last 2-3 years of my career, I have only recently made my atheism publicly known, fallout remains to be scene. 

@Wretched - I always find separation of consciousness and the material ("is") view fascinating.   My brain "is" and will be the only real connection I have to this world.  It is material, it is highly creative, imaginative and adaptive but it is still just a biological machine functioning on oxygen like any other machine working on fuel.  Why do I need to think or imagine it anything other than that to have an improved quality of life or treat others well or judge things harmful to humanity.   The idea that atheism (as your question suggests) proports the material brain just "is" and can behave however it wants and will just be until you die is ridiculous.  My conscious experience of the world gives me the choice how to use my brain for its limited life on this earth to benefit myself and humanity.  We individually have to choose what is harmful and then collectively agree hopefully democratically and justly to an accepted social definition of harm to further evolve humanity for the better.

The quintessential issue here is choice.  The choice we have as humans on how to live.  When it comes to choice for any individual, it is multifactorial.   Each individual falls on a spectrum of a measure of the weight they give to each factor.  In other words where one falls on the spectrum is influenced by their attachment to that factor.  Attachment is a buzz word I will use in many contexts but I will define it as this for this discussion.

The human brain's neural connections can be conditioned to create greater signal strength and greater complexity (ie greater "attachment") between each other.   The stimulus or connections which create the strongest signal strength (usually the highest amount of oxytocin or dopamine depending on the area of the brain) will get greater conscious attention from the individual and create incentive thus driving the decision making process in choice usually creating reinforcement.  Interestingly, the response signal strength diminishes unless greater or "newer" input is received to further increase the attachment.  The best example is the human need for novelty.  Interestingly dopamine is more potent at making us feel good but is short acting and is highly adaptive.  It takes a much greater stimulus to get as much dopamine from subsequent repeating stimuli.  Oxytocin while less potent seems more linked to long term attachment and creates a lesser high.  With most stimuli the dopamine released decreases over time but the oxytocin doesn't to the same degree.  Ok I know that could all be presented in a lot better fashion.  Perhaps I can clarify later.

We can become attached to anything and everything.  The degree of attachment falls on a spectrum as well.  For all intents and purposes I would like you to imagine a bell curve for that spectrum although it's certainly not a symmetrical bell for most factors.

Moral decisions are highly linked to oxytocin (not dopamine) and long term attachment. Some excellent studies have and are being done.  There is a great TED talk on oxytocin and morality (I'll try to post later).  

In most cases of people with religious attachment some of the moral actions conflict with the natural oxytocin mechanism, (not the same but similar to a neglected child).  Children of abuse don't get the same oxytocin response as those without.  Sociopaths don't get the same hit of negative reinforcement for bad actions and in fact can condition the brain to get more oxytocin from bad actions than good ones.  It's unstudied but I believe people use religious belief to reinforce the same action for discriminatory acts of bigotry and train themselves to receive small hits of oxytocin (more likely dopamine) when they protest gay marriage when in fact if they supported and gave hope, acceptance and love they would get far more oxytocin.  But they have conditioned themselves through belief and guilt that that response is wrong and leads to conflict.  We solve this conflict by synthesizing rational explanations and create stronger usually unhealthy attachments to compensate for the confusing neurotransmitter release.

Interestingly, actions that are not religiously dictated and are anonymous release even more oxytocin than the counterparts.

Childhood security, love, assurance and education are the best way to create normal biological morality responses within the brain.   Most humans will usually usurp the natural individual response for the social norm (if its not too opposing) because the attachment to the group and or social expectation/ideology is greater than their individual need.  Our need for acceptance and attachment to others is generally more important to us then just the "goodness" of our individual actions.  In the normal brain we get more dopamine from doing what the group accepts and praises us for doing than for doing what is individually internally more moral.  For example an addicted brain just wants dopamine at all costs and no other means social or individual can overcome the addicts need for the "hit".  The attachment to the act that releases the dopamine overpowers most rational thought but depending on the individual there will still be factors with greater attachment, survival, a child, money or an object of desire that can influence their choices.

How does all of this play on morality.  Where you invest your conscious energies and attachments will influence your choices.  You will create and synthesize justifications for your actions and judgements based on these attachments.  You will make moral judgement based on the neurochemical attachment to those actions given to you by nature and nurture to this point in your brain's existence.

The key is healthy attachments.  It is what we as humans are beginning to understand and we are evolving towards a healthier place because of it.  Healthy attachments give one's brain a gradual steady incremental increase in neurotransmitter thus satisfying the novelty criteria while not causing negative immoral harm to oneself or others.

So, if my morality comes from my attachments to the things that produce a feeling of goodness in my brain what about immoral things that feel good?  Most or all of those activities are related to dopamine and as I said the dopamine attachment is stronger but wears off unless one conditions them self over a long term to get oxytocin from an immoral belief or action.   So how to we distinguish it and how do we continue to build the healthy attachment and break the unhealthy ones and have the willpower not to reinforce them?  We are not that conscious of oxytocin levels but I think with awareness we can actually train ourselves better to understand the feeling and we are in some conscious way aware of it.  Try hugging a stranger for 1 second and then try hugging another agreeable stranger for 6 seconds or more.  I guarantee deep in both yours and the strangers brain more oxytocin has been released in the latter case creating some small attachment to that individual.  I am very fortunate because I have a career as a physician allowing me an incredible viewpoint into the attachment of people and events which shape my moral and ethical views.

People will of course do immoral things for gain with no regard for longterm attachment.  Read "Freakonomics" to learn about the cheating teachers in Chicago.  They were given incentives to cheat and they easily overcame whatever internal moral struggles because of their short term superficial attachment to their jobs, status, money and peer perception.  In my personal opinion, it is completely ridiculous idea that teachers be judged and compensated on the performance of their class.

Willpower is a whole other thread perhaps but it plays into this whole discussion.  There is some new research being published this year on the prefrontal cortex and its role in willpower.  Turns out living healthy and getting lots of sleep, nutrition and exercise is the best predictor for success of willpower.

@Exile raised the question is it immoral to buy a laptop in a world with millions dying of starvation?  I would suggest the answer is no because we know the solution to starvation is riddance of poverty and that only happens with the education and empowerment of woman.  It is probably more beneficial and perhaps moral to buy the laptop and keep pushing human innovation/specialization which will speed the catch up of nations around the world to get out of poverty.  The starving nations quality of life is far behind and humanity does need to search for answers but they are catching up (see Hans Rosling TED on Poverty).  It is clear that aid and handouts don't work, (See Matt Ridley, "Rational Optimist").  You have to create attachment to freedom of exchange of ideas and goods for nations to prosper.  Incentive to strive for a better quality of life.  Most starving people's in the world do so not because we can't grow enough food but because corruption and oppression keep them that way. 

The animal right's ethics/morality question is an interesting debate.  Scientifically I think we need to define what is harm and suffering to a sentient animal and try to distinguish it from humans.  Morally we have an obligation to our fellow animal to treat them with some level of respect but that in my personal view does not include treating them like human beings or with the same ethical and moral compass.  Because one species can kill another in a socially acceptable "humane" way (in our case) does that mean its moral?  I personally struggle to convict myself to an answer on this one.  But tend to lean to the end of the moral spectrum.    We have evolved from meat eaters and it is part of our animal makeup.  Does our modern evolution dictate we move away from it?  I suspect we may discover a minority of people who genetically don't have a good quality of life without eating meat.   There are great arguments for disease prevention and land use with respect to vegetarianism and veganism.  I think they are moot compared to the agricultural biofuel issue currently facing the world.  We need to evaluate evidence and let it guide decision making rather than hype and social mood.  Gladly I think with the advent of data collection, new economics and other evidence based practices we are headed there.

I think each individual has to try to become aware of where they fall on the spectrum and try to understand their attachments/needs and seek the healthiest choice for themself with some social guidance perhaps.  One might be able to get an incredible amount of dopamine from an extramarital affair or even mugging a stranger, the resulting unhealthy attachments and certain harm/hurt to others certainly makes them immoral.  There is probably very little oxytocin released from either of these unless the affair lasted for many years.

Laughing at one of my first posts on TA.  Sorry it's so long winded.  I need to work on my prose.  :)

@Wretched in summary -->  there is only the natural material world and the molecules within it.  They created an incredible universe out of which has evolved the human brain, affording us this media and this conversation. The moral compass evolves with that brain via attachments to this world. Human beings continue to evolve a better way of life for humanity by choosing the paths that lead to the least immoral result.  Atheism in all probability is one of those choices.  Or perhaps ignorance is bliss?

A very insightful piece, Ross, regarding Human motivation and reinforcement. Your prose is just fine.

pax vobiscum,

Thank you Karen.

I would suggest that the term harmful to humanity is self evident. Things that cause more people to suffer, be it emotionally or physically. For example, assisting the spread of aids by condemning the use of condoms because it is murder, it harmful to humanity. Even in the animal kingdom, you see that they don't go out and murder their own (except in cases of bonding) because if they killed except to survive and reproduce, there would be not much left for them on the world, so in that respect, it is highly logical to not murder. Furthermore, the idea that you only try to help others because you're afraid of the consequences, is less good than someone who does so out of compassion pure and simple. If you want a good summary of atheist morality, watch a Sam Harris lecture :-)

A lot depends upon how far down the road one looks. Preventing people from starving today simply increases the population. Obviously, continuing down this road results in constantly having to prevent the suffering of ever more people. It may in the end cause less suffering to let nature take its course.

It never ceases to amaze me how many people who kind of embrace the "back to nature through more natural foods and more natural living" philosophy nevertheless think that intervening to prevent nature from taking its natural course is the way to go. If the deer population becomes overpopulated (too many mouths, insufficient food) nature knows how to fix that.

We are probably in dire need of a world war or plague to get things back into balance.

How about a global flood? Oh, that's right, it's been done --

Yes, I suppose we could stop vaccinating our children against serious disease and let nature take its course. If anyone gets seriously ill, let's forget doctors and let nature take its course.

@Wretched Saint - RE: "who gets to decide the definition of 'harmful to humanity'" --

That would be me, Wretch, the Big Cheese, the Great Kahuna, the Final Frontier - me.

I decide it for everybody, everywhere, any time, any place. The buck stops here. And that goes for good, bad, evil, and my special favorite, naughty-but-nice. I do it all, the whole schmear, the big enchilada, todos, help me out here, I'm running out of metaphors.

And in my spare time, usually after supper, I write the songs that make the whole world sing. I put the bop in the bop-shoo-bop-shoo-bop. I put the ram in the ramma-lamma-ding-dong. I do all that - one-stop shopping, that's me.

As for my criteria? I work in mysterious ways, my wonders to perform. Don't ask, and I won't tell.

Well, that's that - now that you have all of the information you came for, have a nice trip back to the home, take care, and don't call us, we'll call you - don't think it hasn't been fun, just because it hasn't, and come back when you can't stay so long. Toodles --

pox upon you,


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