These two questions, which I have been asked by many readers continually, clearly require a detailed answer, the nature of which had initially seemed to me to be obvious.
Let’s start with the first question: is the phrase “atheist believer” an oxymoron, a metaphor or just a bit of silliness?
Can a person who believes, that all the events occurring in the universe since the Big Bang can be explained on the basis of the laws of Galileo, Newton and Einstein, and that all the events occurring in the living world can be explained by the laws of Darwin and genetics, without involving the concept of God, be conclusively called an atheist?
If such a person does not know what existed before the Big Bang, why the laws of nature exist or why they work so coherently, and if such a person understands that it is impossible to either prove or disprove the existence of God in an attempt to answer these questions, then can such a person be called a believer?
There is a philosophical view referred to as agnosticism, which relates to all this, but that isn’t our main concern here.
The first question, “is the phrase ‘atheist believer’ an oxymoron, a metaphor or just a bit of silliness?”, is best answered when considered in the light of the second, “what is the difference between faith and knowledge?”
Following the examples in the famous Feynman Lectures on Physics on the law of the conservation of energy I would like to offer an analogy in the style of a “child’s example”.
Imagine a child, perhaps “Dennis the Menace,” who has not yet begun to study physics, and who from early days of childhood has observed how objects carelessly dropped always fall downwards. At first it is a cup of tea, a bowl of porridge, a buttered piece of bread that falls on the carpet, seemingly, always butter side down and which leads to a telling off from his mother; then it is his father’s dumbbell, which has to land on his foot, and later, well, an iPhone that just had to fall on the tiled floor. In addition, Dennis notes that all these objects appear to fall at the same rate of acceleration.
Dennis, who has not yet learned Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation, independently makes a brilliant, scientific discovery: “any” body released from the hands falls downwards with an equal acceleration.
Is this discovery a matter of scientific knowledge or faith? We will show, that to all intents and purposes it is a matter of faith.
Indeed, Dennis drops a cup, a bowl, a piece of bread, a dumbbell or an iPhone, i.e. the objects of which he has specific knowledge but he hasn’t dropped “any” or “every” object!
In the evening, when Dennis’ father, who is an engineer, returns home from work, Dennis recounts the discovery he has made during the day. The father praises Dennis but then asks if he is confident in using the word “any” in his law. Dennis responds that he believes that to be true. Then the father blows up a balloon and lets it go. The balloon falls to the floor but slowly, at the “wrong” acceleration, or rather, without any acceleration at all. Then the father takes a second balloon, fills it with helium and releases it. Instead of falling downwards, the balloon contradicts the law Dennis has discovered and travels upwards. The third time, the father drops a piece of paper, holding the sheet parallel to the floor and the sheet of paper also turns at the “wrong” acceleration and slowly falls downwards.
Dennis is dismayed to find his law disproved, but the father comforts him, explaining that his initial law has not been completely disproved. Together they have simply revealed the limits of its applicability.
The father tells Dennis about the air that surrounds us, the story of Archimedes buoyancy, the force of air resistance and that in junior school he will study Newton’s Second Law of Motion, which, taking into account all the forces: the force of gravity, Archimedes force and the force of air resistance, will generate a more general law correctly describing how different bodies fall to the ground.
The law you have discovered and assumed to apply to “any” body, the father says, is underpinned by faith, not knowledge. But it remains true, the father clarifies his point further, for relatively small, heavy, streamlined objects.
Once Dennis reaches junior school and has studied the Newton’s laws of motion, he believes that what he knows, finally, is not just based on faith but real knowledge.
Imagine the disappointment when in high school, on studying Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation, Dennis realises that his law which ended with the words “equal acceleration” has turned out once again to be based on faith, not knowledge, and that these words have to be discarded or clarified by adding the words “near the surface of the Earth.”
Perhaps now, Dennis can consider that his knowledge is comprehensive and impeccably scientific.
Enrolling at the University’s Physics Department, Dennis discovers something that even their engineer-father does not know. In the proximity of massive stars, Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation does not work, and instead, Einstein’s law of gravity should be applied, derived as a more exact law from Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity.
Does Einstein’s law of gravity constitute the last and final knowledge?
I would like to believe that it is, but recently, several voices have resounded in the world of astrophysics, asserting that this law cannot be taken as the last word and that discrepancies have been observed which pose the need for a new theory.
So, as I conclude this article, I would like to invite my readers to answer for themselves the two questions with which we began.
Written by Karmak Bagisbayev, an author of “The Last Faith: a book by an atheist believer”
Translated from the Russian original by Joanna Dobson.
Rarely does a question succeed in evoking so much debate as the question concerning the nature and origin of human morality. Immanuel Kant called the moral energy that resides in the human soul an impenetrable mystery.
Those of religious faith believe that our morality is given to us from above, from God. If this is the case, why didn’t God give morality to all people in equal measure so that we could live a peaceable life without being continually plagued by the complex problems of coexistence? Why do the type of people we consider immoral exist? Would these individuals also consider themselves to be immoral and where is the proof that we are right and they not?
Some people believe that the moral principles to which the majority adheres can be instilled in a child via their upbringing. If that is so, why is it that brother and sister who receive the same upbringing and love from their parents often end up supporting completely different moral values in their adult life?
Each one of us can no doubt cite hundreds of examples of this tendency among their friends and relatives. Research shows that upbringing can only assure the passing on of etiquette (how to sit properly at the table and hold one’s knife and fork etc), but not ethics or morals. Naturally, one’s upbringing and education have some effect on the formation of a person’s sense of morality but to a lesser degree than we might think. More often than not, our upbringing teaches us to hide where our morality is lacking.
Totalitarian systems believe that even if the morality they choose to cultivate cannot be instilled naturally, it can be forcefully driven into the minds of the adult population through propaganda and repression. So why is it then, that time passes and the population inevitably rises up in protest against the morality that has been enforced upon them?
Genetics fans who like to explain everything in terms of the gene would say that human morality is unequivocally determined by a person’s genetic makeup. If this the case then why do identical twins experience a different sense of morality?
What ultimately defines our morality as human beings and where does it originate?
In the 17th conversation of “The Last Faith: a book by an atheist believer” which focuses on the topic of Freedom of Choice, we identified the human soul as the ability to choose to act in accordance with or against one’s natural instincts, the most fundamental of which is the gene preservation instinct. The morality of every human being represents the result of how they choose to behave and treat others. This is what accounts for the diversity in our sense of morality as human beings, the difference between one person and another, one group and another.
Let’s take the example of a small group of 2-year-olds playing in a sandpit, who as yet have developed no sense of their own morality. It is not unusual to observe one child, attracted to one of the other children’s brightly-coloured toys, trying to take it from them. At this point, the unfolding scenario becomes potentially diverse and unpredictable because, at this age, children are still unfamiliar with the rules of conduct established by a conventional sense of morality. It would be correct to say, the morality developed and accepted by the majority in society. Here follows one possible scenario for how the children behave next:
- Day one: The ‘child-aggressor’ (more often than not a boy) takes the other child’s toy and walks way happily. The “child-victim” stays put and lets out a loud howl.
- Day two: The ‘child-aggressor’ tries to take the other child’s toy again but the “child-victim” having learned from the experience of the previous day, shows a strong response and fights to stand their ground. The ‘child-aggressor’ is left with a few bruises but no toy.
- Day three: The ‘child-aggressor’ having learned from the previous negative experience, approaches the ‘child-victim’ and offers one of their own toys in exchange for the other child’s toy, thereby initiating a possible satisfactory outcome for both parties and laying the foundation for a more civilised relationship in the future.
There are endless scenarios for the possible outcome of this type of interaction and I am certain that morality among primitive peoples developed in this manner, through trial and error in relationships with others. As a child grows and develops from the moment of birth to adolescence, they walk the path of acquiring a personal sense of morality, just like all humanity has done over the ages, from primitive societies to modern day society.
Of course, for every child, the path is an individual one and its shape will depend on a whole range of conditions: the influence of older siblings, parents, school environment, etc. In the same way, the path is different for each individual nation which explains why their moral codes differ to some extent, albeit not fatally! The difference between nations is often defined by where each nation is positioned on the arrow of time. In society, just as with children and even adults, the development of morality is connected not only to individuality but also to age.
The main conclusion I would like to draw here is that whereas a common morality can be adopted by a majority, there is no such thing as a common morality per se. There is no absolute or universal morality. The commandment “Thou shalt not murder” for example doesn’t work when it comes to street gangs and is quite inappropriate in the context of an army at war.
Moreover, a person’s sense of morality can change not only from one person to another and from one group to another. We all know of examples where the moral principles of an individual or even a whole nation change with changing circumstances. People will very quickly drop a moral code they held previously and just as easily take up a new one if the circumstances call them to do so.
For example, the moral principles that underpin the interaction between a man and a woman can change when circumstances so require. In the 1970s, I ended up at a Soviet youth camp on the Volga River near the city of Kazan, which took up to five hundred young people at any one time from all over the Soviet Union. On the very first evening, there was a disco attended by 500 young people, all furiously driven by the Law of Gene Preservation. The group was made up of young Soviet women; majestic, formidable and all dressed up and very timid-looking, young Soviet mathematics students (mainly men), who were participating in a scientific conference that was being held over a few days at the youth camp. What a shock it was to discover, after no more than half an hour had passed, that the ratio of young men to women in the room, far from being the normal 1:1, turned out to be less than 1:10 i.e. one young man to every 10-11 young women.
So what happened next? I won’t go into details, but a couple of hours later, half the lovely ladies who recognised that their chances were slim and didn’t want to negate the normal model of behaviour, saw no point in staying and left the disco hall. The other half, on the contrary, turned a blind eye to the convention, took the initiative and vied for the attention of the men they invited to dance. The young men, despite their initial shyness, suddenly adopted the role of the “lady” and were blatantly fickle in choosing whose invitation to accept.
The disco continued like any other, the only difference being, that the role of suitor was played by the women and the role of the lady, by the men respectively. I remember this occasion so vividly because it was the first time I had seen so clearly how moral conduct in relations between a man and a woman, which have developed over centuries, if not millennia, can transform in the blink of an eye if the situation requires it.
In conclusion, morality is nothing more than a ‘Pavlov’ conditioned reflex, which is evoked in response to external conditions and stimuli and which disappears the moment those conditions are removed.
If morality is nothing more than a conditioned reflex, why do we attribute such great importance to the teaching and promotion of morality? What is this ‘natural’ morality that society is constantly seeking from its members, and the family from its children?
It’s not actually a difficult question. Compassion or empathy, which lies at the core of the concept of morality, exists to one degree or another only in gregarious, herd-like species, including human beings. Understandably, solitary animals have no need of compassion. Compassion and mutual assistance within the herd are of direct benefit not only to every member of the herd in its task of Gene Preservation but also to the herd as a whole.
In my research, more than anything else, I was astounded by the behaviour of wolves, who brought back food from the hunt for a wolf-invalid. One may confidently claim, that herds of animals which are incapable of empathy are equally incapable of survival.
Recently, scientists discovered the altruism gene, which we more popularly refer to as compassion. So far, the altruism gene has only been found in microbes living in colonies but it is very likely that it will also be located in all gregarious living beings.
The taboo on murder within a herd is dictated by the Gene Preservation Law and again, this law explains the moral of encouraging the murder and destruction of other hostile herds. However, in specific circumstances, the same law may engender the opposite behaviour even within the herd, as for example in the case of lions where the new head of a pride will kill the cubs of the defeated male.
Among our human ancestors, the prohibition of murder was also applied solely within the tribe, although with the development of globalisation, the extent of the prohibition’s reach has expanded its boundaries. The universal prohibition on murder, to which Jesus Christ called man, will clearly only be implemented after the complete globalisation of the planet.
Morality which calls us to respect the Freedom of Choice of others, as a way of guaranteeing respect for our own Freedom of Choice, emerged in human society quite recently and only exists in democratic countries, where human rights as a priority are officially proclaimed. This complex form of morality, which exists only among human beings and which remains a constant focus of both the arts and the sciences, is, of course, a product of Freedom to Choice, which likewise exists solely among the human race.
Recently, a rumour was circulated in the global press that a freedom gene had been discovered, or to put it more clearly, a Free Will gene. Later they started to refute the rumour which may well have been fake news. Other ‘unscientific’ considerations, however, have been raised related to the topic of Freedom of Choice and so we shall comment on them here.
According to science, humankind’s ancestors (Homo habilis) have existed on the planet for about 3-4 million years. Ninety-nine percent of that time, if our ancestors did evolve, then they evolved in the same way as their primate relatives in accordance with Darwin’s theory. If our ancestors used sticks and stones during this time, then it should be pointed out that many other primate species used and use to this day these same implements for hunting and gathering.
And when less than one percent of this time was left i.e. 30-40 thousand years ago, the first signs of human evolution appeared i.e. signs of human activity significantly differentiating the species from other primates. Even in this period, for 30-35 thousand years, humankind was just ‘building up’ to the process, preparing for the great, real, human evolution.
The human evolution of the past 5-10 thousand years has taken place with exponential acceleration leading to what we see of the modern-day world with all its aeroplanes, ships, missiles and preparation for a flight to the planet Mars.
Suspicious? In my opinion, it is more than suspicious.
Perhaps, 30-40 thousand years ago (give or take a few) a Freedom of Choice gene appeared among mankind’s ancestor’s for the first time as a result of a process of natural mutation. This moment can be called the birth of the first Homo sapiens, or Homo eligenti as suggested in “The Last Faith: a book by an atheist believer”. Some might call it the reason genome, but that’s irrelevant and doesn’t change the essence here.
The mutation which allowed people to start choosing their behaviour freely, rather than acting as a response to blind instinct turned out to be extraordinarily helpful and from this point onwards, the carriers of the freedom gene acquired a huge advantage over other humans around them in the struggle for survival.
Over a period of 30-35 thousand years, the gene victoriously expanded across the breadth of the earth and finally, 5-10 thousand years ago, only the descendants of the new gene carriers remained. This most certainly explains the disappearance of the Neanderthals. Those primates who were genetically very similar but didn’t carry the new gene remained primates stuck with their sticks and stones.
(Part 2 of this article which explains why humanity naturally tends to become more tolerant and less violent over time is available here)
Translated from Russian original by Joanna Dobson
This article isn’t intended to give a comprehensive overview of the topic. It is simply an addition to the book’s contribution to the theme of morality already considered at length in “The Last Faith: a book by an atheist believer”.
I am certain that there is no singular meaning of life that applies equally to everyone. There is a great parable of the six great Jewish prophets which supports my view:
- In answer to the question: ‘where is truth?’, the meaning of life, the first Prophet, Moses, ‘who had revealed’ the one God to the people, pointed a finger up towards the sky;
- the second prophet, Solomon, who was known for his great wisdom, pointed a finger to his head;
- the third prophet, Jesus Christ, who had called the world to compassion placed his hand on his heart;
- the fourth prophet, Karl Marx, who led the class struggle and the battle for survival, stroked his stomach;
- the fifth prophet, Sigmund Freud, with his basic instinct pointed, naturally, a little lower.
- Then came the sixth prophet, Albert Einstein, who declared that the answer to the question was relative and depended on a system of coordinates specific to the person concerned.
The parable above (author remains unknown) was quoted in the third part of “The Last Faith: a book by an atheist believer”.
Readers often ask me, “Why The Last Faith?” and I reply, it’s “The Last” because you can’t develop new theories in old age… I’m joking of course. It’s “The Last” because, in accordance with the principle of Occam’s Razor, the behaviour of all living matter can be reduced to two fundamental ‘laws’ of nature beyond which, no further reduction is possible. By “Faith” I mean faith in science based on experiments and the process of extrapolating observable patterns, not religious faith based on dogma.
Why faith and not knowledge? Let me explain: When Newton wrote his second law equation, he started with the experimental data available to him. Neither he nor anyone else checked the truth of F=ma across an infinite variety of experiments and phenomena. Nonetheless, we apply this equation in all areas of our life because we believe it to be valid. It’s a matter of faith, rather than knowledge.
That is probably why the equation was shown to fail at near-light speeds and in microcosms. When this was discovered, our faith was shaken and new knowledge became necessary, specifically, the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics. We have faith in this new knowledge and will work with it until the discovery of exceptions to the rule once again dictates the need for developing new theories.
The Galilean principle is another example. Where and when in life have you seen a free body immune to the impact of other forces, moving endlessly at a constant speed and direction?
The answer is, nowhere, because it would be impossible to remove all surrounding disturbances or influences. Yet, still, we believe in the Galilean principle because we get ever closer to it the more we separate ourselves from external influences. So, in this instance, we are even willing to believe in something no-one has ever seen! We don’t worry about it too much though because all our experiments do in fact reflect the principle very nicely.
Even Darwin created his great theory of evolution by natural selection based on a small collection of experimental data relating to turtles and a few bird species inhabiting the Galapagos Islands. And we place our faith in his theory as a universal law because it provides a perfect explanation for the evolution of all living beings, whether Darwin observed their evolution or not.
All theories of natural science are created in the same way: observation, experimentation, regularity and generalisation, and every time an experiment throws up a discrepancy the theory is changed in part or totally re-written.