Currently reading a book called the “Science of Good & Evil” by Michael Shermer, which is about an evolutionary and naturalistic model for ethics and morality. Michael Shermer is an intelligent man, but his field, evolutionary psychology, is, how do we say, less than the most credible of all fields of science?

Something along the lines of, “Hey, let’s take the human psych which we don’t understand yet, and try to explain it using the evolution of humans, which we don’t fully understand yet.” The Domain of Science, those things which science can legitimately claim to discuss with any authority, is defined by falsifiability (at least this is the view of modern science).

Falsifiability is a fancy word for, “It can, in principle, be proven wrong.” An evolutionary theory of how the arm developed is legitimate science, because it can be proven wrong if the fossil record contradicts it. An evolutionary theory of the mind is unfalsifiable because human thoughts and emotions don’t leave fossils and written history is much too short to be meaningful on an evolutionary scale.

On a side note, falsifiablity is a large part of the rift between religion and science. God is something you have to take on faith…He cannot be objectively proven or disproven, he is unfalsifiable, and therefore outside of science’s reach, along with any theories that require his existance.

Back to the book, Shermer makes a few interesting points:

1) While what is moral and immoral changes from culture to culture, all cultures have morals, and all people experience the feelings of guilt when they violate their culture’s morals, and a sense of pride when they in a tempting situation, rise above the temptations to be consistent with the morals. To Shermer, this suggusts a biological (and therefore evolutionary) basis for them. Which is pretty tenuous, because these same things can be explained without evolution or biology through positive and negative reenforcement by the parents and culture…which is well proven.

2) People who commit immoral acts on a regular basis almost inevitable feel that these actions are justified, because no one sees themselves as “evil”.

3) Personal responsibility is vital to morality. A good example is the holocaust, ordered by Hitler and Heimler. Even some heads of concentration camps understand that what was happening was wrong, but they were “just following orders”…plus, for them, since they almost never saw the actual executions, they could (and many did) distance themselves from it and abstracitfy it all into nothing but logistics. X number of units must be processed and then the wastes properly disposed of. Our processing rate is Y. Our disposal abilities are Z. Make it all work together.” Put like that, it’s just a math problem. And thats what the leaders of many concentration camps did to overcome their personal responsibilty for their crimes. Most of them were still put to death for crimes against humanity, and rightfully so, but its important to understand the hows and whys. As for the soldiers that did the killing and burning and burying….they were “just following orders”, like everyone else.

A good chilling example of this is the Milgram experiments on authority which took place in the 50’s. Milgram was a psychologist that was bothered by the Holocaust and how so many people could paticipate in the mass murder of millions of people. So he conducted a series of experiments, first using college students, then using people from the population at large.

Milgram would bring in the subject and tell them they were going to assist him in an experiment on learning. The subject would read two words into a microphone, and another subject (actually an actor hired by Milgram) will repeat the second word later, speaking into another microphone in another room. If the learner got the word wrong, the subject was to push a button to administer an electric shock.

Milgram (wearing the white lab coat to make sure he looked like a scientific authority) explained that the shocks are harmless and minor.

As the actor deliberately missed words, Milgram would tell the subject to turn up the voltage. At a certain point, the actor would start screaming. He would plead for help. He would complain about his heart condition. He would scream with agony and cry and plead for mercy. And then, after a certain shock, just go completely silent.

If the person administering the shocks complained, Milgram would simply say, calmly, “Everything is under control. Continue the experiment.”

Of course, no one would keep shocking after the other person was screaming in agony? After they complained about their heart?

Milgram was terrified to discover that 65% of all people would administer what they believed to be a lethal dose of electricity to the subject, simply because someone in a white lab coat, someone in authority, told them to do it. They weren’t responsible. They were just the person pushing the button and reading the words. No one was happy about being the person pushing the buttons….they would cry and shake and laugh in disbelief at what they were doing…but they would push the button anyways. Right up to and beyond the point where they believe they have killed the person on the other end.

Pretty chilling, huh?

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21 August 2004