You Are Not Your Thoughts – Experiences With Meditation

If meditation and the study of free will has taught me anything, it’s that I am not my thoughts. Spending any amount of time on this, you’ll discover that consciousness precedes thoughts.

I’ve been meditating on and off semi-frequently for the last year and a half. I’ve always been curious about the nature of my own mind – the very reason why I got my Bachelor’s degree in psychology and sociology. Meditation was something I had been somewhat interested in trying throughout my twenties but I never dedicated any time to doing so. Also, being the skeptic and atheist I am, there is a TON of new age woo woo nonsense surrounding the practice (and the term “spiritualism” in general) which was an initial turnoff.

I started meditating seriously when Sam Harris released his book “Waking Up: Spirituality Without Religion” and ultimately his guided meditation app “The Waking Up Course”. Currently, I’m halfway through the book, but I subscribed to the course for a year and completed all fifty of the 10 minute introductory sessions. I also participated in the daily meditation where I tried 20 minute guided meditations. Finally, I decided to give guided meditations a break and explore twenty minute silent, self-guided meditation on my own.

Throughout the end of May and the entire month of June I silently meditated 30 to 40 minutes every day for a collective total of 24 hours and 5 minutes. Throughout the last month I discovered several new insights about my own mind.

The mind is a very busy and noisy place. The most random thoughts come to the surface of consciousness, seemingly to emerge out of nowhere. Our consciousness becomes aware of what seems to be a never ending stream of thoughts – going from one thought to the next ad infinitum until we sleep (though one could also argue that it may not necessarily stop at sleep).

It’s while meditating where I realized that I (we) have no control of our thoughts – we have absolutely no control of thought appears next or what stupid song gets stuck in our head. I was originally exposed to this idea from another one of Sam Harris’ books called Free Will which I’ve written briefly about before.

One of the goals of meditation is to clear your mind of thoughts if just for a moment and really experience the moment. Anyone who has ever tried meditation knows that this is easier said than done, but focusing on the ins and outs of the breath helps. However, when I realize that I’m lost in my own thoughts, I’ll take a step back and look at the thought. These thoughts tend to have a common theme: planning for the future, reviewing the past, or social situations and relationships.

Ultimately, we’re in a state of constantly needing and wanting things. When we obtain that thing that we need or want, that feeling of achievement is short lived and we then move on to the next need or want – an endless cycle that leaves us in a perpetual state of feeling unsatisfied (or “suffering”, but I feel this word is a bit excessive for most needs and wants).

Another realization I’ve made is that we are not our thoughts and do not necessarily need to identify with them. Our thoughts simply appear in consciousness, yet we often identify ourselves as the thinker of our thoughts despite the fact we are simply the observers. I think dissociating myself with these thoughts that come packaged with endless wants and needs is an understanding that I’ve needed.

I think that I have much more to explore. I’ve yet to meditate for more than an hour other than a half a dozen sensory deprivation float sessions. I’ve also been considering a silent meditation retreat once this global pandemic cools down.

Why Use Encrypted Messaging & Email?

I’ve come to realize that it’s actually pretty difficult persuading friends and family to switch to an encrypted messaging service. From my personal experience it really boils down to two things: 1) most people don’t care about (or necessarily understand) digital privacy and verbatim will often state the “I have nothing to hide” or “you’re being monitored anyway” argument; and 2) they don’t want to go through the trouble of installing another app on their phone – oftentimes Facebook Messenger is the app that they and all their friends use and anything with a word like “encryption” sounds hard.

Why We Need Encryption

We live in an age where normal people believe the government in spying on you and giant internet companies collect every piece of data about you, and it’s crazy to believe that they’re not doing these things. Using an encrypting communications services is one way to mitigate this for anyone who still believes they have a fourth amendment right. If any company, state, or simply a bad actor intercepts your communication that is end to end encrypted all they will see is random blogs of garbage since your intended recipient is the only one with they key to decrypt it. This type of communication is absolutely vital for journalists and people under oppressive governments, but normal everyday people as well. Now my threat model isn’t that of a journalist or someone living in an oppressive country, but being in the United States, I’m personally more concerned about surveillance capitalism.

This isn’t to say there’s other ways to intercept communications on your device. For example, an adversary could install a malicious application on your device without your knowledge that records everything you do on your device – or simply stand over your shoulder and read your messages.

Facebook – The Advertising Behemoth

Facebook collects information not just about what you “like”, what you watch, who you engage with, and what you’re doing online even when you’re not using their services – they also collect data from your personal messages on Facebook Messenger. This information combined into a neat advertising profile in which Facebook sells the keys to the highest bidder, namely advertisers. This profile is essentially a score about what you’re likely to engage with (ie a click, like, comment, share, etc).

Advertising by it’s very nature is a means to manipulate you into performing an action (in this case clicking/viewing) with the ultimate goal of buying a product or even swaying you who to vote for. I should note that I’m not saying that Facebook directly shares your entire message with advertisers (at least not to my knowledge), but by scanning your conversations they’re able to further build an advertising profile about you which is then shared with advertisers. Of course we all agreed to this type of data collection when we signed up for the service, but I’m willing to bet that you (like me) didn’t read through the Terms of Service.

I’m picking on Facebook here, but other messaging services will often do the same thing.

Why not revert back to SMS?

This is pretty straight forward. First of all, wireless carriers have begun implementing encryption into SMS, though every carrier is different and I for one wouldn’t trust carriers with the keys to my personal data.

Secondly, we have become accustomed to rich messaging services where we can send higher resolution photos, videos, GIFs, stickers, read receipts, voice messages, and seeing when the other person is writing a reply, it’s a hard task to convince people to go back to the limitations of SMS. With Signal, my preferred encrypted messaging app, your account is essentially your phone number which makes it significantly easier to transition as most of my friends still have each others numbers. However you also get the added benefit of not only rich messaging but also end-to-end encryption.

Conclusion

When people (ie normies) hear the word “encryption”, then tend to lose interest and run the opposite direction because it sounds complicated. The reality is that it’s far from being complicated especially with services like Signal and Protonmail at our disposal and are completely free for anyone to use. With these services we are not the product. Signal happens to be a non-profit and has received a large donation from the co-founder of WhatsApp (which is a very interesting story and I recommend you read up on it). Protonmail has paid tiers for more storage, more customization, the use of custom domains, and more. Do yourself a favor by checking out these tools and maybe take back control of your privacy.

Donating to Security and Privacy Advocating Organizations & Projects

After recently paying off my student loans, I have been giving some thought to making regular monthly donations to various organizations. Specifically to non-profit organizations, services, and tools that advocate privacy, security, and open source.

Also, I’m privileged to have a job that has only been minimally impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. With the recent stimulus check from the US government, I decided to donate a portion of it to two organizations: the Signal Foundation and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Signal Foundation
I use the encrypted messaging service Signal everyday. Using an end-to-end encrypted messaging service that doesn’t collect my data, read my message, or serve me advertisements based on my messages/usage is a breath of fresh air in the current technological climate we’re living in. I’ve managed to convince getting my girlfriend, my family, and my group of friends to exclusively communicate on it, which I consider a huge win – it’s actually fairly difficult to convince all of your friends and family to install an app on their phone. Signal has an interesting background with the co-founders having strong moral code. Signal is, of course, free and open source software.

Electronic Frontier Foundation
I’ve been a long time supporter of the EFF so my college days. The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s core mission is to focus on digital rights and provides funds for legal defense, defends individuals and new technology from abusive legal threats, works to expose government misconduct (ex: government mass surveillance), supports new technologies which preserves personal freedoms and online civil liberties (ex: TOR), challenges potential legislation that could infringe on personal liberties and fair use (ex: net neutrality), among other things.

Some organizations I plan to donate to in the future the Free Software Foundation, the Linux Mint team, Mozilla, Privacytools.io, the TOR Project, and LibreOffice.

The End of Ownership in a Digital Age

I was an early adopter to Google’s Daydream VR product. What drew me to Daydream as a platform was how easy and cheaper it was to experience VR (albeit not nearly as high end as other VR platforms like the HTC Vive or Facebook Oculus). I spent around $100 on Daydream applications and games throughout it’s life. I was okay with it at the time because I wanted to support the platform and developers because in my mind, this platform was the most cost-effective way to bring virtual reality to the masses. Unfortunately, Google being Google, they decided to kill Daydream in 2019.

One of the last purchases I made on the platform Blade Runner Revelations about a year ago which was launched just after the Bladerunner 2049 film. It was one of the better Google Daydream VR experiences available and I’m also a fan of the original film. However, I recently picked up a used Pixel 2 XL and wanted to try out the slightly larger display only to discover that Blade Runner Revelations has been completely pulled from the Play Store! Here’s the link where the app should be. I tried numerous ways to obtain the original APK, but unfortunately I wiped my 2016 Pixel XL so transferring the the application wasn’t an option.

What I find particular odd and alarming was also the fact that the original transaction was removed from my Google Play transaction history. I am the type that practices inbox zero, so I wasn’t able to pull up my receipt because I deleted the original purchase confirmation email (note to self: don’t delete receipts). The only way I was able to pull up any proof of the original purchase was scouring my bank statement.

The story here is that the company and developer Alcon Interactive pulled the game about a year after the I made the purchase, then Google removed the transaction record from my Google Play Order History. This is a very shady business practice by not only the developer, but by Google as well.

The sad thing about this situation is that this has happened to me at least half a dozen times with other games and applications I’ve purchased from the Google Play Store throughout the years. This is one of the reasons I deleted my Google account and no longer use any of Google’s services (except under certain circumstances for work).

We live in an age where we no longer own the things we purchase. The difference between buying content now versus 20 years ago is when we purchase digital content today, we do not own anything – we obtain a license to consume the content temporarily, that is until the platform, company, or developer decides it’s no longer making them any money. The content gets pulled from the service and you and I, the customer, have to eat the cost.

This may not come as much of a surprise if you’re a user of Netflix or Spotify, but there’s other digital distribution services like Amazon, YouTube, or Steam where you “purchase” a book, movie, or a game from their platform, but consumers are seldom aware that they’re not actually purchasing property – they’re purchasing a license that don’t hold their best interests. Additionally, software vendor can delete it from your device at anytime without any warning or explanation.

At the end of the day, where does this leave us? In the situation I shared above, the developer has completely pulled the game I paid for and Google has completely erased the transaction record. Ultimately, this has strongly encouraged me to try and find a pirated version of the game – which is copyright infringement despite the fact that I already paid money to access the game. I believe creators should get paid for their work, but if it means I have pay for a license that could be revoked at anytime, I will more than likely pirate the content instead. On the other hand, this also means finding content on sketchy websites which is especially an issue when it comes to software. Installing a random APK from a sketchy website is not something I’ll do or encourage anyone else to do. At this point, I’m simply considering it a loss.

While writing this, I did some searches and found the book called ‘The End of Ownership‘ which I haven’t read yet but intend on checking out. The authors share the story similar to mine (but much more ironic) where Amazon deleted George Orwell’s 1984 from Kindles several years ago. Like most of us, these readers thought they owned their digital copies of 1984… until they didn’t.

Some thoughts on Free Will

I recently read Sam Harris’ book Free Will while on a recent business trip to LA. His book is short, but is absolutely worth the read. It got me thinking about a paper I had written more than a decade ago for a philosophy class I took at Portland State. This paper was on free will and whether or not we live in a deterministic universe and free will does not exist or the universe is non-deterministic and free will actually does exist (or at least to an extent). This essay is similar to what 22 year old Chuck wrote, but it’s been updated with new thoughts and reasoning (and stripped of incoherent claims, irrelevant information, typos, and some cringe).

For those new to the topic, the question of free will really boils down to whether or not we as individuals really possess power and control over our actions and decisions in our lives, unconstrained by physical or divine forces. Are we, as rational agents, able to choose a course of action from among various other alternatives? Or are our future actions and decisions already predetermined?

Philosophers have debated the question of free will for over two millennium. Rene Descartes identifies the faculty of free will with the freedom of choice as “the ability to do or not do something” and also goes so far as to declare that “the will is by its nature so free that it can never be constrained”. Shri Ramakrishna, a famous Indian mystic, gave an example of a cow in a pasture tethered to a long rope attached to its neck. He said that the cow feels it is free to roam anywhere, but the perimeter of the area which it can move is fixed and cannot go outside that perimeter. Shri Ramakrishna said that human beings are similar, that we have free will but the length of rope is governed by God.

Most mainstream religions believe that God has given man free will. These religions also firmly stake the claim that their god is omnipotent (all powerful) and omniscient (all knowing) – I’ll be using this definition of god as it’s the most common across all religions. If we’re operating under the premise that free will exists, a god must be incompatible. If there really is an omnipotent and omniscient god, then that god must know every action and decision I have made and will perform, every decision I have ever made and will make throughout my life, and every thought I’ve had and will ever have before I make them. If God knows what I will do an hour from now or even ten years from now, then how then can I do anything other than that? If I can do something that God does not know, then he is not omniscient, and if he is not omniscient, then how can he possibly be omnipotent? If one cannot do something that God already knows that they will do, then how could there possibly be free will? This is called theological determinism, one of many different varieties of determinism. It is therefore absurd to accept both the existence of god and free will as true – these concepts are incompatible with one another.

For every action there is a reaction. Determinism is the philosophical proposal that every event is causally determined by a chain of prior occurrences. This includes human behavior and cognition, as well as decisions and actions. Some determinists would argue that the universe is completely deterministic, and therefore free will is impossible since every event is causally determined by this unbroken chain of prior occurrences. From the moment of the big bang, a series of events occurred such as gravity, subatomic particles, the human species – all of these were inevitable to occur as a result of that initial cause (here we could go into ‘what caused the big bang?’ but I’ll save that topic for another day).

Over the last couple of years, I’ve been increasingly interested in meditation. One of the topics Sam Harris discusses in his book ‘Free Will’ and ‘Waking Up’ is our thought processes. You might argue that “I have control over my thoughts”, but do you really? A common practice in meditation is closing your eyes and clearing your mind by focusing on your breath. Let everything go for the next 5 minutes and just focus on your breath. Assuming you’re not a seasoned meditator, after several seconds you’re inevitably going to start thinking about something such as what you’re going to have for dinner tonight, an important task you need to complete, or something that your partner did the other day. Where did these thoughts come from? Did you intentionally manifest them or did they appear in consciousness all on their own? I strongly recommend Sam’s book to dig deeper into this, but this is another example of how the concept of free will breaks down, even within our own minds.

Indeterminism is the philosophical position that argues that either 1) my will is free and that deliberate choices and actions are not determined by or are predictable from prior causes, or 2) that some forms of determinism is incorrect and that there are events that do no correspond to determinism. Therefore there are events that are either uncaused, or caused in a manner that the corresponding form of determinism does not allow.

An example of indeterminism has been described in terms of the following argument.
1. No event is necessarily caused at all
2. Some events are not necessarily caused
3. Some events are partially caused by case
4. All events can be caused by necessity or by chance
5. Necessity and chance are alternatively aging in what happens
6. The preservation is due to necessity, the new to the chance

Is it possible that long before we are consciously aware of making a decision, our minds have already made it. If that’s the case, do people actually make decisions or is every choice, even the choice to prepare for future choices, an unthinking, unconscious mechanistic process? In fact, there some studies done that can predict a choice or actions seconds before a person becomes consciously aware of it. If a hypothetical machine can, with 100% accuracy, predict which action I am going to make, what does this mean for free will?

I fall into the camp that rejects that free will exists, but I would expect some to misconstrue this rejection as an argument that we no longer have an obligation to take responsibility for our behavior. This is not the case – I believe that morality can exist in a deterministic universe. We still should continue to live as autonomous, rational, and moral agents. Am I saying violent criminals be set free? Of course not because they still pose a potential threat to society, but I do suggest that we view their violent actions in a different light and possibly not hold them 100% responsible and a victim of their set of circumstances.

Lets take a hypothetical violent criminal for example. Oftentimes their abnormal behavior can be attributed to one of two causes. Perhaps they were raised in an environment with a violently abusive or neglectful parent. In this situation, their violent environment they were raised in as a child has unsurprisingly created a violent adult. Or perhaps they were born with a genetic disorder which left them predisposed to have sociopathic and violent behavior. If you were born as this person, whether it was in an abusive childhood environment or a genetic predisposition to violent tendencies, you would be that person. We do not choose our childhood environment, nor do we choose our genetics (or resulting mental disorders). When we account for these factors, we can begin to predict a persons behavior. We are products of both our environment and our genetics.

I’ve touched on a few topics in this essay. To review, the concept of an omnipotent and omniscient god is incompatible with free will and therefore I reject theological determinism. Close your eyes and try not to think about anything in particular (or simply focus on your breath). You realize that thoughts seem to appear about of nothingness and that ultimately you make no decision as to what you think, from one thought to the next. In fact, within the last few decades science has been encroaching on this philosophical topic, even further reducing the possibility that free will exists. I still believe that humans remain morally accountable for their behavior, but perhaps when criminals receive their judgement, their previous experiences and mental factors such as the awful environment they were raised or perhaps their mental disorder they’ve been genetically predisposed to be taken into account.

References
Harris, S. (2012). Free will. New York: Free Press.

Smith, Kerri. Brain makes decisions before you even know it. April 11, 2008
https://www.nature.com/articles/news.2008.751

Rajvanshi, Anil K. Free Will, Evolution and Chaos Theory. August 4, 2007.
http://www.boloji.com/perspective/272.html

Indeterminism. The Information Philosopher. March 14, 2009.
http://www.informationphilosopher.com/freedom/indeterminism.html




Getting My Data Back From Google

Over the last year or so, I’ve been in the process of  weening my digital life off of Google’s services. There’s a variety of reasons why I began doing this such as privacy concerns, the fact that Google routinely kills products, and the risk of losing access to my account (this would especially be problematic as I was heavily invested into the Google ecosystem) – however, I’ll probably get into all these reasons another time.

This post is mostly a rant, but also a warning to anyone else out there trying to get your data back from Google’s services. This has not been a fun experience I’ll share another post about what I’ve switched to in place of these services, but ultimately I believe in privacy, security, diversification, and compartmentalization when considering an alternative.

Google Play Music
Using Google’s Music Manager, I was able to download all the music I had uploaded to Google Play Music. Unfortunately, I had a series of issues like having some songs missing, albums and artists being split into multiple folders, and even “clean” versions of songs being downloaded rather than the original mp3 with “dirty” lyrics – I’m not exactly sure how this happened. Additionally, any file that had a name longer than 25 or so characters were shortened. For example a Boards of Canada song with the file named “A Beautiful Place Out In The County.mp3” would be downloaded as “A Beautiful Place Out In .mp3”. This becomes especially annoying if you have files of songs with guest artists.

Google Drive
This was a bit more simpler than the other services, although I was missing roughly 10% of my files when I had downloaded in bulk, especially folders with a large number of files. I used the web version of Google Drive for the most part, but I remembered Google’s Sync tool. I was able to use Sync to download the rest of my files, unfortunately it’s only available on Windows and Mac (no Linux support).

Google Photos
This has been by far the most frustrating experience of all and I believe that this process is intentionally difficult to make it harder to switch. This whole experience would have been a lot simpler had Google kept the Photos integrated into the Sync tool or if they still made it possible to manage/view your photos from Google Drive. The only way to get all of your photos at once is to use Google’s Takeout tool which takes quite a while since I had around 80+ gbs of data in total and came out to 32 separate 2gb zip files.

  • All of the metadata (ie the time, date, location, device, etc) have been stripped out of the original image and into a separate .json file. I’m still trying to figure out how to merge this file back into the original image, but there’s no way to tell when the photo was taken other than the folder which only identifies the year.
  • There’s almost no organization to the photos and they’re scattered into multiple folders.
  • There are folders but missing data. For example, I had uploaded a folder titled “2005”, but the only file in the folder is a .json.
  • Some photos are not their original resolution and are basically the size of a thumbnail.

I’m still trying to figure out to get all my data exported intact from Google Photos. I’m considering going through the process again as it’s possible one of the issues is a 2gb zip not being properly exported.

Google Play Books
I’d say about half of the books I had uploaded could not be downloaded – this includes both PDF and ePub file format. There didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason as to why I wasn’t able to download them. Some would download after 3 or 4 attempts but anything beyond this I just gave up. After dealing with Google Photos, I simply downloaded what I could and then deleted everything.

At the end of the day, I suggest against relying heavily on Google services. Their services are certainly easy and convenient, but I don’t believe in sacrificing freedom and control for the sake of convenience. I’ve since opted to store my files locally with a redundant cloud backup of everything just in case my laptop explodes. I will write another post soon about replacements.

Human Morality — A Product of Evolution, Culture, or Religion?

I originally wrote this essay as an assignment for an evolutionary psychology course I had taken at Portland State over 8 years ago (March 11th, 2011 to be precise). I had dug it out of the digital rubbish bin of an old blog I was using to publicly post essays I thought this one deserved a second go. Although there were some parts that were fairly cringy to read, there were several things I wanted to update as my thinking as evolved over the years so to speak. I’ve updated some of the arguments and made it some what more coherent and confident.

“I am not advocating a morality based on evolution. I am saying how things have evolved. I am not saying how we humans morally ought to behave.”
– Richard Dawkins

   The question of the origins of moral behavior has been a philosophical topic of debate for thousands of years. It isn’t until the last couple centuries that humanity has been able to make an attempt at explaining morality through the scientific lens of biology and psychology. The question I am going to attempt to answer in this essay is where do we as humans get our ideas of what is morally acceptable and unacceptable, and how has our sense of morality has evolved? I will argue that moral behavior is fundamentally a result of an evolutionary process, of biological origins with cultural and religious memes supporting (or distorting) human morality. The characteristic of morality is fundamentally innate in almost all humans, with the exception of those with serious mental disorders. There is evidence supporting the possibility that it is genetically encoded into our DNA through social and environmental adaptations as the result of thousands of years of repeated behavior. I will present evidence that moral behavior is observable in animal species as well, signifying that it may not be just a human trait. I will also address the purpose as well as the somewhat obvious advantages to moral behavior, especially that of altruism.

   Religious fundamentalists have argued that moral values are divine commandments given to us from god, while others have said that they are the products of our ability to rationally reflect on objective truths about the universe. Yet, others have claimed that moral values are a product of human nature, and further, argue that moral values are merely social conventions or local cultural norms. I argue that all of these explanations play some role in the development of human morality, but also that moral values are primarily not just embedded into human nature, but a product of nature and biology in general. Darwin proposed the moral sense as an inevitable outcome of four elements: social instinct, memory, language and habit.

A Moral Gene

   A critical question that must be asked is whether or not we have a genetic disposition to behave in a morally acceptable fashion. Steven Pinker, an evolutionary psychologist at Harvard University, published an article in the New York Times regarding the possibility of a moral gene. Pinker claims that there is circumstantial evidence that genes for morality exist, although no one has identified them (2008). Investigating further to see if any of the literature had been updated, I found a study conducted in 2011 that shows that serotonin transporter (5-HTTLPR) genotype predicted responses to moral dilemmas (Marsh et al., 2011).

   This claim can be backed up by observing other character traits such as conscientiousness and agreeableness. These character traits are far more correlated in identical twins separated at birth (who share their genes but not their environment) than in adoptive siblings raised together (who share their environment but not their genes) (Jang et al., 2001). If we make the connection between traits such as conscientiousness and agreeability with moral values, then we may have evidence supporting the existence of a moral gene.

   Also, people diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder (or psychopathy), are thought to have these disorders arise from a genetic predisposition (Lykken, 1995). People with these disorders show signs of morality blindness from the time they are children. These signs of moral blindness include torturing animals, bullying younger children, habitually lying, and seem incapable of empathy or remorse for their immoral actions, even though they have normal family backgrounds. If genetics can influence ones moral sensibility, then it is supportive to the claim that moral behavior has a genetic component.

Altruism

   When we view morality from both an evolutionary-psychological and biological perspective, we can draw inferences as to the origins of morality and the biological advantages of such behavior. Lets observe altruism, a fundamental component of morality. There is a vast variety of evolutionary explanations and advantages, such as reciprocation and kin selection. When explaining altruism from these perspectives, it is functionally defined as a behavior by an individual that increases the fitness of another individual while decreasing the fitness of the actor (Bell, 2008). Meaning the altruist increases the fitness and well-being of another individual while decreasing its own fitness and well-being. This behavior may seem to conflict with the theory of natural selection and survival of the fittest, however social-biologists and psychologists have examined this behavior and have concluded that it benefits the overall well-being of one’s social group.

   When examining the hypothetical situation in which a man jumps into a river to save a drowning child, we must ask what forces are at work. Does this man save the child out of an overwhelming impulse that it is “the right thing to do”? Perhaps “the right thing to do” is really backed by some sort of unconscious reasoning that he couldn’t possibly live with the guilt of allowing a child to drown when he had the power to save its life. It could be another possibility that the man is compelled to save the child out of the threat of possible punishment from his group (or society) for not attempting to do so. Perhaps the man’s action can be attributed to something instinctive or a combination of all of these influences.

   If one has an idea of how the evolutionary process works, they can speculate as to why certain moral behaviors are beneficial. Altruistic behavior, for example, has a variety of possible explanations. One may feel the need to save a drowning child out of possible future reciprocation, fear of punishment for not doing so when they were entirely capable, or because one was raised in a culture to act in situations like this.

Culturally transmitted practices

   Samuel Bowles, a social psychologist and economist at the University of Massachusetts, argues that moral practices presuppose advanced cognitive and linguistic capacities. This may possibly account for the distinctive form of altruism found in other species (2006). His estimates have shown that genetic differences between early human groups are likely to have been great enough so that lethal intergroup competition could account for the evolution of altruism. He says that, crucial to this process, there were distinctive human practices such as sharing of food beyond the immediate family, monogamy, and other forms of reproductive leveling.

   Bowles presents detailed information about how altruistic behavior within groups increases the overall fitness of the group, even though fitness decreases at the individuals expense. In his analysis he also provides an intricate mathematical framework that explains how altruism becomes a dominant trait, and mentions how altruists are more likely to interact with other altruists. Bowles further goes into explaining that intergroup competition could influence the evolution of these culturally transmitted behaviors, and how large metapopulations of individuals living in subgroups benefit.

   To elaborate on this further, I also argue that altruistic behavior, specifically that of altruism towards a stranger, encourages cooperation not just within groups, but also cooperation between external groups. One of the traits that make us humans unique and stronger compared to that of other species of homo sapien (ie homo neanderthalensis) is the fact that we can cooperate in large groups in the hundreds. For example, if I save a drowning child that’s a member of a rival group, it’s possible me and my group might fall into favor with that rival group.

Altruism in Animals

   Morality, also, is not an entirely inherent human characteristic, and it seems that not much thought is given to the social conduct of other species in the context of moral behavior in contrast to that of humans. Conceptualizing morality as a form of behavior opens the possibility of observing it in other species. I will posit that both humans and other animal species share a very similar sense of moral guidelines, however, it is important to note and recognize that morality from a human perspective is significantly more complex as our morals are expanded on by culture, religion, politics, personal values, etc. It is also a more complicated thing because we are more more social creatures. Social interactions with one another are far more complex as well (i.e. we use sophisticated verbal language).

   It has been observed that animals help those individuals to whom they are closely related to and explained by what’s called ‘kin selection’. Kin selection refers to strategies in evolution that favor the reproductive success of an organism’s relatives, even at times at a cost to their own survival. Even though it is not considered true altruism, they do put the well-being of those they are related to above themselves — sacrificing their fitness (or in some cases their own life) in order to increase the fitness of kin. One would think that this is an exception and counterproductive to the successful continuation of an organism’s genes, but seeing as how kin share genetic makeup with the altruist, continuation of the altruist’s genes will continue as long as the kin continues to survive and reproduce.

   Though this is a well documented behavior, I found an example of this phenomenon in a article by the BBC. A bonobo would opt to share his food with his fellow bonobo. Food would be placed in a room which could be easily viewed by another bonobo who was locked out (who I will call ‘bonobo A’ for the sake of avoiding confusion). When the other bonobo (‘B’) entered this room and began helping himself to the fruit, he would within a few seconds unlock the door by removing a wooden peg so that the other bonobo could enter and share the highly desired food. It is speculated that this behavior could be purely altruistic, or more selfish motives could drive this behavior. Specifically, because sharing could be exchanged for future favors. This possible exchange in the future is called reciprocal altruism, which I will get into later.

   Steven Pinker also mentioned in his article referenced above that the impulse to avoid inflicting harm on others can also be found in rhesus monkeys. The monkeys would rather go hungry then to pull a chain that delivered food to them but would simultaneously shock another monkey. The evidence of moral behavior in animal groups supports the indication that morality is not just a human characteristic. If it is not an innate human characteristic and observed in other species, it further hints to a biological process driving morality.

   A final example I want to outline is one that I recently read in Yuval Noah Harrari’s book Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. He refers to a study conducted in 2010 where a rat was locked in a tiny cage, then placed that cage within a much larger cell and allowed another rat to roam. The caged rat gave out distress signals, which caused the free rat to also exhibit signs of of anxiety and stress. In most cases, the free rat proceed to help the caged rat, and after several attempts, succeeded in open the the cage and freeing the other imprisoned rat. This study was conducted again but with a piece of chocolate also in the larger cell. Many rats preferred to first free their trapped companion and then share the chocolate. Perhaps the free rat acted out of altruism, or perhaps it acted simply to stop the annoying distress signals.

Mechanisms for Morality

   There are several proposed mechanisms for altruism. Reciprocal altruism, for example, is a behavior whereby an organism acts in a manner that temporarily reduces its fitness while increasing that of another, but with the expectation that the other organism will reciprocate and act in a similar manner at a later time during interaction. The bonobo example above explains how a possible motive for the bonobo unlocking the door for the other is that it might expect a comparable favor in the future. This could also be identified as a motive in the caged rat example.

   Direct reciprocity is especially likely to occur when there is a chance of repeated encounters between two individuals. An example of this out of daily life can be made when observing the relationships one has with coworkers verses a complete stranger. You are much more likely to do a favor for a coworker than for someone you have never met. The chances of doing a favor for the stranger is not nearly as likely for obvious reasons — there is a much higher probability that you will never see the stranger again versus seeing your coworker again, thus there is little probability that the stranger will reciprocate the favor. However, say that you see this stranger regularly on your morning commute, the chances are higher that if asked for a small favor, you may abide. This is supported by the psychological concept that familiarity breeds fondness.

   Socialization plays an important role in shaping moral guidelines as well, but there have been studies showing that infants as young as 18 months show altruistic behavior. Evidence was presented in a CBC article by a psychologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology that infants would attempt to retrieve a peg. The researchers claimed that the infant had observed the adult performing a task with the peg and when the infant believed that the peg was dropped unintentionally, they were much more likely to retrieve the peg than if it appeared that the adult dropped it intentionally.

Taboos

   I’ve given many examples about the evolutionary origins of altruism, but I’d like to shift to to moral cultural norms, such as taboos. The act of incest has been identified as taboo by literally all cultures and considered a highly immoral act. What would be the evolutionary advantage of perceiving this as unethical? Considering that inbreeding leads to a higher probability of congenital birth defects, there is no question as to why it is considered a taboo. Natural selection has There is no advantage to inbreeding. In fact, there is a major disadvantage.

   This isn’t to say that all taboos have an evolutionary origin. In fact, the majority of them are the result of cultural norms that have emerged over time. Masturbation, homosexuality, and polygamy are all examples of cultural taboos — however, that is not to say that don’t serve an evolutionary purpose. I’ve heard that homosexuality could be a potential advantage as have a brother that will not produce any offspring can provide support in raising the offspring of his sister.

Religious Morality

   As I mentioned earlier, religion may have the potential to both support and distort human morality. It also has the ability to make additions to moral values such as forbidding the consumption of pork, no sex before marriage, not doing any sort of work on the Sabbath, etc. One purpose for morality may be to help the individual cope with the human condition — to give a meaning their life and avoid an existential crisis — possibly an evolutionary coping mechanism. Possibly a method to reduce death anxiety. Terror Management Theory delves more into this fascinating topic and some have referred to religion itself as a method of terror management.

   If religion is examined from an evolutionary-psychological perspective, one can argue that religion emerged after morality as a ‘support’. Religion has built upon morality by expanding the social scrutiny of individual behavior to include supernatural agents. Including a god that is forever watching ever move you make is an effective strategy for restraining immoral actions as well as creating more cooperative groups (Rossana, 2007). The adaptive value of religion would have enhanced group survival. (Rutherford, 2007).

   Those who lack an understanding of the principles of evolution and philosophy may claim that without religious values prohibiting us from breaking moral laws, we would be living highly unethical lives (i.e. stealing, raping, killing), and we would not feel any remorse or fear of punishment for these actions (one of the signs of someone with antisocial personality disorder).

   It’s also easy to believe that we are qualitatively superior to other species — after all, only humans can have the ability to make moral judgements right? One of the premises that the majority of traditional religious thought is built on is that humans did not evolve from other earlier species of ape, but rather created by an all-powerful god that also commands us to act in a moral fashion. As a result of this dogma, we seem to naturally have this notion that we are superior in almost every aspect, that we are the center of the universe, and that we are the only species with any sort of moral sense. This is a dangerous line of thinking and it is important to question such established doctrines. The ethically questionable subjugation animals aside, it also closes the door to scientific inquiry, skepticism, and establishes the church to being the only human moral authority.

   I do admit that religion may in fact play an important role in human morality — but only when “morality” is loosely defined. It is concerning that some make the propositions that morality and altruism are uniquely human and that it’s rooted in religion. This is not only highly debatable, but false on many levels and circles back to the old fallacy that “god did it” when the unknown cannot be easily explained. The same people also make the inductive leap that morality must have been conferred by God and rejects all socio-biological argument and evidence that morality could be an evolved trait.

Conclusion

   Based on the arguments I’ve presented, there is strong support that moral behavior has a genetic element. Hereditary traits leading to psychological disorders that block moral recognition are indeed a sign that moral values are genetic. The evidence presented also supports that morality is not just a human trait, but is observable in other species as well, most notably altruism. Other animal species behave in an ethical fashion because if they didn’t they would probably die out due to killing their offspring, inbreeding, etc.

   Morality presupposes language and cognition if it exists in animal species, further supporting the idea that there must be an evolutionary trait supporting it. In humans, religious beliefs can potentially support our already structured moral foundations, as well as creating its own set of moral values. I have also presented information that demonstrates the evolutionary benefits to various behaviors that are considered moral (such as altruism), and the biological dangers with behaviors considered immoral (such as incest).

   Although some might argue that explaining morality through a scientific lens dehumanizes our sense of morality, if anything it reinforces what truly is moral and weeds morals that are a product of culture or religion. It may also be attacked on the basis that it reduces personal responsibility in making difficult ethical decisions and gives us excuses when we make a bad decision — of course, this opens up a new discussion about free will. “Tthe devil made me do it” is never the correct response however. Whether or not human morality has an evolutionary cause, it doesn’t change the fact that certain behaviors are ethically wrong and unacceptable and humans should still be held responsible for their actions.

   Morality is an ever-shifting zeitgeist. What was seen as immoral 1000 years ago isn’t considered immoral today. In this essay, I want to emphasize two things: 1) that much of what we consider a moral a product of evolution and 2) culture plays a role in that it expands on what is morality — for better or for worse. Evolutionary theory, science, religion, philosophy, and our natural human instinct to reflect on the world will drive morality into new directions, redefining and altering what is considered acceptable and unacceptable.

Bibliography
Bell, Graham (2008). Selection: the mechanism of evolution. Oxford: Oxford
University Press. pp. 367–368.

Lykken, D. (1995) The Antisocial Personalities

Yang, L., Livesley, W., Rainer, R., Vernon, P., Hu, S., Angleitner, A. . . Hamer,
D. (2001). Covariance structure of neuroticism and agreeableness: a
twin and molecular genetic analysis of the role of the serotonin
transporter gene. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81,
295–304.

Bowles, S. (2006). Group competition, reproductive leveling, and the evolution of human altruism. Science, 314 (8)

Pinker, S. (2008, January 13). The moral instinct. The New York Times

Rossano, M. (2007). Supernaturalizing social life: religion and the evolution of human cooperation.

Matthew, R. (2007). The evolution of morality. University of Glasgow.

The Herd Mentality

Written for a philosophy class…

Nietzsche wrote a lot about what he referred to as “the herd” in his writing. He uses the language “herd” and “species” to describe the fundamental animal nature of humans, social groups and society as a whole. Thinking of people in this manner has given me a surprisingly clearer and more accurate perspective of human beings. I think that we as humans forget the fact that we are ultimately animals. The only difference between us and other forms of life on this planet is that we evolved to have significantly higher intelligence. Having this superior intellect does set us apart from the rest of the animals, yes, but a cheetah being the fastest animal on the planet sets it apart from the rest of the animal kingdom as well.

In the “The Joyful Wisdom”, Nietzsche says that “the individual is taught to become a function of the herd and to ascribe himself value only as a function”. My interpretation: from birth we are influenced by other humans in our group through socialization. It is something we are born into. We learn behavior from the significant and authoritative people in our lives (such as our parents, teachers, older siblings, etc.) by observing their behavior. Through these observations we also learn culture, religion, norms, values, rites of passage, means of expression (and lack thereof), and eventually our function in society. This learned behavior is not only learned when we are young, but is continued through out lives and into adulthood. We emulate others whom we perceive to be more “successful”. When asked who we are, we might say something like “I am an employee at…” or “I am a student at ….” or “I am a father”, all of which could be considered as functions.

We usually adopt the belief systems our parents or that of the larger social groups we’re a part of. We flock together like sheep and birds subconsciously, following the rest of the group without even realizing it most of the time. Herd mentality is a fear-based reaction to peer-pressure which makes individuals act in order to avoid feeling “left behind” from the rest of the group.

iPods, cell phones, social networking websites, have all become major trends in recent years. We follow along with what our fellow group members are doing. When analyzing your own behavior you’ll quickly realize that you also adopt the same habits of the larger groups you’re a member of. One recent trend I have seem emerge with myself and others is social networking websites. One person had seen or had been told about it by someone, and then they follow, and the cycle begins.

Is such behavior a bad thing? Yes and no, but mostly no. If you look at animals who operate as herds, you’ll find that they are more functional and efficient as a group. A group of lions will strategically track down and hunt their prey, something they might not be able to do on their own. Their behavior is mutually beneficial. It’s said that fear is what makes animals run in herds. In a recent news article I read, a general curator at the Bronx Zoo was asked “What is herd mentality”? He explained “It’s the idea that the individual members of a herd relate, behave in similar fashion so they don’t stand our and appear different than their group mates”. He added that animals who “act too much out of the norm, more often than not they’re singled out and identified by a predator and don’t survive very long”. It is necessary for survival of the individual to follow the herd. The reason why this behavior could be bad, one need only look at the German people during Nazi Germany.

Circling back to Nietzsche’s “The Joyful Wisdom”, he asks “is it virtuous when a cell transforms itself into the function of a stronger cell? It must do so. And is it wicked when the stronger one assimilates the other? It must do so likewise…” Humans band together for not only protection, but to maximize productivity and to become stronger. To not conform makes one a nuisance to the herd (and possibly risking death). I read a blog by Maurice Enchel where has said that “an individual’s resistance to the divine then is detrimental to the individual. Weirdos, deviants and loners are ostracized for good reason. When society does reach out to them it is always with the intention to bring them into conformity.”