When I consider our relationship to the supersystem Life as we experience it on Earth, I find that Life is actually behaving very much in a traditional “god-like” manner. It is effectively “judging” what its subsystems—including humans—do, and it subsequently rewards or punishes their behaviour. These rewards and punishments are meted out continuously, in various forms and locations, over short and long time-spans. Humans are learning to recognize these repercussions, but we still have a long way to go before we learn to respect—or even to expect—Life’s judgements.
However, we can choose to behave in a manner that allows us to benefit from our relationship to our supersystem Life. For instance, we can reduce the harm we inflict on our supersystem by ensuring our discharges are benign. This would precipitate the reward of having more resources—food and oxygen, for instance—made available as greater diversity (and numbers) of other life forms survive and thrive. Or, as another example, we can increase rather than decrease the world’s rain forest coverage, thus increasing the variety and number of benefits-to-life that accompany biological diversity. We can choose to behave in such ways (and many of us do), but the activities of numerous others, some for profit some simply to survive, are hastening the demise of significant portions of Life’s supersystem.
The reasons humans do not all act in ways that benefit Life are many and varied, but two are particularly significant to our discussions. First, as previously stated, we are only just recognizing, and do not yet fully comprehend, the fact that humans are simply a processing subsystem, subordinate to and dependent upon, a larger system. Second, failing to recognize our dependency, few of us value it appropriately.
There are also degrees of valuing. We can give a wary nod to an idea, or we can embrace it wholeheartedly. Thus, we could pay lip-service to the idea of Life being our supersystem and say, “sure, I think this idea is important,” but carry on as before—and nothing changes. Or we could say, “yes, the ecosystem is very important; I’ll be careful not to pollute,” and start, for example, participating in the community’s recycling program—producing a little change. Or we could say, “let me consider more fully this relationship between humans and Life,” then seek others already active in this area to investigate what can be done. In the latter situation, actions having greater impact might result. The degree to which we value the relationship between ourselves and Life affects the future that all life (not just our descendants) will experience on this planet. And while our effects on life’s future are typically minimal, the ramifications of humanity’s actions are increasingly far-reaching.
Well, let’s think about what insights might be gained were we to recognize that our supersystem’s journey toward eventual possession of omnipotent abilities is the very same journey that all species as subsystems are undertaking, albeit that each will travel only an infinitesimal part of the way.
If we were to regard Life’s continued evolution as an activity well worth supporting, and, particularly, if we were to use this “meta-purpose” to define the universal purpose that guides our moral decision making, then a whole new range of behaviours would become valued. We can use the ideas listed in section two above to educe what these behaviours would be. We can even make moral judgements and infer what types of activities should be considered “right” and which should be considered “wrong” within the confines of such a value system.
When I attempt this, I find the following.
- It is right to learn, to support others’ learning, to try to understand how and why the universe and its contents are the way they are—because Life lives and advances by learning and by putting this knowledge to use.
- It is right to pass on this knowledge, to store it for future generations, to link knowledge together in theories, to find new avenues of thought—because Life has evolved intelligence as a helping mechanism, and knowledge is the food that nurtures capacity, intelligence and understanding.
- It is right to make use of this knowledge, to expand our limits, our control and our ability to exploit—because Life lives, grows, reproduces and becomes richer in every aspect, by using the energy and resources it has learned to extract from its environment.
- But it is equally right, and necessary, to control excessive exploitations—because these harm Life’s future. Determining where to draw the line between helpful exploitation and harmful excesses is, and always will be, a difficult undertaking, but one which must be made a priority if civilization is to continue.
- And, it is right to help other humans and other life forms—because Life’s progress may benefit from the contributions of others as much as, or even more than, it does from ours.
These behaviours (and many others, of course) would be “right” for any living entity in this universe to practice, simply because actions of this kind help Life to actualize its potential. In response, the supersystem “rewards” subsystems for supporting its operations. That such actions are also “right” for humans to practice because they help each of us attain our own potential is likely to be secondary to Life’s progress (although it usually is very important to our personal well-being). That which helps Life, helps us. The order of importance must be this way around, not the other, because humans are a subordinate system. What are to be considered “right” actions, in the logical system of morals we are developing, must always be determined by putting Life’s advancement, not human advancement, first.
With this process of reasoning in place, new behavioural boundaries (i.e., rights and wrongs) might be established. Some of those newly “recognized” above as being “right” to practice have been ignored or even discouraged within traditional religions, although others have always been important. For instance, before now there has not been a rational explanation of why teaching and learning are so important, such “right” functions. Furthermore, just as we can now clearly judge learning to be right, we can now immediately state why it is wrong to restrict knowledge, to burn books, to tell lies, to spread hatred, to prevent or limit the development of other life forms.
If, as a community, we were to adopt the practice of rationally deducing moral behaviour from the purpose we elect to support, we would, after sustained effort, eventually be able to justify our morality to any intelligent being (including those beyond our planet). Our existing moral systems would probably become subsumed within the rational one, and some components of the former might in due time simply fade away.
Any rational being can deduce a moral code from a statement of desired purpose together with knowledge of the environment containing the criteria a successful solution must meet. If enough of humanity chose to value the living environment more than any possible dead one, then we could combine efforts to logically educe what behaviours should be called “morally wrong” or “morally right.” Given enough time, we should be able to formulate a set of moral statements, each element of which would be traceable back to its origins. This latter feature is important, as it ensures that each assertion is adjustable should new information or understanding make correction necessary. And we would know what is to be gained, both immediately and in the distant future, by acting in accordance with these values.
Until we reach this stage, our beliefs regarding which behaviours are “right” or “wrong” stem only from what we have been taught by our parents, teachers, or religion’s authorities. That is, until we embrace logically deduced moralities, there is no rational way to independently verify the truth of such statements, and no straight-forward method to incorporate changes resulting from improved knowledge. (Christians, for instance, accept the authority of the Commandments on faith. These cannot be modified even if circumstances should so merit.)
With a guiding universal purpose statement and its derived set of moral codes in place, it would no longer be necessary to separate religious thought from rational or scientific thought. Causal links and logical deductions could be made in both domains, with the two becoming inter-dependent and mutually supporting. The data, their sources, the need to inquire, and the methods used when investigating, would become identical for science and religion, unifying these two great endeavours. Effectively, they become one and the same search for reality’s truth.
Moreover, we would know that any intelligent living entity, anywhere in the universe, would be able to uncover rational reasons to value and support Life reaching its full potential, and thus develop the same ethical standards as we support. Rationality provides the means to develop a truly universal religion.
- In this book’s scheme of things, what happens on Earth affects the larger supersystem of Life within the universe only as much or as little as it ultimately contributes to the formation and actions of oB. If descendants of humans will some day explore the universe to eradicate all living things, then destroying ourselves now to prevent such an occurrence might be the best contribution we could make.
- In fact, learning was made suspect in some western societies. The very roots of Christian theology warn against knowledge. The story of Adam and Eve declares that their innocence was lost when they ate fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and their punishment was the loss of immortality, for themselves and their descendants.
I have a personal experience to recount that relates to this matter. For a few months, almost five decades ago, I taught a class in a village elementary school in England. One day I asked the Headmaster why it was always the same few children who stayed at home whenever they had the slightest sniffle. He replied, “Oh, they’re Catholics, and they have a Catholic doctor. He tells them to stay at home. He doesn’t believe in too much education.” Of course, this might be just the Headmaster’s bigotry showing through, and the doctor might have wanted to reduce the spread of infection. But, since medical training in England is secular, and non-Catholic doctors did not tell children in their care to stay at home whenever they had a sniffle, perhaps the Head had reason for his statements. He may have been basing his remark on his many past experiences with a variety of doctors. (On the other hand, one example proves nothing; this particular doctor may have been an exception. However, I have vague memories of reading other anecdotes that suggest he wasn’t.)
The majority of religions have not valued learning for everyone, perhaps because to do so might teach that reality’s truth—the practical kind that we use everyday—has been discovered by humans over centuries of hard inquiry into the nature of things. It is not “revealed” by some interceding god.
- Of course, rationality does not prevail where emotions, cultures, traditions, or any other such influences, dominate. Some, as we know, would say that their God has other intentions in mind, and that these should take priority over any man-made efforts—but we have already traced that contention to its source.
- “Correcting” views featured in existing religions pertaining to any moral issue (homosexuality, for instance) is often very difficult: it should be relatively simple in a rationally constructed religion.