Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Conscience is inbuilt, therefore...

When we see someone doing something that is what we have come to believe is wrong we are troubled and want to put things right in some way.

In my experience people of all cultures and creeds have an innate conscience. By this I don’t mean that every person in every society agrees on what is righteous or unrighteous, although there are certain behaviours, such as inflicting cruelty on a child, which are fairly universally abhorred. What I understand to be truly universal is a feeling of moral apprehension: we care about rightness and wrongness, we have a conscience.  When confronted with a choice between two ‘evils’ we are disturbed and describe this dilemma as a moral dilemma.

And where does this sense of moral apprehension come from? 

A humanist considers it to be a social construct, many evolutionary biologists call it an illusion having a useful survival role; but most spiritually-based belief systems are predicated on absolutes. E.g.

  • The ancient Egyptians talked about scales of justice on which one’s deeds were weighed by a goddess before entering the afterlife. Justice and judgement were key aspects of reality. Quoting Wikipedia the supernatural Maat ... was the ancient Egyptian concept of truth, balance, order, law, morality and justice. This was both a cosmic entity and a goddess.

  • The ancient Greek word for conscience was syneidesis which appears to have covered both conscience and consciousness. Again, it was something transcendental as were the moral values. Socrates in Plato's Republic repeatedly refers to divine values and to philosopher kings who are aware of these. He also talks about  god being at the navel of the world, and is clearly moving towards the idea of a monotheistic deity.

  • The New Testament, in Romans 2:14-15, has St Paul saying: ‘Even Gentiles, who do not have God’s written law, show they know the law when they instinctively obey it even without having heard it. They demonstrate that God’s law is written in their hearts, for their own conscience and thoughts either accuse them or tell them they are doing right.’ (New Living Translation).

When a person behaves as though no such sense exists it is regarded as a serious transgression. When they step outside certain moral boundaries they are said to be behaving in an evil way or to be gripped by evil. In recent history there are numerous examples, such as the staff of concentration camps in World War II, slave traders and torturers in the Spanish Inquisition. The actions of these people have become increasingly troublesome to humankind's conscience because, I believe, of the Christian values that have increasingly permeated  western society under the power of the Holy Spirit and which are, with the help of modern communication and transport spreading to India, China and much of the formerly non-Christian world.

Recent reports in the scientific media, mostly based on fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scans of subjects making moral choices strongly support the idea that conscience and a sense of morality are innate. See, e.g., The Neurobiology of moral behaviour: review and neuropsychiatric implication by Mario F Mendez.  Let me add that the images of brain activity shown in fMRI scans are not in my opinion showing that neurons are the cause of conscience, any more than a barometer needle causes the pressure of the atmosphere above us, but are secondary indicators of a deeper process that surpasses human understanding.  In  fact experiments in quantum physics have shown conclusively that mind and matter are not different entities but different aspects of the same underlying reality. See , e.g., The nonlocal universe: the new physics and matters of the mind by Robert Nadeau and Menas Kafatos.

If, like me, you believe the universe, the living world and we humans emanate from a transcendent reality called God, then the fact that morality,  a sense of justice, aesthetic appreciation, abstract thought and a thirst for truth are incorporated in us would indicate to me that God is not just an omnipotent cosmic force but in some unimaginable way has the attributes of a person. It is therefore not surprising that Genesis 1:26 tells us that we are made in the image of God.

Non-believers who hold to a strictly naturalist worldview (philosophical materialism) may see this newly discovered innate sense as a basis for absolute morality without needing to believe in God. This does not hold water. It only makes us concerned to do the right thing without guiding us towards absolute standards of righteousness, which, in the believer’s view, is why a conscience was imprinted in us when God made us. A non-believer’s view gives no moral imperative, no steering towards the path of goodness. We are just atoms and force fields in a mindless, pointless, meaningless, mechanical uncaused universe without free will; and if that were true we would not even be asking these questions. The concept of truth would not exist and the very process of reasoning, of seeing that 2+3=5, and of constructing philosophical models of reality, would not be possible.

 Author 2077: Knights of Peace

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