The Science of Morality Revisited

I decided to start here.  I’m mean more than today, or for this blog post, or even for what I will do tomorrow.  What I mean is: this is where adult life began for me.  I decided to be held accountable.  I should be clear that in a literal way it wasn’t actually today, and indeed there wasn’t a specific day.  It was a culminating event of waking up to what my life could mean.   Empirical data has been gathered about both morality and happiness, and two of my main influences were Sam Harris and Dan Gilbert.  I don’t believe that these two scientists and speakers have ever been on the same stage, but I’d like to call for that here.   How does this tie into the statement about accountability?  Let’s examine.

In order for us to have data we conduct experiments and attempt to collect data through unbiased means.  This is why the blind trial is extremely valuable to science as it eliminates bias from the data pool.  Of course, interpretation of those figures and results will always be present as long as people are doing the observing.  This isn’t a worry.  The nature of data is that, when one keeps collecting over large periods of time patterns emerge and answers appear that are free of the interpretive phenomenon.  Most prime examples I like to think of and use are in the field of geology (there are many others that I haven’t studied and only enjoyed: cosmology, chemistry, physics, etc., but that is for a different day.)  To lend a moment to epistemological skepticism crowd, I am willing to admit scientific objectivity can only apply to that which is observed, yet if those observations keep lining up over what is now hundreds of years we can state that applicably there seem to be some objective truths about the way nature works.  This established, I can move forward.

The social scientist has one of the toughest pools of data to sort through, as sometimes the stories of people’s lives do not fit neatly into the statistical columns to which data from atoms and subatomic particles adhere.  The stories collected are all told from sources that are usually steeped in bias, and the truths of these lives can be virtually unobtainable.  That sounds incredibly frustrating.  These scientists are often studying the most important of social issues that involve huge groups of people, therefore the results of these studies can provide change most relevant to people’s lives.  This is where I start to see my obligations gain voice.

The works of Harris and Gilbert are some of the most profound that modern man could attempt to master—happiness and belief.  These two obviously intertwine at several intersections.  They likely cannot be truly understood apart, as what we believe can make us happy; we can find happiness in what we believe.  If you believe you are in love happiness is likely to follow, and conversely, if you are happy about being in love you believe it to be true.  These men, and scientists like them, have spent hours of research, travel, and experiment to find out what parts of human behavior, at the scale of the single neuron in some instances, causes happiness and suffering.  Because of Gilbert’s work we now know that choice is the enemy of synthesized happiness, and our minds can synthesize sadness too.  Harris has shown that freeing the mind of pride and guilt leaves us with a clean slate to reveal how subjective experiences lead to behavioral virtue and pathology.  They both show quality of life can be studied at empirically accurate levels.  The question is then, if I think these things are valuable, how can I help; how can I participate; how can I help others to participate?  My answer became clear.

Expose the parts of myself that have built me and build me to this moment for people to see.  I always knew that being on stage with my music was fun and provided something to my community.  I had underestimated until the last half-decade how important this behavior was to the rest of my life.  Some of my readers may have read about my opinions on “playback.”  Without playback we have no way to perceive ourselves as the “other” and apart from the source.  This principle was easy in music as I only had to record myself and listen back.  I could do this with others too allowing me to gauge their reactions to the songs.  Once I started attending writing workshops, a whole new type of playback became available to me.  I could write something and then during workshop, people would get to talk about the stories while being encouraged to be honest and opinionated.  This led to blogging and publishing research, debating with people online and in public, all with an eye to gauging response and articulation about my words.  The next level has been one of the hardest to accept but most fulfilling.  I applied this philosophy of playback to people’s opinion of me as a person.

Without too much detail (it’s all in the ‘The Story of an Arkansas Atheist’ posts), I had always relied heavily upon what I thought of myself to condition my behaviors.  This has been an up and down method that led to many success and horrible failures.  So in the spirit of the blind trial, statistical analysis, and empirical data, I flipped it.  I chose to let the opinions of others about my personality and behavior be the gauge from which I considered change.  There have been some truly ugly moments in this decision, yet the data analysis has revealed something worth noting.  The pain I register from hurting others or letting them down is not the same as the guilt I felt from letting myself down.  It is fundamentally different.  Pain is a response of the body to stimulus which is harming our ability to be healthy.  Guilt is a human construct built entirely within the mind.  There won’t be a region of the brain specifically for the emotion of guilt, but rather intertwined within the networks of neuronal activity as a perception accompanying several other perceptions and memories.  These are constructs of our mind made mostly of fictional representations: lies; not data.  The outside stimuli of your peers and loved ones will provide you with objective observation.  Subjective through one single instance, yet over time, patterns will emerge.  Patterns of how you influence the life that then influences you.  This is a system of perpetual conditioning which I can adapt without a direct ability to control, as the system will evolve to the environment.  Those behaviors which cause too much pain for balance will likely go extinct.  Behaviors which cause too much happiness lead to pain, and will likely go extinct.  My experiment is running.  To see your own data all you need to do is look at your own playback.  In doing this publicly we give our data over to the scientists ever ready to look at your story, and potentially turn it into improved quality of life.  The science of morality is here, please participate.

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