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Thu, Dec. 8th, 2005, 09:42 pm
lil_goat: Chapter 11

In chapter 11, Wilson explored the issues of ethics and religion. He wondered if ethics are innate or if they are something invented by humans. Wilson identified two ways of thinking about ethics and religion: transcendentalism and empiricism. Transcendentalists can be religious or secular, but the rationale is essentially the same. Ethics either come from God and it is our job as humans to discover those principles or they are self-evident and humans cannot help but discover them. Empiricists believe that ethics are behavior choices that were favored and selected enough times that they became a code of principals that humans live by.
Wilson then created a mock debate between transcendentalists and empiricists in which each camp gave their point of view and responded to the other side. According to Wilson, transcendentalists would say that science cannot disprove God. They would wonder where laws of nature come from if not from a power higher than the laws themselves. They would argue the point that there is no way that chance alone could account for the diversity of life.
The empiricists would say that while religion is mostly good, it has been responsible for lots of bad things as well, including many wars. They would say that religious beliefs can be dangerous because believing that there is a better life somewhere else opens the door for people to damage this earth and its people. Empiricists would say that there is no statistical proof that prayer does any good to people and that it is not a divine power but the human mind that created ethical principles and religion in general.
Wilson stated that religions are like superorganisms, complete with life cycles. They tend to start as cults and the successful ones then grow and gain popularity until they are generally accepted. At the core of religions are a creation myth, sacred places, and some kind of secret plan for the chosen people. According to Wilson it is the fear of dying and not having an immortal soul that keeps religions popular. Wilson noted that it is important that scientists find evidence to support the empiricist view and not the transcendental view or consilience will be lost forever. He said that science has a few shaky bits of evidence on its side. For instance, religious ecstasy has a neurobiological source.
Wilson also explained the admittedly shaky fit between religion and evolutionary theory. Religion requires humans to be submissive toward a higher power. Submission to more powerful members of a society is well documented in numerous animal societies. The behaviors of the submissive members of the societies are similar to the behavior of humans in religious settings.
Finally, Wilson said that it will be tough to convert transcendentalists to an empiricist point of view. One of the reasons for this is that transcendentalism just feels good. Empiricism feels decidedly rational and devoid of the emotion present in the transcendentalist view. However, the important message to take away from this chapter is that those emotional feelings do not necessarily equate to the truth.