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Episode 23.5

The Scientific Basis of Morality (Ep 23 Follow Up)

In the comments section of episode 23 there were several objections to my proposed “logic of secular morality”. Therefore, I would like to take this opportunity to explain in detail exactly how human life has objective value, the scientific basis of secular morality, and the reason we “ought to” preserve and follow this objective moral standard.

[Introduction]

Admittedly, I was a little surprised by how many people misunderstood my statement “Life is of greater value than death.” I did not mean to suggest that life is “better than” or “more preferable to” death, for this would be a subjective opinion, rather than an objective fact.

What I mean by the term “value”, or even “intrinsic value”, is the quantitative and qualitative properties of objects that exist. When I made reference to the mathematical expression 1 > 0, I was not speaking in terms of the numerical symbols THEMSELVES, but rather, I was referencing the quantitative value these numbers represent in the physical world. In retrospect, I should have articulated this point more clearly, for in the comments section someone attempted to refute my argument by claiming 0 > -1. However, I hope this individual realizes that numbers themselves do not actually exist.

There is nowhere within the physical world that you can point to the number 1, or even the number -1 for that matter. Numbers themselves are merely abstract symbols that we conceptualize in our minds for the sake of convenience when thinking about mathematical operations. Although the VALUE certain numbers represent can be reflected in reality, there is no quantity in the physical universe that is smaller than nothing, or less than non-existence. Either something exists or it doesn’t.

To further demonstrate this point, I would like briefly examine the quantitative and qualitative values of a common household object, such as a pencil. Let’s say the pencil on your left weighs 7.6 grams, while the pencil on your right weighs 4.3 grams. Therefore, pencil A weighs more, or has a greater quantitative value, than pencil B. As we can see, objects that exist have quantitative values that can be observed and measured. However, if there are no pencils that exist, then we cannot observe any of their quantitative values.

On the left I have a pencil, and its numerical value, or quantity, is equal to one. On the right there are no pencils, and the numerical value, or quantity, is equal to zero. Again, I am not talking about the numbers themselves, but rather, the quantity these numerical symbols represent in the physical world. There is no such thing as less than zero pencils, and the weight of a non-existent pencil cannot be less than nothing. Therefore, it is evident something that exists ALWAYS has greater quantitative values than something that does not exist.

Objects that exist can also have qualitative values that correspond to their physical properties, which can be observed with our five sense. This pencil has the qualitative value of being yellow and rigid, among many other physical traits. Now, what qualitative values does a non-existent pencil have? Well, it has none, because this object does not even exist for us to observe. As we can see, the statement 1 > 0 does not imply one pencil is “better than” or “more preferable to” zero pencils. It only demonstrates something that exists in the physical world has certain values of a quantitative and qualitative nature, while something that does not exist, doesn’t have these values.

Now, let’s think about the concept of death. Death is merely the absence of where there was once life. But keep in mind, death is not equivalent to non-life. There is a far greater quantity of non-life in the Universe than there is life. For example, these stones are considered to be non-life. However, stones were never living to begin with, so they never lost a life, therefore they never died. Death can only be experienced by something that was once living in the first place.

The quantitative value of a life that exists can be represented by the numerical symbol one. While the quantitative value of a life that no longer exists can be represented by the numerical symbol zero. Not only can we quantify a life that exists, we can quality it as well. Living beings are far more dynamic and expressive than inanimate objects or dead bodies, because we can respond to environmental stimuli through various physiological states, and our intrinsic qualitative values can change as a result.

A human life that exists can experience different qualitative states of health and disease, happiness and sadness, comfort and pain, liberty and oppression, among many others. Unlike inanimate objects or dead bodies, a living human being is subject to the maintenance of various physiological states in order to remain alive — and a deeper understanding of these states is what medical science sets out to achieve.

The physiological state of stress is governed by certain hormones, particularly the steroid cortisol. Fundamentally, stress results from pain or suffering, or stress can even be the product of the anticipation of future pain or suffering. The hypothalamus receives information that pain exists, OR the hypothalamus receives information from the limbic system, particularly the Amygdala, that pain will exist in the future, and this causes the release of Corticotrophin Releasing Hormone (CRH) from the hypothatlamus, which in turn stimulates the release of Adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) from the anterior pituitary. ACTH enters the blood and travels to the adrenal cortex, where in turn cortisol is released into the blood from the zona fasciculata. Signals from the hypothalamaus also increase activity of the sympathetic nervous system, releasing the neurotransmitter norepinephrine. In addition, cortisol upregulates Phenylethanolamine-N-methyltransfersae (PNMT), which is the regulatory enzyme in the synthesis of Norepinephrine to Epinephrine, also known as adrenaline. It is the increase in cortisol and catacholamines that are ultimately responsible for the negative effects of stress.

For example, elevated cortisol decreases immune function. Often for a severe allergic reaction a physician will inject the patient with a glucocorticoid in order to mediate the negative effects of inflammation produced by the body’s own immune system. Steroids can help prevent white blood cells from mounting an unnecessary response to an otherwise benign antigen, where the cellular products of inflammation, such as histamine released from mast cells and basophils, are inadvertently harming the patient. However, chronic stress results in a prolonged release of cortisol, which in turn depresses the immune system and leads to greater incidence of infection and disease.

Cortisol and catecholamines also trigger catabolic processes such as proteolysis, which is the breakdown of proteins, resulting in poor muscle tone and physical weakness. Indeed, we can witness all of these negative effects on human health by simply observing patients suffering from Cushing’s Syndrome, in which the pathology of disease results from abnormally elevated levels of cortisol.

Increased levels of catecholamines over-stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, where norepinepherine and epinepherine act as agonist on α 1 receptors, leading to vasoconstriction and thus hypertension, which subsequently puts the patient at risk for stroke cardiovascular disease, renal failure, and a whole host of other pathologies. Excessive stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system also inhibits gastric motility and secretions, resulting in poor digestion, diarrhea, malnutrition, and an overall sense of decreased physical well-being. Indeed, we can witness all of these negative effects on human health by simply observing patients suffering from Pheochromocytoma, in which the pathology of disease results from abnormally elevated levels catacholamines from the adrenal medulla.

Just like cortisol and catacholamines mediate the detrimental effects of pain and suffering, the hormone oxytocin mediates the beneficial effects of comfort and well-being. When someone embraces you, when you pet a dog or cat, or when you stare into the eyes of someone you love and admire, that warm fuzzy feeling you get is the result of a release of oxytocin from the posterior pituitary. This important hormone promotes well-being — an emotional state that is very healthy for the human body to experience. Oxytocin is also released during orgasm, the dilation of the cervix during labor, and nipple stimulation during breast feeding. This hormone is sort of nature’s reward system for doing something that is beneficial, serving to reinforce interpersonal bonds within the social group as well as with one’s own offspring.

But just imagine what would happen if our brains did not produce oxytocin. Essentially, there would be a complete breakdown of Primal Morality, because there would be no motivation for doing good deeds or connecting with other people. If there was no emotional reward for being kind, generous, cooperative, and so on, then our brains would rely more on the impulsive, animalistic desires of our Limbic system, and people would be much more selfish, narcissistic, and manipulative. Just imagine how such behavior would have influenced group stability in populations of our early ancestors. There would have been widespread mistrust, suspicion, and an inability to cooperate with one other, leading to chaos and perhaps even the extinction of our species.

Despite the fact we can objectively demonstrate a living human being has greater quantitative and qualitative values than a dead body, there are certainly many people suffering from painful terminal diseases or severe depression that might view death as a more desirable alternative than continuing to live a life of misery. In addition, there are also psychopaths that do not exhibit regard for their own lives, let alone the lives of others. However, such examples are clearly outside the “norm” of mental and physical health, and anyone that fails to recognize the intrinsic value of living human beings is thus incapable of providing meaningful insight into the questions of morality.

In the comments section of the previous episode a question was raise as to exactly who gets to define the “norm”? Well, medical science does. The way we know patients suffering from medical conditions such as terminal diseases or even forms of psychoses, are not functioning within the “norm” is due to the culmination of many centuries of research into how human physiology is supposed to properly function.

Just like the previously discussed conditions of Cushing’s Syndrome and Pheochromocytoma, in which the pathology of disease effects the proper functioning of the body, there are many diseases that affect the physiology of the brain. Through exhausted neurochemical studies we have discovered that serotonin and dopamine, among other neurotransmitters, play an important role in the maintenance of emotional and physical well-being. Not only is this fact demonstrable in naturally occurring pathologies, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, Alzhimers disease, and so on, we can even induce certain emotional states by manipulating the levels of various neurotransmitters through artificial means.

For example, Reserpine is a pharmacological agent use to lower blood pressure. However, one of the side effects is that it also inhibits the storage of neurotransmitters in presynaptic vesicles, resulting in the decrease of norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine. In a healthy brain, where levels of neurotransmitters are being properly maintained, Reserpine can actually result in severe depression. However, in patients suffering from psychoses, such as Bipolar type I, Reserpine would serve to alleviate mood swings associated with abnormally elevated levels of serotonin and dopamine. In fact, antipsychotic medications that block dopamine receptors are essential in preventing auditory hallucinations, paranoia, delusions, as well as disorganized speech and thinking — symptoms induced by abnormally elevated levels of dopamine, which the hallmarks of psychotic conditions such as Schizophrenia. In contrast, Parkinson’s Disease results from the loss of neurons in the dopaminergic pathway, leading to severe, uncontrollable tremor, difficulty walking, and so on.

As we can see, neurotransmitters, hormones, and even enzymes, all play important roles within human physiology and their levels must be meticulously maintained, otherwise, pathologies and diseases will result, thus causing a deviation from the “norm”. According to the medical standard of health, any action or behavior that inhibits the proper function of human physiology and diminishes well-being is objectively and factually detrimental to the maintenance of human life. And the converse is also true. But this is not to say the states of health and well-being are more preferable to stress and disease, only that it is objectively and factually true, anything that serves to promote human health and well-being adds greater value to the quality of life and provides greater stability and integrity within social groups. This is the objective standard upon which secular morality is based.

And again, the term “objective” means there is no influence from personal feeling, taste, or opinion — the moral standard is independent of the human mind — and the concept of objectivity applies to both societal AND physiological well-being. One of several examples I gave in the previous episode was the temperature of the human body. 98.6F is just one of many physiological standards by which human health flourishes. Any temperature that strays too far above or below this standard will cause the health of the body to decline.

Now, if human beings never existed, then this temperature would be of little significance. However, our very existence demonstrates this standard must be maintained in order to sustain health. Even if humans were to go extinct tomorrow it doesn’t change the fact 98.6F WAS the optimal temperature of the human body — we didn’t just dream up this value on a whim, this is the objective standard by which human health MUST be maintained.

The same concept of objectivity applies to the moral nuances discussed in the previous episode. As we have seen, an action, or even the treat of an action, that produces an increase in cortisol and catecholamines will result in negative systemic effects throughout the body, leading to states of anxiety, suffering, physical weakness, malnutrition, greater incidence of infection and disease, and so on. Therefore, it is objectively true that any practice, action, or behavior that produces negative emotional or physical states are both psychologically and physiologically deleterious to the maintenance of human well-being.

Now, at this point an objection is typically raised as to why we should care about maintaining and promoting the quality of life as well as stability and well-being throughout society? For that matter, why should we care about anything at all. Monotheists often point to the “is-ought” problem described by the philosopher David Hume, which essentially states, you cannot derive a moral conclusion from a fact. In other words, facts discovered through science (the “is”) do not instruct us on how we must behave (the “ought”). However, in the context of goal-oriented behavior one can most certainly derive an “ought” from an “is”.

For example, your goal as the CEO of a cooperation is to manufacture and sell your merchandise in order to make a profit. If I were to present you with a marketing campaign that guarantees an increase in annual sales by at least five million dollars, would you then ask me why you “ought” to follow my strategy? Of course not! If your goal is to sell a product to make money, then the reason you “ought to” is for the very purpose of obtaining your goal. Therefore, you do not require ADDITIONAL motivation based on some extraneous factor in order to derive the basis upon which you “ought” to follow my strategy for increasing your annual sales.

Likewise, for those people that share a common goal of seeking health and happiness, enjoying the ability to do, say, and think what they want, as well as living in a secure and stable community, the reasons they “ought” to follow the objective standard of Secular Morality is for the very purpose of obtaining these goals. However, it is recognized that not everyone shares the same goals. Some people many not want to be healthy, happy, or live in a secure and stable community. And although this may be true for people, that doesn’t give them free reign to destroy the lives and livelihoods of others.

As I said in the previous episode, if are concerned about morality, which is the distinction between good and bad behavior, or beneficial and detrimental actions, then we must be concerned with the lives of individuals that our actions and behaviors are influencing. But if someone refuses to recognize the intrinsic value of human life and does not care how their actions effect others, then they’re excluded from the conversation among those who do. In the same regard, if someone refuses to understand mathematics and the foundation of physical laws, then what meaningful input could that person provide in a conversation with physicists about advancing the science of quantum physics?

If you care about the lives of others and the difference between right and wrong, then we can candidly discuss how best to preserve and improve upon states of human well-being, which is what the moral conversation is ultimately about. However, criminals that do not care about morality or about the lives of people they come in contact with, who choose to infringe on the autonomy of others and disrupt the integrity of society, do not get to make the laws of that society. In fact, they are removed from society, for they are no longer welcome in a stable community that wishes to maintain its stability.

As with everything in life, we are bound by certain limitations. Even something as innocuous as drinking water can be lethal if done in excess. Likewise, we can do and say whatever we want within reason, but not at the cost of violating someone else’s autonomy and well-being. However, the right to autonomy is not absolute. Secular morality is not a free-or-all, where someone can willfully and maliciously violate the autonomy of others and then fall back on HIS right to autonomy in order to evade punishment. If you take it upon yourself to harm others, then you give up the exact same rights that you have denied your victims — and it falls upon the custodians charged with the maintenance of an orderly society to impose punishment proportional to the crime.

In conclusion, we have objectively and factually determined that human life contains intrinsic values of a quantitative nature as well as a qualitative nature, which can be influenced by external stimuli, in turn resulting in an increase or decrease of the psychological and physiological states of human well-being. If our goal is to live a healthy and happy life in which we are free to pursue our wants and desires, then the reason we “ought” to preserve the objective standard of human well-being is for the very purpose of obtaining this goal. If we are concerned about morality, which is the distinction between good and bad behavior, or beneficial and detrimental actions, then we “ought” to take the various states of human well-being into consideration when assessing the moral worth of a particular behavior.