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August 25, 2008

The Cognitive Roots of Endless War

Monotheistic religions assert that an anthropomorphic supreme being created the universe, presumably for a specific purpose, and will either punish or reward individual humans on the basis of their behavior during life. Although the concept of an afterlife exists in fundamentalist Judaism, it, like the fate of non-Jews, isn’t explored in as much detail as in either Christianity or Islam, where the primary goal of human existence seems to be entering heaven.

Most atheists believe that because consciousness ceases with death, there is no afterlife. In terms of what a majority of humans may believe at any given moment, it’s safe to say that even if a majority were to believe in some form of afterlife, the pertinent details would vary considerably, are essentially unknowable, and— as a practical matter— cannot be usefully enforced by the criminal code (probably what was intended by “separation of Church and State” in the American Constitution).

An understanding of teleology, the implicit assumption that all natural phenomena fulfill a purpose, can be helpful in avoiding the traps of Creationist rhetoric. Once one becomes alert to such arguments it’s surprising how often they can be found in the logical formulations of people who should know better. A common example is the extrapolation of specific motivation from a generic objection; i.e., assuming that all critics of the drug war either want to use drugs themselves or sell them to “kids.” Such arguments are so obviously specious that those offering them can be safely dismissed as either hopelessly doctrinaire or completely cynical.

Thus such arguments also serve as litmus tests for cognitive competence: whatever their “real” basis, their endorsement, even passively, by our entire species suggests that human cognition is seriously flawed. It also guarantees the drug war, endorsed by UN treaty, will remain both national and global policy for at least a while longer.

Thus the most important related questions to be answered at this point would seem to be: is resetting humanity’s moral default even possible, would it make a difference in our collective behavior, and could it happen fast enough?

Doctor Tom

Posted by tjeffo at August 25, 2008 04:26 PM