Perfect Imperfection: Human Immorality As A Sign of God’s Genius

May 7, 2010

This entry is part of a research paper I conducted for my Islamic Philosophy class during my final semester at the American University in Cairo. It was written last December. I came across it by accident as I was going through papers to help my brother with his English paper.  In that class I transcribed a nebulous string of blasphemous thoughts into elaborate research papers and reading responses. In many ways I despised that class. But it helped me decide against pursuing a higher degree in philosophy in general, and Islamic philosophy in particular. Waste of time.

That said, I greatly enjoyed writing my final research paper and below is one slightly modified section out of a three-section paper. It’s coherent enough as a stand-alone and is also the most interesting part (I think) and the one with least jargon.

The paper sought to answer this question: according to Islamic philosophy, where does our sense of morality come from? The main objective was to find out whether the Islamic conception would clash with recent neurological studies tracing morality to our biological make-up. The conclusion reached is that combining neurology with Islamic philosophy, rather than denigrating the Islamic God, extols him and reveals the true extent of His omnipotence. The immorality of man is consequently seen in a different light and is attested as a sign of God’s genius.

It is rather long, but worth the read I think for someone with enough time to spare.

Biological Evolution of Morality

It has long been acknowledged that philosophers’ use of pure reason was problematic because it did not restrain itself to the limits posed by empirical data and as such, more often than not, philosophers end up retiring from the bounded world of concrete reality to the boundless world of abstraction.[1] The natural sciences are the initial and main providers of empirical data and here neurology is given a chance to prove its worth to philosophy.

We start off by describing a behavioral experiment that introduces the hypothesis that profound moral values are in fact part of our brain chemistry and that they evolve in a manner similar to how human physical characteristics evolve.[2] The mainstream theory is that our sense of morality has been handed down to us from God. While the experiment presents its new hypothesis as an alternative to the mainstream theory and its advocates do not include God in the equation, the contention here is that assimilating the findings into Islamic philosophy serves as proof of God’s omnipotence. Not to mention that it overcomes the pie-in-the-sky problem of Islamic philosophers who depend on pure reason and those of them who depend on the equally unverifiable means of gnosis.

Prior to anything, we need to adumbrate crucial points to be kept in mind throughout this section:

(a) Man is essentially a rational being

(b) His rationality is compromised by his emotions

(c) Unadulterated rationality is not a sign of perfection.

It is rather a mix of emotions and rationality that makes man the finest of God’s creations (“ahhsann taqqweem”).[3] Thus, contrary to popular belief, if man were a purely rationale being, that would not have made him more moral and more perfect in his decision-making .

This has been revealed by a study initially based on a neurological medical condition where the part of the brain responsible for emotional responses has been ostracized.[4] The findings revealed that the people with this condition, instead of being extremely efficient in their decision-making, suffered from chronic indecisiveness.[5] Thus, not being perfectly rational is not something that deprecates man’s status, it is rather the very key to his superior position i.e. if God had created man a perfectly rationale being, he would have in effect demoted him to a lower rank than the one he currently holds.

There are many factors that restrict man’s rationality, including the social and the cultural, but the discussion here is limited to the biological restraints.  The one expounded on here seeks to illustrate how morality is intrinsically linked to brain chemistry which develops by assimilating past experience thereby making “gut instincts” part of our biological make-up. The experiment is often referred to as the “Trolley problem” and results in two dilemmas – the “switch” dilemma and the “footbridge” dilemma.[6] In the experiment a group of people are presented with two scenarios and at the moment they responded, a highly specialized MRI takes a snapshot of their brain. The scenarios are as follows:

Scenario A (switch dilemma): “A runaway trolley is hurtling down the tracks toward five people who will be killed if it proceeds on its present course. You can save these five people by diverting the trolley onto a different set of tracks, one that has only one person on it, but if you do this that person will be killed.”[7] The question then was posed of whether it was morally admissible to preempt the death of the five people by turning the trolley?

Scenario B (footbridge dilemma): “Once again, the trolley is headed for five people. You are standing next to a large man on a footbridge spanning the tracks. The only way to save the five people is to push this man off the footbridge and into the path of the trolley.”[8] Is it morally admissible to preempt the death of the five people by pushing the man off the bridge?

Despite the fact that the math involved in both scenarios is basically the same, most answered yes for the first scenario and no for the second. This is problematic for moral philosophers since in both scenarios it is killing one person to save five, so why is it morally acceptable to kill a person in one scenario but morally unacceptable to do it in another? Moreover, why was there a general consensus with regards to the morality of one and the immorality of the other? How did people automatically “know” how to behave in each scenario?[9]

We are going to present one more, slightly different, experiment before proceeding to explain these findings. In this experiment, the set up was as follows:

It’s war time, and you are hiding in a basement with several other people.  The enemy soldiers are outside.  Your baby starts to cry loudly, and if nothing is done the soldiers will find you and kill you, your baby, and everyone else in the basement.  The only way to prevent this from happening is to cover your baby’s mouth, but if you do this the baby will smother to death.  Is it morally permissible to do this?”[10] About half the people said yes and the other half said no.[11] Why did opinions diverge this time? What was different?

The brain scans help in answering these questions. First we need to distinguish between two parts of the brain that are activated by this experiment: the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex.[12] The former is responsible for reasoning while the latter is associated with instinctive emotional responses.[13] In the “switch” dilemma where the people answered yes, the scans clearly showed the reasoning part of their brains to be more active while in the “footbridge” dilemma the scans showed the emotional part of the brain to clearly be more active.[14] In the “crying baby experiment”, both regions were blazing away. However, for those people who said “yes I would smother my baby to save the other people in the village”, the rational part of the brain scintillated more while for those who said “no”, the emotional part scintillated more.[15]

The theory is this: the more personal and emotional the situations are, the louder the emotional part of the brain gets.[16] With that in mind, we go back to the scenarios and the results. In the “switch” scenario, the two potential courses of action were not particularly personal or emotional – either pull the levy or do nothing. At the same time, the outcomes were clear – save five people, kill five people. This was a case for the rational part of the brain and indeed the fact that most people said they would pull the levy proves that the brain resorted to a utilitarian assessment of the situation.

In the “footbridge” scenario, however, between the two potential courses of actions, one was personal while the other was not – either physically push the person or do nothing. Even though the outcomes were still the same, it gets harder to focus on the upside of the outcome when the action itself has emotional baggage that need to be resolved. To put it differently, in the first scenario, the brain could more easily think in terms of “I’m saving five people” and smoothly surpass the “I’m killing one person” part. Yet in the second scenario, there was no getting around the “I’m killing one person” part since it was more blatant and direct hence the person is mainly thinking “I’m killing a person”. The fact that most people said no proves that their emotional part easily overpowered their reasoning part.

This brings us to the “crying baby” example: because both options were highly personalized and emotionally charged, both sides of the brain were screaming orders at the person and the final decision could go either way. Thus, we could list the possible courses of actions in relation to how personalized the choices are as follows:

Impersonal-impersonal, reason wins;

Impersonal-personal, emotion wins;

Personal-personal, could go either way.

The crucial point to note, however, is that, ultimately, the decision depends on a person’s biological make-up and his personal past experiences i.e. the moral dilemma in this situation is resolved, not by going over religious scripts or praying, nor is it by consulting society or customs, instead, in that instant, the decision made is purely biological.

One consequence of that hypothesis is that it utterly complicates the concept of morality and our perception of how God is going to evaluate our actions in a world without prophets, a world plagued with endless choices and a surplus of “grey areas”. According to this study, our sense of morality is embedded in our biological make-up in such a way that it adapts to our experiences and subsequently conditions how we perceive and react to moral situations.

Thus, in the “crying baby example”, a sample of the factors that could shape his/her final decision include but are not limited to: whether that person had a child of his/her own or if the person had lost a child before, whether that person had lived through war, whether that person was literate or illiterate, and even whether the person was a philosopher by trade. Any one of those experiences could bias the person’s moral compass in favor of one or the other action, and neither of which can be claimed as “right” or “wrong”.

To push it further, if each and every experience in a person’s life acts as a cog in that person’s moral compass, literally altering his brain’s anatomy and function, that means that we, human beings, are no longer on equal terms that would allow God to judge us indiscriminately according to a fixed set of rules.[17] Human beings are not, never were, and never will be, clean slates to be calibrated and assessed according to an unyielding definition of right and wrong.

In fact, biologically, each person’s moral compass is distinct from another’s and is as such ineluctably biased by personal experience. We have already seen that morality need not be rational and that the rational and emotional parts of the brain are constantly warring with each other. Sometimes, the fact that the emotional part overrides the rational part results in a morally “good” decision and that in itself is not deemed problematic.

The problem arises when the emotional part of the brain overrides the rational part when it is not supposed to. This could happen when the brain is overcrowded with information that it needs to use to reach the decision.[18] As a standard, processing more than seven different factors at the same time greatly impairs the rational part of the brain allowing the emotional part to win.[19] Applying that to the world of choices cramming our current existence, it’s a wonder we ever make right decisions.

The point is, biologically, man is at a huge disadvantage when it comes to making right decisions.

Taking a step away from neurology and going back to the origins, we find that history also shows that man is at a huge disadvantage when it comes to making the right (moral) choices. For starters, he accepted God’s offer to bear the responsibility of free will when all other creations declined it.  Since, all other creatures, according to the Qur’an, were created to obey, love, and worship God, we must assume that their refusal to accept God’s offer must have been the right choice, because they are incapable of choosing anything other than what God wants – anything that God thinks is wrong. Following the same rationale, man’s acceptance of God’s offer must have been the wrong choice. So that’s strike one. Then Adam and Eve approached the forbidden tree that God prohibited them from approaching. Strike two.

It is necessary that we pause here and review the context in which that sin was committed to illustrate the inherent immorality of man and the infinite magnanimity of God: Adam and Eve were the only human beings in existence, they were in paradise and were, if not in direct contact, then at least in close proximity to God, and finally there was only the one obstinate devil (‘Iblees) to lead them astray, and still they committed a sin. If they did that when they were literally in heaven, what is to be expected of us poor citizens of the 21st century with God knows how many devils on our shoulders?

Moreover, even prophet Mohamed, if he was speaking without the guidance of revelation, was liable to mistakes for he is only human – “he can fall into slight errors when he is not supported by the revelation”.[20] The difference, however, is in the fact that “he never persists in error” as “revelation will [always] intervene to correct him”.[21] When there were prophets, God spoke through them on matters of controversy, but seeing how revelation ceased to exist, we no longer enjoy the luxury of certainty regarding matters of controversy.

Further still, God used to intervene and obliterate infidels which resulted in two things: on the one hand, it was immediate proof of God’s power and existence which reaffirmed the faith of the believers and, on the other, it filtered out the immoral infidels from among the believers i.e. a sort of purification process that eliminated the infidels with their potentially noxious and misleading opinions. It thus allowed the right morals and opinions to endure and terminated the wrong ones. Now, however, not only do we not have the guidance of revelation, we are forced to live in a cesspool of a world were the right and wrong, moral and immoral live side by side, assimilating each others’ habits and ideas and making it so incredibly nonsensical to assess someone’s morality in terms of black and white. But religions are essentially black and white in nature. The grey comes from us, not from religions’ prescribed moral codes.

Thus, religions – and Islam is no exception – help provide guidelines and points of reference that facilitate some of the moral problems faced. But a lot, if not most, of the issues require personal input. A person should not be judged as moral or immoral based on whether or not he/she adheres to specific moral recommendations of religion for it is but one facet among many that shape up an individual’s moral compass.

If religion was the sole and ultimate arbiter then it would follow that, for Muslims, all non-Muslims must be considered immoral. Yet it is counterintuitive for a citizen of the 21st century to make such an assumption or declaration. As we have seen, Islamic philosophy attempted to deal with such conceptual problems by approaching them through a blend of Gnosticism and reason and the mind became considered “a projection of the heart” and as such “the heart is the instrument of true knowledge”.[22]

Other than the fact that, once one says just follow you’re inner intuition, it becomes very hard to pinpoint tangible evidence to back up whatever assertions are made under the auspices of that mystic banner, another problem ensues. Following one’s “inner intuition” assumes that deep down, in man’s unadulterated essence, he is an inherently good moral being who can unravel the divine truth and make the right choice. But both history and biology have demonstrated that, if anything, man is inherently immoral and exists at a disadvantage leading him more often than not towards the wrong choice.

Conclusion

Accepting the findings of the neurological study in no way undermines God as perceived in Islam. If we accepted that our sense of morality has become, over time, etched unto our brain’s chemistry and that as such moral decisions are a result of an essentially biological process, that only proves the extent of God’s supremacy. He created man such that, rather than bothering Himself with having to interfere to adapt our “program” every time there is a new problem, be it a moral dilemma or otherwise, He created us with the ability to adapt and reach our own solutions.

Similarly, if man was created as a purely rational being, we might as well be computers. It is the emotional part that constitutes the ingenuity of man’s idiosyncrasy. Yet it is also that emotional part that makes man more prone to “wrong” decisions and consequently, more prone to immoral behavior. And this is why man’s immorality is seen as a sign of God’s genius.

Morality can thus be compared to an undergraduate research paper. Professors always say “there is no right answer; it is all a matter of a well-supported and a poorly-supported argument”. The same applies to morality: in a world so discombobulated with numerous alternatives that are physically marring our rational propensities, a world where the seemingly unjust and immoral is not immediately struck down, we are forced to accept a grey reality where the black and white can hardly be perceived. In such a world that advocates the every-man-for-himself paradigm, it inevitably becomes a matter of how well-supported one’s motives and actions are in relation to their biologically determined moral compass. This creates the aforementioned situation where men cannot be judged indiscriminately according to some immutable rubric. Yet God need not have one rubric for all of mankind and could very well have a different rubric for each person, each tailored to account for the particularities of that person’s character and existence, while still maintaining a just assessment of all of mankind’s existence. This is perhaps unfathomable to us since it is beyond our human abilities. It’s a good thing, then, that it’s the all-powerful God doing the judging in the afterworld. The point is, empirical research does not undermine the purpose of Islamic philosophy and accordingly the entreaty here is that more of that kind of research needs to be incorporated in Islamic philosophy.


[1] Churchlan, 2-3.

[2] Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, “Morality,” Radionlab Podcast, http://www.wnyc.org/shows/radiolab/episodes/2006/04/28

[3] Qur’an, 95:4.

[4] Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, “Choice,” Radionlab Podcast, http://www.wnyc.org/shows/radiolab/episodes/2008/11/14

[5] Ibid.

[6] Abumrad and Krulwich, “Morality”.

[7] Joshua Greene, “Emotion and Reason in Moral Judgment,”  http://www.wjh.harvard.edu/~jgreene/

[8] Ibid.

[9] Joshua D.Greene and F.A.Stewart, “Pushing moral buttons: The interaction between personal force and intention in moral judgment,” Cognition 111 (2009), 364-371.

[10] Greene, “Emotion and Reason”.

[11] Abumrad and Krulwich, “Morality”.

[12] Joshua D. Greene and J.M.Paxton, “Patterns of neural activity associated with honest and dishonest moral decisions,” National Academy of Sciences 106 (2009): 12506-12511.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Greene, “Emotion and Reason”.

Greene and Paxton, “Neural Activity”.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Greene and Stewart, “Pushing Moral Buttons”.

[17] Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, “Deception,” Radionlab Podcast, http://www.wnyc.org/shows/radiolab/episodes/2008/02/2.

Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, “New Normal,” Radionlab Podcast, http://www.wnyc.org/shows/radiolab/episodes/2009/10/02.

[18] Abumrad and Krulwich, “Choice”.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Draz, 21.

[21] Draz, 21.

[22] Nasr, 100; 103.

2 Responses to “Perfect Imperfection: Human Immorality As A Sign of God’s Genius”

  1. Khaled Morshedy said

    Simply Perfect! tho a debatable issue. I think that reason is emotionally controlled.

  2. Khaled Morshedy said

    “One of the great tragedies of mankind is that morality has been hijacked by religion.” Arthur C.Clarke

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