Can nature teach us morality?

10 min read

Living beings have evolved to naturally identify patterns of order in nature. A perfect edge on a furniture, neat and periodic ripples in disturbed water, spherical planets and stars, hexagonal storms on a planet’s pole, the human eye, an organism preserving the integrity of its organs till it dies, a beautiful face, a pop song with synergistic lyrics and beats. We are naturally more likely to appreciate signals from our senses that are more ordered and less chaotic. It is obvious that order brings more structure to our individual lives and to society as a whole.

One analogy that we find in nature and embrace to organize human societies and one that it is almost unreal when we think about it, but in fact, is so much real. To understand how significant it has been for all life on earth, we have to take a short detour to consult the pages of Life’s history.

The existence of eukaryotes – the stuff that makes multi-cellular organisms possible. For a long time, Earth was home to only two basic forms of life – bacteria and archaea. It took about a thousand million years for the first eukaryotic forms of life to appear on earth and from there it all went uphill. Prokaryotic cells had to exponentially increase their ATP production to sustain the demand in energy with increase in their volume. A primitive form of bacteria engulfed an archaea and together they entered a symbiotic state with just one goal – to increase their energy production. The archaea shred almost all of its genome and gave rise to the first ever known mitochondria – the power house of the cell. The point is that, multi-cellular organisms could muster energy better than prokaryotic cells and this is the most ancient link in Life’s history that we have with a revolutionary idea in human survival

Unity Is Strength

This notion is expressed in many other forms by a lot of groups around the world, either we’re aware or not that we naturally tend to find this order everywhere. There are 24 hits for the word ‘Unity’ in the Wikipedia article, “List of motto”. Groups of anything are stronger than their individuals. We find references to this concept in fiction “When the snow falls and the white winds blow, the lone wolf dies but the pack survives”, “We are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided”, in Tech “More the transistors you could pack in a computer chip, the better”. Religious organizations and corporations understand this so well that they have become excellent at endorsing the idea of ‘The Social Man’. We see strength in unity scattered all throughout nature that it’s almost strange to think about it otherwise.

While this is just one example of how this ability to recognize order in nature is potentially helpful in our lives, can this be carefully studied to derive human morals – which in turn could stand for a ‘moral of the nature’?

We have all been taught that a human is a collection of insanely large number of cells. Or maybe we go one level deeper and like to think of us in terms of a bunch of complex molecules sticking together and going about their jobs. As humans in this modern technological age, we casually read about concepts like the DNA , force ourselves to sit through a computer science lecture that explains the analogies between the human vision system and a deep neural network, casually scroll through a news item of the discovery of the Higgs-Boson; maybe share it because we like the idea that scientists worked a long time and put in monumental efforts to discover something so fundamental. We have become used to having trains of thoughts that separate what we are made of and what we feel as individuals. We pay a doctor to examine our parts in a lower level yet we seldom switch perspectives to wonder, “How is it that I know I see myself as two different things and still be comfortable with it?”

As you read this, you have a mental image of the article’s delivery. You are constantly judging my writing, remembering a similar article you read months ago; maybe a long-dormant dream resurfaces and forces you to wonder why you can’t remember the rest or you are interrupted by a notification on your screen. Inside your brain, you know that you are looking at familiar patterns on the screen (string of characters) that you recognize to hold meaning that relate to the real world. But outside your brain, your eye only sees light from the pixel array on your screen. You are mildly aware of the dual nature of this phenomena but are not bothered by the opposing representations of what is on the screen. You can screen one (no pun intended) and focus on the other. Where do we draw the line between the brain’s hardware and software? Which one is more ‘real’? It depends on whether you are the person, the eye, the computer screen or a speck of dust in a swirling monstrous storm on Mars.

One of the areas where the AI research community has not arrived at a consensus is how to build a system that can learn one level of representation given the other. Studying AI may one day shed light into how humans can learn morality from nature, which is a higher level representation that exists in our minds, from a much lower level physical phenomena like data from our raw senses or maybe from the tools we build that extend the spectrum of what we can see. Just by carefully watching the laws governing nature, it is possible to understand what it means to be moral.

For instance, the second law of thermodynamics has helped us understand why human-made pollution is a major driver of climate change. People burn fossil fuels and nuclear power to create local bubbles of ephemeral order. At the same time, according to the second law, this increases entropy or disorder somewhere else in the environment in the form of pollution. If we consider the vague notion that some form of order is what we generally term as ‘morals’, this gives grounds for a legitimate question: can morality be localized?

The short answer is no. If we act with this counterfactual, we may end up being responsible for the spurting of cults that draw their own boundaries of morality. What we need is a school of thought that ruminates on the pernicious effects of actions that we assume to bring order into our personal and social lives. More recently, philosophical movements like Eco-modernism has emerged to help us set our boundaries of behaviour as to what could be an acceptable set of actions that does not harm what’s valuable to us.

In his book The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins advises against drawing moral principles from evolution as the theory is in the peril of misinterpreted by many for an advocacy of what things ought to be. He merely explains Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and openly admits that human biology does not lend us a helping hand if our shared goal is to build an unselfish and moral utopia.

Our tools in constructing these boundaries of behaviour must be something that we all unanimously agree upon, or at least something that we can arrive at a consensus through convincing arguments. As my readers, I am confident that you are rational beings. You don’t have to be rational all the time; I only ask that you be one for the duration you read this piece. Afterwards you can continue to believe in an alien who evolved to exactly look like humans and can shoot lasers from his eyes or write your thesis on why winged dinosaurs had organs that resembled a flamethrower and can spit fire.

A nuanced form of order that we find so hard to maintain is the temperament of our own minds. Stephen Pinker puts it best about how a writer’s style reflects her clarity of thought,

“If readers can see that a writer cares about consistency and accuracy in her prose, they will be reassured that the writer cares about those virtues in conduct they cannot see as easily”.

Stephen Pinker

Our thoughts reflect on signals from our senses and the rules of grammar are modeled after the building blocks of thought – time, space, causality and matter.

There’s no place in the universe where we can protect ourselves from the wicked clutch of entropy’s claws. If entropy is the way of the wild and there are so many possible futures that favour more disorder than order, how is it that you and I don’t just fall apart and disintegrate? Why is it that the universe is filled with so many interesting stuff? Why isn’t everything more dispersed, chaotic and random?

Earlier we saw how Eukaryotes succeeded in populating Earth with beautiful multi-cellular organisms – including us – by increasing their energy production. Why do they have to do this? If you believe there is a reason why evolution works the way it does, please know that there isn’t one. There exists an explanation for why we exist but it’s not teleological. When energy is poured in to a system and it begins to move towards entropy, it gives rise to restricted regions of order. This includes natural processes like atoms, weather, evolution and even consciousness. Such systems that can maintain stability through mutually reinforcing processes are called complex systems. All complex systems are self-organizing, consuming energy to maintain a state of dynamic equilibrium. We often look at ourselves as material entities instead of processes and that leads to the confusion of why entropy hasn’t won over the universe yet. As complex systems we move towards familiar, reliable states that reinforce our existence. A failure in this behavior leads to disease, decay and death. This entails that the maintenance of this stable equilibrium is what it means to be alive. As humans, we constantly consume energy and employ knowledge to stay in this familiar state i.e, to stay alive.

If you can reasonably accept the arguments I have made so far, you might realize that this has a crucial significance about the way we observe our world. Not just with scientific truth, but even with a philosophical connotation, now we can begin to argue that our senses must have evolved to acknowledge such similar systems of order in nature. Pleasure of the senses could be our brain’s reaction to what it perceives to be counter-entropic patterns from nature. Similarly, pain or trepidation could be an immediate signal that something’s wrong with our body, mind or the world.

In almost a harmonic way, on a grand scale, this naturally converges on a principle of morality that is supported by what we know about the nature of evolution, complex systems, and – more importantly – human values. Any thought, word or action that disrupts this dynamic equilibrium that living things fight so hard to maintain must be immoral. We all agree that murder is immoral but we don’t often pause to think why we are predisposed to know that instinctively. This way of reflecting about the essence of morality forms a tangible link with the physical world and makes it easier to tolerate.