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Morality Is Embodied




Embodied Morals


Do not say, “this is a stone and not God.” God forbid! Rather all existence is God, and the stone is a thing pervaded by divinity. (The Kabbalah)




Evolution as the source of the body is the source of morality, but not in the way commonly perceived. Evolution itself is amoral that is it doesn’t choose its path in a moral fashion. This is important to recognize because it is a natural thing for humans to judge everything in a moral way. To say that evolution is about the survival of the fittest is correct on one level. However, it is not correct on a moral level. The human tendency is to pick up on the moral metaphor of being fit and then suppose that evolutionary process is about being better, the winner, superior, more advanced, finer, and/or etc. This is the major mistake of social Darwinism. It is also the mistake of those that say that Evolution cannot be the source of morals.


Evolution is the source of moral behavior, but not in a directional on purpose manner. Evolution is not the source of morals in the sense that Frank Lloyd Wright was the source of Falling Water. It is only the source in the sense that the process produced social animals. The process in no way had to produce social animals in general or humans in particular. That means the process in no way had to produce moral behavior.


One objection that the religionist will raise is that the greater cannot arise from the lesser. This in itself is a moral judgment: Being moral is better than being amoral. This is true, but only for a social being. For the universe as a whole morality is unnecessary.


Only a moral being can be immoral. An amoral being or process cannot be either moral or immoral.


It is difficult (maybe impossible) for a human to move its mind outside of its moral parameters. Because of this moral judgment on a process is a default mental operation in a human, religionist or not. For the most part moral judgment operates in the unconscious mind like most of what we do.


(The outline of the following is from Lakoff and Johnson’s Philosophy in the Flesh starting on page 555.)



“A human is a body” is closer to what is real than “a human has a body.”


Embodied Reason


Conception is grounded in a physical body. That is human conceptual systems must use the physical senses acquire information that is consequentially shaped by the way the senses operate and the way they are placed in the world. If for example we could see nearly 360 degrees of the world like a horse does, then our concept of the world would be different, because our visual metaphors would be different.


Conceptualization can only take place through the body. Humans have no contact with what is outside of their selves except through their physical systems of contact and interpretation. Therefore concepts are framed and shaped by the physical construction of the human body.


Embodied Reason makes use of basic concepts shaped by the functions of the senses and the functions of motor skills as the body learns to move and actually does move in its environment. This is the mode in which humans have the most contact with what is real.


Sensual and motor information inform rational inferences. For example we assume that which is best is upright, because we feel best and physically function best in an upright position. If we happened to be rational worms, horizontal metaphors would perhaps predominate instead of vertical metaphors in describing the good.


Since our concepts of the world are inferred from our largely unconscious physical contact and interaction with what is out there truth and knowledge are embodied.


Because what we know of the physical universe comes from the physical nature of our bodies, the mind cannot be elsewhere then the body. The mind cannot be independent of the body, just as is shown by modern cognitive science. This does not mean that there is no mind, only that there is mind only with a sufficiently functioning body.

Metaphoric Reason


Human reason is grounded in primary metaphor like: Affection is warmth, “she gave me a chilly greeting.” Important is big, “Howard is Mr. Big now.” Happy is up. “I feel on top of the world today.” Intimacy is closeness. “Sally and I are beginning to drift apart.” Bad is stinky. “This deal doesn’t smell right.” Difficulties are burdens, “Jeff was given a crushing amount of paper work in hopes he would quit.” More is up, “That screaming is over the top.” Categories are containers, “Blue is in the electromagnetic spectrum.” Similarity is closeness. “That isn’t the right part, but it is near enough to work.” Linear scales are paths. “Sue’s understanding of our network has gone beyond John’s.” Organization is physical structure, “How does the substance of your argument fit our model?” Help is support, “support the troops.” Time is motion. “Time in prison drags by.” States are locations, “Go to your happy place more often.” Change is motion, “I’m heading towards the poor house.” Personal actions are self-propelled motion, “I think I can swing the new mortgage.” --- and so on. (see Lakoff and Johnson pp.50-54)


All of these metaphors can be shown to originate in physical being. Two examples from Lakoff and Johnson:


Causes are physical forces

Subjective Judgment: achieving a results

Sensorimotor Domain: Exertion of force

Example: “They pushed the bill through congress.”

Primary Experience: Achieving results by exerting forces with one’s physical body on physical objects to move or change them.


Control is up

Subjective Judgment: Being in control

Sensorimotor Domain: Vertical orientation

Example: “Don’t worry; I’m on top of the situation.”

Primary Experience: Finding that it is easier to control another person or exert force on an object from above, where you have gravity working with you.


The human is able to project these base physically derived metaphors beyond basic level experiences into more abstract areas of life: science, philosophy, religion and so on. Nevertheless the abstract understanding is always grounded in the mundane.


Because this embodied conceptual system is dependant on the subjective experience of individuals and on a range of biological differences in sensorimotor construction between individuals no exact agreement on the description of reality between individuals is possible. The differences in perception will increase as the experience of individuals diverge, however it will diverge only within certain parameters set by the similarities of physical construction of being members of the same species.


For this reason there will be no universal rational morality that humans can make for themselves. In addition for the same reasons no externally provided morality will bring uniform behavior between individuals or peoples that would have to relate to that externally provided morality with differing embodied constructs. Neither objectivists nor religionists will be able to supply the “one right way to live.” No objective morality is possible because people are always subjects.


Limited Freedom

Most of human thought takes place below the level of consciousness. Typing this paper is an example for me. I am consciously aware of the words I want to write while my finger/brain motor system takes care of finding the right letters without any conscious thought needed for the actual typing process. In addition the words I want to write are only appearing to my conscious attention a few at a time giving the impression that they are streaming out of nowhere – or elsewhere, when what is happening is that the words are being delivered to the conscious attention by the subconscious.


Consciousness is not capable of managing the whole of this task. If I try to pay attention to where my fingers are going the words I want to write come to me at a much slower pace, and my typing slows down to almost hunt and peck speed. If I try to attend to too many things the whole process will collapse.


The neural construct of my brain is relatively set by past experiences and practices. I can change it to some degree with new experience and practices by using conscious deliberate acts until the new thing is programmed into my unconscious. But I cannot make sweeping changes merely by consciously thinking I will. For example: I cannot become an Arabic speaking Arab thinking Muslim by deciding consciously, “I will now be an Arabic speaking Arab thinking Muslim.” My free will is limited by how my past experience has shaped me and my present physical limitations including brain/mental functions. I can decide that I will read the Koran if my copy is in English. If it is in Arabic then my will to read the Koran must wait on my learning Arabic. No matter how much will I may exert I will never read the Koran as one that was shaped by Muslim Arab culture.


For these reason we don’t have much conscious control of thought processes and subsequent behaviors as we would like to think. My will is embodied and therefore will not transcend the constraints of my body.


This constrains what people know as spiritual experience to the body. Spirituality is real but it takes place in the physical world via physical processes.



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