Graham Hancock and Michael Shermer Contemplate Morality, Government, and Natural Rights
Graham Hancock has a new book, an edited volume called The Divine Spark (Disinfo, 2015), in which he collects essays advocating the use of hallucinogenic drugs in order to discover true nature of reality. The essays come from some of the usual suspects from both the fringe world and the realm of psychedelics: Robert Schoch, Luis Eduardo Luna, and even English comedian Russell Brand. If the last-mentioned name seems odd, don’t fear: Brand didn’t write a piece for Graham Hancock. Hancock reprints an essay Brand wrote for the New Statesman back in 2011 attacking Richard Dawkins. Anyway, Hancock has posted the introduction to his book in which he muses on the spiritual dimension of reality, which has been the major focus of his “research” into ancient history since he stopped smoking marijuana and took up ayahuasca as his preferred mind-altering substance.
Hancock begins by announcing that he believes in the theory of evolution, but he also believes that “consciousness” has an independent will and is a spiritual force that uses evolution to “manifest” itself in the physical realm. For Hancock, “consciousness” is essentially a sort of incorporeal power that generates physical reality, more or less like the way the Gnostics see the physical world as the imprisoning cloak of matter draped over the glory of incorporeal spirit, animated by wisdom. It seems that Hancock’s “consciousness” is Gnosticism dressed in the clothes of science, much the way his “lost civilization” was Atlantis dressed up as archaeology.
Hancock goes on to write about his sense that the cosmos has a moral and spiritual dimension:
Four billion years of evolution on earth have led us to a point where we can make very fine distinctions between good and evil, darkness and light, love and fear - where we can make conscious choices that will impact us and others in profound ways.
This is one of those places where I get uncomfortable because people on both the fringe side and the skeptical side make arguments that there is somehow a moral imperative inherent in the cosmos. Last week in the eSkeptic Michael Shermer debated Marc Hauser over Shermer’s new book, The Moral Arc, and tried (and to my mind failed) to make the case that science and reason create inevitable moral truths, for example, that “democracies are better than autocracies [and] market economies are superior to command economies.” In his debate, Shermer isn’t very big on defining the concept of “better” except in terms of capital, material goods, and access to healthcare. (He is more specific yet still reductive to the lower end of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: “adequate sustenance, safety, shelter, bonding, and social relations for physical and mental health.”) But anyway, Shermer describes his reasoning thusly:
My view is that ever since the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment the idea that individual sentient beings have natural rights has outcompeted other ideas that place the group, tribe, nation, race, gender, or religion above the rights of the individual. These rights have expanded around the globe because individual sentient beings want them, and they want them because it is part of their nature to want them—it is instinctive—and a proper scientific understanding of human nature has revealed this fact. Knowing that, we then have a moral obligation to expand those rights where we can, and to help people whose rights are being violated.
I think the key word in Shermer’s argument is “proper.” Only by interpreting science through the lens of preconceived ethnocentric ideas does it in turn support the idea that the universe gives a rat’s ass whether you live or die, or privileges sentience over any other form of life. As J. B. S. Haldane once quipped, “If one could conclude as to the nature of the Creator from a study of creation, it would appear that God has an inordinate fondness for stars and beetles.” What both have in common is that neither is possessed of moral virtue. Similarly, even if all the humans on earth agreed on a program of values and moral obligations, these would still fail to be inherent in the fabric of the universe; they are a cultural product born of particular preferences.
Both Shermer and Hancock, for different reasons, see the florescence of conscious beings as the moral imperative of humanity and the sine qua non of existence. For Shermer, natural rights evolved from our primate ancestors and therefore we are obliged to honor them as advantageous adaptations that have taken on the immutable force of scientific law; for Hancock, they are a gift from a quasi-unknowable spirit force that guides the same evolutionary process to the same conclusion. In other words, both men agree on the origins of natural rights and moral obligations but disagree only on whether to replace the Judeo-Christian God with a disembodied force in the form of evolution or generic spirit.
It’s also interesting to see that both men then apply their quasi-mystical view of human nature to the problem of Western civilization. Both Hancock and Shermer agree that the primary moral good and the one most closely associated with the West is individual freedom, and both define freedom in terms of what the government will or will not punish a person for doing, as opposed to what a government is able to punish a person for doing. For Shermer, anything that increases freedom is presumptively moral, while for Hancock freedom is the “greatest” achievement of the West, despite this freedom being of extremely recent vintage. He is concerned, though, that this freedom is incomplete and involves government intrusion into individual’s “freedom on consciousness”—i.e., drug use.
It seems odd to attribute to grand universal law a relative blip in human history, particularly since, in one sense, “rights” are written into law precisely because governments have the unprecedented ability today to limit freedom. For example, drug laws are only a few decades old, impossible to impose before then. A medieval king might have decreed all manner of repressive laws, but he could not enforce them at the ends of the earth where his writ might have been little more than a fig leaf; today government can monitor nearly everyone everywhere and yet we argue that this is freedom. We need to first define our terms and what “freedom” is supposed to mean—Is it the absence of official restriction, or is it the actual practice of one’s own will regardless of the law? It seems to me that our freedom as such is due less to a grant from the government than from the collapse of social institutions that once informally regulated and controlled individuals’ lives through access to resources and to community.
Hancock’s view is more limited in that he sees government as an imposition on natural rights, whereas Shermer has the distinctly American view that government is an expression of natural rights. In America “rights” are enshrined by law and exist under the seal and sanction of government; hence the fight to enshrine so many in law. Perhaps it is a difference born of history. America is a young country, and one where government, society, community, and moral expression are bound together. Europe, on the other hand, is very old, and governments change rapidly and frequently and are often at odds with communities that existed before their coming and will exist after they have gone, where rights are vested in community and social groups rather than the relationship of the individual to the law.
What is interesting, though, is that Shermer’s moral reasoning and Hancock’s psychedelic communion with the gods both are about more than they claim, for beneath the surface both men are attempting to use their philosophies to rationalize political views related to the relationship between the individual and the state. I have a feeling that neither evolution nor consciousness cares at all; the next time an asteroid destroys civilization and selection pressure changes the species, it will all be different anyway.
4/14/2015 08:43:03 am
Gulp. I thought some of that tax money I'm paying today would go at least to figure out a way to deflect that asteroid or great comet, without asking for help uselessly from Ancient Aliens or from the gnostic 'force' of the Universe, and without waiting for a scientific proof of the right for all individuals and species to survive on our little planet earth.
4/14/2015 09:49:53 am
Gnosticism (Knowledge) and Pistis (Faith) are fused together in the works of Paul. Gnosticism is not as distinct as the mainstream scholars pretend.
4/15/2015 06:46:37 am
Sounds like you don't really know what the "mainstream scholars" think about the relationship between Gnosticism and early Christianity.
4/14/2015 09:45:53 am
It's all superfluous. There was a time when this planet didn't exist and there will be a time when it will no longer exist.
4/14/2015 11:05:59 am
"Similarly, even if all the humans on earth agreed on a program of values and moral obligations, these would still fail to be inherent in the fabric of the universe; they are a cultural product born of particular preferences."
4/14/2015 12:02:12 pm
They would have to be Alienists at least, in order to survive. Unless 'it' is an eternal blob which devours things, evolves but does not reproduce.
4/15/2015 07:45:12 am
"Unless 'it' is an eternal blob which devours things, evolves but does not reproduce."
4/15/2015 10:20:18 am
4/15/2015 12:19:54 pm
"My vagina has a first name..." :P
4/14/2015 05:25:16 pm
“Hancock begins by announcing that he believes in the theory of evolution, but he also believes that ‘consciousness’ has an independent will and is a spiritual force that uses evolution to ‘manifest’ itself in the physical realm.”
4/15/2015 01:51:24 am
I agree with most of Uncle Ron's comments, but I feel that the statements "organisms are said to adapt to changes in their environment but they don’t do it consciously. They may accidentally change and as a result survive in their changed form, or not" are misleading. "Consciously" and "accidentally" are not antonyms, and as it happens, neither really describes the situation. Evolution works partly by building into organisms the capacity for change- if I go on a walking tour, my leg muscles will, provided I am able to get suitable nourishment, become more powerful and efficient; if destination of the tour happens to be Machu Picchu, my lungs will also become more efficient to cope with the reduced air pressure. The famous "placebo effect" is probably an extension of the same principle, raising the possibility that there is some element of will in such changes.
4/15/2015 03:09:27 am
Building up one's leg muscles through exercise is not an evolutionary change whether those muscles deliberately change through a planned exercise program or just change because you enjoy walking a lot. Evolutionary change does not happen within an existing individual; it happens when an individual reproduces and his offspring are "accidentally" different.
4/15/2015 03:38:21 am
I should add that no matter how much you exercise the changes to YOUR muscles will not be passed on to your offspring. You may gain a survival advantage by being fit, and may reproduce more often as a result, but your DNA blueprint on which they are built (combined with your mate's) remains the same.
4/15/2015 06:09:46 am
The point of my last sentence was that Uncle Ron's last sentence may not be entirely true:
4/15/2015 07:14:09 am
David Bradbury, you seem to be confusing "acclimatization" with "adaptation." When you go on a walking tour and your muscles beef up, that's not adaptation, that's acclimatization. That's your own body responding to a set of stimuli. Adaptation is more what Uncle Ron said--where you being born with a more efficient running ability leads to a genetically lineal advantage for your offspring in a specific environment. The difference is that ALL human beings are capable of beefing up their leg muscles in response to stimuli, so you don't really have a genetic advantage, you're just using your body in ways that are a bit different than some others are. Maybe your big buff leg muscles will net you some procreation, but genetically speaking, you're not really giving your offspring anything that the mailman who never walks anywhere couldn't.
4/15/2015 08:49:23 am
Of course, I may be confusing "organism" with something like "species".
4/15/2015 10:59:29 am
4/15/2015 06:18:50 am
I find this comment difficult. This is a very relativistic approach to human rights. It is fully legitimate to think of morals evolving from the nature of things. This does not necessarily mean that the things are constructed by a supreme being, it's only that reality is as it is, and that certain values and structures support our well-being better than others. And this is not only about culture and ethnocentricity. There are certain aspects of human life common to all human beings which makes one culture or cultural aspect better than the other.
4/15/2015 07:28:32 am
1. Morality may evolve from the "nature of things," but that doesn't mean that morality is universal. That would be part of why moral codes around the globe are in fact not just subtly but at times WILDLY different.
4/16/2015 06:36:04 am
4/15/2015 06:28:57 am
If there is one thing I hate more than the incompetent pop philosophizing of the New-Agey fringe, it is the incompetent pop philosophizing of the self-declared partisans of Science and Reason.
4/15/2015 07:43:59 am
This whole concept of some "universal moral code" is completely ignorant of psychology, I must say. Psychology has pretty conclusively nailed down that morals and morality are learned, not instinctual, and that furthermore there are distinct stages. And with 4 out of 6 stages being dependent on authority and social pressure, that pretty much kills any idea of the universality of morals.
4/15/2015 11:16:09 am
The one "universal moral code" is I must survive and spread my DNA (reproduce) at all costs. Even seemingly altruistic behavior is in the service of this idea. All else is convenience.
4/15/2015 11:20:55 am
I always knew monks and nuns were just playing hard to get. They're secretly in it for the strange! =P
4/15/2015 12:26:54 pm
V & Uncle Ron, you guys need to look up "Appeal to Nature". You're both sounding silly itt.
4/16/2015 01:41:10 am
How do the arguments of either V or Uncle Ron relate to the concept of "Appeal to Nature"?
All Seeing Eye
4/19/2015 04:23:38 am
Michael Shermer is a front man for the CIA. His credibility on a 1 to 10 scale is a 2 at best. He is without exception an apologist for government lies and cover ups. He rejects False Flag Operations as conspiracy nonsense when there is ample proof there have been many False Flag operations. Don't trust him when it comes to government cover-ups and lies.
terry the censor
4/20/2015 04:10:57 pm
@Mr. or Ms. Eye
All Seeing Eye
4/20/2015 11:09:40 pm
Terry The Censor,
terry the censor
4/21/2015 06:43:49 am
Your comment will be posted after it is approved.
Leave a Reply.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
Enter your email below to subscribe to my newsletter for updates on my latest projects, blog posts, and activities, and subscribe to Culture & Curiosities, my Substack newsletter.
Terms & Conditions
Please read all applicable terms and conditions before posting a comment on this blog. Posting a comment constitutes your agreement to abide by the terms and conditions linked herein.