Kosslyn: Trust self, not the compass

If a tree falls in the woods and nobody hears it, does it make a sound?

The same goes for morality: if a deed is done but nobody notices or cares, can it count as immoral? On this day, the eve of Judaism’s Day of Atonement, it is a question worth considering.

The answer to the tree riddle depends on our notion of sound. Acoustic waves cannot exist in a vacuum; they need the medium of air. Are people the necessary medium of sound? That is, does the act of hearing turn vibrating air molecules into the phenomenon of sound?

The answer to morality’s riddle also depends on the medium. We often assume that for a moral code to be valid, it must exist in a vacuum arbitrated by God or some Vague Agnostic Entity. Alternative moral mediums seem shifty and unreliable.

Many of us thought so at some point in our lives. We believed in God or an Oversoul or a big moral compass in the sky. Having faith that the character of our actions made some cosmic impression, we strove to be righteous. But as we learned more about how the world works — how societies, individuals and proteins mechanistically and unspiritually interact — it often became harder to believe in an Almighty who cares about whether we pick up litter, keep friends’ secrets and stay off Wikipedia during that take-home exam. I’ve seen many friends undergo such crises of faith and felt more than a touch of it myself. It leads to relativism, objectivism, solipsism, worship of Monopoly money and a loss of identity. It is claustrophobic to believe that there is nothing real outside of ourselves.

Sometimes we can’t see the forest for the trees. We have moral codes not because of our specific metaphysical beliefs, but because we are wired for morality. Our brains are filled with mirror neurons: specialized cells that fire both when we do something and when we see somebody else performing the same action. For example, wiggle your left pinkie finger. Now ask the person nearest you to wiggle his or her left pinkie finger. Watch his or her hand closely. Identical parts of your brain are activated in each case! Another example: Yawn. Those around you are likely to suddenly yawn as well. A final example: See somebody in pain. You hurt too. This, our core human sense of empathy, is the essence of morality. We absorb little pieces of other people in ourselves, making other human beings real to us.

If morality comes from senses, not ideas, then what are we to make of intricate abstract moral systems? The Western tradition — though not the Eastern one — is replete with hyper-intellectualized moral codes and dogmas. They are certainly interesting, but are they enhancers to or distractors from our moral sense? Are they hearing aids or earmuffs?

Mostly earmuffs, I think. As a teacher once told me, human eyes are built for seeing objects of human scale. We can peer through microscopes at the very small, we can gaze through telescopes at the very large, we can stare at pages of philosophical treatises, but evolution has not yet furnished us the machinery to intuitively understand what we see in those places. Moral philosophy and theology mostly lowers morale and hamper our gut-level empathy. We should look to people for moral truth.

If a deed is done but nobody notices or cares, can it count as immoral? Morality, like hearing, is a human sense operating at human scale. It no more depends on any particular religion than does hearing. Some are hard of hearing; others have deficiencies in their empathetic sense. Just as sound requires a hearer, so does morality require man’s empathy. When we act, we do not need to look toward a moral compass in the sky to discern the character of our deeds — we just need to listen to the earnest whispering of our hearts.