How do we explain the brain's ability of thinking about non-materialistic concepts?



Question edited to avoid distraction

If a physical event from a materialistic point of view cannot be good or evil, and the brain is just made of matter, does this mean the concept of good/evil came/thought to brains from a non matter form that care about such concepts?

The usage of the term of non-matter here is necessary to form the question, as I assume that we all agree that matter doesn't care about good/evil, the universes is just physical events that has no moral meaning.


Posted 2020-12-26T21:19:06.637

Reputation: 129

Question was closed 2021-01-04T13:07:42.247

2@Conifold As I'm sure you are familiar, StackExchange comments are not meant for answers. If you have an answer, it should be posted as one. – Bryan Krause – 2020-12-27T02:32:52.973

1@BryanKrause If the comment box is big enough to "answer" a question then there is something wrong with the question and it needs to be fixed. And that's what comments are for. – Conifold – 2020-12-27T02:37:21.073


You may already be aware of this, but what you are talking about is the inductive argument for God from moral awareness.

– Adam Sharpe – 2020-12-27T16:43:31.817

1@Adam Sharpe at the end of the first paragraph on the link you provided you can read "However, the fact that we humans are aware of moral facts is itself surprising and calls for an explanation.", And that's why I am here. – Mocas – 2020-12-27T19:26:48.543

1"as I assume that we all agree that matter doesn't care about good/evil, the universes is just physical events that has no moral meaning." Some might argue as follows. Humans are material. They consist of matter. Humans also care about morality. Therefore some matter cares about morality. It is the same as the situation with sentience. Humans are sentient, humans are matter, therefore some matter is sentient. – Math Keeps Me Busy – 2020-12-27T19:59:10.253

But such an argument would open hell, questions like why would matter care about morality? Did it care about it before human existed? Is a black hole swallowing a planet a good thing or evil? – Mocas – 2020-12-27T20:13:39.073

2As far as I understand, you suggest that if we assume that the brain and all nature are material, it would be reasonable if the mind would only contain representations of material concepts. Thus, any content of non-marerial nature (like good and evil) needs to come from some non-material entity. Am I correct so far? If so, why should we assume God as the sole possible non-material origin of such a concept? – Philip Klöcking – 2020-12-28T19:31:49.953

As per my third edit, this is not exactly my question. My question is more like to be answered by Yes/No. The question is "Does this mean the concept of good/evil came/thought to brains from a non matter form that care about such concepts?". Even if the answer is yes, it doesn't mean it is God. – Mocas – 2020-12-28T21:09:52.467

1So the first part of my comment is correct insofar as the question comes down to "Doesn't the fact that our minds contain concepts beyond materialism imply that these concepts have to be given by non-material entities"? If so, please change the title of your question accordingly and delete irrelevant parts, because the mentioning of God alone will distract many people from the interesting core of the question. – Philip Klöcking – 2020-12-29T09:41:17.797

Done, edited the question. – Mocas – 2020-12-29T13:23:58.163

I have rolled back your edit, as it became a completely different question. Although you deleted good/evil from the title, you left it in the body of the question, so what you were asking was still muddled. Please think hard about the one thing you want to ask and then post a new question, let this one stand for what others might want to make of it. – Guy Inchbald – 2020-12-30T22:23:58.463

While I am not partial myself to "materialist" final explanations, the answers below from biology, sociology, and psychology do have one great advantage over transcendental answers. They require no tortured theodicies. They are statistical, so there is no problem with an overarching sense of good-evil punctuated by many particular instances of evil acts. Squaring this, or any other randomness, with an omnipotent deity has always been a problem. – Nelson Alexander – 2020-12-31T19:14:26.280



There's an implicit assumption in this question which can be challenged. Do we in fact understand good and evil - or, perhaps more accurately, what sort of thing is the "good/evil" distinction we understand? There's a purely naturalist account of this: (tendencies towards) certain social behaviors can be evolutionarily selected for or against. Altruism is merely one such behavior, and while at a glance it may seem to be less evolutionarily advantageous than selfishness the situation is more complicated than that. So one possible response is to say that our good/evil distinction simply describes something which has emerged naturally; there's no "transcendent" aspect to it, so no mystery to be explained.

Noah Schweber

Posted 2020-12-26T21:19:06.637

Reputation: 2 210

Quote "(tendencies towards) certain social behaviors can be evolutionarily selected for or against.". How would a first act of a type be judged to be selected or not selected if there is no concept of selection in relation of that act? – Mocas – 2020-12-26T23:51:51.603

1@Mocas I don't understand your question. The selection process I'm referring to is purely biological, it's just natural selection. The only criterion is reproductive fitness. The idea is that behaviors we regard as altruistic might actually be reproductively advantageous, at least in the right context, so they would emerge in appropriate populations for entirely naturalistic reasons. – Noah Schweber – 2020-12-26T23:53:48.730

What about all the people who think it is ethical for life to be extinguished? What's the naturalist account for this tendency? – Ameet Sharma – 2020-12-27T06:35:35.053

@AmeetSharma All such processes need to be understood statistically. There are plenty of non-advantageous features which persist in populations in relatively small amounts (how many people really believe that it's ethical to kill everybody?). The real point of my answer is that ethics need not be special in this context, we can treat it as just another phenomenon which emerges over time due to various natural processes. – Noah Schweber – 2020-12-27T06:37:44.440


Is the mere people's understanding of the concept of good and evil a proof of god?

In order to give an answer to that question, one must first define what is meant by the term "god", and possibly "exist", since one is generally asking about a possible proof of the "existence" of a "god". When those terms are left undefined, people can take either side of the argument, and both be correct according to how they use the terms.

Math Keeps Me Busy

Posted 2020-12-26T21:19:06.637

Reputation: 623

My bad. I actually thought about editting the question to say superior entity that gave us the concept somehow. – Mocas – 2020-12-27T18:49:41.067

I think substituting "superior entity" for "god" helps, but does not completely resolve the problem of ambiguity. What defines "superior", what defines "entity"? There is the same issue with "higher being", etc. One person may consider that whatever is the cause of us having moral concepts is a "superior entity". Others may say that if the cause of our moral concepts is biological evolution, then we can't call it an entity or superior. – Math Keeps Me Busy – 2020-12-27T19:09:06.423

Added an update to the question – Mocas – 2020-12-27T19:50:58.790


It's not a proof of god. Your question about why we acquire concepts of morality could equally be applied to how any being acquires any concepts at all. Your question is really about rationalism vs empiricism I think. How can we acquire moral concepts empirically when we're just talking about physical events... But the same can be said about all our concepts. We don't acquire knowledge of numbers or triangles empirically (at least not empirically alone). There's a relationship to physical events, but it does not simply come to us through the senses. That's the whole rationalism vs empiricism debate.

If we are somehow justified in our innate mathematical/logical/geometric concepts (mathematics starts with some unproveable axioms we simply accept as given), upon which we build knowledge... I think we are justified in our moral intuitions by the same account. ie: moral intuitions point towards moral realism, same way mathematical intuitions point towards mathematical realism. But when I say moral "intuition" I don't simply mean any moral feelings anyone may have. Just as people can have wrong mathematical ideas, they can have wrong moral ideas. Just because there are bad mathematical ideas, we don't throw out mathematical intuition altogether. Same way just because there are some bad moral ideas, we don't need to throw out moral intuition altogether. Just as we refine mathematical ideas, we can refine moral ones I think.

So how is any kind of knowledge possible? I don't know, but "god" gaves us true ideas does not answer the question at all. It just leaves the question one level higher...

Ameet Sharma

Posted 2020-12-26T21:19:06.637

Reputation: 1 354


Here's one of several possible answers: because your ancestors who denounced certain acts as evil, and praised other acts as good, were better adjusted to their community and enjoyed greater reproductive success. Ancient people who didn't know the difference between good and evil would be punished by those who did, so the ignorant tended to die out.

It's similar to following the law. If you break the law, other people will harm you, so it's to your advantage to accurately judge what the law is so you can follow it. Good and evil are like "law" that some people will harm you for not following, so it's to your advantage to know it.

So, why do we have law in the first place? Again there are multiple possible reasons. One is that people with power desire a certain state of affairs, and have the ability to make it happen; a rich man desires laws against theft because it selfishly benefits him, and he has the social and physical power to enforce those laws. Another reason for laws is that societies rise and fall depending on how effective their laws are at promoting the collective strength, so a kind of society-level evolution takes place among legal systems.


Posted 2020-12-26T21:19:06.637

Reputation: 758

quote "ancestors who denounced certain acts as evil, and praised other acts as good", but that doesn't answer the question, they have to have developed the understanding of good/evil before they denounce/praise acts. – Mocas – 2020-12-26T23:37:55.470

Yes, by random chance of genetics they may find in themselves an instinctive aversion or affinity to certain acts. Those whose aversions and affinities happened to fall in line with the law of the society - and I described how that law might have come about - had a reproductive advantage. – causative – 2020-12-26T23:41:44.410

I am struggling to see how genetics(matter) would develop a sense/idea (abstract) of bad or good. – Mocas – 2020-12-26T23:49:22.467

Can you see how genetics could result in an idea that something might be disgusting, distasteful, painful, embarrassing? Or on the other hand delicious, lovely, pleasurable, flattering? To the extent we have an instinctive sense of good and evil, it's like that - just an instinctive aversion or affinity for certain things. – causative – 2020-12-26T23:54:54.910

@Mocas Consider things you might eat. There's a pretty clear biological tendency to deem things as "good" or "bad" to eat according to their taste - for example, sweet, savory, and fatty things are all generally palatable to eat for humans. Those tastes have evolved as a way for animals to eat the things that promote their survival. There's no need for judgments of behavior to be any different. – Bryan Krause – 2020-12-27T02:31:24.540

3The timescales are too short to attribute everything to evolution. Statements like, "Slavery is unethical." or "All sentient beings should be free." are different from statements of personal preference. We're talking about 50,000 years of history or less during which we developed these concepts. The issue isn't whether morality has selective power. The issue is why we would ever form moral abstractions in the first place. To attribute it all to evolution is really turning evolution into some kind of omnipotent force. 'We needed morality at the time so evolution just gave it to us'. – Ameet Sharma – 2020-12-27T07:22:36.750


Define good and evil.

In evolutionary biology, good and evil are simply reflections of what helps or hinders our genetic base in surviving and reproducing. Or, to put it another way, they are the concepts which the human brain has evolved in order to understand and think about its race-survival instincts.

That is all the understanding one needs to conceptualise and think about them.

If you want to add metaphysical baggage to that, then you must first define your metaphysical baggage. But that addition will not prove anything about your baggage, whether God rides on it or not.

Guy Inchbald

Posted 2020-12-26T21:19:06.637

Reputation: 1 851

I struggle to see good/evil as simply reflections of what helps/hinders our genetic base. Take for example steeling, it is evil, yet it helps the thief to pass their genes. Also giving to charity or people in need, it hinders one's chances to pass their genes, and helps those who failed in life to pass theirs. – Mocas – 2020-12-30T21:51:28.497


No it does not.

Think of lower organism, a bacteria for instance. For it good and evil is limited to itself (its own survival is good and anything against its survival is evil for it).

Now move up the order, as organisms grow more and more complex the concept of good and evil develops.

For organisms like bees, the concept extends to habitat or colony which can be ultimately tracked down to survival.

For more complex organisms like monkeys, anything for survival of its family is good and anything against it is evil.

Now in my opinion as humans we extend the same concept to other humans and organisms too, anything against their survival or morals in utilitarian terms is evil and rest is good(or neutral to be precise).

Where does god fit in?


Posted 2020-12-26T21:19:06.637

Reputation: 111


The short answer is "no". And the reason is that you have engaged in a false dichotomy argument, where the only possible worldviews to explain human moral sense would be active creationism, vs. reductive materialism, plus the argument that consciousness and values are incompatible with full material reduction. These are NOT the only possible worldviews one may assume to explain our moral sense. Most relevant, most materialists, even reductionist leaning ones, do not take reduction to its logical limit and are not absolute reductionists, and hold by worldviews that somehow accommodate both consciousness and morality even if their base logic has some internal inconsistencies as a result. The most common materialist alternative, as one of many possible examples, is that consciousness can be emergent from matter, and morality can be emergent from consciousness interacting with sociology and evolution.

Longer answer -- many "materialists" accept that abstract objects, things like math, or social conventions, or morality, actually exist. In philopshy, this is called math realism, or moral realism, or abstract object realism, depending on what subset of this set one is talking about, and falls under the broad title of plationism. Many "materialists" are actually matter/idea dualists -- and the general recognition that materialism is probably wrong is why pretty much all such philosophers now call themselves "physicalists" instead. Others take a strong emergentist approach, in which things which don't have a substrate, things like an ecosystem, or a species, (or consciousness, or a society) can exist as emergent phenomena mostly independent of their material substrate. This is a non-reductive physicalism, and almost all physicalists today are physcialist/platonists, or emergent non-reductive physicalists. All of these non-absolutely-reductive physicalist worldviews can be compatible with morality.

Additionally, you further assume that in a spiritual dualism worldview, all knowledge is only possible as a result of explicit divine gift. This is another inappropriate assumption, as spiritual dualists NEED NOT EVEN BELEIVE IN A GOD. Most Buddhists, and most Shamans and many New Age spiritual dualists do not believe in a God, yet see no problem actually learning about morality, math, or the rules of a game. Your belief that knowledge can only come through divine gift -- is not accepted by pretty much anyone else. Including, of course, most other theists.

Reductive materialists DO have difficulty making any sense of morality, or of consciousness, but focusing on them as the only alternative to your particular version of theism is a straw man fallacy, as well as a false dichotomy fallacy.

So, to summarize the long answer -- you have based your "proof" on a false dichotomy and several unexamined assumptions which are pretty widely rejected, hence it is not a valid "proof"


Posted 2020-12-26T21:19:06.637

Reputation: 2 766


You have a wrong understanding of the meaning of good and evil.

Good and evil are the subjective knowledge about what allows surviving. Explaining:

  • Subjective: good and bad are not absolute. What is good for some, could be bad for others. That is absolutely normal. For some, Beethoven's music is good. For others, it is bad. Killing is good for the killer, and bad for the victim; etc.

  • Knowledge: it is obtained by learning, from experience. What you know from learning is not what the Great Spirit or whatever divine entity gave you. It is the product of your experience. You know that drinking too much is bad, and most people learn that by experience, not because of the bible.

  • Survival: most people know that after drinking four liters of whiskey within half an hour, they would not be able to go to the cinema, enjoy a peaceful morning or enjoy good music. But not just that. Perhaps they will not be able to enjoy those things anymore, because they might die. So, we come to learn that such act is bad. Because it will not only prevent one to continue living (which might not seem important), but mostly because if one is dead, one cannot enjoy doing more things. So, although it might not seem evident, surviving is our deepest goal (except for suicidal individuals, which have a different deepest goal).

Therefore, the concepts good and bad have no relationship with God.

The error in your understanding comes from the popular and superficial observation that good is related to life and bad is related to death (which are the expected consequences of what has been described above). Although the causal relationship is clear, the explanation is not that God leaves an intuition of good and bad in our spirit, but that we learn, by experience, to identify, what leads to survival, with the word good, and conversely, with the word bad.


Posted 2020-12-26T21:19:06.637

Reputation: 2 572