PadmaVonSambha wrote:It's a modern idea because we now know so much more about the universe than people ever have known before.
I think you have put your finger right on the issue here - we have emerged, blinking, into this vast Universe of impersonal forces and unthinkable inter-stellar spaces, from the earlier worldview of Gods and demons and angels and crystal spheres. This was the subject of much of the great literature of the 20th C especially the existentialists - Camus, Sartre, and others.
The thing is, though, that I think that in some profound sense, it is still a myth. I think the view that the 'scientific picture' is the real one, and that it ought to replace the religious one, actually grew directly out of Western Christianity. Many of the pre-conditions for the 'scientific revolution' to emerge were provided by Greek philosophy and Christian theology - the concepts of substance, agency, creation, and so on. They provided the framework within which Newton and Galileo and Descartes made their discoveries.
But this has had many, shall we say, unforseen consequences. As Bikkhu Bodhi put it in a powerful lecture, A Buddhist Response to Contemporary Dilemmas of Human Existence
The early founders of the Scientific Revolution in the seventeenth century — such as Galileo, Boyle, Descartes and Newton — were deeply religious men, for whom the belief in the wise and benign Creator was the premise behind their investigations into lawfulness of nature. However, while they remained loyal to the theistic premises of Christian faith, the drift of their thought severely attenuated the organic connection between the divine and the natural order, a connection so central to the premodern world view. They retained God only as the remote Creator and law-giver of Nature and sanctioned moral values as the expression of the Divine Will, the laws decreed for man by his Maker. In their thought a sharp dualism emerged between the transcendent sphere and the empirical world. The realm of "hard facts" ultimately consisted of units of senseless matter governed by mechanical laws, while ethics, values and ideals were removed from the realm of facts and assigned to the sphere of an interior subjectivity.
It was only a matter of time until, in the trail of the so-called Enlightenment, a wave of thinkers appeared who overturned the dualistic thesis central to this world view in favor of the straightforward materialism. This development was a following through of the reductionistic methodology to its final logical consequences. Once sense perception was hailed as the key to knowledge and quantification came to be regarded as the criterion of actuality, the logical next step was to suspend entirely the belief in a supernatural order and all it implied. Hence finally an uncompromising version of mechanistic materialism prevailed, whose axioms became the pillars of the new world view. Matter is now the only ultimate reality, and divine principle of any sort dismissed as sheer imagination.
The triumph of materialism in the sphere of cosmology and metaphysics had the profoundest impact on human self-understanding. The message it conveyed was that the inward dimensions of our existence, with its vast profusion of spiritual and ethical concerns, is mere adventitious superstructure. The inward is reducible to the external, the invisible to the visible, the personal to the impersonal. Mind becomes a higher order function of the brain, the individual a node in a social order governed by statistical laws. All humankind's ideals and values are relegated to the status of illusions: they are projections of biological drives, sublimated wish-fulfillment. Even ethics, the philosophy of moral conduct, comes to be explained away as a flowery way of expressing personal preferences. Its claim to any objective foundation is untenable, and all ethical judgments become equally valid. The ascendancy of relativism is complete.
So that is the context within which this question is being argued. Or, should I say, it was
the context, because I think that this view is actually typical of that period called 'modernity', which I would put between Newton and Einstein. Many things have been discovered since which throw that into question - the discovery of the 'dark universe', the mysteries of 'observer problem' and the 'anthropic principle'. So there is a ton of stuff to discuss in all that, I had better leave it there for now.
PadmaVonSambha wrote:There is some research I read that suggests that we have evolved in a way that a few of these otherwise arbitrary moral values are to some degree hard-wired into our brains.
That's the great thing about evolutionary psychology - it is sufficienty flexible to explain everything. Have a look at this New Yorker essay, It Ain't Necessarily So: How much do evolutionary stories reveal about the mind?
Learn to do good, refrain from evil, purify the mind ~ this is the teaching of the Buddhas