Posted on December 12th, 2013 No comments
According to fellow atheist Bart Ehrman, whose books are an excellent tonic for the true believers, there are many clergymen who are no longer believers themselves. I suppose they have many ways of rationalizing their behavior to themselves, one of which is the belief that by deceiving their flocks they are actually doing “good.” Journalist David V. Johnson recently defended this point of view in an article he wrote for 3 Quarks Daily entitled, “A Refutation of the Undergraduate Atheists.” “Undergraduate Atheists” is one of the many pejorative terms used by philosophers with delusions of grandeur in referring to the infidel triumvirate of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris. An atheist himself, Johnson, takes issue with what he calls the ”Undergraduate Atheist Thesis,” or UAT, which he states simply as the belief that, “Humanity would be better off without religious belief.”
Johnson begins by giving a highly distilled version of “San Manuel Bueno, Martir (Saint Manuel the Good, Martyr),” a novella by Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno. The action takes place in the village of Valverde de Lucerna, where the spiritual needs of the people are ministered to by Don Manuel, a saintly Catholic priest. He has a run in with Lazaro, a local who has returned from a sojourn in America as a confirmed atheist. The two spar for a while, until the scales finally fall from Lazaro’s eyes, and he concludes that Don Manuel is right when he advises, “Leave them alone, as long as it consoles them. It is better for them to believe it all, even contradictory things, than not to believe in anything.” But wait, there’s a twist. It turns out that, like Lazaro, Don Manuel is also an atheist. However, convinced that they must preserve the “happiness” of the villagers, they continue ministering to their spiritual needs, never revealing the truth about their own unbelief, until both die in the odor of sanctity.
The story is a lot more complex than the dumbed down version given by Johnson. For example, Don Manuel is himself very unhappy, tormented by what seems to him the meaninglessness of life and the knowledge that he will die with no hope of the hereafter. He is not so blithely convinced of the rightness of what he is doing as Johnson suggests, and agonizes over whether he is really serving the villagers best interests by deceiving them. He has half convinced himself that Christ himself was also an atheist, etc. It’s actually a very interesting read, and there’s an English version at the above link.
Be that as it may, Johnson embraces his simplified version as an antidote to UAT. As he puts it,
…demonstrating the truth of UAT would require an enormous calculation of the two competing scenarios. It demands that we add up all the good and bad consequent on human beings being religious, from the beginning to the end of human history, and all the good and bad consequent on human beings not being religious. We are then supposed to compare the two totals and see which version of human history winds up better.
According to Johnson, such a calculation is hopelessly complicated, and we therefore “have reason to suspend judgment about UAT.” In fact, what is hopeless is the notion that we shouldn’t make judgments until we know every fact that might have some bearing on the case. Fortunately, Mother Nature knew better, and gave us the capacity to decide based on limited data as befits creatures with limited intelligence. We would never make any decisions if we always waited until we were certain about their outcome.
I might add that this familiar wrangling over whether religion is “good” or “bad” is really neither here nor there as far as the question of whether God actually exists is concerned. After all, what does it matter if the argument is decided one way or the other if there actually is a God? Is anyone really going to risk frying in hell for quadrillions and quintillions of years, just for starters, by defying God and explaining to Him that he is “immoral” because, on balance, belief in Him hasn’t made mankind’s lot “better?” If there is no God to begin with, then one isn’t likely to suddenly pop into existence merely because we have determined that things would be “better” that way. In other words, the bearing of this whole argument on whether there actually is a God or not is nil.
Of course, all this is irrelevant to Johnson. After all, he’s an atheist himself. His ”Anti-Undergraduate Atheist Thesis” is not that Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris are wrong about the non-existence of God. Rather, it is that a self-appointed elite of atheists should bamboozle the rest of us into believing in God in spite of that “for our own good.” Plunging ahead with his indictment of these “New Atheists” he writes,
Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, and their followers have something remarkably in common with religionists: they claim to know something (UAT) that cannot, in fact, be known and must be accepted on faith. The truth is that we cannot know what humanity would be like without religious belief, because humanity in that scenario would be so much unlike us that it would be impossible to determine what it would be like in that alternate universe. Their inability to acknowledge the immense calculation that would be required is unscientific. Their conclusion is as intolerant and inimical to the liberal tradition as the ranting of any superstitious windbag.
Of course, based on his own logic, those who embrace Johnson’s Anti-UAT are also “claiming to know something that cannot be known,” and must hang their heads and join the ranks of the “ranting, superstitious windbags.” However, he spares that faction such harsh judgment, apparently because he happens to belong to it himself. As he puts it,
I suspect the scales might tip the other way. Why? For the same reasons as San Manuel Bueno’s. The psychological consequences of religious faith — the deep satisfaction, reduction of existential anxiety and feeling of security and meaning it provides — would represent an enormous and underappreciated part of the calculation. Imagine the billions of believers that have lived, live now, or will live, and consider what life is like for them from the inside. Consider the tremendous boon in happiness for all of them in knowing, in the way a believer knows, that their lives and the universe are imbued with meaning, that there is a cosmic destiny in which they play a part, that they do not suffer in vain, that their death is not final but merely a transition to a better existence.
This the triumphant vindication of life in The Matrix. Far be it from me to attempt any judgment of which of these two competing atheist world views is “better,” or whether either of them is even “good.” As my readers know, I don’t admit the possibility of making an objective judgment one way or the other. However, I certainly do have some thoughts concerning my own subjective opinion of what’s “good” for me. I might add in passing that the Spanish “villagers” did as well, because they expressed their fury at those who were “enlightening” them by destroying churches in Barcelona and other parts of Spain at the start of the Spanish Civil War. I don’t care to have anyone feeding me a pack of lies based on their conclusion that it’s for my own good. I’ve found that most of us, regardless of how ignorant we might appear to those who imagine themselves our intellectual betters, are very astute at deciding for ourselves what’s “for our own good,” and certainly better at it than any self-appointed intellectual elite. Furthermore, it seems to me that, regardless of what ends we happen to have in mind, we are a great deal more likely to achieve them if the actions we take in pursuing them are based on the truth rather than on pleasant lies. Indeed, the very ends we seek will vary strongly depending on whether we choose them based on facts or illusions. That will be the case regardless of how good we are as a species at ascertaining the truth, and regardless of whether we can ever have a certain knowledge of the truth or not. Certainly, the truth is illusive, but we are more likely to approach it by actually seeking it than by promoting illusions that are supposed by the self-anointed guardians of our spiritual well-being to be “for our own good.”
As for the notion that our fundamental goal in life should be the pursuit of some kind of illusory and drugged happiness, I consider it absurd. Why is it that we are capable of being happy to begin with? Like almost everything else of any real significance about us, we can be happy because, and only because, that capacity happened to increase the probability that we would survive and reproduce. It follows that, to the extent that we can even speak of an “objective” end, happiness is purely secondary.
What, then, of the purpose and meaning of life? I can only speak for myself, but as an atheist I find a purpose and meaning and grandeur in life that seems to me incomparably preferable to the tinsel paradises of the true believers. All it takes to come to that conclusion is to stop taking life for granted. Look at yourself in the mirror! It’s incredibly, wonderfully improbable that a creature like you, with hands, and eyes, and a heart, and a brain, not to mention all this “stuff” around us are even here. As a “purpose” and a “meaning of life” it may only be my subjective whim, but I have a passionate desire that this little flicker of life in the middle of a vast universe, a flicker that may very well be unique, will continue. For it to continue, it is not necessary for me to be happy. It is necessary for me to survive and reproduce. Beyond that it is necessary for me to seek to insure the survival of my species, and beyond that to seek to insure the survival of life itself. Are these things objectively necessary? In short, no. In the end, they are just personal whims, but I’m still passionate about them for all that. Why? Perhaps because virtually everything about me exists because it happened to promote those goals. If I failed to pursue those goals, I would be a sick and dysfunctional biological entity, and it displeases me to think of myself in those terms. Hence, my, admittedly subjective and personal, purpose in life.
But why should “I” have a purpose in life? Don’t “I” blink into existence, and then back out of it in a moment? What could possibly be the point if I’m only going to be here for a moment, and then cease to exist forever? I think that question is motivated by a fundamental confusion over who “I” am. After all, what is really essential about “me”? It can’t be my conscious mind. I am quite confident that it really has just popped into existence for a moment, and will soon die forever. It follows that my consciousness can only be ancillary and secondary to what is really essential about “me”. It would be absurd, and quite unparsimonious of Nature, if everything about me were to suffer the same fate.
So the question becomes, what is it about me that won’t necessarily suffer that fate? It is, of course, my genes. In three and a half billion years, they, and the precursors that gave rise to them, have never died. That have all been links in an unbroken chain of life stretching back over an almost inconceivably long time, and that can potentially stretch on an inconceivably long time into the future. “I” am the link in the chain that exists in the here and now, and that will determine whether the chain will continue, or be snuffed out. I know what my choice is. It is a choice that, as far as I am concerned, gives an abiding meaning and purpose to my life. It is also, of course, a “selfish” choice, and I have nothing to say about what others “should” do, because there is no objective answer to that question. You must decide for yourself.
UPDATE: Jerry Coyne’s reaction to Johnson’s article may be found here.
Posted on December 1st, 2013 2 comments
Morality exits because of evolved behavioral traits. They are its ultimate cause. Without them, morality as we know it, in all of its various complex manifestations would cease to exist. Without them, the subjective perception in the brains of individuals of such things as good, evil, and rights would disappear as well. We perceive all of these as objects, as independent things-in-themselves, because individuals who perceived them in that way were more likely to survive and reproduce. However, they do not exist as things-in-themselves, a fact that has led to endless confusion in creatures such as ourselves, who are capable of reasoning about these nonexistent objects that seem so real.
It follows that, in spite of the legions of philosophers over the centuries who have presumed to enlighten us about the objective “should,” such an entity is as imaginary as unicorns. There is no objective reason why individuals “should” do anything in order to embrace good and reject evil, because good and evil are not objects. The same applies to the State. From a moral point of view (and it can be assumed in what follows that I am speaking of that point of view when I use the term “should”), there is no objective reason why the State should act one way in order to be good, or should not act another way in order to avoid evil. When an individual says that the state should do one thing, and not another, (s)he is simply expressing a personal desire. That, of course, applies to my own point of view. When I speak of what the State should or should not do, I am merely expressing a personal opinion, based on my own conjecture about the kind of state I would like to live in.
In the first place, we can say that there is no essential connection between the modern State and morality, because no such entity as the modern State existed during the time over which the behavioral traits we associate with morality evolved. However, a State that does not take morality into account is unlikely to be effective at achieving the goals its citizens have set for it, because it is the nature of those citizens to be influenced by moral predispositions. If a sufficient number of them perceive that the State is acting immorally, or violating what seem to them to be their rights, they may resist its laws, or rebel.
If the State is to act “morally,” does it follow that there should be an establishment of religion, whether of the spiritual or the secular variety? Based on the empirical evidence of our history, and what I know of human behavior, it seems to me that it does not. The value to the state of an established moral system lies in the potential of welding all its citizens into a single ingroup. It seems plausible that a single ingroup would be more effective at achieving the common goals of a State’s citizens then a collection distinct ingroups, each of which might perceive one or more of the others as outgroups. In such cases the expression of hatred and hostility towards the outgroup(s) would likely be disruptive.
Unfortunately, established moral systems throughout history have all tended to be unstable and counterproductive. From the time Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire until the final fall of its Byzantine remnant, there was constant strife between Trinitarians and Anti-Trinitarians, iconodules and iconoclasts, those who accepted the Three Chapters and those who condemned them, etc. Later attempts to preserve single ingroup orthodoxy spawned the massacre of the Albigensians, the long decades of the Hussite wars, the century of intermittent warfare between the Catholics and the Huguenots in France, and many another bloody chapter in human history. Established religions became instruments of exploitation in the hands of the powerful, resulting in the bloody reprisals of the French Revolution, the Spanish Civil War, etc. A problem with established religions has always been that people cannot change deeply held beliefs at will, and they resent being forced to pretend they believe things when they don’t. Typically, force is necessary to suppress that resentment, as we have seen in modern Iran. The “right” of Freedom of Religion” is basically a recognition of these drawbacks.
The more recent secular religions have fared no better. The two most familiar examples of the 20th century, Communism and Nazism, for example, both found it necessary to brutally suppress any opposition. The “great rewards” of such religions, whether in the form of a utopian classless society or a Teutonic golden age, are worldly rather than in the great beyond, and eventually become noticeable by their absence. All moral systems have outgroups as well as ingroups and, in the case of the secular religions, these also tend to be worldly rather than spiritual. In the case of the Communists and the Nazis, this led to the mass slaughter of the “bourgeoisie” and the Jews, respectively, robbing the State of many citizens, who often happened to be among the most intelligent and productive. It would seem that these two dire examples would be enough in themselves to deter us from any further experiments along similar lines. Remarkably, however, as those who have read the books of the likes of Sam Harris and Joshua Greene are aware, we continue to cobble away on new “scientific” versions, seemingly oblivious to the outcomes of our past attempts.
As an anodyne to all these problems, the philosophers of the Enlightenment sought to limit the power of the State by establishing Rights, such as freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, etc. While these Rights are not things-in-themselves, they are perceived as such. Though they are merely subjective constructs, they can still acquire legitimacy if they are generally accepted and hallowed by tradition. Democracy was held forth as the proper vehicle for promoting these rights and guarding against the abuse of power by autocratic rulers. As implemented, modern democracies have hardly been perfect, but have been more stable than autocratic forms of government, and have often, although not invariably, survived such challenges as hard economic times and war. However, their drawbacks are also clearly visible. For example, recently they have been powerless to resist the massive influx of culturally alien populations that are far more likely to be a source of future civil strife if not worse than to be of any long term benefit to the existing citizens whose welfare these democratic states are supposed to be protecting. They benefit elites as a source of votes and cheap labor, but are likely to be harmful to society as a whole in the long term. In short, the jury is still out as to whether the post-Enlightenment democracies will eventually be perceived as Good or Evil.
It is not clear what if any alternative system might actually be better than democracy. The Chinese oligarchy has certainly had remarkable success in expanding the economic and military power of that country. However, its legitimacy is based on its supposed representation of the bankrupt, foreign ideology of Marxism. In spite of that, in a traditionalist country like China it may hold onto ”the mandate of heaven” for a long time in spite of the glaring contradictions between its supposed ideology and its practice.
In general, “virtuous” states – those free of corruption, that do not cheat or steal from their citizens, and that are effective in enforcing laws that are perceived as just - are more effective at promoting the common weal than their opposites. Heraclitus’ dictum that ”character is destiny” likely applies to states as well as individuals. I personally think that states are far more likely to be “virtuous” in that sense if their powers are carefully circumscribed and limited. Whenever new moral systems are implemented, “scientific” or otherwise, those limits tend to be dissolved. When it comes to the State, it is probably better to think in terms of “Thou shalt not” than in terms of “Thou shalt.” Two that come to mind include Thou shalt not kill (except, as Voltaire suggested, in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets), and Thou shalt not torture.
Posted on October 2nd, 2013 No comments
We are a social species. It stands to reason that natural selection has equipped us with a suite of behavioral predispositions suitable for such a species. A subset of those predispositions is the ultimate cause of what we know and experience as morality. One might say that Mother Nature wasn’t too finicky about such irrelevancies as rational consistency in designing the necessary mental equipment. She created the compelling illusion in our minds that such imaginary objects as Good, Evil, and Rights actually exist, and then hedged them about with powerful emotions that inclined us to reward Good and punish Evil. The fact that we’re here demonstrates that the system has worked well enough so far, although it has shown distinct signs of becoming dysfunctional of late.
I don’t know whether it ever occurred to Mother Nature that we might someday become clever and nosey enough to wonder where these objects came from. I never asked her. I rather suspect that she assumed the problem would be patched over via the invention of imaginary super beings. In that case, the objects would exist just because that’s the way the imaginary super being(s) wanted it, end of story. She probably never bothered about the possibility that some of us might realize that the imaginary super beings weren’t really all that plausible. After all, no one could accuse her of pussy footing around when it came to moral illusions. Good and Evil would appear as real things in the imaginations of believers and infidels alike. If the infidels couldn’t trace their existence to a God, well, they would just have to be creative and come up with something else.
And creative the infidels have certainly been. They’ve come up with all kinds of systems and rationalizations in the hope of saving the Good and Evil objects from vanishing into thin air. They are similar in that all of them are even more implausible than belief in imaginary super beings. The amusing thing is that the true believers can see through the charade without the least difficulty, whereas the “rational” infidels persist in floundering about in the darkness.
Consider, for example, a piece Dennis Prager just wrote for National Review Online, packaged as “A Response to Richard Dawkins.” Prager cuts to the chase with the following:
If there is no God, the labels “good” and “evil” are merely opinions. They are substitutes for “I like it” and “I don’t like it.” They are not objective realities.
Thank you, Mr. Prager. I couldn’t have said it better myself. That is a perfectly clear and straightforward statement of a simple truth that so many of my fellow “rational” atheists seem completely unable to grasp. There is simply no mechanism whereby the moral emotions in the mind of one individual can stroll over, smack another individual up alongside the head, and acquire the legitimacy to apply to that other individual as well. Atheist moralists are like so many zombies, still wandering aimlessly about in their imaginary world of good and evil even though they’ve just been shot between the eyes. The bullet that hit them is the realization that evolved behavioral predispositions are the ultimate cause of moral behavior. As Mr. Prager says, they do, indeed, have very pronounced opinions about the precise nature of Good and Evil. The problem is that such opinions are analogous to having opinions about the color of a unicorns horn. They are opinions about objects that don’t exist.
Unfortunately, belief in imaginary super beings is just as ineffectual as the fantasies of the atheists when it comes to conjuring up Good and Evil Things and endowing them with objective reality. Consider, for example, the rest of Mr. Prager’s article. It’s basically a statement of the familiar fallacy that, because (Judeo-Christian) God-based morality results in Good (as imagined by Mr. Prager), and atheist morality results in Evil (as imagined by Mr. Prager), therefore God must exist. In fact, there is no logical mechanism whereby the mind of Mr. Prager can force God from non-existence into existence by virtue of the fact that a God is required to transmute his Good and his Evil into objective realities. The truth of God’s existence or non-existence does not depend on Mr. Prager’s opinion touching on how his presence might affect the moral climate.
No matter, Prager stumbles on with his version of the now familiar “proof” that (Judeo-Christian) God-based moral systems result in Good, but secular ones result in Evil, and that the (Judeo-Christian) God must therefore exist. Apparently he knows enough history to realize that to believe this “proof” it is necessary to stand reality on its head. The slaughter of countless Jews through the ages, the murder of hundreds of thousands of innocent women as “witches,” the extermination of the Albigensians, the decades of bloody warfare conducted by “good” Christians to stamp out the Hussite heresy, the slaughter of the French Huguenots, and countless other similar events are the real legacy of Christianity. Prager is aware of this, and so would have us believe that Christianity has been successfully “tamed” in the 20th century. As he puts it,
But if that isn’t enough, how about the record of the godless 20th century, the cruelest, bloodiest, most murderous century on record? Every genocide of the last century — except for the Turkish mass murder of the Armenians and the Pakistani mass murder of Hindus in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) — was committed by a secular anti-Jewish and anti-Christian regime. And as the two exceptions were Muslim, they are not relevant to my argument. I am arguing for the God and Bible of Judeo-Christian religions.
In fact, the God and Bible of the Judeo-Christian religions weren’t as spotless as all that, even in the 20th century. Consider, for example, the bloody history of the “Black Hundreds” in Russia just before the Bolshevik Revolution. They murdered tens of thousands of Jews in the bloody pogroms that were one of their favorite pastimes. The degree to which they were inspired by Christianity should be evident from the image of one of their marches I’ve posted below. No, I’m sorry, but I put little faith in Mr. Prager’s assertion that, while Christianity may have been responsible for inspiring astounding levels of bloody mayhem over the centuries, the Christians promise to be good from now on.
We are moral beings. We will act morally regardless of whether we believe in imaginary supermen or not, because it is our nature to act morally. As is obvious from the many variations in the details of moral rules among human societies, our moralities are not rigidly programmed by our genes. Within the limits imposed by our innate moral predispositions, we can shape our moral systems to suit our needs. It seems to me that our efforts in that direction are more likely to be successful if we leave religious fantasies, whether of the spiritual or secular variety, out of the process.
Posted on May 5th, 2013 4 comments
I believe in keeping up interstellar appearances. If aliens from outer space ever do visit us, I don’t want to be embarrassed. For example, it would be nice if they concluded that, given the rather short time since we shared a common ancestor with chimpanzees, we are actually rather smart. As things now stand, that’s most unlikely. What is likely is that they’ll have a hearty laugh at our expense, especially when they discover that we refer to ourselves as “Man the Wise.” In the first place, a large majority of us still believe in imaginary super-beings who plan to boil us in hell for billions and trillions of years for the paltry sins they knew we were predestined to commit and couldn’t possibly avoid during our brief lives, or who are divided up into a complicated mélange of “spirit” and human-like sexual characteristics. In the second, they will notice that, even though we have known about evolution for more than a century and a half, we still ascribe all sorts of supernatural qualities to morality as well. Shameful! The snickers and knowing glances at interstellar cocktail parties will be unbearable.
It may be that a benign zoologist or two among them will observe what orgasmic pleasure we get out of striking self-righteous poses, and how addicted we are to imagining ourselves as “good” and the others as “evil,” and will frown at all this levity at our expense. Such delicious pleasures are easy to rationalize, and hard to part with. Besides, surely some of the very interstellar wags who laugh the loudest at our expense belong to species that commited follies in their “gilded youth” that were just as bad, if not worse. Still, I’m keeping a paper bag handy to put over my head at need if the time comes.
The God thing is bad enough, but, as the sympathetic zoologists might point out, at least it’s understandable. Our species has an inordinate fear of dying and, since we’ve also managed the whimsical trick of identifying our consciousness, an entirely secondary entity that exists because it promoted genetic survival, with our “selves,” we imagine there’s no way out. We either have to face the fact that we’re going to “depart from among men,” as the historian Procopius always put it, or – we have to invent an imaginary super-being to save us.
The morality thing is a different matter. We don’t keep up that charade to avoid death. We just do it because it’s fun. Members of our species love to imagine themselves as noble heroes in a never-ending battle against evil. It “promotes high self-esteem.” It enables us to do remarkably selfish things in the name of selflessness. It even diverts our attention from our impending end and, when combined with the God illusion, offers an illusory way of escaping it. Dealing with people who are enamored of their own righteousness is always an inconvenience. Occasionally it’s much worse than that. They become psychopathic, manage to convince others that they’re right, and commit mass murder as a way of eliminating the evil people. It turns out that the God nexus isn’t even necessary. Even people who avoid that first illusion usually fall victim to the second – that Good and Evil are real things, objects in themselves.
The rationalization of the illusion is always flimsy enough. In the case of religious believers, we have been provided with an example by Christian apologist William Lane Craig. It goes like this:
If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.
Objective moral values do exist.
Therefore, God exists.
This is a farrago of nonsense. What does the existence of a super-being have to do with objective morality? Certainly, he can fry us in hell for billions and trillions of years for daring to disagree with him, but in the end, his opinion of good and evil is just that – an opinion. His opinion is no more legitimate than anyone else’s by virtue of the fact that he can either torture us forever on the one hand, or shack us up with 72 virgins on the other. In other words, there is no way in which moral values can become objects just because he wants it that way. The existence of a God is irrelevant to the existence of objective moral values.
As for the second component of the syllogism, it is a statement of faith, not fact. If objective moral values really do exist, how is it that, after all these thousands of years, we are still waiting for one of the moralists to catch one in his butterfly net and show it to us, neatly mounted on a pin? As for the third component, it evaporates without the first two.
The attempts of the atheists are just as persistent, and just as absurd. They often take the form of conflating a utilitarian ought with a moral ought. A typical example that is actually offered as a “rebuttal” to the Christian syllogism above recently appeared at Secular Outpost. The author, Bradley Bowen, starts out reasonably enough, noting that,
One obvious atheistic objection would be to reject or cast doubt on premise (2). If one rejects or doubts that objective moral values exist, then this argument will fail to be persuasive.
Then, however, he begins wading into the swamp:
Another possible objection is to reject or cast doubt upon premise (1). Some atheists accept moral realism, and thus believe that the non-existence of God is logically compatible with objective moral values. I will be focusing on this particular objection to the MOVE (Craig) argument.
Religious people have a way of becoming very acute logicians when it comes to assessing the moral illusions of atheists. William Lane Craig is no exception. Bowen quotes him as follows:
I must confess that this alternative strikes me as incomprehensible, an example of trying to have your cake and eat it too. What does it mean to say, for example, that the moral value justice just exists? I understand what it is for a person to be just, but I draw a complete blank when it is said that, in the absence of any people, justice itself exists. Moral values seem to exist as properties of persons, not as abstractions–or at any rate, I don’t know what it means for a moral value to exist as an abstraction. Atheistic moral realists, seeming to lack any adequate foundation in reality for moral values, just leave them floating in an unintelligible way.
Reasonable enough. Here, of course, it is obvious that Craig is referring to justice as an objective moral good. He also points out the simple and seemingly obvious fact, at least since the days of Darwin, that, absent a God, moral values are “properties of persons.” Well put! While human morality can manifest itself in countless varieties of rules, systems, and laws depending on time and circumstances, the ultimate reason for its existence is a “property of persons.” In all its variations, it represents the expression of evolved behavioral traits. Absent those ultimate causes, carried about in the genetic material of each “person,” morality as most people understand the term would disappear.
Bowen, however, kicks against the goads. For him, dispensing with “objective moral values” would be as hard as giving up chocolate, or even sex. It would take all the joy out of life. To preserve them, he comes up with a “proof” just as chimerical as Craig’s syllogism. In essence, it is just a crude and transparent attempt to ignore the word “objective.” According to Bowen,
Perhaps Craig is correct that some thinkers who accept AMR (Atheistic Moral Realism) believe that justice exists as an abstraction independent of any human beings or persons, but this is NOT a logical implication of AMR, as far as I can see. Moral realism claims that moral judgments can be true or false, and that some moral judgments are in fact true. It is hard to see how one can get from these claims to the metaphysical claim that justice is an entity that exists independently of humans or persons.
It is not hard to see at all. If justice does not exist independently of humans or persons, then it is subjective, not objective. Bowen has simply decided to ignore the term “objective.” This becomes more clear in the following:
I think Craig is correct in being skeptical about justice existing as an abstract entity independently of the existence of agents or persons. If justice is, first and foremost, an attribute or characteristic of actions, then it does appear to be implausible to think of justice as an abstract entity. However, an attribute (such as ‘green’) may be correctly ascribed to a particular entity (such as ‘grass’ or ‘this patch of grass’) without it being the case that the attribute constitutes an independently existing entity.
In that sense, there certainly is such a thing as “green.” No doubt if we were smart enough, we could dissect all the molecules, hormones, and atomic interactions that account for the impression ”green.” However, if there is really any distinction between subjective and objective at all, green remains subjective. In other words, it is the impression left on the mind of an individual by certain real things, in this case, photons. It is, however, not the things themselves. Bowen is left with the burden of demonstrating how justice and all the rest of his moral subjects are magically transformed into objects. That, after all, is the whole point of Craig’s use of the term “objective.” How does justice, as described by Bowen, acquire the ability to leap out of his skull, or of any other skull for that matter, and become an “object.” By what mysterious process does it acquire that legitimacy?
No, I’m sorry, Virginia, but I have more bad news for you. Not only is there not a Santa Claus, but there is no God, and no objective morality. Don’t despair, though. Santa Claus was certainly a grievous loss, but we’d all be much better off without the other two. In the end, lies are liabilities. “God” motivates us to fly airplanes full of people into tall buildings, and “objective morality” convinces us that we are perfectly justified in murdering millions of people because they are Jews or “bourgeoisie.”
Well, in spite of these rather obvious drawbacks, just as we are certainly descended from apes, most of us are certainly still absurd enough to believe in Gods and “objective morality.” When it comes to potential interstellar visitors, I can but paraphrase Darwin’s apocryphal noble lady and hope that these absurdities don’t become generally known. I’m still keeping my paper bag handy, though.
Posted on April 4th, 2013 4 comments
As I was walking through the lobby at work the other day, I overheard a dispute about gay marriage. It ended when the “pro” person called the “anti” person a bigot, turned on her heel, and walked away in a fog of virtuous indignation. “Bigot” is a pejorative term. In other words, it expresses moral emotions. It is our nature to perceive others in terms of “good” ingroups and “evil” outgroups. In this case, the moral judgment of the ”pro” person was a response to the, perhaps inaccurate, perception that one of the “con” person’s apparent outgroup categories, namely gays, was inappropriate. Inappropriate outgroup identification is one of the most common reasons that individuals are considered “evil.” Examples include outgroup identification by virtue of sex (“sexism” unless directed at older males or directed at women by a Moslem), race (“racism” unless directed at whites), and Jews (“antisemitism” unless directed at Jews who believe that the state of Israel has a right to exist).
The culturally moderated rules may actually be quite complex. Paradoxically, as I write this, one may refer to “old, white males” in a pejorative sense, thereby apparently committing the sins of racism, sexism, and age discrimination in a single breath, without the least fear that one’s listener will strike a pious pose and begin delivering himself of a string of moral denunciations. Such anomalies are what one might expect of a species which has recognized the destructiveness of racism, religious bigotry, xenophobia, and other particular variants of a behavioral trait, namely, the predisposition to categorize others into ingroups and outgroups, or what Robert Ardrey called with a Freudian twist the “amity/enmity complex,” but is not yet generally conscious of the general trait that is the “root cause” of them all. We will continue to play this sisyphean game of “bop the mole” until we learn to understand ourselves better. Until then, we will continue to hate our outgroups with the same gusto as before, merely taking care to choose them carefully so as to insure that they conform to the approved outgroups of our ingroup.
As for the heated conversation at work, was there an objective basis for calling the “con” person a bigot? Of course not! There never is. Moral judgments are subjective by their very nature, in spite of all the thousands of systems concocted to prove the contrary. There is no way in which the “pro” person’s moral emotions can jump out of his/her skull, become things in themselves independent of the physical processes that gave rise to them in the “pro” person’s brain, and thereby acquire the ability to render the “con” person “truly evil.”
The same applies to the moral emotions of the “con” person. For example, he/she could just as easily have concluded that the “pro” person was a bigot. In this case, the inappropriate choice of outgroup would be Christians. While one may quibble endlessly about the Bible, it does not seem irrational to conclude that it specifies that marriage should be between a man and a woman, and that gay sexual activity is immoral. Of course, as an atheist, I don’t specialize in Biblical exegesis, but that seems to be a fair reading. Indeed, the moral judgment of the “con” person would seem to be the least flimsy of the two. At least the “con” person can point out that an omnipotent and vengeful Super Being agrees with him, and might take exception to the arguments of the “pro” person, going so far as to burn them in unquenchable fire for billions and trillions of years, just for starters. It is, of course, absurd that such a Super Being would have moral emotions to begin with. Why would it need them?
In a word, both “pro” and “con” may have a point based on the generally accepted rules of the game. However, no moral judgment is rational. Moral judgments are, by their nature, emotional and subjective. They would not exist in the absence of evolved behavioral predispositions, which, in turn, only exist because they promoted the survival and procreation of individuals. In view of these facts about what they are and why they exist, the idea that they could somehow acquire an independent and collective legitimacy is absurd.
What to do in the case of gay marriage? My personal inclination would be to handle the matter in a way that leaves the society I have to live in as harmonious as possible, while, to the extent possible, removing any grounds for the pathologically pious among us to inconvenience the rest of us with their moralistic posing. What is marriage? One can argue that, originally, it was a religious sacrament before it was co-opted by the modern state. It does not seem reasonable to me that the state should take over a religious sacrament, arbitrarily redefine it, and then denounce religious believers as bigots because they do not accept the new definition. That violates my personal sense of fairness which, I freely admit, has no normative powers over others whatsoever. On the other hand, the state now applies the term “marriage” to determine whether one can or cannot receive any number of important social benefits. It also violates my personal sense of fairness to deny these benefits to a whole class of individuals because of their sexual orientation. Under the circumstances, I would prefer that the state get out of the “marriage” business entirely, restricting itself to the recognition of civil unions as determinants of who should or should not receive benefits. Unfortunately, such a radical redefinition of what is commonly understood as “marriage” is not likely to happen any time soon.
Under the circumstances, the least disruptive policy would probably be for the state to recognize gay marriage as a purely and explicitly secular institution, while at the same time recognizing the right of Christians and other religious believers to reject the validity of such marriages as religious sacraments should their idiosyncratic version of the faith so require. It would take some attitude adjustment, but that’s all to the “good.” In any case, I would prefer that we at least attempt to resolve the matter rationally, rather than by the usual method of trial by combat between conflicting moralities, with the last morality standing declared the “winner.”
Posted on November 14th, 2012 No comments
Amoebas react to light. Mimosa plants react to touch. Humans react to other humans. As all three species are presumably related, although their common ancestor lived at a remote date, biochemists and neurophysicists might well be able to discover subtle similarities in the biological processes involved in all three cases. However, unlike amoebas and mimosas, humans are conscious beings, and can observe and think about their reactions. Sometimes those reactions fall within the sphere of what is commonly referred to as moral behavior. In other words, they involve the perception of what we call “good” and “evil.” However, Mother Nature did not bother with anything so impractical as causing us to perceive these intuitions as what they actually are; the result of physical and chemical processes with no existence outside of the brains of individuals. They promoted our survival much more effectively when perceived as things that existed on their own, independent of the will or consciousness of particular individuals. We have been involved in a hopeless search for the basis of this illusion ever since. Like wanderers in the desert seeking a mirage, we seek to establish the legitimacy of Good and Evil. It is a hopeless quest.
It is an interesting idiosyncrasy of our species that we can easily see through the flimsy rationalizations others use to establish some basis for the powerful perception that their own versions of Good and Evil apply, not just to themselves, but to others as well. We’re just not quite so perceptive when it comes to seeing the flaws in our attempts to establish the legitimacy of our own versions. An interesting example just turned up on Instapundit, in the form of a paper published by Arthur Leff in the Duke Law Journal back in 1979, entitled “Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law.”
The opening paragraphs of the paper are worth quoting in full:
I want to believe – and so do you – in a complete, transcendent, and immanent set of propositions about right and wrong, findable rules that authoritatively and unambiguously direct us how to live righteously. I also want to believe – and so do you – in no such thing, but rather that we are wholly free, not only to choose for ourselves what we ought to do, but to decide for ourselves, individually and as a species, what we ought to be. What we want, Heaven help us, is simultaneously to be perfectly ruled and perfectly free, that is, at the same time to discover the right and the good and to create it.
I mention the matter here only because I think that the two contradictory impulses which together form that paradox do not exist only on some high abstract level of arcane angst. In fact, it is my central thesis that much that is mysterious about much that is written about law today is understandable only in the context of this tension between the ideas of found law and made law: a tension particularly evident in the growing, though desperately resisted, awareness that there may be, in fact, nothing to be found – that whenever we set out to find “the law,” we are able to locate nothing more attractive, or more final, than ourselves.
With that preamble, Leff announces that he will, “…try to prove to your satisfaction that there cannot be any normative system ultimately based on anything except human will.” In fact, he does an excellent job of it, in terms both simple and brief. Noting that,
A statement in the form “you ought to do X,” “it is right to do X,” or “X is good” will establish oughtness, rightness, or goodness only if there is a set of rules that gives the speaker the power totally to determine the question… it is precisely the question of who has the power to set such rules for validating evaluations that is the central problem of ethics.
He then goes on to consider the circumstances under which anyone might gain that power. However, before doing so, he does not leave us in suspense as to his own position. In his words, “There are no such circumstances.” Noting that God was once the evaluator of last resort, he continues,
The so-called death of God turns out not to have been just His funeral; it also seems to have effected the total elimination of any coherent, or even more-than-momentarily convincing, ethical or legal system dependent upon finally authoritative extrasystemic premises. What Kurt Gödel did for systems of logic, deicide has done for normative systems…Put briefly, if the law is “not a brooding omnipresence in the sky,” then it can be only one place: in us. If we are trying to find a substitute final evaluator, it must be one of us, some of us, all of us – but it cannot be anything else.
Thus, once it is accepted that (a) all normative statements are evaluations of actions and other states of the world; (b) an evaluation entails an evaluator; and (c) in the presumed absence of God, the only available evaluators are people, then only a determinate, and reasonably small, number of kinds of ethical and legal systems can be generated. Each such system will be strongly differentiated by the axiomatic answer it chooses to give to one key question: who ultimately gets to play the role of ultimately unquestionable evaluator, a role played in supernaturally based systems by God? Who among us, that is, ought to be able to declare “law” that ought to be obeyed?
Leff then goes on to demonstrate that the possible answers to this unsettling question are both few and transparently fallacious. He first takes up what he calls “Descriptivism.” Again, quoting Leff,
It (Descriptivism) goes like this: it is not at all necessary to specify who is generating the legal system, much less to describe how that generation is being effected. A legal system is a fact. It is something… that exists. The way to discover its existence is to discover what rules are in fact obeyed.
However, Descriptivism really accomplishes nothing. Defined in that way, according to Leff,
“the law” describes not good behavior or right behavior, but behavior… Under Descriptivism, it is impossible to say that anything ought or ought not to be.
A possible alternative to Descriptivism is what Leff calls “Personalism,” according to which,
Everyone can declare what ought to be for himself, and no one can legitimately criticize anyone else’s values – what they are or how they came to be – because everyone has equal ethical dignity… If the difficulty with Descriptivism is that it validates any normative system, the problem with the “God-is-me” approach (“Personalism”) is that it validates everyone’s individual normative system, while giving no instruction in, or warrant for, choosing among them.
In other words, it becomes necessary to decide who will get to play philosopher king:
The next move, one would guess, would be to find some way to distinguish among the individuals either quantitatively through some aggregation principle, or qualitatively. One might choose to stand, that is, on the most evaluations or the best ones.
However, neither choice solves the problem. In the first case,
All one has is the assumed conclusion that in cases of conflicting perfections, the largest number wins.
But, according to Leff, the second is no better:
Can we then get out of our bind by deciding after all to pay attention to the quality of the ethical boxes? No, we cannot.
The moment one suggests a criterion, then individual men have ceased to be the measure of all things, and something else – and that necessarily means someone else – has been promoted to the (formally impossible) position of evaluator-in-chief.
One would think that a fully considered moral position, the product of deep and thorough intellectual activity, one that fits together into a fairly consistent whole, would deserve more respect than shallow, expletive, internally inconsistent ethical decisions. Alas, to think that would be to think wrong: labor and logic have no necessary connection to ethical truth.
Should one not in such a situation give more weight to A’s position than to B’s? Only if someone has the power to declare careful, consistent, coherent ethical propositions “better” than the sloppier, more impulsive kinds. Who has that power and how did he get it? …Bluntly, intellectual beauty is not a necessary prerequisite to ethical adequacy unless someone declares it to be.
Leff next moves on to demolish what one might call the Sam Harris school of validation:
There remains, then, only one considerable approach to the validation of ethical systems. Under it no search is made for any evaluator, but rather some state of the world is declared to be good, and acts which effect that state are ethical acts. Merely to express this approach is, or course, to refute it, for a good state of the world must be good to someone. One cannot escape from the fact that a normative statement is an evaluation merely by dispensing with any mention of who is making it. Hence the description of a particular end-state – human happiness (or “human flourishing”, ed.) or wealth – as a validator of a system, is just another evaluator-centered approach, but with blinkers added. Wealth is good, and makes our acts good, if someone, or some collection of someones, says so. But which someone or someones count still has to be accounted for.
There is no such thing as an unchallengeable evaluative system. There is no way to prove one ethical legal system superior to any other, unless at some point an evaluator is asserted to have the final uncontradictable, unexaminable word. That choice of unjudged judge, whoever is given the role, is itself, strictly speaking, arbitrary.
And so, just as Kant demolished the existing proofs of God’s existence, Leff polished off the secular bases of moral legitimacy. Unlike Kant, however, he did it briefly and coherently. By all means, read the whole paper. It is a fine little nail in the coffin for all secular systems that seek the holy grail of objective Good and Evil, whether past, present, or yet to come. Its conclusions have always been obvious to fundamentalist Christians and Moslems who fondly believe that the fantasies on which they base their own moral systems provide a better support. However, they continue to slam against a brick wall of cognitive dissonance, against all odds and the accumulating mounds of evidence about the real nature of morality, in the minds of agnostics, atheists and “Godless” moralists who simply can’t believe that there is no basis for the legitimacy of moral intuitions that they feel so strongly “in their bones.” Far be it for me to offer any moral conclusions, but I do think it would behoove us all to put these delusions behind us. Whatever whims any of us might have, moral or otherwise, I suspect we will be more likely to satisfy them if we base our actions on that which is true rather than on that which is not.
Posted on August 16th, 2012 No comments
We’ve witnessed a remarkable paradigm shift in the behavioral sciences in the last couple of decades in the aftermath of the collapse of Blank Slate orthodoxy. A similar one has happened in politics with the collapse of Communism. A significant fraction of our species are attracted to messianic ideologies as moths to a flame. For many years, Communism was the brightest flame around. However, it suffered from the Achilles heal of all secular religions. It promised paradise, not in the realms of the spirit, but here on earth. Predictably, it couldn’t deliver, and so eventually collapsed.
That left something of a vacuum for those hankering to be the saviors of mankind. No new secular religion was waiting in the wings to take up the slack. But nature abhores a vacuum, so they had to make do with one of the traditional, spiritual religions; Islam. The resulting ideological paradigm shift has presented us with one of the most remarkable political spectacles history has to offer. On the ideological left, former Marxist true believers, militant atheists who scorned religion as the opiate of the masses, are being displaced by a new generation of activists who find to their dismay that radical Islam is, at least for the time being, the only game in town. The result has been a grotesque love affair between the would be liberators of the oppressed masses and one of the more obscurantist forms of religious fundamentalism on the planet. Those who once despised religious belief have now become some of its most outspoken apologists.
I found one of the more comical manifestations of this strange love affair in an article, embellished with all the jargon, references, and other stigmata characteristic of the stuff that appears in academic journals, posted on the website of the reliably leftist BBC. Entitled God and War: An Audit & An Exploration, it purports to debunk the New Atheist claim that religion is a prominent cause of war. Taking an attitude towards religion that would have been an embarrassment to any self-respecting progressive in the heyday of socialism, it notes that “…at a philosophical level, the main religious traditions have little truck with war or violence. All advocate peace as the norm and see genuine spirituality as involving a disavowal of violence.” It continues,
One organising feature of this article is what it calls the ‘Religious War Audit’. BBC asked us to see how many wars had been caused by religion. After reviewing historical analyses by a diverse array of specialists, we concluded that there have been few genuinely religious wars in the last 100 years. The Israel/Arab wars from 1948 to now, often painted in the media and other places as wars over religion, or wars arising from religious differences, have in fact been wars of nationalism, liberation of territory or self-defense.
This is a typical feature of the recent crop of articles emanating from the apologists for religion on the left. Just as good Marxists or defenders of “Confederate Heritage” will tell you that the U.S. Civil War wasn’t really about slavery, even though at the time it actually happened the leaders and population of the south, the leaders and population of the north, foreign observers of U.S. politics, and, no doubt, any aliens who happened to be hovering around in their flying saucers would have agreed it was about slavery, they tell us that many of the wars that merely seem to the casual observer to be about religion are really caused by nationalism, imperialism, territorialism, etc., etc. If nothing else it’s a safe strategy. Take any war you like and, no matter how much the actual participants had deluded themselves into believing they were fighting about religion, any historian worth her salt will be able to “prove,” based on abundant citations, references, and historical source material, that it wasn’t about religion at all. Ostensibly secular wars can be transmogrified into “religious” wars just as easily.
As the article cherry picks the historical record, so it cherry picks the holy books of the various religions to show how “peaceful” they are. Predictably, this is especially true of the Quran. For example, quoting from the article,
The Islamic tradition provides for limits on the use of force in war similar to those found in the Christian tradition: ‘Never transgress limits, or take your enemy by surprise or perfidy, or inflict atrocities or mutilation, or kill infants’; and ‘Never kill a woman, a weak infant, or a debilitated old person; nor burn palms, uproot trees, or pull down houses’. The Koran also provides for the humane treatment of prisoners of war: ‘And they feed, for the love of God, the indigent, the orphan, and the captive’ [Koran 76:8-9].
As with most religions, one can “prove” the opposite by a judicious choice of verses. For example,
The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His messenger and strive to make mischief in the land is only this, that they should be murdered or crucified or their hands and their feet should be cut off on opposite sides or they should be imprisoned; this shall be as a disgrace for them in this world, and in the hereafter they shall have a grievous chastisement.
I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Therefore strike off their heads and strike off every fingertip of them.
After this exegesis of the holy books, the article provides a pair of tables purporting to show that the role of religion in the wars prior to and during the 20th century has been minimal. In the case of the 20th century, for example, the role of religion is supposedly zero on a scale of 0 to 5 for World War I and one on the same scale for World War II. In fact, in the case of WWI, the war was explicitly declared a religious war (jihad) by the religious leaders of Turkey, one of the major combatants. Many tens of thousands of Jews were murdered, frozen and starved in pogroms or as they were forcibly removed from areas stretching back many miles from the front lines by the Orthodox Christian rulers of Russia, and over a million Christian Armenians were murdered by the Moslem rulers of Turkey. By all accounts, the assurance that the war was not religious did little to relieve their suffering.
In the case of World War II, the role of religion depends entirely on how you define religion. I doubt that our brains have any hard-wired ability to distinguish immortal gods from mortal ones. At least as far as evolutionary biology is concerned, the distinction between traditional spiritual religions and modern secular ones, such as Nazism and Communism is, then, entirely artificial. Every essential element of the former has its analog in the latter. From that perspective, World War II was almost entirely a “religious war.”
Suppose, however, that we refrain from such unseemly quibbling, nod apologetically to the many millions even the authors agree have been killed over the years in religious wars, and accept the authors’ premise that, for all that, warfare really has played a “minimal” role in promoting warfare. Alas, the role of individuals in shaping historical events can be great indeed. After reading page after page establishing the benign role of religion in modern society, the authors inform us, to our dismay, that there is reason for concern, after all. An evil religious zealot of truly gargantuan power and influence appeared on the scene quite recently, almost single-handedly setting at naught the calming influence of religion as an instrument of peace. And who might this evil bogeyman be? Think, dear reader! The article we are discussing emanated from the left of the ideological spectrum. That’s right! The warmongering jihadi in question is none other than George W. Bush! Quoting a noted psychologist, the authors inform us with a shudder that,
…however much Bush may sometimes seem like a buffoon, he is also powered by massive, suppressed anger towards anyone who challenges the extreme, fanatical beliefs shared by him and a significant slice of his citizens – in surveys, half of them also agree with the statement “the Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word.”
Gee, and I always thought he seemed like such a nice guy. How wrong I was! Reading on we find,
He hated his father for putting his whole life in the shade and for emotionally blackmailing him. He hated his mother for physically and mentally badgering him to fulfill her wishes. But the hatred also explains his radical transformation into an authoritarian fundamentalist. By totally identifying with an extreme version of their strict, religion-fuelled beliefs, he jailed his rebellious self. From now on, his unconscious hatred for them was channeled into a fanatical moral crusade to rid the world of evil.
Damn! Now I finally understand why my sister never liked the guy. The authors provide us with the laconic conclusion,
As the commander in chief, Bush dominates US foreign policy especially in regards to the war on terrorism that is presently the US government’s major military commitment. His plans, however influenced by advisors, arise from his personal view of the world and his concepts of justice, retribution and peace. Clearly his past and his relationships impact these views and ultimately help shape those of the American state. Therefore individual leaders’ psychology is perhaps an underrated area of study in the debate on God and war and could do with further analysis.
What an understatement! Why, that crazed religious fanatic had his finger on the nuclear trigger for eight years!
How wonderfully ironic! After spending so much time and effort to create an ideologically driven mirage of religion as benign and peaceful, in the end the authors upset their own apple cart because they couldn’t stifle their ideologically driven need to portray Bush as the personification of evil, complete with all the religious fundamentalist trappings. By their own account, religion nearly inspired, not merely a war, but the mother of all wars, a nuclear holocaust that might have exterminated our species once and for all. “Further analysis” indeed! Maybe we should have listened to the New Atheists after all!
Posted on August 14th, 2012 5 comments
Will Saletan has written an excellent review of Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind for The New York Times. It includes the advice, with which I heartily agree, that the book is well worth reading. Saletan also draws attention to one of the more remarkable features of the book; Haidt’s apparent rejection of rationalism. As he notes in the review:
Haidt seems to delight in mischief. Drawing on ethnography, evolutionary theory and experimental psychology, he sets out to trash the modern faith in reason.
But to whom is Haidt directing his advice? If intuitions are unreflective, and if reason is self-serving, then what part of us does he expect to regulate and orchestrate these faculties? This is the unspoken tension in Haidt’s book. As a scientist, he takes a passive, empirical view of human nature. He describes us as we have been, expecting no more. Based on evolution, he argues, universal love is implausible: “Parochial love . . . amplified by similarity” and a “sense of shared fate . . . may be the most we can accomplish.” But as an author and advocate, Haidt speaks to us rationally and universally, as though we’re capable of something greater. He seems unable to help himself, as though it’s in his nature to call on our capacity for reason and our sense of common humanity — and in our nature to understand it.
The “unspoken tension” is definitely there. I also found myself asking why, if Haidt really has no faith in reason, he would bother to write a book that appeals to reason. Nowhere is this rejection of rationalism and embrace of “social intuitionism,” which he portrays as its opposite, more pronounced than in his comments on religion. He begins by drawing a bead on the New Atheists. Noting the prominence among them of Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens, he writes,
These four authors are known as the four horsemen of New Atheism, but I’m going to set Hitchens aside because he is a journalist whose book made no pretense of being anything but a polemical diatribe. The other three authors, however, are men of science.
My “moral intuition” on reading that was a loud guffaw. “Men of science” indeed! Is such unseemly condescension “scientific?” Were not the legions of behavioral scientists who swallowed the palpably ludicrous orthodoxy of the Blank Slate for several decades also “men of science?” I certainly didn’t always see eye to eye with Hitchens, occasional Marxist/neocon that he was, but I never doubted his brilliance and originality. Prof. Haidt is still apparently unaware that things that are both useful and true do not necessarily have to be written in the stolid jargon of academic journals. Perhaps he would benefit by a re-reading of E. O. Wilson’s Consilience. In any case, what he objects to in the three remaining authors he deigns to admit into the sacred circle of “men of science” is their rationalism. As he puts it:
The New Atheist model is based on the Platonic rationalist view of the mind, which I introduced in chapter 2: Reason is (or at least could be) the charioteer guiding the passions (the horses). So long as reason has the proper factual beliefs (and has control of the unruly passions), the chariot will go in the right direction… Let us continue the debate between rationalism and social intuitionism (bolding mine) as we examine religion. To understand the psychology of religion, should we focus on the false beliefs and faulty reasoning of individual believers. Or should we focus on the automatic (intuitive) processes of people embedded in social groups that are striving to create a moral community. That depends on what we think religion is, and where we think it came from.
This begs the question of whether such a thing as a “debate” between rationalism and social intuitionism really exists and, if so, in what sense. If it is true that there is no God, as the New Atheists claim, and it is also true that social intuitionism is an accurate model for describing the origins and continuing existence of religious communities, then there can be no “debate” between them, any more than there can be a “debate” over whether a large, black object is large on the one hand or black on the other. It makes no more sense to “focus” on one truth or the other, either, if both of them are important and relevant to the human condition.
We must read a bit further to find what it really is that is sticking in Prof. Haidt’s craw. In a section of Chapter 11 entitled, “A Better Story: By-Products, then Cultural Group Selection,” he cites the work of anthropologists Scott Atran and Joe Henrich to the effect that religious beliefs originated as “by-products” of the “misfiring” of “a diverse set of cognitive modules and abilities” that “were all in place by the time humans began leaving Africa more than 50,000 years ago.” As opposed to the New Atheists, Atran and Henrich have many nice things to say about the value of religion in “making groups more cohesive and cooperative,” and “creating moral communities.” In other words, as Haidt puts it,
The very ritual practices that the New Atheists dismiss as costly, inefficient, and irrational turn out to be a solution to one of the hardest problems humans face: cooperation without kinship.
He then goes Atran and Henrich one better. Whereas they claim that religion is a cultural by-product, Haidt insists that it has also been directly shaped by genetic evolution. Even more intriguing is the type of evolution he claims is responsible; group selection. In the very next section, Haidt praises the work group selection stalwart David Sloan Wilson on the evolutionary origins of religion, noting that,
In his book, Darwin’s Cathedral, Wilson catalogs the way that religions have helped groups cohere, divide labor, work together, and prosper.
It turns out that group selection is essential to the ideas of both Wilson and Haidt on religion. I was actually somewhat taken aback by a review of Dawkins’ The God Delusion Wilson wrote for The Skeptic back in 2007. When I read the book I thought it was about the factual question of whether God exists or not. Obviously, Wilson did not see it that way. His review didn’t dispute the question of God’s existence. Rather, it appeared to me at the time to be a long digression on Wilson’s favorite subject, group selection. Now, I’ll admit to being as pleased as anyone to see Dawkins’ feet held to the fire over group selection. He made the brash claim that Robert Ardrey, Konrad Lorenz, and Irenaus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, all of whom I happen to admire, were “totally and utterly wrong” because of their advocacy of group selection. Occasionally it’s nice to see what goes around, come around. However, I didn’t quite get Wilson’s point about the relevance of group selection to The God Delusion. Now, having read The Righteous Mind, I get it.
I was looking at “is” when I should have been looking at “ought.” Where Haidt and Wilson really differ from the New Atheists is in their “moral intuitions” touching on religion. For them, religion is “good,” because it is ultimately the expression of innate traits that promote the harmony and well-being of groups, selected at the level of the group. For the New Atheists, who dismiss group selection, and focus on “selfish” genes, it is “evil.” Haidt makes it quite clear where he stands in the matter of “ought” in the section of Chapter 11 of The Righteous Mind entitled, “Is God a Force for Good or Evil.” Therein he asserts, “The New Atheists assert that religion is the root of most evil.” He begs to differ with them, citing the work of political scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell to the effect that,
…the more frequently people attend religious services, the more generous and charitable they become across the board. Of course, religious people give a lot to religious charities, but they also give as much as or more than secular folk to secular charities such as The American Cancer Society. They spend a lot of time in service to their churches and synagogues, but they also spend more time than secular folk serving in neighborhood and civic associations of all sorts.
Haidt does admit that religion is “well-suited to be the handmaiden of groupishness, tribalism, and nationalism.” However, then the equivocating and rationalization begin. Religion doesn’t really cause bad things like suicide bombing. Rather, it is a “nationalist response to military occupation by a culturally alien democratic power.” Religion is “an accessory to atrocity, rather than the driving force of the atrocity.” Right, and the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, either. Just ask any Marxist or Southern Heritage zealot. In keeping with the modern fashion among moralists, Haidt doesn’t trouble himself to establish the legitimacy of his own moral judgments as opposed to those of the New Atheists. I rather suspect he doesn’t even realize he’s moralizing. He concludes,
Societies that exclude the exoskeleton of religion should reflect carefully to what will happen to them over several generations. We don’t really know, because the first atheistic societies have only emerged in Europe in the last few decades. They are the least efficient societies ever known at turning resources (of which they have a lot) into offspring (of which they have few).
In short, after debunking Plato’s “rationalist” notion of “philosopher kings” earlier in the book, Haidt has now elevated himself to that rank. Admittedly an atheist himself, he suggests that we must humor the proles with religion, or they won’t be moral or have enough children. It seems we’ve come full circle. Virtually the same thing was said by the stalwarts of the established churches in Europe back in the 19th century. Read the great British quarterlies of the early 1800’s and you’ll find some of Haidt’s conclusions almost word for word, although the authors of that day arrived at them via arguments that didn’t rely on group selection. I’m not as sanguine as Haidt and Wilson about the virtues of religion, nor as virulent as the New Atheists about its vices. However, it seems to me we should “reflect carefully” about the wisdom of advocating what Haidt apparently considers white lies in order to promote good behavior and high levels of reproduction. I am far from optimistic about the power of human reason but, weak reed that it is, it is the only one we have to lean on if we seek to approach the truth. Haidt, for all his abhorrence of rationalism, has admitted as much by bothering to write his book.
Posted on August 7th, 2012 No comments
In chapter 11 of The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt addresses the topic of religion:
In this chapter I continue exploring the third principle of moral psychology: Morality binds and blinds. Many scientists misunderstand religion because they ignore this principle and examine only what is most visible. They focus on individuals and their supernatural beliefs, rather than on groups and their binding practices.
Among the “scientists who misunderstand,” Haidt specifically singles out the “New Atheists” such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. Group selectionist David Sloan Wilson recently wrote a similar critique of Dawkins in The Skeptic, claiming that Dawkins was “not an evolutionist” when discussing religion. In Wilson’s words,
Two questions about religion concern: 1) the evidence for supernatural agents that actively intervene in physical processes and the affairs of people; and 2) the nature of religion as a human construction and its effects on human welfare… How Dawkins addresses the second question is another matter. In my review of The God Delusion published in Skeptic magazine, I criticized him at length for misrepresenting the nature of religion and ignoring the burgeoning literature on religion as a human construction from an evolutionary perspective. In his reply, Dawkins said that he didn’t need to base his critique on evolution any more than Assyrian woodwind instruments or the burrowing behavior of aardvarks, because he was only addressing question one and not question two. That’s bogus. Dawkins holds forth on question two all the time, and when he does he’s not functioning as an evolutionist–by his own account. Atheists can depart from factual reality in their own way, and so it is for Dawkins on the subject of religion as a human construction.
I have some problems of my own with The God Delusion, such as its anti-American tone in general and its obsession with religious fundamentalists in the U.S., usually referred to by Dawkins as the “American Taliban” in particular. He even went so far as to repeat the old urban myth about how Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, told the U.S. Congress that protecting natural resources was unimportant in light of the imminent return of Jesus Christ. However, it seemed to me that Dawkins was right as far as Wilson’s criticism was concerned. My impression was that the book really was concerned mainly with the question of whether or not there actually is a God, and that, as Dawkins said, he was therefore not obligated to digress on the evolutionary origins of religion. This impression was reinforced by Wilson’s review in The Skeptic, in which he wrote,
For religion, however, he (Dawkins) argues primarily on behalf of non-adaptation. As he sees it, people are attracted to religion the way that moths are attracted to flames. Perhaps religious impulses were adapted to the tiny social groups of our ancestral past, but not the mega-societies of the present. If current religious beliefs are adaptive at all, it is only for the beliefs themselves as cultural parasites on their human hosts, like the demons of old that were thought to possess people. That is why Dawkins calls God a delusion. The least likely possibility for Dawkins is the group-level adaptation hypothesis. Religions are emphatically not elaborate systems of beliefs and practices that define, motivate, coordinate and police groups of people for their own good.
I thought when I read this, and still think that the issue of adaptation was beside the point. Dawkins was addressing the issue of whether God exists, and not the adaptive value of religion. This impression was reinforced by the fact that, immediately after the passage quoted above, Wilson continued with a long, rambling defense of group selection. It reminded me of Maslow’s hammer: “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Wilson was simply betraying a tendency to see everything in terms of his favorite area of expertise, whether it was really germane or not.
Enter Jonathan Haidt, who takes issue with Dawkins and the rest of the New Atheists for similar reasons, but does a better job of explaining exactly what it is he’s getting at. As he puts it,
But if we are to render a fair judgment about religion – and understand its relationship to morality and politics – we must first describe it accurately… Trying to understand the persistence and passion of religion by studying beliefs about God is like trying to understand the persistence and passion of college football by studying the movements of the ball. You’ve got to broaden the inquiry. You’ve got to look at the ways that religious beliefs work with religious practices to create a religious community.
Now we at least have a better idea of why Wilson and Haidt are rejecting the arguments of the New Atheists. As Haidt puts it, they are like Plato and other rationalist philosophers who thought that reason should control the passions, as opposed to the view of Hume (and Haidt) that reason is really just a servant of the intuitions. Beyond that, they are using contrived arguments to explain away the evolutionary origins of religion. According to Haidt and Wilson, religion exists as a manifestation of evolved mental traits, and those traits were selected because they increased the fitness, not of individuals, but of groups. In other words, Haidt’s recent comments in favor of group selection are no fluke. Group selection actually plays a fundamental role in his theoretical understanding of religion as an adaptive trait, and not cultural group selection, but genetic group selection. Chapter 11 actually includes a spirited defense of Wilson, noting that his,
…great achievement was to merge the ideas of the two most important thinkers in the history of the social sciences: Darwin and (Emile) Durkheim… In his book Darwin’s Cathedral, Wilson catalogs the ways that religions have helped groups cohere, divide labor, work together, and prosper.
At this point, Haidt begins performing some remarkable intellectual double back flips. If religion really is an adaptive trait, apparently he feels it necessary to demonstrate that it is also really “good”. For example, we learn that,
…John Calvin developed a strict and demanding form of Christianity that suppressed free riding and facilitated trust and commerce in sixteenth century Geneva.
There is no mention of Calvin torturing a religious opponent to death in a slow fire made of green wood with a wreath strewn with sulfur around his head. Haidt tells us that the 911 bombers were really motivated by nationalism, not religion. (Remember the yarns about how zealots of a secular religion, Communism, such as Ho chi Minh and Castro, were also supposed to be “nationalists.” And, of course, the Civil War wasn’t really about slavery, either.) But, as “the most revealing example” of the benign effects of religion, Haidt cites Wilson’s example of “the case of water temples among Balinese rice farmers in the centuries before Dutch colonization.”
It seems to me that, if the New Atheists are guilty of an error of omission for focusing on the existence of God and ignoring the nature of religion as an evolutionary adaptation, Haidt must also be guilty of an error of omission by focusing on Balinese rice farmers and ignoring the slaughter of the Crusades, the murder of hundreds of thousands of innocent men and women as “witches,” the brutal military conquest of north Africa, Spain, and large areas of the Middle East and Europe in the name of Islam, pogroms that have resulted in the murder of hundreds of thousands of Jews over the centuries, the additional hundreds of thousands of dead in the Hussite wars, the constant bloody internal conflicts in numerous medieval states over the minutiae of religious doctrine, and so on and so on and so on. We can certainly discuss whether such “evils” of religion are outweighed by the “goods” cited by Wilson and others, but if Haidt is really the “man of science” he claims to be, it is not acceptable to ignore them.
One might similarly praise the advantages of war, which is as likely as religion to be a manifestation of evolved human mental traits. It also fosters within-group charity, self-sacrifice, solidarity, and any number of other “goods,” which are cataloged by German General Friedrich von Bernhardi in his seminal work on the subject, “Germany and the Next War.” Are not objections to the effect that it is occasionally very bloody and destructive just more instances of “misconceptions” inspired by the thought of Plato and other rationalist philosophers?
Call me an incorrigible rationalist if you like, but it seems to me that it does actually matter whether God exists or not. What if, as Haidt suggests, religion is not only an evolutionary adaptation, but one that is, on balance, useful and benign? Does that really render the question of whether God exists or not irrelevant? Is it really a “rationalist delusion” to consider the evidence for and against that hypothesis without dragging evolution and group selection into the discussion? Is reality so irrelevant to the human condition that it is acceptable to encourage people to associate in groups and act based on belief in things that are not only palpably untrue, but silly? If the truth doesn’t matter, what is the point of even writing books about morality? Would Prof. Haidt have us believe that The Righteous Mind is a mere product of his intuitions? I suspect that, whatever our goals happen to be, we are more likely to achieve them if we base our actions on that which is true than on that which is not. I am just as dubious as Haidt about the power of human reason. However, I prefer continuing to grope for the truth with that reason, however weak it might be, to embracing intuitions that require belief in things that are false, whether they enhanced the fitness of our species in times utterly unlike the present or not.
Posted on July 13th, 2012 1 comment
Since group selection is becoming fashionable once again, I propose that a special group prize be added to the yearly Darwin Awards. According to the banner on the website, ”The Darwin Awards salute the improvement of the human genome by honoring those who accidentally remove themselves from it.” In the case of groups, self-selection seems to play a far more prominent role than it does for individuals. The word “accidental” should therefore be replaced by “deliberate.” Finally, groups that reduce overall fitness are disqualified. Otherwise the Communists would have no competition, having, in effect, beheaded two whole countries, Cambodia and the Soviet Union.
Religions, being false (except for yours, of course, dear reader), have been prominent throughout history in spawning self-destructive behavior. The Catholic Church should certainly receive a lifetime achievement award for convincing millions of priests and nuns that they should not reproduce. However, a different Christian sect takes the cake. It is described in the Memoirs of Maurice Paleologue, French Ambassador to Russia during World War I as follows:
I recently mentioned the important role played by mystic sects in the religious life of the Russian people. The following description concerns one of the most unusual and obstinate thereof, the sect of the “Skoptsy,” or “the Mutilated Ones.”
They can be traced back to the same religious principles as the “Chlisty”; but whereas the “Flagellants” seek to defeat the flesh by mortification, the Skoptsy free themselves of carnal sin by mutilation. The founder of this sect was a simple peasant, Andrei Ivanovich, who was born around the year 1730 in the vicinity of Orel. Certain words of Christ evoked a remarkable impression on his childish and tortured soul. “For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother’s womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake.” “ Wherefore if thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut them off, and cast them from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life halt or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into everlasting fire.” “For, behold, the days are coming, in the which they shall say, Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bare, and the paps which never gave suck.” Andrei Ivanovich was touch so profoundly by these words, and saw in them such a secure basis for eternal salvation, that he robbed himself of any ability to satisfy his fleshly lusts. As there is no aberration, that isn’t contagious to the Slavic soul, the newly-minted eunuch immediately found 12 disciples, who also castrated themselves in the name of Christ and the Holy Ghost. One of the, Kondrati Selivanov, who was a talented and convincing speaker, became an apostle of his teachings, adding weight to the words of the Gospel via the divine promises handed down to us by Isaiah:
For thus saith the Lord unto the eunuchs that keep my sabbaths, and choose the things that please me, and take hold of my covenant; Even unto them will I give in mine house and within my walls a place and a name better than of sons and of daughters: I will give them an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off.
He went from city to city, to Tambov, Tula, Riazan, Moscow, and preached the necessity of redeeming ones self from the hellish temptation of the flesh through a bloody sacrifice. And everywhere he went he found followers. This propaganda eventually took on such proportions, that the government arrested the heretic and, in the year 1774, sent him to the prison of Irkutsk. Andrei Ivanovich died soon thereafter, and left behind a clouded legacy. For Selivanov, however, it was the start of a period of activity as full of wonders as a fairy tale. The rumor that he was the Savior himself, the true incarnation of Jesus Christ, gained more and more believers. Another fairy tale gained currency, according to which Czar Peter III had actually managed to escape his would-be murderers, and that he was under the protection of the mystic prisoner. Even more remarkable stories were whispered in the shadows of churches and cloisters. This unfortunate Peter Feodorovich was not the son of Anna Petrovna: It was said that he was miraculously conceived in the womb of his aunt, who remained a virgin her entire life, through the power of the Holy Ghost, in spite of all the obvious facts that appeared to contradict this story. Panting after chastity, it was only after overcoming a terrible aversion that he agreed to be married. The struggle exhausted him. Immediately after the birth of his son Paul, he castrated himself, so that he would no longer be a prey to the carnal passions of his wife Catherine, who then flew into a rage and murdered him…
The bloody manner in which one joins the sect sets the tone for the entire religious life of the Skoptsy, and is integral to it. Their spiritual and liturgical heirarchy is based entirely on the significance of bodily mutilation. The “brothers” and “sisters” who have agreed to the complete removal of their genitals, thereby destroying in their earthly existence the “playgrounds of the devil,” and referred to as “white lambs” and “white doves.” Their flesh, forever purified, gloriously bears “the great imperial seal.” The timid ones, who have only agreed to a partial operation, are still subject to certain attacks of the devil, and bear only “the lesser seal” on the scars of their imperfect mutilations.
I know of no other mammal that deliberately mutilates its own genitals. Only in humans with their “advanced” brains is it possible. As costly as it is in calories to maintain that brain, it must have given us decisive advantages indeed to evolve so quickly in spite of such occasional drawbacks. Whether it will prove to be an improvement to the fitness of our species in the long term remains to be determined.