Posted on June 12th, 2015 10 comments
The fact that the various gods that mankind has invented over the years, including the currently popular ones, don’t exist has been sufficiently obvious to any reasonably intelligent pre-adolescent who has taken the trouble to think about it since at least the days of Jean Meslier. That unfortunate French priest left us with a Testament that exposed the folly of belief in imaginary super-beings long before the days of Darwin. It included most of the “modern” arguments, including the dubious logic of inventing gods to explain everything we don’t understand, the many blatant contradictions in the holy scriptures, the absurdity of the notion that an infinitely wise and perfect being could be moved to fury or even offended by the pathetic sins of creatures as abject as ourselves, the lack of any need for a supernatural “grounding” for human morality, and many more. Over the years these arguments have been elaborated and expanded by a host of thinkers, culminating in the work of today’s New Atheists. These include Jerry Coyne, whose Faith versus Fact represents their latest effort to talk some sense into the true believers.
Coyne has the usual human tendency, shared by his religious opponents, of “othering” those who disagree with him. However, besides sharing a “sin” that few if any of us are entirely free of, he has some admirable traits as well. For example, he has rejected the Blank Slate ideology of his graduate school professor/advisor, Richard Lewontin, and even goes so far as to directly contradict him in FvF. In spite of the fact that he is an old “New Leftist” himself, he has taken a principled stand against the recent attempts of the ideological Left to dismantle freedom of speech and otherwise decay to its Stalinist ground state. Perhaps best of all as far as a major theme of this blog is concerned, he rejects the notion of objective morality that has been so counter-intuitively embraced by Sam Harris, another prominent New Atheist.
For the most part, Faith versus Fact is a worthy addition to the New Atheist arsenal. It effectively dismantles the “sophisticated Christian” gambit that has encouraged meek and humble Christians of all stripes to imagine themselves on an infinitely higher intellectual plane than such “undergraduate atheists” as Richard Dawkins and Chris Hitchens. It refutes the rapidly shrinking residue of “God of the gaps” arguments, and clearly illustrates the difference between scientific evidence and religious “evidence.” It destroys the comfortable myth that religion is an “other way of knowing,” and exposes the folly of seeking to accommodate religion within a scientific worldview. It was all the more disappointing, after nodding approvingly through most of the book, to suffer one of those “Oh, No!” moments in the final chapter. Coyne ended by wandering off into an ideological swamp with a fumbling attempt to link obscurantist religion with “global warming denialism!”
As it happens, I am a scientist myself. I am perfectly well aware that when an external source of radiation such as that emanating from the sun passes through an ideal earthlike atmosphere that has been mixed with a dose of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, impinges on an ideal earthlike surface, and is re-radiated back into space, the resulting equilibrium temperature of the atmosphere will be higher than if no greenhouse gases were present. I am also aware that we are rapidly adding such greenhouse gases to our atmosphere, and that it is therefore reasonable to be concerned about the potential effects of global warming. However, in spite of that it is not altogether irrational to take a close look at whether all the nostrums proposed as solutions to the problem will actually do any good.
In fact, the earth does not have an ideal static atmosphere over an ideal static and uniform surface. Our planet’s climate is affected by a great number of complex, interacting phenomena. A deterministic computer model capable of reliably predicting climate change decades into the future is far beyond the current state of the art. It would need to deal with literally millions of degrees of freedom in three dimensions, in many cases using potentially unreliable or missing data. The codes currently used to address the problem are probabilistic, reduced basis models, that can give significantly different answers depending on the choice of initial conditions.
In a recently concluded physics campaign at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, scientists attempted to achieve thermonuclear fusion ignition by hitting tiny targets containing heavy isotopes of hydrogen with the most powerful laser system ever built. The codes they used to model the process should have been far more accurate than any current model of the earth’s climate. These computer models included all the known relevant physical phenomena, and had been carefully benchmarked against similar experiments carried out on less powerful laser systems. In spite of that, the best experimental results didn’t come close to the computer predictions. The actual number of fusion reactions hardly came within two orders of magnitude of expected values. The number of physical approximations that must be used in climate models is far greater than were necessary in the Livermore fusion codes, and their value as predictive tools must be judged accordingly.
In a word, we have no way of accurately predicting the magnitude of the climate change we will experience in coming decades. If we had unlimited resources, the best policy would obviously be to avoid rocking the only boat we have at the moment. However, this is not an ideal world, and we must wisely allocate what resources we do have among competing priorities. Resources devoted to fighting climate change will not be available for medical research and health care, education, building the infrastructure we need to maintain a healthy economy, and many other worthy purposes that could potentially not only improve human well-being but save many lives. Before we succumb to frantic appeals to “do something,” and spend a huge amount of money to stop global warming, we should at least be reasonably confident that our actions will measurably reduce the danger. To what degree can we expect “science” to inform our decisions, whatever they may be?
For starters, we might look at the track record of the environmental scientists who are now sounding the alarm. The Danish scientist Bjorn Lomborg examined that record in his book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, in areas as diverse as soil erosion, storm frequency, deforestation, and declining energy resources. Time after time he discovered that they had been crying “wolf,” distorting and cherry-picking the data to support dire predictions that never materialized. Lomborg’s book did not start a serious discussion of potential shortcomings of the scientific method as applied in these areas. Instead he was bullied and vilified. A kangaroo court was organized in Denmark made up of some of the more abject examples of so-called “scientists” in that country, and quickly found Lomborg guilty of “scientific dishonesty,” a verdict which the Danish science ministry later had the decency to overturn. In short, the same methods were used against Lomborg as were used decades earlier to silence critics of the Blank Slate orthodoxy in the behavioral sciences, resulting in what was possibly the greatest scientific debacle of all time. At the very least we can conclude that all the scientific checks and balances that Coyne refers to in such glowing terms in Faith versus Fact have not always functioned with ideal efficiency in promoting the cause of truth. There is reason to believe that the environmental sciences are one area in which this has been particularly true.
Under the circumstances it is regrettable that Coyne chose to equate “global warming denialism” a pejorative term used in ideological squabbles that is by its very nature unscientific, with some of the worst forms of religious obscurantism. Instead of sticking to the message, in the end he let his political prejudices obscure it. Objections to the prevailing climate change orthodoxy are hardly coming exclusively from the religious fanatics who sought to enlighten us with “creation science,” and “intelligent design.” I invite anyone suffering from that delusion to have a look at some of the articles the physicist and mathematician Lubos Motl has written about the subject on his blog, The Reference Frame. Examples may be found here, here and, for an example with a “religious” twist, here. There he will find documented more instances of the type of “scientific” behavior Lomborg cited in The Skeptical Environmentalist. No doubt many readers will find Motl irritating and tendentious, but he knows his stuff. Anyone who thinks he can refute his take on the “science” had better be equipped with more knowledge of the subject than is typically included in the bromides that appear in the New York Times.
Alas, I fear that I am once again crying over spilt milk. I can only hope that Coyne has an arrow or two left in his New Atheist quiver, and that next time he chooses a publisher who will insist on ruthlessly chopping out all the political Nebensächlichkeiten. Meanwhile, have a look at his Why Evolution is True website. In addition to presenting a convincing case for evolution by natural selection and a universe free of wrathful super beings, Professor Ceiling Cat, as he is known to regular visitors for reasons that will soon become apparent to newbies, also posts some fantastic wildlife pictures. And if it’s any consolation, I see his book has been panned by John Horgan. Anyone with enemies like that can’t be all bad. Apparently Horgan’s review was actually solicited by the editors of the Wall Street Journal. Go figure! One wonders what rock they’ve been sleeping under lately.
Posted on June 6th, 2015 6 comments
Jerry Coyne just launched another New Atheist salvo against the Defenders of the Faith in the form of his latest book, Faith versus Fact. It’s well written and well reasoned, effectively squashing the “sophisticated Christian” gambit of the faithful, and storming some of their few remaining “God of the gaps” redoubts. However, one of its most striking features is its decisive rejection of the Blank Slate. The New Atheists have learned to stop worrying and love innate morality!
Just like the Blank Slaters of yore, the New Atheists may be found predominantly on the left of the political spectrum. In Prof. Coyne’s case the connection is even more striking. As a graduate student, his professor/advisor was none other than Blank Slate kingpin Richard Lewontin of Not In Our Genes fame! In spite of that, in Faith versus Fact he not only accepts but positively embraces evolutionary psychology in general and innate morality in particular. Why?
It turns out that, along with the origin of life, the existence of consciousness, the “fine tuning” of physical constants, etc., one of the more cherished “gaps” in the “God of the gaps” arguments of the faithful is the existence of innate morality. As with the other “gap” gambits, the claim is that it couldn’t exist unless God created it. As noted in an earlier post, the Christian philosopher Francis Hutcheson used a combination of reason and careful observation of his own species to demonstrate the existence of an innate “moral sense,” building on the earlier work of Anthony Ashley-Cooper and others early in the 18th century. The Blank Slaters would have done well to read his work. Instead, they insisted on the non-existence of human nature, thereby handing over this particular “gap” to the faithful by default. Obviously, Prof. Coyne had second thoughts, and decided to snatch it back. However, he doesn’t quite succeed in breaking entirely with the past. Instead, he insists on elevating “cultural morality” to a co-equal status with innate morality, and demonstrates that he has swallowed Steven Pinker’s fanciful “academic version” of the history of the Blank Slate in the process. Allow me to quote at length some of the relevant passages from his book:
Evolution disproves critical parts of both the Bible and the Quran – the creation stories – yet millions have been unable to abandon them. Finally, and perhaps most important, evolution means that human morality, rather than being imbued in us by God, somehow arose via natural processes: biological evolution involving natural selection on behavior, and cultural evolution involving our ability to calculate, foresee, and prefer the results of different behaviors.
Here we encounter the conflation of biological and cultural evolution, which are described as if they were independent factors accounting for the “rise” of human morality. This tendency to embrace innate explanations while at the same time clinging to the “culture and learning” of the Blank Slate as a distinct, quasi-independent determinant of moral behavior is a recurring theme in FvF. A bit later Coyne seems to return to the Darwinian fold, citing his comments on “well-marked social instincts.”
In his 1871 book The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, where Darwin first applied his theory of evolution by natural selection to humans, he did not neglect morality. In chapter 3, he floats what can be considered the first suggestion that our morality may be an elaboration by our large brains of social instincts evolved in our ancestors: “The following proposition seems to me in a high degree probable – namely, that any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well developed, or nearly as well developed, as in man.”
This impression is apparently confirmed in the following remarkable passage:
A century later, the biologist Edward O. Wilson angered many by asserting the complete hegemony of biology over ethics: “Scientists and humanists should consider together the possibility that the time has come for ethics to be removed temporarily from the hands of the philosophers and biologicized.” Wilson’s statement, in the pathbreaking book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, really began the modern incursion of evolution into human behavior that has become the discipline of evolutionary psychology. In the last four decades psychologists, philosophers, and biologists have begun to dissect the cultural and evolutionary roots of morality.
Here we find, almost verbatim, Steven Pinker’s bowdlerized version of the “history” of the Blank Slate, featuring E. O. Wilson as the knight in shining armor who came out of nowhere to “begin the modern incursion of evolution into human behavior,” with the publication of Sociobiology in 1975. Anyone with even a faint familiarity with the source material knows that Pinker’s version is really nothing but a longish fairy tale. The “modern incursion of evolution into human behavior” was already well underway in Europe in 1951, when Niko Tinbergen published his The Study of Instinct. It was continued there through the 50’s and 60’s in the work of Konrad Lorenz, Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, and many others. Long before the appearance of Sociobiology, Robert Ardrey began the publication of a series of four books on evolved human nature that really set in motion the smashing of the Blank Slate orthodoxy in the behavioral sciences. There is literally nothing of any significance in Sociobiology bearing on the “incursion of evolution into human behavior” or the emergence of what came to be called evolutionary psychology that is not merely an echo of work that had been published by Ardrey, Lorenz, Tinbergen, and others many years earlier. No matter. It would seem that Pinker’s fanciful “history” has now been transmogrified into one of Coyne’s “facts.”
But I digress. As noted above, even as Coyne demolishes morality as one of the “gaps” that must be filled by inventing a God by noting its emergence as an evolved trait, and even as he explicitly embraces evolutionary psychology, which has apparently only recently become “respectable,” he can never quite entirely free himself from the stench of the Blank Slate. Finally, as if frightened by his own temerity, and perhaps feeling the withering gaze of his old professor/advisor Lewontin, Coyne executes a partial retreat from the territory he has just attempted to reconquer:
In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker makes a strong case that since the Middle Ages most societies have become much less brutal, due largely to changes in what’s considered moral. So if morality is innate, it’s certainly malleable. And that itself refutes the argument that human morality comes from God, unless the moral sentiments of the deity are equally malleable. The rapid change in many aspects of morality, even in the last century, also suggests that much of its “innateness” comes not from evolution but from learning. That’s because evolutionary change simply doesn’t occur fast enough to explain societal changes like our realization that women are not an inferior moiety of humanity, or that we shouldn’t torture prisoners. The explanation for these changes must reside in reason and learning: our realization that there is no rational basis for giving ourselves moral privilege over those who belong to other groups.
Here we find the good professor behaving for all the world like one of Niko Tinbergen’s famous sticklebacks who, suddenly realizing he has strayed far over the established boundary of his own territory, rushes back to more familiar haunts. Only one of Lewontin’s “genetic determinists” would be obtuse enough to suggest that the meanderings of 21st century morality are caused by “evolution,” and those are as rare as unicorns. Obviously, no such extraordinarily rapid evolution is necessary. The innate wellsprings of human morality need not “evolve” at all to account for these wanderings, which are adequately accounted for by the fact that they represent the mediation of a relatively static “moral sense” in a rapidly changing environment through the consciousness of creatures with large brains. As brilliantly demonstrated by Hutcheson in his An Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions and Affections, absent this “root cause” in the form of evolved behavioral predispositions, “reason and learning” could chug along for centuries without spitting out anything remotely resembling morality. Innate behavioral predispositions are the basis of all moral behavior, and without them morality as we know it would not exist. The only role of “reason and learning” is in interpreting and mediating the “moral passions.” Absent those passions, there would be literally nothing to be reasoned about or learned that would manifest itself as moral behavior. They, and not “reason and learning” are the sine qua non for the existence of morality.
But let us refrain from looking this particular gift horse in the mouth. In general, as noted above, the New Atheists may be found more or less in the same region of the ideological spectrum as was once occupied by the Blank Slaters. If they are now constrained to add innate behavior to their arsenal as one more weapon in their continuing battle against the faithful, so much the better for all of us. If nothing else it enhances the chances that, at least for the time being, students of human behavior will be able to continue acquiring the knowledge we need to gain self-understanding without fear of being bullied and intimidated for pointing out facts that happen to be politically inconvenient.
Posted on May 17th, 2015 6 comments
New Atheist bashing is all the rage these days. The gloating tone at Salon over New Atheist Sam Harris’ humiliation by Noam Chomsky in their recent exchange over the correct understanding of something that doesn’t exist referred to in my last post is but one of many examples. In fact, New Atheists aren’t really new, and neither is New Atheist bashing. Thumb through some of the more high brow magazines of the 1920’s, for example, and chances are you’ll run across an article describing the then current crop of atheists as aggressive, ignorant, clannish, self-righteous and, in short, prone to all the familiar maladies that supposedly also afflict the New Atheists of today. And just as we see today, the more “laid back” atheists were gleefully piling on then as now. They included H. L. Mencken, probably the most famous atheist of the time, who deplored aggressive atheism in his recently republished autobiographical trilogy. Unfortunately he’s no longer around to explain the difference between “aggressive” atheism, and his own practice of heaping scorn and ridicule on the more backward believers. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that Mencken was by nature a conservative. He abhorred any manifestation of the “Uplift,” a term which in those days meant more or less the same thing as “progressive” today.
I think the difference between these two species of atheists has something to do with the degree to which they resent belonging to an outgroup. Distinguishing between ingroups and outgroups comes naturally to our species. This particular predisposition is ostensibly not as beneficial now as it was during the period over which it evolved. A host of pejorative terms have been invented to describe its more destructive manifestations, such as racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, etc., all of which really describe the same phenomenon. Those among us who harbor no irrational hatreds of this sort must be rare indeed. One often finds it present in its more virulent forms in precisely those individuals who consider themselves immune to it. Atheists are different, and that’s really all it takes to become identified as an outgroup,
Apparently some atheists don’t feel themselves particularly inconvenienced by this form of “othering,” especially in societies that have benefited to some extent from the European Enlightenment. Others take it more seriously, and fight back using the same tactics that have been directed against them. They “other” their enemies and seek to aggressively exploit human moral emotions to gain the upper hand. That is exactly what has been done quite successfully at one time or another by many outgroups, including women, blacks, and quite spectacularly lately, gays. New Atheists are merely those who embrace such tactics in the atheist community.
I can’t really blame my fellow atheists for this form of activism. One doesn’t choose to be an atheist. If one doesn’t believe in God, then other than in George Orwell’s nightmare world of “1984,” one can’t be “cured” into becoming a Christian or a Moslem, any more than a gay can be “cured” into becoming heterosexual, or a black “cured” into becoming white. However, for reasons having to do with the ideological climate in the world today that are much too complicated to address in a short blog post, New Atheists are facing a great deal more resistance than members of some of society’s other outgroups. This resistance is coming, not just from religious believers, but from their “natural” allies on the ideological left.
Noam Chomsky’s scornful treatment of Sam Harris, accompanied by the sneers of the leftist editors of Salon, is a typical example of this phenomenon. Such leaders as Harris, Richard Dawkins, and the late Christopher Hitchens are the public “face” of the New Atheist movement, and as a consequence are often singled out in this way. Of course they have their faults, and I’ve criticized the first two myself on this blog and elsewhere. However, many of the recent attacks, especially from the ideological left, are neither well-reasoned nor, at least in terms of my own subjective moral emotions, even fair. Often they conform to hackneyed formulas; the New Atheists are unsophisticated, they don’t understand what they’re talking about, they are bigoted, they are harming people who depend on religious beliefs to give “meaning” to their lives, etc.
A typical example, which was also apparently inspired by the Harris/Chomsky exchange, recently turned up at Massimo Pigliucci’s Scientia Salon. Entitled “Reflections on the skeptic and atheist movements,” it was ostensibly Pigliucci’s announcement that, after being a longtime member and supporter, he now wishes to “disengage” from the club. As one might expect, he came down squarely in favor of Chomsky, who is apparently one of his heroes. That came as no surprise to me, as fawning appraisals of Blank Slate kingpins Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould have also appeared at the site. It had me wondering who will be rehabilitated next. Charles Manson? Jack the Ripper? Pigliucci piques himself on his superior intellect which, we are often reminded, is informed by both science and a deep reading of philosophy. In spite that, he seems completely innocent of any knowledge that the Blank Slate debacle ever happened, or of Lewontin’s and Gould’s highly effective role in propping it up for so many years, using such “scientific” methods as bullying, vilification and mobbing of anyone who disagreed with them, including, among others, Robert Trivers, W. D. Hamilton, Konrad Lorenz, and Richard Dawkins. Evidence of such applications of “science” are easily accessible to anyone who makes even a minimal effort to check the source material, such as Lewontin’s Not in Our Genes.
No matter, Pigliucci apparently imagines that the Blank Slate was just a figment of Steven Pinker’s fevered imagination. With such qualifications as a detector of “fools,” he sagely nods his head as he informs us that Chomsky “doesn’t suffer fools (like Harris) gladly.” With a sigh of ennui, he goes on, “And let’s not go (again) into the exceedingly naive approach to religious criticism that has made Dawkins one of the “four horsemen” of the New Atheism.” The rest of the New Atheist worthies come in for similar treatment. By all means, read the article. You’ll notice that, like virtually every other New Atheist basher, whether on the left or the right of the ideological spectrum, Pigliucci never gets around to mentioning what these “naïve” criticisms of religion actually are, far less to responding to or discussing them.
It’s not hard to find Dawkins’ “naïve” criticisms of religion. They’re easily available to anyone who takes the trouble to look through the first few chapters of his The God Delusion. In fact, most of them have been around at least since Jean Meslier wrote them down in his Testament almost 300 years ago. Religious believers have been notably unsuccessful in answering them in the ensuing centuries. No doubt they might seem naïve if you happen to believe in the ephemeral and hazy versions of God concocted by the likes of David Bentley Hart and Karen Armstrong. They’ve put that non-objective, non-subjective, insubstantial God so high up on the shelf that it can’t be touched by atheists or anyone else. The problem is that that’s not the God that most people believe in. Dawkins can hardly be faulted for directing his criticisms at the God they do believe in. If his arguments against that God are really so naïve, what can possibly be the harm in actually answering them?
As noted above, New Atheist bashing is probably inevitable given the current ideological fashions. However, I suggest that those happy few who are still capable of thinking for themselves think twice before jumping on the bandwagon. In the first place, it is not irrational for atheists to feel aggrieved at being “othered,” any more than it is for any other ostracized minority. Perhaps more importantly, the question of whether religious beliefs are true or not matters. Today one actually hears so-called “progressive” atheists arguing that religious beliefs should not be questioned, because it risks robbing the “little people” of a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives. Apparently the goal is to cultivate delusions that will get them from cradle to grave with as little existential Angst as possible. It would be too shocking for them to know the truth. Beyond the obvious arrogance of such an attitude, I fail to see how it is doing anyone a favor. People supply their own “meaning of life,” depending on their perceptions of reality. Blocking the path to truth and promoting potentially pathological delusions in place of reality seems more a betrayal than a “service” to me. To the extent that anyone cares to take my own subjective moral emotions seriously, I can only say that I find substituting bland religious truisms for a chance to experience the stunning wonder, beauty and improbability of human existence less a “benefit” than an exquisite form of cruelty.
Posted on April 4th, 2015 No comments
If you’re worried that the demise of religion implies the demise of morality, I suggest you search the term “Memories Pizza.” As it happens, Memories Pizza is (or was) a small business in the town of Walkerton, Indiana. By all accounts, its owners had never refused to serve gays, or uttered a harsh word about the gay community. Then, however, a reporter by the name of Alyssa Marino strolled in fishing for a story about Indiana’s recently enacted “Religious Freedom Restoration Act.” Apparently attracted by the signage in the restaurant that made it obvious that the owners were Christians, Marino asked the proprietor a question that had never come up in the decade the business had been in business, and was unlikely to come up in the future; Would the business cater a gay wedding. The reply: “If a gay couple came in and wanted us to provide pizzas for their wedding, we would have to say no.” Marino promptly wrote a story about her visit under the headline, “RFRA: First Michiana business to publicly deny same-sex service.” This was a bit disingenuous, to say the least. As Robbie Soave at Hit and Run put it,
That headline implies two things that are false. The O’Connors had no intention of becoming the first Michiana business to do anything discriminatory with respect to gay people; they had merely answered a hypothetical question about what would happen if a gay couple asked them to cater a wedding. And the O’Connors had every intention of providing regular service to gay people—just not their weddings.
No matter, the story went viral, provoking a furious (and threatening) response from the gay ingroup. Hundreds of reviews suddenly appeared on Yelp, with comments such as,
I you like your pizza with a side of bigoted hatred and ignorance this is the spot for you. If you’re not a piece of trash I would stay away.
This is an excellent place to bring back that old time, nostalgia feeling. For those who want to experience what life was like under Jim Crow, this is the place for you!
Terrible place, owners chose to be heterosexual. The biggest bigots are the most closeted. No gay man or woman is going to order pizza for a wedding. These people should be put out of business. O yeah, I’m going to kill your Jesus. Try and stop me.
and, finally, the apocalyptic,
DO NOT EAT HERE – The owners are hateful bigots who twist the meaning of Christianity to satisfy their own insecurities by indoctrinating their children with hate, further poisoning our world and future generations.
Who’s going to Walkerton, IN t0 burn down #memoriespizza w me?
Of course, all this was treated as a mere bagatelle by the mainstream media. After all, the owners were nothing but a couple of hinds in flyover country, and Christians to boot. If victims can’t be portrayed as leftist martyrs, what’s the point of protecting them? Regardless of which “side” you choose, the story certainly demonstrates an important truth, and for the umpteenth time: God or no God, morality isn’t going anywhere.
Whether you agree with the gay activists or not, it is abundantly clear that their responses are instances of moral behavior. Furthermore, they demonstrate the dual nature of human morality, characterized by radically different types of moral responses to others depending on whether they are perceived to belong to one’s ingroup or outgroup. They also clearly demonstrate the human tendency to interpret moral emotions as representations of objective things, commonly referred to as Good and Evil, which are imagined to exist independently of the subjective minds that give rise to them. In the minds of the gays, the attitude of the Memories Pizza folks towards gay marriage isn’t just an expression of one of many coequal cultural alternatives. It can’t be dismissed as a mere difference of opinion. It doesn’t reflect the interpretation of one of many possible moralities, all equally valid relative to each other. No, clearly, in the minds of the gays, the owners have violated THE moral law. Otherwise their response, as reflected in tweets, e-mails and threats, would be inexplicable.
What rational basis is there for this furious reaction? As far as I can tell, none. Certainly, the gays cannot rely on holy scripture to legitimize their outrage. In spite of whimsical attempts at Biblical exegesis by the gay community, both the Bible and the Quran are quite explicit and blunt in their condemnations of gay behavior. The compassionate and merciful God of the Quran even threatens those who ignore the prohibition with quintillions of years in hell experiencing what ISIS recently inflicted on a Jordanian pilot for a few seconds, and that just for starters. I find no other sanction, whether in religion or philosophy, for the conclusion that opposition to gay marriage is not only wrong, but is actually absolutely evil. In other words, the behavior of the gay activists is completely irrational. It is also completely normal.
The evolved behavioral traits that are the “root cause” of moral behavior exist because they happened to increase the odds that those who were “wired” for such traits would be more likely to survive and reproduce. Mother Nature saw to it that moral emotions would be powerful, experienced as reflections of absolutes, and perceived as the independently existing “things,” Good and Evil. She didn’t bother with anything other than the big picture, the gross effect. As a result she treated such ostensibly comical manifestations of morality as the raining down of pious anathemas on devout Christians, who tend to be relatively successful at reproduction, by gays, who normally don’t reproduce at all, with a grain of salt, confident (and rightly so) that the vast majority of humans would be too stupid to perceive their own absurdity.
In a word, fears that the demise of religion implies the demise of morality are overblown. It will continue to exist in its manifold “different but similar” manifestations, regardless of whether it enjoys the sanction of religious scripture or the scribbling of philosophers. Morality is hardly infinitely malleable, but it can be shaped to some extent. It would probably behoove us to do so, making it quite clear in the process to what sorts of behavior it does and does not apply. The list should be kept as short and simple as possible, consonant with keeping the interactions of individuals as harmonious and productive as possible.
Back in the day, the religious types whose tastes ran to foisting Prohibition on an unwilling nation used to promote the idea of “one morality.” It probably wasn’t such a bad idea in itself, although I personally would likely have taken exception to the particular flavor they had in mind. I would favor a “one morality” that was free of religious influence, and that would apply in situations that the long experience of our species has taught us will arouse moral emotions in any case. Beyond that, it would apply to as limited an additional subset of behaviors as possible. Finally, this “one morality” would make it crystal clear that subjecting any other forms of behavior to moral judgment is itself immoral.
There could be no ultimate sanction or source of legitimacy for such a “one morality” than there could be for any other kind, by virtue of the very nature of morality itself. However, if it were properly formulated, it would be experienced as an absolute, just like all the rest, regardless of all the fashionable blather about moral relativism. There would, of course, always be those who question why they “ought” to do one thing, and “ought not” to do another. As a society, we would do well to see to it that the answer is just what Mother Nature “intended”: You “ought” to do what is “right,” because you will find the consequences of doing what is “right” a great deal more agreeable than doing what is “wrong.”
Posted on December 31st, 2014 3 comments
It’s great to see another title by E. O. Wilson. Reading his books is like continuing a conversation with a wise old friend. If you run into him on the street you don’t expect to hear him say anything radically different from what he’s said in the past. However, you always look forward to chatting with him because he’s never merely repetitious or tiresome. He always has some thought-provoking new insight or acute comment on the latest news. At this stage in his life he also delights in puncturing the prevailing orthodoxies, without the least fear of the inevitable anathemas of the defenders of the faith.
In his latest, The Meaning of Human Existence, he continues the open and unabashed defense of group selection that so rattled his peers in his previous book, The Social Conquest of Earth. I’ve discussed some of the reasons for their unease in an earlier post. In short, if it can really be shown that the role of group selection in human evolution has been as prominent as Wilson claims, it will seriously mar the legacy of such prominent public intellectuals as Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker, as well as a host of other prominent scientists, who have loudly and tirelessly insisted on the insignificance of group selection. It will also require some serious adjustments to the fanciful yarn that currently passes as the “history” of the Blank Slate affair. Obviously, Wilson is firmly convinced that he’s on to something, because he’s not letting up. He dismisses the alternative inclusive fitness interpretation of evolution as unsupported by the evidence and at odds with the most up-to-date mathematical models. In his words,
Although the controversy between natural selection and inclusive fitness still flickers here and there, the assumptions of the theory of inclusive fitness have proved to be applicable only in a few extreme cases unlikely to occur on Earth on any other planet. No example of inclusive fitness has been directly measured. All that has been accomplished is an indirect analysis called the regressive method, which unfortunately has itself been mathematically invalidated.
Interestingly, while embracing group selection, Wilson then explicitly agrees with one of the most prominent defenders of inclusive fitness, Richard Dawkins, on the significance of the gene:
The use of the individual or group as the unit of heredity, rather than the gene, is an even more fundamental error.
Very clever, that, a preemptive disarming of the predictable invention of straw men to attack group selection via the bogus claim that it implies that groups are the unit of selection. The theory of group selection already has a fascinating, not to mention ironical, history, and its future promises to be no less entertaining.
When it comes to the title of the book, Wilson himself lets us know early on that its just a forgivable form of “poetic license.” In his words,
In ordinary usage the word “meaning” implies intention. Intention implies design, and design implies a designer. Any entity, any process, or definition of any word itself is put into play as a result of an intended consequence in the mind of the designer. This is the heart of the philosophical worldview of organized religions, and in particular their creation stories. Humanity, it assumes, exists for a purpose. Individuals have a purpose in being on Earth. Both humanity and individuals have meaning.
Wilson is right when he says that this is what most people understand by the term “meaning,” and he decidedly rejects the notion that the existence of such “meaning” is even possible later in the book by rejecting religious belief more bluntly than in any of his previous books. He provides himself with a fig leaf in the form of a redefinition of “meaning” as follows:
There is a second, broader way the word “meaning” is used, and a very different worldview implied. It is that the accidents of history, not the intentions of a designer, are the source of meaning.
I rather suspect most philosophers will find this redefinition unpalatable. Beyond that, I won’t begrudge Wilson his fig leaf. After all, if one takes the trouble to write books, one generally also has an interest in selling them.
As noted above, another significant difference between this and Wilson’s earlier books is his decisive support for what one might call the “New Atheist” line, as set forth in books by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. Obviously, Wilson has been carefully following the progress of the debate. He rejects religions, significantly in both their secular as well as their traditional spiritual manifestations, as both false and dangerous, mainly because of their inevitable association with tribalism. In his words,
Religious warriors are not an anomaly. It is a mistake to classify believers of particular religious and dogmatic religionlike ideologies into two groups, moderate versus extremist. The true cause of hatred and violence is faith versus faith, an outward expression of the ancient instinct of tribalism. Faith is the one thing that makes otherwise good people do bad things.
and, embracing the ingroup/outgroup dichotomy in human moral behavior I’ve often alluded to on this blog,
The great religions… are impediments to the grasp of reality needed to solve most social problems in the real world. Their exquisitely human flaw is tribalism. The instinctual force of tribalism in the genesis of religiosity is far stronger than the yearning for spirituality. People deeply need membership in a group, whether religious or secular. From a lifetime of emotional experience, they know that happiness, and indeed survival itself, require that they bond with oth3ers who share some amount of genetic kinship, language, moral beliefs, geographical location, social purpose, and dress code – preferably all of these but at least two or three for most purposes. It is tribalism, not the moral tenets and humanitarian thought of pure religion, that makes good people do bad things.
Finally, in a passage worthy of New Atheist Jerry Coyne himself, Wilson denounces both “accommodationists” and the obscurantist teachings of the “sophisticated Christians:”
Most serious writers on religion conflate the transcendent quest for meaning with the tribalistic defense of creation myths. They accept, or fear to deny, the existence of a personal deity. They read into the creation myths humanity’s effort to communicate with the deity, as part of the search for an uncorrupted life now and beyond death. Intellectual compromisers one and all, they include liberal theologians of the Niebuhr school, philosophers battening on learned ambiguity, literary admirers of C. S. Lewis, and others persuaded, after deep thought, that there most be Something Out There. They tend to be unconscious of prehistory and the biological evolution of human instinct, both of which beg to shed light on this very important subject.
In a word, Wilson has now positioned himself firmly in the New Atheist camp. This is hardly likely to mollify many of the prominent New Atheists, who will remain bitter because of his promotion of group selection, but at this point in his career, Wilson can take their hostility pro granulum salis.
There is much more of interest in The Meaning of Human Existence than I can cover in a blog post, such as Wilson’s rather vague reasons for insisting on the importance of the humanities in solving our problems, his rejection of interplanetary and/or interstellar colonization, and his speculations on the nature of alien life forms. I can only suggest that interested readers buy the book.Anthropology, Atheism, Blank Slate, Christianity, Evolution, Evolutionary psychology, Extraterrestrial life, Group Selection, human evolution, Human nature, Hunting Hypothesis, Ingroups and Outgroups, Kin selection, Morality, Philosophy, Religion, Secular Religions, The Meaning of Life, The Purpose of Life group selection, Meaning of Life
Posted on December 20th, 2014 No comments
‘Twas the month before Christmas, and Bill O’Reilly launched his usual jihad against the purported “War on Christmas.” It drew the predictable counterblasts from the Left, and I just happened to run across one that appeared back on December 4 on Huffpo, entitled “A War on Reason, Not on Christmas.” I must admit I find the “War on Christmas” schtick tiresome. Conservatives rightly point to the assorted liberal cults of victimization as so much pious grandstanding. It would be nice if they practiced what they preach and refrained from concocting similar cults of their own. Be that as it may, I found the article in question somewhat more unctuous and self-righteous than usual, and left a comment to that effect. It was immediately deleted.
My comment included no ad hominem attacks, nor was it abusive. I simply disagreed with the author on a few points, and noted that the political Left has an exaggerated opinion of its devotion to reason. The main theme of the article was the nature of the political divide in the U.S. According to the author, it is less between rich and poor than between “reasonable” liberals and “irrational” conservatives. As he put it,
Before imploding in the face of his sordid extramarital trysts, presidential candidate John Edwards based his campaign on the idea of two Americas, one rich the other poor. He was right about the idea that American is divided, but wrong about the nature of the division. The deeper and more important split is defined by religiosity, not riches.
The conflict between these two world views is made apparent in the details of our voting booth preferences. Religiosity alone is the most important, obvious and conclusive factor in determining voter behavior. Simply put, church goers tend to vote Republican. Those who instead go the hardware store on Sunday vote Democrat by wide margins.
He then continued,
Those who accept the idea of god tend to divide the world into believers and atheists. Yet that is incorrect. Atheist means “without god” and one cannot be without something that does not exist. Atheism is really a pejorative term that defines one world view as the negative of another, as something not what something else is.
This evoked my first comment, which seemed to me rather harmless on the face of it. I merely said that as an atheist myself, I had no objection to the term, and would prefer to avoid the familiar game of inventing ever more politically correct replacements until we ended up with some abomination seven or eight syllables long. However, what followed was even more remarkable. The author proceeded to deliver himself of a pronouncement about the nature of morality that might have been lifted right out of one of Ardrey’s books. In a section entitled, “Secular and Religious Morality,” he writes,
Traits that we view as moral are deeply embedded in the human psyche. Honesty, fidelity, trustworthiness, kindness to others and reciprocity are primeval characteristics that helped our ancestors survive. In a world of dangerous predators, early man could thrive only in cooperative groups. Good behavior strengthened the tribal bonds that were essential to survival. What we now call morality is really a suite of behaviors favored by natural selection in an animal weak alone but strong in numbers. Morality is a biological necessity and a consequence of human development, not a gift from god.
Exactly! Now, as I’ve often pointed out to my readers, if morality really is the expression of evolved traits as the author suggests, it exists because it happened to enhance the chances that certain genes we carry would survive and reproduce in the environment in which they happened to appear. There is no conceivable way in which they could somehow acquire the magic quality of corresponding to some “real, objective” morality in the sky. There is no way in which they could assume a “purpose” attributed to them by anyone, whether on the left or the right of the political spectrum. Finally, there is no way in which they could acquire the independent legitimacy to dictate to anyone the things they “really” ought or ought not to do. So much is perfectly obvious. Assuming one really is “reasonable,” it follows immediately from what the author of the article says about the evolved origins of morality above. That, of course, is not how the Left is spinning the narrative these days.
No, for a large faction on the secular Left, the fact that morality is evolved means not merely that the God-given morality of the Christians and other religious sects is “unreasonable.” For them, it follows that whatever whims they happen to tart up as the secular morality du jour become “reasonable.” That means that they are not immoral, or amoral. They are, by default, the bearers of the “true morality.” In the article in question it goes something like this:
The species-centric arrogance of religion cultivates a dangerous attitude about our relationship with the environment and the resources that sustain us. Humanists tend to view sustainability as a moral imperative while theists often view environmental concerns as liberal interference with god’s will. Conservative resistance to accepting the reality of climate change is just one example, and another point at which religious and secular morality diverge, as the world swelters.
It’s wonderful, really. The Left has always been addicted to moralistic posing, and now they don’t have to drop the charade! Now they can be as self-righteous as ever, as devotees of this secular version of morality that has miraculously acquired the power to become a thing-in-itself, presumably drifting up there in the clouds somewhere beyond the profane ken of the unenlightened Christians. As it happens, at the moment my neighbors are largely Mormon, and I must say their dogmas appear to me to be paragons of “reason” compared to this secular version of morality in the sky.
Of course, I couldn’t include all these observations in the Huffpo comment section. I merely pointed out that what the author had said about morality would have branded him as a heretic no more than 20 years ago, and evoked frenzied charges of “racism” and “fascism” from the same political Left in which he now imagines himself so comfortably ensconced. That’s because 20 years ago the behavioral sciences were still in thrall to the Blank Slate orthodoxy, as they had been for 50 years and more at the time. That orthodoxy was the greatest debacle in the history of science, and it was the gift, not of the Right, but of the “reasonable” secular Left. That was the point I made in the comment section, along with the observation that liberals would do well to keep it in mind before they break their arms patting themselves on the back for being so “reasonable.”
The author concluded his article with the following:
There is no war on Christmas; the idea is absurd at every level. Those who object to being forced to celebrate another’s religion are drowning in Christmas in a sea of Christianity dominating all aspects of social life. An 80 percent majority can claim victimhood only with an extraordinary flight from reality. You are probably being deafened by a rendition of Jingle Bells right now. No, there is no war on Christmas, but make no mistake: the Christian right is waging a war against reason. And they are winning. O’Reilly is riding the gale force winds of crazy, and his sails are full.
I must agree that the beloved Christian holiday does have a fighting chance of surviving the “War on Christmas.” Indeed, Bill O’Reilly himself has recently been so sanguine as to declare victory. When it comes to popular delusions, however, I suspect the Left’s delusion that it has a monopoly on “reason” is likely to be even more enduring. As for the deletion of my comment, we all know about the Left’s proclivity for suppressing speech that they find “offensive.” Thin skins are encountered in those political precincts at least as frequently as the characteristic delusions about “reason.”
Posted on December 14th, 2014 No comments
…to tell me why, in the absence of data, they were so sure that religion was bad for the world. That is, how do they know that if the world had never had religion, it would be better than it is now?
That would seem to be an empirical question, resolvable only with data. Yet as far as I can see (and I haven’t read every comment), most readers feel that the question can be resolved not with data, but with logic or from first principles. Or, they cite anecdotes like religiously-inspired violence (my response would be that it’s easy to measure deaths, but not so easy to measure the consolation and well being that, believers claim, religion brings them). But pointing out that religion does bad stuff doesn’t answer the question if it’s been harmful on the whole.
As an atheist myself, my answer would be that the question is neither empirical nor resolvable with logic from first principles, because it implies an objective standard whereby such terms as “bad,” “better,” and “harmful” can be defined. No such objective standard exists. At best, one can identify the consequences and then decide whether they are “go0d” or “bad” based on one’s personal subjective whims. As long as it is clearly understood that my reply is based on that standard, I would say that religion is “bad.”
Supernatural beings either exist or they don’t. I don’t claim to know the truth of the matter with absolute certainly. I don’t claim to know anything with absolute certainty. I base my actions and my goals in life on what I consider probable rather than absolute truths, and I consider the chance that a God or other supernatural beings exist to be vanishingly small.
The question then becomes, do I, again from my personal point of view, consider it a good thing for other people to believe in supernatural beings even though I consider that belief an illusion. In short, the answer is no. It will never be possible for us to know and understand ourselves, either as individuals or as a species, if we believe things that are false, and yet have a profound impact on our understanding of where we come from, what the future holds for us, what morality is and why it exists, the nature of our most cherished goals, and how we live our lives. Our very survival may depend on whether or not we have an accurate knowledge of ourselves. I want my species to survive, and therefore I want as many of us as possible to have that knowledge.
According to a current manifestation of the naturalistic fallacy, religion “evolved,” and therefore it is “good.” Among other places, articles to this effect have appeared at the This View of Life website, edited by David Sloan Wilson, a noted proponent of group selection. Examples may be found here and here. According to the latter:
For Darwin, an inevitable conflict between evolution and religion could not exist for the simple reason that religiosity and religions had been biocultural products of evolution themselves! He realized in the 19th century what many religious Creationists and so-called “New Atheists” are trying to ignore in their odd alliance to this day: If evolutionary theory is true, it must be able to explain the emergence of our cognitive tendencies to believe in supernatural agencies and the forms and impacts of its cultural products.
I’m not sure which passages from the work of Darwin the article’s author construed to mean that he believed that “an inevitable conflict between evolution and religion could not exist,” but the idea is nonsense in any case. Many flavors of both Christianity and Islam explicitly deny the theory of evolution, and therefore a conflict most certainly does exist. That conflict will not disappear whether religiosity and religions are biocultural products of evolution or not. Assuming for the sake of argument that they are, that mere fact would be irrelevant to the questions of whether religiosity and religions are “good,” or whether supernatural beings actually exist or not.
In any case, I doubt that religiosity and religion are biocultural products of evolution in any but a very limited sense. It is most unlikely that genes could be “smart enough” to distinguish between supernatural and non-supernatural agencies in the process of installing innate behavioral tendencies in our brains. Some subset of our suite of innate behavioral predispositions might make it more likely for us to respond to and behave towards “leaders” in some ways and not in others. Once we became sufficiently intelligent to imagine supernatural beings, it became plausible that we might imagine one as “leader,” and culture could take over from there to come up with the various versions of God or gods that have turned up from time to time. That does not alter the fact that the “root cause” of these manifestations almost certainly does not directly “program” belief in the supernatural.
This “root cause,” supposing it exists, is to be found in our genes, and our genes are not in the habit of rigidly determining what we believe or how we act. In other words, our genes cannot force us to believe in imaginary beings, as should be obvious from the prevalence of atheists on the planet. Because of our genes we may “tend” to believe in imaginary beings, but it is at least equally likely that because of them we “tend” to engage in warfare. Supposing both tendencies exist, that mere fact hardly insures that they are also “good.” Insisting that the former is “good” is equivalent to the belief that it is “good” for us to believe certain lies. This begs the question of how anyone is to acquire the legitimate right to determine for the rest of us that it is “good” for us to believe in lies, not to mention which particular version of the lie is “most good.”
One can argue ad nauseum about whether, on balance, religion has been “good” because of the comfort and consolation if provides in this vale of tears, the art products it has spawned, and the sense of community it has encouraged, or “bad” because of the wars, intolerance, bigotry, and social strife that can be chalked up to its account. In the end, it seems to me that the important question is not who “wins” this argument, but whether religious claims are true or not. If, as I maintain, they are not, then, from my personal point of view, it is “good” that we should know it. It matters in terms of answering such questions as what we want to do with our lives and why.
Consider, for example, the question of life after death. Most of us don’t look forward to the prospect of death with any particular relish, and it is certainly plausible to claim that religion provides us with the consolation of an afterlife. Suppose we look at the question from the point of view of our genes. They have given rise to our consciousness, along with most of the other essential features of our physical bodies, because consciousness has made it more probable that those genes would survive and reproduce. When we fear death, we fear the death of our consciousness, but as far as the genes are concerned, consciousness is purely ancillary – a means to an end. If they “program” an individual to become a Catholic priest in order to inherit eternal life, and that individual fails to have children as a result, then, from this “genes point of view,” they have botched it.
In a sense, it is more rational to claim that “we” are our genes rather than that “we” are this ancillary entity we refer to as consciousness. In that case, “we” have never died. “Our” lives have existed in an unbroken chain, passed from one physical form to another for billions of years. The only way “we” can die is for the last physical “link in the chain” to fail to have children. Of course, genes don’t really have a point of view, nor do they have a purpose. They simply are. I merely point out that it would be absurd to imagine that “we” suddenly spring into existence when we are born, and that “we” then die and disappear forever with the physical death of our bodies. Why on earth would Mother Nature put up with such nonsense? It seems to me that such an irrational surmise must be based on a fundamental confusion about who “we” actually are.
Posted on December 3rd, 2014 No comments
The human types afflicted with the messianic itch have never been too choosy about the ideology they pick to scratch it. For example, the Nazis turned up some of their most delirious converts among the ranks of former Communists, and vice versa. The “true believer” can usually make do with whatever is available. The main thing is that whatever “ism” he chooses enables him to maintain the illusion that he is saving the world and clearing the path to some heavenly or terrestrial paradise, and at the same time supplies him with an ingroup of like-minded zealots. In the 20th century both Communism and Nazism/fascism, which had served admirably in their time, collapsed, leaving an ideological vacuum behind. As we all know, nature abhors a vacuum, and something had to fill it. Paradoxically, that “something” turned out to be radical Islam. For the true believers, it is now pretty much the only game in town. The result of this ideological sea change has been quite spectacular. The “human types” one would normally have expected to find in the ranks of the atheist Communists 50 or 75 years ago are now powerfully attracted to the latest manifestation of industrial strength religious fanaticism.
So far the ideological gap between the secular left that supplied the Communists of yesteryear and the jihadis of today has been a bit too wide for most western “progressives” to hop across. Instead, they’ve been forced to settle for casting longing gazes at the antics of the less inhibited zealots on the other side of the chasm. They can’t quite manage the ideological double back flip between the culture they come from and obscurantist Islam. Instead, they seize on surrogates, defending the “oppressed” Palestinians against the “apartheid” Israelis, meanwhile furiously denouncing anyone who dares to criticize the new inamorata they are forced to love from afar as “islamophobic.”
An interesting manifestation of this phenomenon recently turned up on the website of The Jacobin Magazine, which styles itself, “The leading voice of the American left.” In an article entitled “Old Atheism, New Empire,” one Luke Savage, described as “a student of political theory and formerly the editor of Canada’s largest student newspaper,” demonstrates that the New Atheists are not really the paladins of Enlightenment they claim to be, but are actually conducting a clever underground campaign to defend imperialism and provide a “smokescreen for the injustice of global capitalism!” Similar attacks on such New Atheist stalwarts as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens are becoming increasingly common as the Left’s love affair with radical Islam continues to blossom. The New Atheists, in turn, are finding that the firm ground on the left of the ideological spectrum they thought they were standing on has turned to quicksand.
It isn’t hard to detect the Islamist pheromones in the article in question. We notice, for example, that Savage isn’t particularly concerned about New Atheist attacks on religion in general. He hardly mentions Christianity. When it comes to Islam, however, it’s a different story. As Savage puts it,
It is against the backdrop of the war on terror, with its violent and destructive adventurism, that the notion of a monolithic evil called “Islam” has found a sizable constituency in the circles of liberal respectability.
As one might expect, this is followed by the de rigueur charge of racism:
The excessive focus on Islam as something at once monolithic and exceptionally bad, whose backwards followers need to have their rights in democratic societies suppressed and their home countries subjected to a Western-led civilizing process, cannot be called anything other than racist.
Moslem zealots, we find, aren’t really the enemy of, but actually belong in the pantheon of, officially endorsed and certified victim groups:
Criticisms of the violence carried out by fundamentalists of any kind – honor killings, suicide bombings, systemic persecution of women or gay people, or otherwise – are neither coherent nor even likely to be effective when they falsely attribute such phenomena to some monolithic orthodoxy.
The cognoscenti will have immediately noticed some amusing similarities between this rhetoric and that used to defend Communism in a bygone era. Notice, for example, the repeated insistence that Islam is not “monolithic.” Back in the day, one of the most hackneyed defenses of Communism was also that it was not “monolithic.” No doubt it was a great comfort to the millions slowly starving to death in the Gulag, or on their way to get a bullet in the back of the neck, that they at least weren’t the victims of a “monolithic” assassin. In case that’s too subtle for you, Savage spells it out, quoting from a book by Richard Seymour:
The function of [Hitchens’] antitheism was structurally analogous to what Irving Howe characterized as Stalinophobia…the Bogey-Scapegoat of Stalinism justified a new alliance with the right, obliviousness towards the permanent injustices of capitalist society, and a tolerance for repressive practices conducted in the name of the “Free World.” In roughly isomorphic fashion Hitchens’ preoccupation with religion…authorized not just a blind eye to the injustices of capitalism and empire but a vigorous advocacy of the same.
One would think that defending “the opiate of the masses” would be a bitter pill for any dedicated fighter against “capitalism and empire” to swallow, but Savage manages it with aplomb. Channeling the likes of Karen Armstrong, David Bentley Hart, and the rest of the “sophisticated Christians,” he writes,
Whether directed at Catholicism, Paganism, or Islam, the methodology employed to expose the inherent “irrationality” of all religions betrays a fundamental misunderstanding (or perhaps misrepresentation) of the nature of religious discourses, beliefs, and practices.
If that’s not quite rarified enough for you, how about this:
Moreover, the core assertion that forms the discursive nucleus of books like The God Delusion, God is Not Great, and The End of Faith – namely, that religious texts can be read as literal documents containing static ideas, and that the ensuing practices are uniform – is born out by neither real, existing religion or by its historical reality as a socially and ideologically heterogeneous phenomenon.
This is particularly significant in relation to the New Atheists’ denunciations of what they call “the doctrine of Islam” because it renders bare their false ontology of religion – one which more or less assumes that fundamentalism is the product of bad ideas rather than particular social and material conditions.
So Stalin wasn’t a bad boy. He just had a bad environment. See how that works? At this point Marx must be spinning in his grave, so we’ll leave these eloquent defenses of religion at that, and let the old man get some rest. In point of fact Marxism was itself a religion for all practical purposes. It just happened to be a secular one, with an earthly rather than a heavenly paradise. In its heyday, Communism had to damn the older, spiritual versions because messianic religions are never tolerant. Now that it’s defunct as an effective vehicle for militant zealotry, it’s pointless to continue trying to defend it from its spiritual competition.
In any case, the “progressive” flirtation with medieval obscurantism continues unabated. Will it ever become a full-fledged embrace? I suppose it’s not completely out of the question, but a lot of ideological baggage will have to be ditched along the way to that consummation. As for the New Atheists, one might say that they’ve just had a religious experience in spite of themselves. They’ve all been excommunicated.
Thanks to Tom at Happyjar.com for the cartoon. Check out his store!
Posted on November 1st, 2014 3 comments
Sometimes the best metrics for public intellectuals are the short articles they write for magazines. There are page limits, so they have to get to the point. It isn’t as easy to camouflage vacuous ideas behind a smoke screen of verbiage. Take, for example, the case of Oswald Spengler. His “Decline of the West” was hailed as the inspired work of a prophet in the years following its publication in 1918. Read Spengler’s Wiki entry and you’ll see what I mean. He should have quit while he was ahead.
Fast forward to 1932, and the Great Depression was at its peak. The Decline of the West appeared to be a fait accompli. Spengler would have been well-advised to rest on his laurels. Instead, he wrote an article for The American Mercury, still edited at the time by the Sage of Baltimore, H. L. Mencken, with the reassuring title, “Our Backs are to the Wall!” It was a fine synopsis of the themes Spengler had been harping on for years, and a prophecy of doom worthy of Jeremiah himself. It was also wrong.
According to Spengler, high technology carried within itself the seeds of its own collapse. Man had dared to “revolt against nature.” Now the very machines he had created in the process were revolting against man. At the time he wrote the article he summed up the existing situation as follows:
A group of nations of Nordic blood under the leadership of British, German, French, and Americans command the situation. Their political power depends on their wealth, and their wealth consists in their industrial strength. But this in turn is bound up with the existence of coal. The Germanic peoples, in particular, are secured by what is almost a monopoly of the known coalfields…
Spengler went on to explain that,
Countries industrially poor are poor all around; they cannot support an army or wage a war; therefore they are politically impotent; and the workers in them, leaders and led alike, are objects in the economic policy of their opponents.
No doubt he would have altered this passage somewhat had he been around to witness the subsequent history of places like Vietnam, Algeria, and Cambodia. Willpower, ideology, and military genius have trumped political and economic power throughout history. Spengler simply assumed they would be ineffective against modern technology because the “Nordic” powers had not been seriously challenged in the 50 years before he wrote his book. It was a rash assumption. Even more rash were his assumptions about the early demise of modern technology. He “saw” things happening in his own times that weren’t really happening at all. For example,
The machine, by its multiplication and its refinement, is in the end defeating its own purpose. In the great cities the motor-car has by its numbers destroyed its own value, and one gets on quicker on foot. In Argentina, Java, and elsewhere the simple horse-plough of the small cultivator has shown itself economically superior to the big motor implement, and is driving the latter out. Already, in many tropical regions, the black or brown man with his primitive ways of working is a dangerous competitor to the modern plantation-technic of the white.
Unfortunately, motor cars and tractors can’t read, so went right on multiplying without paying any attention to Spengler’s book. At least he wasn’t naïve enough to believe that modern technology would end because of the exhaustion of the coalfields. He knew that we were quite clever enough to come up with alternatives. However, in making that very assertion, he stumbled into what was perhaps the most fundamental of all his false predictions; the imminence of the “collapse of the West.”
It is, of course, nonsense to talk, as it was fashionable to do in the Nineteenth Century, of the imminent exhaustion of the coal-fields within a few centuries and of the consequences thereof – here, too, the materialistic age could not but think materially. Quite apart from the actual saving of coal by the substitution of petroleum and water-power, technical thought would not fail ere long to discover and open up still other and quite different sources of power. It is not worth while thinking ahead so far in time. For the west-European-American technology will itself have ended by then. No stupid trifle like the absence of material would be able to hold up this gigantic evolution.
Alas, “so far in time” came embarrassingly fast, with the discovery of nuclear fission a mere six years later. Be that as it may, among the reasons that this “gigantic evolution” was unstoppable was what Spengler referred to as “treason to technics.” As he put it,
Today more or less everywhere – in the Far East, India, South America, South Africa – industrial regions are in being, or coming into being, which, owing to their low scales of wages, will face us with a deadly competition. the unassailable privileges of the white races have been thrown away, squandered, betrayed.
In other words, the “treason” consisted of the white race failing to keep its secrets to itself, but bestowing them on the brown and black races. They, however, were only interested in using this technology against the original creators of the “Faustian” civilization of the West. Once the whites were defeated, they would have no further interest in it:
For the colored races, on the contrary, it is but a weapon in their fight against the Faustian civilization, a weapon like a tree from the woods that one uses as scaffolding, but discards as soon as it has served its purpose. This machine-technic will end with the Faustian civilization and one day will lie in fragments, forgotten – our railways and steamships as dead as the Roman roads and the Chinese wall, our giant cities and skyscrapers in ruins, like old Memphis and Babylon. The history of this technic is fast drawing to its inevitable close. It will be eaten up from within. When, and in what fashion, we so far know not.
Spengler was wise to include the Biblical caveat that, “…about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Matthew 24:36). However, he had too much the spirit of the “end time” Millennialists who have cropped up like clockwork every few decades for the last 2000 years, predicting the imminent end of the world, to leave it at that. Like so many other would-be prophets, his predictions were distorted by a grossly exaggerated estimate of the significance of the events of his own time. Christians, for example, have commonly assumed that reports of war, famine and pestilence in their own time are somehow qualitatively different from the war, famine and pestilence that have been a fixture of our history for that last 2000 years, and conclude that they are witnessing the signs of the end times, when, “…nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places” (Matthew 24:7). In Spengler’s case, the “sign” was the Great Depression, which was at its climax when he wrote the article:
The center of gravity of production is steadily shifting away from them, especially since even the respect of the colored races for the white has been ended by the World War. This is the real and final basis of the unemployment that prevails in the white countries. It is no mere crisis, but the beginning of a catastrophe.
Of course, Marxism was in high fashion in 1932 as well. Spengler tosses it in for good measure, agreeing with Marx on the inevitability of revolution, but not on its outcome:
This world-wide mutiny threatens to put an end to the possibility of technical economic work. The leaders (bourgeoisie, ed.) may take to flight, but the led (proletariat, ed.) are lost. Their numbers are their death.
Spengler concludes with some advice, not for us, or our parents, or our grandparents, but our great-grandparents generation:
Only dreamers believe that there is a way out. Optimism is cowardice… Our duty is to hold on to the lost position, without hope, without rescue, like that Roman soldier whose bones were found in front of a door in Pompeii, who, during the eruption of Vesuvius, died at his post because they forgot to relieve him. That is greatness. That is what it means to be a thoroughbred. The honorable end is the one thing that can not be taken from a man.
One must be grateful that later generations of cowardly optimists donned their rose-colored glasses in spite of Spengler, went right on using cars, tractors, and other mechanical abominations, and created a world in which yet later generations of Jeremiahs could regale us with updated predictions of the end of the world. And who can blame them? After all, eventually, at some “day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven,” they are bound to get it right, if only because our sun decides to supernova. When that happens, those who are still around are bound to dust off their ancient history books, smile knowingly, and say, “See, Spengler was right after all!”
Posted on October 12th, 2014 No comments
Franz de Waal’s The Bonobo and the Atheist is interesting for several reasons. As the title of this post suggests, it demonstrates the disconnect between the theory and practice of morality in the academy. It’s one of the latest brickbats in the ongoing spat between the New Atheists and the “accommodationist” atheists. It documents the current progress of the rearrangement of history in the behavioral sciences in the aftermath of the Blank Slate debacle. It’s a useful reality check on the behavior of bonobos, the latest “noble savage” among the primates. And, finally, it’s an entertaining read.
In theory, de Waal is certainly a subjective moralist. As he puts it, “the whole point of my book is to argue a bottom up approach” to morality, as opposed to the top down approach: “The view of morality as a set of immutable principles, or laws, that are ours to discover.” The “bottom” de Waal refers to are evolved emotional traits. In his words,
The moral law is not imposed from above or derived from well-reasoned principles; rather, it arises from ingrained values that have been there since the beginning of time.
My views are in line with the way we know the human mind works, with visceral reactions arriving before rationalizations, and also with the way evolution produces behavior. A good place to start is with an acknowledgment of our background as social animals, and how this background predisposes us to treat each other. This approach deserves attention at a time in which even avowed atheists are unable to wean themselves from a semireligious morality, thinking that the world would be a better place if only a white-coated priesthood could take over from the frocked one.
So far, so good. I happen to be a subjective moralist myself, and agree with de Waal on the origins of morality. However, reading on, we find confirmation of a prediction made long ago by Friedrich Nietzsche. In Human, All Too Human, he noted the powerful human attachment to religion and the “metaphysics” of the old philosophers. He likened the expansion of human knowledge to a ladder, or tree, up which humanity was gradually climbing. As we reached the top rungs, however, we would begin to notice that the old beliefs that had supplied us with such great emotional satisfaction in the past were really illusions. At that point, our tendency would be to recoil from this reality. The “tree” would begin to grow “sprouts” in reverse. We would balk at “turning the last corner.” Nietzsche imagined that developing a new philosophy that could accommodate the world as it was instead of the world as we wished it to be would be the task of “the great thinkers of the next century.” Alas, a century is long past since he wrote those words, yet to all appearances we are still tangled in the “downward sprouts.”
Nowhere else is this more apparent than in the academy, where a highly moralistic secular Puritanism prevails. Top down, objective morality is alive and well, and the self-righteous piety of the new, secular priesthood puts that of the old-fashioned religious Puritans in the shade. All this modern piety seems to be self-supporting, levitating in thin air, with none of the props once supplied by religion. As de Waal puts it,
…the main ingredients of a moral society don’t require religion, since they come from within.
Clearly, de Waal can see where morality comes from, and how it evolved, and why it exists, but, even with these insights, he too recoils from “climbing the last rungs,” and “turning the final corner.” We find artifacts of the modern objective morality prevalent in the academy scattered throughout his book. For example,
Science isn’t the answer to everything. As a student, I learned about the “naturalistic fallacy” and how it would be the zenith of arrogance for scientists to think that their work could illuminate the distinction between right and wrong. This was not long after World War II, mind you, which had brought us massive evil justified by a scientific theory of self-directed evolution. Scientists had been much involved in the genocidal machine, conducting unimaginable experiments.
American and British scientists were not innocent, however, because they were the ones who earlier in the century had brought us eugenics. They advocated racist immigration laws and forced sterilization of the deaf, blind, mentally ill, and physically impaired, as well as criminals and members of minority races.
I am profoundly skeptical of the moral purity of science, and feel that its role should never exceed that of morality’s handmaiden.
One can consider humans as either inherently good but capable of evil or as inherently evil yet capable of good. I happen to belong to the first camp.
None of these statements make any sense in the absence of objective good and evil. If, as de Waal claims repeatedly elsewhere in his book, morality is ultimately an expression of emotions or “gut feelings,” analogs of which we share with many other animals, and which exist because they evolved, then the notions that scientists are or were evil, period, or that science itself can be morally impure, period, or that humans can be good, period, or evil, period, are obvious non sequiturs. De Waal has climbed up the ladder, peaked at what lay just beyond the top rungs, and jumped back down onto Nietzsche’s “backward growing sprouts.” Interestingly enough, in spite of that de Waal admires the strength of one who was either braver or more cold-blooded, and kept climbing; Edvard Westermarck. But I will have more to say of him later.
The Bonobo and the Atheist is also interesting from a purely historical point of view. The narrative concocted to serve as the “history” of the behavioral sciences continues to be adjusted and readjusted in the aftermath of the Blank Slate catastrophe, probably the greatest scientific debacle of all time. As usual, the arch-villain is Robert Ardrey, who committed the grave sin of being right about human nature when virtually all the behavioral scientists and professionals, at least in the United States, were wrong. Imagine the impertinence of a mere playwright daring to do such a thing! Here’s what de Waal has to say about him:
Confusing predation with aggression is an old error that recalls the time that humans were seen as incorrigible murderers on the basis of signs that our ancestors ate meat. This “killer ape” notion gained such traction that the opening scene of Stanley Kubrick’s movie 2001: A Space Odyssey showed one hominin bludgeoning another with a zebra femur, after which the weapon, flung triumphantly into the air, turned into an orbiting spacecraft. A stirring image, but based on a single puncture wound in the fossilized skull of an ancestral infant, known as the Taung Child. It’s discoverer had concluded that our ancestors must have been carnivorous cannibals, an idea that the journalist Robert Ardrey repackaged in African Genesis by saying that we are risen apes rather than fallen angels. It is now considered likely, however, that the Taung Child had merely fallen prey to a leopard or eagle.
I had to smile when I read this implausible yarn. After all, anyone can refute it by simply looking up the source material, not to mention the fact that there’s no lack of people who’ve actually read Ardrey, and are aware that the “Killer Ape Theory” is a mere straw man concocted by his enemies. De Waal is not one of them. Not only has he obviously not read Ardrey, but he probably knows of him at all only at third or fourth hand. If he had, he’d realize that he was basically channeling Ardrey in the rest of his book. Indeed, much of The Bonobo and the Atheist reads as if it had been lifted from Ardrey’s last book, The Hunting Hypothesis, complete with the ancient origins of morality, Ardrey’s embrace of de Waal’s theme that humans are genuinely capable of altruism and cooperation, resulting in part, as also claimed by de Waal, from his adoption of a hunting lifestyle, and his rejection of what de Waal calls “Veneer Theory,” the notion that human morality is merely a thin veneer covering an evil and selfish core. For example, according to de Waal,
Hunting and meat sharing are at the root of chimpanzee sociality in the same way that they are thought to have catalyzed human evolution. The big-game hunting of our ancestors required even tighter cooperation.
This conclusion is familiar to those who have actually read Ardrey, but was anathema to the “Men of Science” as recently as 15 years ago. Ardrey was, of course, never a journalist, and his conclusion that Australopithecine apes had hunted was based, not on the “single puncture wound” in the Taung child’s skull, but mainly on the statistical anomaly of numbers of a particular type of bone that might have been used as a weapon found in association with the ape remains far in excess of what would be expected if they were there randomly. To date, no one has ever explained that anomaly, and it remains carefully swept under the rug. In a word, the idea that Ardrey based his hypothesis entirely “on a single puncture wound” is poppycock. In the first place, there were two puncture wounds, not one. Apparently, de Waal is also unaware that Raymond Dart, the man who discovered this evidence, has been rehabilitated, and is now celebrated as the father of cave taphonomy, whereas those who disputed his conclusions about what he had found, such as C. K. Brain, who claimed that the wounds were caused by a leopard, are now in furious rowback mode. For example, from the abstract of a paper in which Brain’s name appears at the end of the list of authors,
The ca. 1.0 myr old fauna from Swartkrans Member 3 (South Africa) preserves abundant indication of carnivore activity in the form of tooth marks (including pits) on many bone surfaces. This direct paleontological evidence is used to test a recent suggestion that leopards, regardless of prey body size, may have been almost solely responsible for the accumulation of the majority of bones in multiple deposits (including Swartkrans Member 3) from various Sterkfontein Valley cave sites. Our results falsify that hypothesis and corroborate an earlier hypothesis that, while the carcasses of smaller animals may have been deposited in Swartkrans by leopards, other kinds of carnivores (and hominids) were mostly responsible for the deposition of large animal remains.
Meanwhile, we find that none other than Stephen Jay Gould has been transmogrified into a “hero.” As documented by Steven Pinker in The Blank Slate, Gould was basically a radical Blank Slater, unless one cares to give him a pass because he grudgingly admitted that, after all, eating, sleeping, urinating and defecating might not be purely learned behaviors, after all. The real Steven Jay Gould rejected evolutionary psychology root and branch, and was a co-signer of the Blank Slater manifesto that appeared in the New York Times in response to claims about human nature as reserved as those of E. O. Wilson in his Sociobiology. He famously invented the charge of “just so stories” to apply to any and all claims for the existence of human behavioral predispositions. Now, in The Bonobo and the Atheist, we find Gould reinvented as a good evolutionary psychologist. His “just so stories” only apply to the “excesses” of evolutionary psychology. We find the real Gould, who completely rejected the idea of “human nature,” softened to a new, improved Gould who merely “vehemently resisted the idea that every single human behavior deserves an evolutionary account.” If anyone was a dyed-in-the-wool habitue of the Blank Slate establishment in its heyday, it was Gould, but suddenly we learn that “Several skirmishes between him and the evolutionary establishment unfolded in the pages of the New York Review of Books in 1997.” I can only suggest that anyone who honestly believes that a new “establishment” had already replaced the Blank Slate prior to 1997 should read Napoleon Chagnon’s Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes – The Yanomamö and the Anthropologists, published as recently as last year. No matter, according to de Waal, “The greatest public defender of evolution this country has ever known was Stephen Jay Gould.”
Perhaps one can best understand the Gould panegyrics in connection with another of the major themes of de Waal’s book; his rejection of Richard Dawkins and the rest of the New Atheists. De Waal is what New Atheist Jerry Coyne would refer to as an “accommodationist,” that is, an atheist who believes that the atheist lions should lie down with the religious sheep. As it happens, Gould was the Ur-accommodationist, and inventor of the phrase “nonoverlapping magisterial,” or NOMA to describe his claim that science and religion occupy separate spheres of knowledge. One can find a good summary of the objections to NOMA from the likes of “New Atheists” Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Coyne on Prof. Coyne’s website, Why Evolution is True, for example, here and here.
It’s hard to understand de Waal’s bitter opposition to atheist activism as other than yet another example of Nietzsche’s “climbing down onto the backward pointing shoots.” Indeed, as one might expect from such instances of “turning back,” it’s not without contradictions. For example, he writes,
Religion looms as large as an elephant in the United States, to the point that being nonreligious is about the biggest handicap a politician running for office can have, bigger than being gay, unmarried, thrice married, or black.
And yet he objects to the same kind of activism among atheists that has been the most effective antidote to such bigotry directed at, for example, gays and blacks. For some reason, atheists are just supposed to smile and take it. De Waal accuses Dawkins, Harris and the rest of being “haters,” but I know of not a single New Atheist that term can really be accurately applied to, and certainly not to the likes of Dawkins, Harris or Coyne. Vehement, on occasion, yes, but haters of the religious per se? I don’t think so. De Waal agrees with David Sloan Wilson that “religion” evolved. I can certainly believe that predispositions evolved that have the potential to manifest themselves as religion, but “religion” per se, complete with imaginary spiritual beings? Not likely. Nevertheless, De Waal claims it is part of our “social skin.” And yet, in spite of this claim that religion “evolved,” a bit later we find him taking note of a social phenomenon that apparently directly contradicts this conclusion:
The secular model is currently being tried out in northern Europe, where it has progressed to the point that children naively ask why there are so many “plus signs” on large buildings called “churches.”
Apparently, then, “evolved religion” only infected a portion of our species in northern Europe, and they all moved to the United States. Finally, in his zeal to defend religion, de Waal comes up with some instances of “moral equivalence” that are truly absurd. For example,
I am as sickened (by female genital mutilation, ed.) as the next person, but if Harris’s quest is to show that religion fails to promote morality, why pick on Islam? Isn’t genital mutilation common in the United States, too, where newborn males are routinely circumcised without their consent? We surely don’t need to go all the way to Afghanistan to find valleys in the moral landscape.
As it happens I know of several instances in which my undergraduate classmates voluntarily had themselves circumcised, not for any religious motive, but because otherwise their girlfriends wouldn’t agree to oral sex. One wonders whether de Waal can cite similar instances involving FGM.
Oh, well, I suppose I shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth. Anyone who believes in a “bottom up” version of subjective morality can’t be all bad, according to my own subjective judgment, of course. Indeed, de Waal even has the audacity to point out that bonobos, those paragons of primate virtue extolled so often as role models for our own species do, occasionally fight. Along with Jonathan Haidt, he’s probably the closest thing to a “kindred spirit” I’m likely to find in academia. The icing on the cake is that he is aware of and admires the brilliant work of Edvard Westermarck on morality. What of Westermarck, you ask. Well, I’ll take that up in another post.