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.
Posted on September 27th, 2014 No comments
Readers who loath the modern joyless version of Puritanism, shorn of its religious impedimenta, that has become the dominant dogma of our time, and would like to escape for a while to a happier time in which ostentatious public piety was not yet de rigueur are in luck. An expanded version of H. L. Mencken’s “Days” trilogy has just been published, edited by Marion Elizabeth Rogers. It includes Happy Days, Newspaper Days, and Heathen Days, and certainly ranks as one of the most entertaining autobiographies ever written. The latest version actually contains a bonus for Mencken fans. As noted in the book’s Amazon blurb,
…unknown to the legions of Days books’ admirers, Mencken continued to add to them after publication, annotating and expanding each volume in typescripts sealed to the public for twenty-five years after his death. Until now, most of this material—often more frank and unvarnished than the original Days books—has never been published. (This latest version contains) nearly 200 pages of previously unseen writing, and is illustrated with photographs from Mencken’s archives, many taken by Mencken himself.
Infidel that he was, the Sage of Baltimore would have smiled to see the hardcover version. It comes equipped with not one, but two of those little string bookmarks normally found in family Bibles. I’ve read an earlier version of the trilogy, but that was many years ago. I recalled many of Mencken’s anecdotes as I encountered them again, and perhaps with a bit more insight. I know a great deal more about the author than I did the first time through, not to mention the times in which he lived. There’ve been some changes made since then, to say the least. For example, Mencken recalls that maids were paid $10 a month plus room and board in the 1880’s, but no less than $12 a month from about 1890 on. Draught beer was a nickel, and a first class businessman’s lunch at a downtown hotel with soup, a meat dish, two side dishes, pie and coffee, was a quarter. A room on the “American plan,” complete with three full meals a day, was $2.50.
Mencken was already beginning to notice the transition to today’s “kinder, gentler” mode of raising children in his later days, but experienced few such ameliorations in his own childhood. Children weren’t “spared the rod,” either by their parents or their teachers. Mencken recalls that the headmaster of his first school, one Prof. Friedrich Knapp, had a separate ritual for administering corporal punishment to boys and girls, and wore out a good number of rattan switches in the process. Even the policemen had strips of leather dangling from their clubs, with which they chastised juveniles who ran afoul of the law. Parents took all this as a matter of course, and the sage never knew any of his acquaintance to complain. When school started, the children were given one dry run on the local horse car accompanied by their parents, and were sent out on their own thereafter. Of course, Mencken and his sister got lost on their first try, but were set on the right track by a policeman and some Baltimore stevedores. No one thought of such a thing as supervising children at play. One encounters many similar changes in the social scene as one progresses through the trilogy, but the nature of the human beast hasn’t changed much. All the foibles and weaknesses Mencken describes are still with us today. He was, of course, one of the most prominent atheists in American history, and often singled out the more gaudy specimens of the faithful for special attention. His description of the Scopes monkey trial in Heathen Days is a classic example. I suspect he would have taken a dim view of the New Atheists. In his words,
No male of the Mencken family, within the period that my memory covers, ever took religion seriously enough to be indignant about it. There were no converts from the faith among us, and hence no bigots or fanatics. To this day I have a distrust of such fallen-aways, and when one of them writes in to say that some monograph of mine has aided him in throwing off the pox of Genesis my rejoicing over the news is very mild indeed.
Of course, if one possesses the wit of a Mencken or a Voltaire, one has the luxury of fighting the bigotry and fanaticism coming from the other side very effectively without using the same weapons.
I certainly encourage those who haven’t read Mencken to pick up a copy of this latest release of his work. Those interested in more detail about the content may consult the work of professional reviewers that I’m sure will soon appear. I will limit myself to one more observation. It never fails that when some new bit of Menckeniana appears, the self-appointed guardians of the public virtue climb up on their soapboxes and condemn him as a racist. Anyone who reads the Days will immediately see where this charge comes from. Mencken makes free use of the N word and several other terms for African-Americans that have been banned from the lexicon over the ensuing years. No matter that he didn’t use more flattering terms to describe other subgroups of the population, and certainly not of the white “boobeoisie,” of the cities, or the “hinds,” and “yokels” of the country.
Nothing could be more untrue or unfair than this charge of “racism,” but, alas, to give the lie to it one must actually read Mencken’s work, and few of the preening moralists of our own day are willing to go to the trouble. That’s sad, because none of them have contributed anywhere near as much as Mencken to the cause of racial equality. He did that by ignoring the racist conventions of his own day and cultivating respect for black thinkers and intellectuals by actively seeking them out and publishing their work, most notably in the American Mercury, which he edited from its inception in 1924 until he turned over the reigns to Charles Angoff in 1933. He didn’t publish them out of condescension or pity, or as their self-appointed savior, or out of an inordinate love of moralistic grandstanding of the sort that has become so familiar in our own day. He paid them a much higher favor. He published them because, unlike so many others in his own time, he was not blind to their intellectual gifts, and rightly concluded that their work was not only worthy of, but would enhance the value of the Mercury, one of the premier intellectual, political and literary journals of the time. As a result, the work of a host of African-American intellectuals, professionals, and poets appeared in Mencken’s magazine, eclipsing the Nation, The New Republic, The Century, or any other comparable journal of the day in that regard. All this can be easily fact-checked, because every issue of the Mercury published during Mencken’s tenure as editor can now be read online. For example, there are contributions by W. E. B. Dubois in the issue of October 1924, a young poet named Countee P. Cullen in November 1924, newspaper reporter and editor Eugene Gordon in June 1926, James Weldon Johnson, diplomat, author, lawyer, and former leader of the NAACP in April 1927, George Schuyler, author and social commentator in December 1927, Langston Hughes, poet, author, and activist in November 1933, and many others.
Most issues of the Mercury included an Americana section devoted to ridiculing absurdities discovered in various newspapers and other publications listed by state. Mencken used it regularly to heap scorn on genuine racists. For example, from the March 1925 issue:
Effects of the war for democracy among the Tar Heels, as reported in a dispatch from Goldsboro:
Allen Moses and his wife, wealthy Negroes, left here in Pullman births tonight for Washington and New York. This is the first time in the history of this city that Negroes have “had the nerve,” as one citizen expressed it, to buy sleeper tickets here. White citizens are aroused, and it is said the Ku Klux Klan will be asked to give Moses a warm reception on his return.
From the May 1926 issue:
The rise of an aristocracy among the defenders of 100% Americanism, as revealed by a dispatch from Durham:
“According to reports being circulated here the Ku Klux Klan has added a new wrinkle to its activities and are now giving distinguished service crosses to member of the hooded order of the reconstruction days. In keeping with this new custom, it is reported that two Durham citizens were recipients of this honor recently. The medal, as explained by the honorable klansman making the award, is of no intrinsic value, ‘but the sentiment attached to it and the heart throbs that go with it are as measureless as the sands of the sea.'”
From the August 1928 issue:
District of Columbia
The Hon. Cole L. Blease, of South Carolina, favors his colleagues in the Senate with a treatise on southern ethics:
“There are not enough marines in or outside of the United States Army or Navy, in Nicaragua, and all combined, to make us associate with niggers. We never expect to. We never have; but we treat them fairly. If you promise one of the $5 for a days work, if he does the days work, I believe you should pay him.”
So much for the alleged “racism” of H. L. Mencken. It reminds me of a poster that was prominently displayed in an office I once worked in. It bore the motto, “No good deed goes unpunished.”
Posted on March 24th, 2014 2 comments
No doubt sports fans are aware of the “C’mon Man” collections of the sports week’s worst bloopers and blown calls on ESPN. That was my reaction on reading a piece entitled Yes, Atheism and Conservatism Are Compatible by fellow conservative atheist Charles C. W. Cooke at National Review Online. The article was a reaction to the recent unceremonious eviction of the atheist group American Atheists from a booth at CPAC after they had been invited to attend by current Chair of the American Conservative Union, Al Cardenas.
The invitation extended by the ACU, Al Cardenas and CPAC to American Atheists to have a booth is more than an attack on conservative principles. It is an attack on God Himself. American Atheists is an organization devoted to the hatred of God. How on earth could CPAC, or the ACU and its board of directors, and Al Cardenas condone such an atrocity?
to which Cooke quite reasonably responds,
The particular merits of the American Atheists group to one side, this is a rather astounding thing for Bozell to have said. In just 63 words, he confuses disbelief in God for “hatred” for God — a mistake that not only begs the question but is inherently absurd (one cannot very well hate what one does not believe is there); he condemns an entire conference on the basis of one participant — not a good look for a struggling movement, I’m afraid; and, most alarmingly perhaps, he insinuates that one cannot simultaneously be a conservative and an atheist. I reject this idea — and with force.
If atheism and conservatism are incompatible, then I am not a conservative. And nor, I am given to understand, are George Will, Charles Krauthammer, Anthony Daniels, Walter Olson, Heather Mac Donald, James Taranto, Allahpundit, or S. E. Cupp.
He continues with the same point that I made in a recent post:
One of the problems we have when thinking about atheism in the modern era is that the word has been hijacked and turned into a political position when it is no such thing. The Oxford English Dictionary defines an “atheist” as someone who exhibits “disbelief in, or denial of, the existence of a god.” That’s me right there — and that really is the extent of it.
Cooke continues with an assessment of the Christian legacy in world history which is rather more benevolent than anything I would venture. And then he goes completely off the tracks. As readers of this blog might guess, it happens in the context of an issue that speaks to our moral emotions – the question of Rights. Again quoting Cooke,
A great deal of the friction between atheists and conservatives seems to derive from a reasonable question. “If you don’t consider that human beings are entitled to ‘God given’ liberties,” I am often asked, “don’t you believe that the unalienable rights that you spend your days defending are merely the product of ancient legal accidents or of the one-time whims of transient majorities?” Well, no, not really. As far as I can see, the American settlement can thrive perfectly well within my worldview. God or no God, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence are all built upon centuries of English law, human experience, and British and European philosophy, and the natural-law case for them stands nicely on its own.
Not really. Sorry, but without a God, the “natural-law case for them” collapses as a non sequitur. Without a God, “natural law” can’t grab a single Right, Good, or Evil out of anyone’s subjective consciousness and magically transmute it into a thing-in-itself. And in spite of the fervent wringing of hands of every conservative on the face of the planet, the fact that it can’t won’t cause a God to miraculously spring into existence. The subjective perception of rights in the human consciousness will continue to function just as it always has. That perception isn’t going anywhere, and neither requires, nor will it pay any attention to the Christians who are disappointed because there’s no God to transmute the perception into an independent Thing, nor to atheists, conservative and otherwise, are disappointed because they can’t transmute it into a Thing by invoking equally imaginary “natural laws.” Adding insult to injury, Cooke continues,
“Of the nature of this being (God),” Jefferson wrote to John Adams in 1817, “we know nothing,” Neither do I. Indeed, I do not believe that there is a “being” at all. And yet one can reasonably take Jefferson’s example and, without having to have an answer as to what created the world, merely rely upon the same sources as he did – upon Locke and Newton and Cicero and Bacon and, ultimately, upon one’s own human reason. From this, one can argue that the properties of the universe suggest self-ownership, that this self-ownership yields certain rights that should be held to be unalienable, and that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. After all, that’s what we’re all righting for, Right?
(Pause for loud forehead slap.) Locke, Newton, Cicero and Bacon? Smart men, no doubt, but what on earth could they conceivably have known about the evolutionary origins of such concepts as Rights? Good grief, Locke was a Blank Slater, albeit one of a much different color than the likes of John Stuart Mill or Ashley Montagu. Are we really to believe that one can become enlightened concerning “Rights” by reading Locke, Newton, Cicero, and Bacon until one reaches a state of Don Quixote-like stupefaction? “Human reason?” Hey, I’m game, as long as the chain of rational arguments doesn’t include the “miracle happens” step introduced in one of Gary Larson’s “The Far Side” cartoons. And the leap from “human reason” to “self-ownership” as a property of the universe? All I can say is, Cooke should have stopped while he was ahead. C’mon, man!
Posted on March 7th, 2014 No comments
If the world you imagine resembles a comic book, it could be there are some flaws in your fundamental assumptions. So it is with Catholic apologist Ross Douthat, whose fantasies would not be out of place in the literary productions of Dell or Marvel. However, they’re actually more likely to turn up on the opinion pages of the New York Times. That’s where I found his latest, entitled The Return of the Happy Atheist. It’s actually the second of a pair of replies to another collection of musings about atheism and the decline of belief by Adam Gopnik entitled Bigger than Phil, which recently appeared in The New Yorker.
For Douthat and many others like him, it’s impossible to conceive of atheism as simply a lack of belief in God or gods. He conceives of atheists as a monolithic outgroup, whose atheism implies all sorts of other ideological connections. He declares himself in broad agreement with Leszek Kolakowski, according to whom there was once a “cozy world” for our “movement” back in the days of the Enlightenment, under leaders such as Diderot, Feuerbach, and Helvetius, the latter of whom actually happened to be a deist. Then, Nietzsche announced the death of God, and since that day, “there have been no more happy atheists… that world was transformed into a place of endless anxiety and suffering. The absence of God became a permanently festering wound in the European spirit.”
No need to despair, fellow atheists! Douthat is pleased to announce that “we” have swung from “glad” to “sad” back to “glad” once again. In his words,
Among polemicists and philosophers alike, there’s what feels like a renewed confidence that all of the issues – moral, political, existential – that made the death of God seem like a kind of “wound” to so many 20th century writers have somehow been neatly wrapped up and resolved and can now be safely put aside.
And why have “we” all suddenly become so happy? Douthat notes that in the piece by Gopnik that he’s supposed to be writing about, the author claims that, at least in part, it’s because of “the broad prestige, in the past twenty years, of evolutionary biology.” And here is where things get really interesting. Douthat continues,
But he doesn’t pursue this idea quite far enough, writing that “the details of the new evolutionary theory are fairly irrelevant to the New Atheism.” which strikes me as quite wrong: It’s precisely the specifics of sociobiology, of evolutionary psychology, that have helped give atheism its swagger back, because ev-psych promises a theory of human culture in a way that other evolutionary theories don’t. And with that promise has come a sense, visible throughout atheist commentaries nowadays, that by explaining human culture in scientific terms they can also justify the parts of that culture that they find congenial, ground their liberal cosmopolitanism firmly in capital-S Science, and avoid the abysses that seemed to yawn beneath the 20th century’s feet. This reading of evolutionary psychology hasn’t quite made Nature itself seem completely “friendly” again, but it has ;made a kind of contemporary scientism seem friendlier to moral visions in general and the progressive moral vision in particular, in a way that has made “if there is no God, all is permitted” feel (to many writers, at least) like a less troubling point against atheism after all.
Amazing! Apparently David Bentley Hart, who included a fact-free diatribe against evolutionary psychology in his The Experience of God, the latest redoubt of Sophisticated Christians, isn’t just an outlier. It would seem the unfortunate evolutionary psychologists are doomed to be the whipping boys of ideological zealots of all stripes. The fact that conservative Christians are now piling on with the rest really stands things on their head.
Evolutionary psychology, referred to in the vernacular as “sociobiology” after E. O. Wilson coined the term, and even earlier, in the heyday of Robert Ardrey and Konrad Lorenz, as “ethology,” although all three terms now have separate “academic” definitions, has long been, and to a large extent still is, the bête noire of the very leftist atheist “progressives” who Douthat claims now embrace it. Quick, someone run and tell John Horgan and Marshall Sahlins! Where on earth is this fable about New Atheists enthusiastically embracing evolutionary psychology coming from? Certainly not from Richard Dawkins, who declared in The Selfish Gene that Ur-evolutionary psychologist Robert Ardrey and Konrad Lorenz were “totally and utterly wrong.” Jerry Coyne, who also spilled some ink over Douthat’s latest? I don’t think so! The latest I’ve seen emanating from that realm, Joshua Greene’s Moral Tribes, embraces not EP, but John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism. His only interest in evolutionary psychology is in thinking up clever ways to circumvent its findings.
None of these Christian gentry seem to have the faintest clue that that basis of evolutionary psychology is merely the recognition that there actually is such a thing as human nature. The fact that it is now supposed to be “in fashion” is really nothing more than that recognition, following decades in which the so-called behavioral “sciences” were in thrall to the ludicrous ideological orthodoxies of the Blank Slate. Douthat is much more likely to hit pay dirt in his hunt for atheists whose tastes run to leftist progressivism among the flotsam and jetsam left over from the demise of that orthodoxy than in the EP journals.
None of that matters to the Douthats of the world, though. EP is too useful to their narrative to pay any attention to the truth. And it turns out that the narrative in question is nothing more sophisticated than the hoary old naturalistic fallacy. Quoting once again from the above passage, “…by explaining human culture in scientific terms they can also justify the parts of that culture that they find congenial.” In other words, hidden in some dark cranny of academia, New Atheists, who are not otherwise identified, are supposed to be busily cobbling the “is” of evolutionary psychology into the “ought” of their nefarious, godless philosophy. Whatever. I suppose it’s not much of a stretch if you actually believe the rest of Catholic dogma.
In any case, “we” the monolithic atheist “movement” of today, are now “glad” again, thanks to the crutch of evolutionary psychology combined with a generally benign and prosperous world. “We” are also no longer embarrassed by Communism, which, of course, “we” foisted on the world. That revelation came as news to me, an atheist who volunteered to fight Communism in Vietnam at a time when to do so was not considered fashionable.
No time for the “movement” to relax, though, fellow atheists! The far-seeing Douthat, after scrutinizing related articles in the opinion columns of the New York Times and running across some other articles in popular magazines that clearly reveal that we face “problems that should be obvious to those with eyes to see,” is convinced that the pendulum will soon swing back from “glad” to “sad” once again. “Dark forces,” he writes, are driving “secular liberalism toward the kind of intellectual crisis that seems to me to lurk, iceberg-like, somewhere out ahead.”
Well, to tell you the truth, as a conservative atheist I wouldn’t mind having a front row seat to watch that ship slip beneath the waves, either. The only problem is that, according to the Douthats of the world, people like me can’t exist.
Posted on February 1st, 2014 No comments
The latest gambit among the spiritually inclined opponents of such “New Atheists” as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris has been to deprecate them as “undergraduate atheists.” Their unseemly and childish squabbles with equally unenlightened religious fundamentalists are supposedly just the predictable outcome of their mutual confusion about the real nature of God. They are in dire need of adult supervision from more sophisticated believers who have troubled themselves to acquire this knowledge. One such self-appointed guardian of the divine wisdom is David Bentley Hart, whose latest effort to set the New Atheists straight is entitled The Experience of God. As Hart puts it,
…any attempt to confirm or disprove the reality of God can be meaningfully undertaken only in a way appropriate to what God is purported to be. If one imagines that God is some discrete object visible to physics or some finite aspect of nature, rather than the transcendent actuality of all things and all knowing, the logically inevitable Absolute upon which the contingent depends, then one simply has misunderstood what the content of the concept of God truly is, and has nothing to contribute to the debate.
Well, that’s not entirely true. I rather suspect that Dawkins and the rest aren’t quite as ignorant as Hart suggests of the Eastern Philosophy 101 version of God he portrays in his book. As he claims, it’s a version that’s common to the mystics of Christianity, Islam, and many other religious traditions. However, the New Atheists have quite reasonably chosen to focus their attention on the God that most people actually believe in rather than the one favored by Hart and the rest of the metaphysicians. According to Hart, all this amounts to is a pitiful spectacle of equally ignorant atheists and religious fundamentalists chasing each others tails. Supposedly, by focusing on what most of the faithful actually believe about the nature of God, the New Atheists have removed themselves from the debate. In reality, Hart is the one who’s not really in the “debate,” because he artificially attempts to lift himself out of it. He does this by fragmenting God into a “philosophical” God and a “dogmatic” God, as if the latter were irrelevant to the former. This is supposedly done in order to achieve “clarity,” and to spare the reader “boring arguments.” In fact, this taking a meat ax to God to chop off the inconvenient bits achieves the very opposite of “clarity.” What it does do is obfuscate the very real and very sharp incompatibilities between the different religious traditions that Dawkins was referring to when he wrote in the God Delusion,
We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.
We can assume that, as Hart claims, all the great religious traditions are in broad agreement about the “philosophical” God that he describes at length in his book. What about the “dogmatic” God that is distinguished in the different religions and sects by how many wills He has, how many natures He has, what His “substance” is, whether or not he is “begotten,” whether he comes in one person or three, etc. These distinctions are very real, important, and can’t just be dismissed with a wave of the hand to achieve “clarity.”
For example, most Christians believe in the Trinity, and virtually all of them believe that the term “begotten” is associated with God in one way or another. Moslems beg to differ. Muhammad said quite plainly that, not only is this Christian version of God wrong, but those who believe in the Trinity, or that Christ was “begotten” as one of God’s persons, will burn in hell forever. “Forever,” of course, is a very long time, compared to which the supposed 13 plus billion year age of the universe is but the blink of an eye. Muhammad was also quite explicit about what burning in hell means. One’s physical body will be immersed in fire, and a new skin will immediately replace each old one as it is consumed by the flames. One might say that if, as Hart insists, there really is a God, he might be a great deal less “bored” by the distinction between the Trinitarian and Unitarian versions of God after he dies than he is now. He might end up in a rather more tropical climate than he expected.
It is one of Hart’s favorite conceits, practiced, he assures us, since the days of the earliest fathers of the church, to dismiss all the contradictions and physical absurdities in the Bible as “allegories.” Unfortunately, one does not have this luxury with the Quran. Muhammad said quite plainly that he hadn’t written any riddles or allegories, and he meant everything he said. In fact, the different versions of God are the same only if we allow Hart to perform his “dogmatic” lobotomy on them. Thus, to the extent that they make any sense at all, such statements in the book as,
…if one is content merely to devise images of God that are self-evidently nonsensical, and then proceed triumphantly to demonstrate just how infuriatingly nonsensical they are, one is not going to accomplish anything interesting.
can make sense only after Hart has carefully denatured God by excising all his “dogmatic” bits. But what of Hart’s “philosophical” God, this denatured God of the mystics and metaphysicians, about whose nature Christian priests, Moslem mullahs, and Hindu sadhus are supposed to be in such loving agreement? Predictably, it turns out that He exists up on an intellectual shelf, free from the prying rationality of the atheists. As Hart puts it,
All the great theistic traditions agree that God, understood in this proper sense, is essentially beyond finite comprehension, hence, much of the language used of Him is negative in form and has been reached only by a logical process of abstraction from those qualities of finite reality that make it insufficient to account for its own existence. All agree as well, however, that he can genuinely be known: that is, reasoned toward, intimately encountered, directly experienced with fullness surpassing mere conceptual comprehension.
He then goes on to present us with the terms that, later in the book, are to figure prominently both in his definition of God and the proof of his existence:
The terms in which I have chosen to speak of God, as the title page of the volume announces, are “being,” “consciousness,” and “bliss.” This is a traditional ternion that I have borrowed from Indian tradition… they are ideal descriptions not only of how various traditions understand the nature of God, but also of how the reality of God can, according to those traditions, be experienced and known by us. For to say that God is being, consciousness, and bliss is also to say that he is the one reality in which all our existence, knowledge, and love subsist, from which they come and to which they go, and that therefore he is somehow present in even our simplest experience of the world, and is approachable by way of a contemplative and moral refinement of experience.
I invite those interested in a further explication of these terms to consult Hart’s book, as he devotes a chapter to each of them. However, for the purposes of this post, I will cut to the chase. These terms are supposed to constitute a bulletproof rejoinder to the “undergraduate atheists.” According to Hart, we cannot explain how there is something rather than nothing without a God (being), we cannot explain consciousness without a God, and we cannot explain such things as beauty or the “moral law within” without God (bliss). I must say that I am in full agreement with Hart to the extent that I don’t know why there is something rather than nothing. I have no clue how I can be conscious, and I haven’t the faintest inkling of exactly how my consciousness experiences beauty. However, the hoary conceit that we are somehow forced to supply a God to explain the things we don’t understand strikes me as rather weak, especially for someone like Hart, who writes in the style of a high school prima donna who people have made such a fuss over that she imagines she’s Meryl Streep.
In reality, Hart’s “proofs” of God’s existence amount to nothing more than the classic non sequitur of supplying something more complicated to explain something less complicated, regardless of whether he chooses to describe God as an object, a subject, a Ground of Being, an Absolute Reality, or whatever. In the end, that’s really all he’s got. These three words supply his whole rationalization to himself of why he’s infinitely smarter and wiser than the “undergraduate atheists.” He would have been better off just stating these “proofs” and leaving it at that, but he couldn’t resist pondering the implications of these three “incontrovertible” truths for science itself, and lecturing the scientists accordingly. We learn in the process that he’s not only way, way smarter than just the New Atheists, but also such worthies as the physicists Weinberg, Feynman and Hawking, to whom he delivers a stern lecture for daring to violate his metaphysical territory. Needless to say, he also imagines himself far above such intellectual “lightweights” as Dawkins,
As for Dawkins’ own attempt at an argument against the likelihood of God’s existence, it is so crude and embarrassingly confused as to be germane to nothing at all, perhaps not even to itself.
as for the rest of the New Atheists,
Even the stridency, bigotry, childishness and ignorance with which the current atheist vogue typically expresses itself should perhaps be excused as no more than an effervescence of primitive fervor on the part of those who, finding themselves poised upon a precipice overlooking the abyss of ultimate absurdity, have made a madly valiant leap of faith.
Hart presents us with such bluster repeatedly, without accompanying it with a serious attempt to specifically address so much as one of Dawkins’ actual arguments against the existence of God. In fact, one might say he is the perfect platonic “form” of a Pharisee. One can just imagine him in the temple, praying to his God,
I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this New Atheist. (Luke 18:11)
One wonders how he squares this flamboyant intellectual hubris with such teachings of Jesus as,
Verily I say unto you, except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:3)
Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:3)
Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth. (Matthew 5:5)
No doubt, like Noah’s ark and the Garden of Eden they are just another lot of “allegories.” For all his hubris, the self-assurance with which Hart lectures the likes of Hawking and Feynman is based on a level of scientific understanding that is, shall we say, idiosyncratic. For example,
As a species, we have been shaped evolutionarily, in large part at least, by transcendental ecstasies whose orientation exceeds the whole of nature. Instead of speaking vacuously of genetic selfishness, then, it would be immeasurably more accurate to say that compassion, generosity, love, and conscience have a unique claim on life.
The mystery remains: the transcendent good, which is invisible to the forces of natural selection, has made a dwelling for itself within the consciousness of rational animals. A capacity has appeared within nature that, in its very form, is supernatural: it cannot be accounted for entirely in terms of the economy of advantageous cooperation because it continually and exorbitantly exceeds any sane calculation of evolutionary benefits. Yet, in the effectual order of evolution, it is precisely this irrepressible excessiveness that, operating as a higher cause, inscribes its logic upon the largely inert substrate of genetic materials, and guides the evolution of rational nature toward an openness to ends that cannot be enclosed within mere physical processes.
No doubt this will inspire some serious rewriting of the mathematical models of the geneticists and evolutionary biologists. It grieved me to see that, of all the scientific tribes, the evolutionary psychologists were singled out for a double helping of Hart’s disapprobation. Those ubiquitous whipping boys for ideological and religious zealots of all stripes came in for his particular ire for suggesting that morality might not come from God. In other words, they sinned against the “bliss” part of his “ternion.” As Hart somewhat flamboyantly explains,
In the end, the incongruity speaks for itself. No explanation of ethical desire entirely in terms of evolutionary benefit can ever really account for the sheer exorbitance of the moral passion of which rational minds are capable, or for the transcendentally “ecstatic” structure of moral longing.
In other words, Hart believes in “hard-wired” morality. He just thinks that God did the wiring. However, furious at the pretensions of the evolutionary psychologists, he seizes on the nearest rock to throw at them. As it happens, this is the very same rock that leftist ideologues once fashioned for themselves:
There are now even whole academic disciplines, like evolutionary psychology, that promote themselves as forms of science but that are little more than morasses of metaphor. (Evolutionary psychologists often become quite indignant when one says this, but a “science” that can explain every possible form of human behavior and organization, however universal or idiosyncratic, and no matter how contradictory of other behaviors, as some kind of practical evolutionary adaptation of the modular brain, clearly has nothing to offer but fabulous narratives – Just So Stories, as it were – disguised as scientific propositions.)
Ludicrously, Hart doesn’t realize that the “Just So Story” gambit makes no sense whatsoever if there really is a “moral law within.” It was invented by the Blank Slaters to bolster their arguments that all human behavior is a product of culture and experience. Presumably, if there really is a “moral law within,” the experiments of the evolutionary psychologists would detect it. If Hart’s God-given version of morality is true, than the notion that what they’re seeing are “Just So Stories” is out of the question. The poor, dumb boobs just don’t realize who put the morality there to begin with.
Apparently Hart has read so many books of metaphysics that, like Cervantes’ Don Quixote with his books of knight-errantry, his brain has dried up. It is no longer possible for him to imagine that anyone who doesn’t swallow the ancient conceit that, because there are things that we don’t understand, there must be a God, could possibly be arguing in good faith. Indeed, they must be evil! And so, in the spirit of that venerable Christian teaching,
Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. (Matthew 7:1-2)
Hart gives us a glance at his religious zealot’s teeth, now sadly rotted and dulled since the days of Torquemada and the Inquisition. For example, anyone who doesn’t believe in God is a collaborator with the Communists and Nazis:
Hence certain distinctively modern contributions to the history of human cruelty: “scientific” racism, Social Darwinism, the eugenics movement, criminological theories about inherited degeneracy, “curative” lobotomies, mandatory sterilizations, and so on – and, in the fullness of time, the racial ideology of the Third Reich (which regarded human nature as a biological technology to be perfected) and the collectivist ideology of the communist totalitarianisms (which regarded human nature as a social and economic technology to be reconstructed)… This is why it is silly to assert (as I have heard two of the famous New Atheists do of late) that the atheism of many of those responsible for the worst atrocities of the twentieth century was something entirely incidental to their crimes, or that there is no logical connection between the cultural decline of religious belief at the end of the nineteenth century and the political and social horrors of the first half of the twentieth.
This in spite of the fact that, as Hitler wrote and said repeatedly, he was a firm Christian believer. For example, from one of his speeches,
My feelings as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded by a few followers, recognized these Jews for what they were and summoned men to fight against them and who, God’s truth was greatest not as a sufferer but as a fighter. In boundless love as a Christian and as a man I read through the passage which tells us how the Lord at last rose in His might and seized the scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adders. How terrific was His fight for the world against the Jewish poison.
As for Communism, countless pundits have pointed out that socialist ideology was a religion, the essential difference between it and, for example, Christianity and Islam, lying merely in the fact that its devotees worshipped a secular rather than a spiritual God. Indeed, the great Scotch intellectual Sir James Mackintosh, writing long before the heyday of Marx, correctly predicted its eventual demise because, unlike the traditional spiritual gods, its god could be fact-checked.
Undeterred, and probably innocent of any knowledge of such inconvenient truths, and with the briefest of mentions of the war, slaughter, and oppression that actually have been the direct result of religious belief through the centuries, Hart goes on to explain that atheists are guilty, not only of the sins of the Communists, but of the bourgeoisie as well!
Late modern society is principally concerned with purchasing things, in ever greater abundance and variety, and so has to strive to fabricate an ever greater number of desires to gratify, and to abolish as many limits and prohibitions upon desire as it can. Such a society is already implicitly atheist and so must slowly but relentlessly apply itself to the dissolution of transcendent values… In our time, to strike a lapidary phrase, irreligion is the opiate of the bourgeoisie, the sigh of the oppressed ego, the heart of a world filled with tantalizing toys.
So much for the notion of a “dialogue” between atheists and believers. In closing, I cannot refrain from quoting a bit from Edward Fitzgerald’s wonderful critique of organized religion in general and Islam in particular, disguised as a “translation” of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat.
Would you that spangle of Existence spend
About the Secret–Quick about it, Friend!
A Hair perhaps divides the False and True–
And upon what, prithee, may life depend?
A Hair perhaps divides the False and True;
Yes; and a single Alif were the clue–
Could you but find it–to the Treasure-house,
And peradventure to The Master too;
Whose secret Presence, through Creation’s veins
Running Quicksilver-like eludes your pains;
Taking all shapes from Mah to Mahi; and
They change and perish all–but He remains;
A moment guess’d–then back behind the Fold
Immerst of Darkness round the Drama roll’d
Which, for the Pastime of Eternity,
He doth Himself contrive, enact, behold.
Obviously, Fitzgerald knew all about Hart’s metaphysical God and his “quicksilver-like” presence. There’s a lot more to his poem than “a loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou.”
Posted on January 8th, 2014 2 comments
One can understand the anxiety of the spiritually inclined. Whether their tastes run to traditional religions or belief in some kind of a teleological life force, their world views have always depended on exploitation of the things we don’t understand. As the quantity of such things declines, the credibility of their beliefs tends to decline in direct proportion. Computer scientist David Gelernter, who happens to be a believer of the Jewish persuasion, recently delivered himself of an interesting cri de Coeur in response to this unsettling state of affairs.
In a piece that appeared in Commentary entitled The Closing of the Scientific Mind, Gelernter cuts right to the chase, singling out as the enemy a strawman outgroup known as “scientists.” These scientists, it would seem, “…have forgotten their obligation to approach with due respect the scholarly, artistic, religious, humanistic work that has always been mankind’s main spiritual support.” Furthermore, these same scientists use their “…locker room braggadocio to belittle the spiritual, and religious discoveries, which is all we human beings possess or ever will.” In that case I must be poor indeed, as I am familiar with no such discovery that is credible to anyone who believes that claims of truth should be based on actual evidence. Apparently the braggadocio of the scientists is based, at least in part, on their ignorance, for, as Gelernter assures us, “Scientists are (on average) no more likely to understand this work than the man in the street is to understand quantum physics.”
Where to begin? At the risk of sounding barrenly scientific, one might ask what Gelernter means by “spirit” when he speaks of “spiritual support.” Where is the evidence that such an entity even exists, or the proof that the scholarly, artistic, religious, and humanistic work he refers to actually does support it if, in fact, it does exist? What on earth does he mean by “humanism?”
Of course, the problem here may well be that, like Gelernter’s scientists, I simply don’t understand this work. I would be the first to agree that it can be highly complex. For example, my understanding of the detailed and intricate theological arguments in favor of the Trinity are vague indeed, as is my understanding of the reasons the followers of Father Arius reject these arguments. I know no more than a babe about why one is supposed to risk eternal damnation by either embracing the iconoclast’s rejection of religious images, or the iconodule’s insistence that they remain. I have no clue about the sophisticated arguments used by Jan Hus to demonstrate the need for Communication in both kinds, nor the equally involved arguments contrived by the Popes to justify decades of warfare in order to restore Communion in one kind only. However, it is entirely clear to me that all these arguments are vain and senseless if the great Santa Claus in the sky that all these learned debaters appealed to doesn’t actually exist. In fact, I have concluded as much, and so have not taken the trouble to waste much effort on “understanding this work.”
For such “spiritual and religious discoveries” to be plausible, they must exist in a sphere inaccessible to the prying eyes of mere scientists. Of course, as mentioned above, Gelernter is a believing Jew, so he has that sphere for starters. However, he has another one up his sleeve, in the form of the “subjective world.” As he puts it, nowhere is the bullying of the scientists “…more outrageous than in its assault on the phenomenon known as subjectivity.” As my readers know, I have had much to say about the difference between subjective and objective phenomena, particularly as they relate to morality. I do not believe in the objective existence of categories such as good, evil, rights, etc., independent of their subjective perception in the mind. The Darwinian explanation of these subjective phenomena as owing their existence to the fact that the predispositions that are their ultimate cause promoted the survival and procreation of our ancestors at some point in time, with its caveat that they are ultimately explainable in terms of physical phenomena that we don’t currently understand, but that are hardly beyond our very powers of understanding, seems entirely plausible to me. Of course, as immediately realized by the clerical worthies, both of Darwin’s time and our own, such an explanation has a very corrosive effect on “spiritual and religious discoveries.” As a result, just as they did and do, Gelernter must reject it as well.
And so he does. In the article at hand, he bases his rejection of Darwin almost entirely on the work of philosopher Thomas Nagel, with emphasis on his book, Mind & Cosmos, as if Nagel’s opinion on the subject silenced all further debate. It would seem we must jettison Darwin merely because, in Nagel’s opinion, “Darwinian evolution is insufficient to explain the emergence of consciousness – the capacity to feel or experience the world.” I would be the first to admit that we don’t yet understand consciousness. However, clearly no such conclusion as “Darwinian evolution is insufficient to explain it” is warranted until we do. No matter, Gelernter elevates Nagel to the status of a martyr of truth, who has been cruelly persecuted by the “killer hyenas” of science. As evidence for the existence of the scientific “lynch mob,” he cites a review of Mind & Cosmos that appeared in the May 2013 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “Where Thomas Nagel Went Wrong.”
On actually reading the article, I kept wondering what on earth Gelernter meant by his dark references to a “lynch mob.” By all means, read it yourself. It’s meager stuff on which to anchor Nagel’s martyrdom. To all appearances it’s a vanilla book review that actually praises Nagel in places, but concludes that he “went wrong” merely by doing a poor job of marshaling the potentially good arguments in favor of what the reviewer, Michael Chorost, to all appearances considered an entirely plausible point of view. As Chorost put it,
But Nagel’s goal was valid: to point out that fundamental questions of origins, evolution, and intelligence remain unanswered, and to question whether current ways of thinking are up to the task. A really good book on this subject would need to be both scientific and philosophical: scientific to show what is known, philosophical to show how to go beyond what is known. (A better term might be “metascientific,” that is, talking about the science and how to make new sciences.)
That doesn’t exactly strike me as the criticism of a “killer hyena.” Gelernter goes on to cite Ray Kurzweil’s “singularity” mumbo-jumbo as an example of how the “scientists,” with their “roboticist” interpretation of the mind and their denial of his “subjective world,” have gone wrong. In fact, the idea that all “scientists” embrace either Kurzweil’s transhumanist utopia or “roboticist” interpretations of the mind is nonsense. I certainly don’t.
The rest of Gelernter’s arguments in favor of a “subjective” never-never land, inaccessible to mere scientists and forever inexplicable in terms of crude explanations based on anything as naïve as physics and chemistry, are similarly implausible. This subjective world is supposed to be capable of spawning “the best and deepest moral laws we know,” although Gelernter never supplies a metric by which we are to measure such quantities as “best” and “deepest,” nor, for that matter, any basis for the existence of such things as “moral laws.” Presumably they would be beyond the understanding of mere scientists. Again, the subjective world is to prevent us from becoming “morally wobbly,” and “inhumane.” It is to supply us with a common appreciation of “scholarship (presumably of the non-scientific kind), art, and spiritual life.” It will somehow affirm the “sanctity of life,” and will rationalize “all our striving for what is good and just and beautiful and sacred, for what gives meaning to human life, and makes us (as Scripture says) ‘just a little lower than the angels,’ and a little better than the rats and cats,” all of which is “invisible to the roboticist worldview.”
For all this to happen, of course, it is necessary for the “subjective world” to be universal. I can certainly understand the term “subjective,” but it seems to me to refer to phenomena that go on in the minds of individuals. Gelernter never supplies us with an explanation of how these phenomena in the minds of individuals, whether scientifically explainable or not, acquire the magical power to leap out of those individual skulls and become independent things with independent normative powers, or, in a word, objects. Perhaps a good Marxist could interpret it as an instance of the Law of the Transformation of Quantity into Quality.
It all reminds me of a quirk of one of my favorite novelists, Stendhal, who couldn’t bear to describe on paper, even in his personal diaries, the consummation of one of his “sublime” love affairs for fear any such crude description would shatter its “beauty.” I would be the first to admit that those affairs represented a “subjective world” to Stendhal. For all that, I still have a sneaking suspicion that Darwin might have had something useful to say about them after all.
Posted on December 12th, 2013 1 comment
According to fellow atheist Bart Ehrman, whose books are an excellent tonic for the true believers, there are many clergymen who are no longer believers themselves. I suppose they have many ways of rationalizing their behavior to themselves, one of which is the belief that by deceiving their flocks they are actually doing “good.” Journalist David V. Johnson recently defended this point of view in an article he wrote for 3 Quarks Daily entitled, “A Refutation of the Undergraduate Atheists.” “Undergraduate Atheists” is one of the many pejorative terms used by philosophers with delusions of grandeur in referring to the infidel triumvirate of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris. An atheist himself, Johnson, takes issue with what he calls the “Undergraduate Atheist Thesis,” or UAT, which he states simply as the belief that, “Humanity would be better off without religious belief.”
Johnson begins by giving a highly distilled version of “San Manuel Bueno, Martir (Saint Manuel the Good, Martyr),” a novella by Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno. The action takes place in the village of Valverde de Lucerna, where the spiritual needs of the people are ministered to by Don Manuel, a saintly Catholic priest. He has a run in with Lazaro, a local who has returned from a sojourn in America as a confirmed atheist. The two spar for a while, until the scales finally fall from Lazaro’s eyes, and he concludes that Don Manuel is right when he advises, “Leave them alone, as long as it consoles them. It is better for them to believe it all, even contradictory things, than not to believe in anything.” But wait, there’s a twist. It turns out that, like Lazaro, Don Manuel is also an atheist. However, convinced that they must preserve the “happiness” of the villagers, they continue ministering to their spiritual needs, never revealing the truth about their own unbelief, until both die in the odor of sanctity.
The story is a lot more complex than the dumbed down version given by Johnson. For example, Don Manuel is himself very unhappy, tormented by what seems to him the meaninglessness of life and the knowledge that he will die with no hope of the hereafter. He is not so blithely convinced of the rightness of what he is doing as Johnson suggests, and agonizes over whether he is really serving the villagers best interests by deceiving them. He has half convinced himself that Christ himself was also an atheist, etc. It’s actually a very interesting read, and there’s an English version at the above link.
Be that as it may, Johnson embraces his simplified version as an antidote to UAT. As he puts it,
…demonstrating the truth of UAT would require an enormous calculation of the two competing scenarios. It demands that we add up all the good and bad consequent on human beings being religious, from the beginning to the end of human history, and all the good and bad consequent on human beings not being religious. We are then supposed to compare the two totals and see which version of human history winds up better.
According to Johnson, such a calculation is hopelessly complicated, and we therefore “have reason to suspend judgment about UAT.” In fact, what is hopeless is the notion that we shouldn’t make judgments until we know every fact that might have some bearing on the case. Fortunately, Mother Nature knew better, and gave us the capacity to decide based on limited data as befits creatures with limited intelligence. We would never make any decisions if we always waited until we were certain about their outcome.
I might add that this familiar wrangling over whether religion is “good” or “bad” is really neither here nor there as far as the question of whether God actually exists is concerned. After all, what does it matter if the argument is decided one way or the other if there actually is a God? Is anyone really going to risk frying in hell for quadrillions and quintillions of years, just for starters, by defying God and explaining to Him that he is “immoral” because, on balance, belief in Him hasn’t made mankind’s lot “better?” If there is no God to begin with, then one isn’t likely to suddenly pop into existence merely because we have determined that things would be “better” that way. In other words, the bearing of this whole argument on whether there actually is a God or not is nil.
Of course, all this is irrelevant to Johnson. After all, he’s an atheist himself. His “Anti-Undergraduate Atheist Thesis” is not that Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris are wrong about the non-existence of God. Rather, it is that a self-appointed elite of atheists should bamboozle the rest of us into believing in God in spite of that “for our own good.” Plunging ahead with his indictment of these “New Atheists” he writes,
Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, and their followers have something remarkably in common with religionists: they claim to know something (UAT) that cannot, in fact, be known and must be accepted on faith. The truth is that we cannot know what humanity would be like without religious belief, because humanity in that scenario would be so much unlike us that it would be impossible to determine what it would be like in that alternate universe. Their inability to acknowledge the immense calculation that would be required is unscientific. Their conclusion is as intolerant and inimical to the liberal tradition as the ranting of any superstitious windbag.
Of course, based on his own logic, those who embrace Johnson’s Anti-UAT are also “claiming to know something that cannot be known,” and must hang their heads and join the ranks of the “ranting, superstitious windbags.” However, he spares that faction such harsh judgment, apparently because he happens to belong to it himself. As he puts it,
I suspect the scales might tip the other way. Why? For the same reasons as San Manuel Bueno’s. The psychological consequences of religious faith — the deep satisfaction, reduction of existential anxiety and feeling of security and meaning it provides — would represent an enormous and underappreciated part of the calculation. Imagine the billions of believers that have lived, live now, or will live, and consider what life is like for them from the inside. Consider the tremendous boon in happiness for all of them in knowing, in the way a believer knows, that their lives and the universe are imbued with meaning, that there is a cosmic destiny in which they play a part, that they do not suffer in vain, that their death is not final but merely a transition to a better existence.
This the triumphant vindication of life in The Matrix. Far be it from me to attempt any judgment of which of these two competing atheist world views is “better,” or whether either of them is even “good.” As my readers know, I don’t admit the possibility of making an objective judgment one way or the other. However, I certainly do have some thoughts concerning my own subjective opinion of what’s “good” for me. I might add in passing that the Spanish “villagers” did as well, because they expressed their fury at those who were “enlightening” them by destroying churches in Barcelona and other parts of Spain at the start of the Spanish Civil War. I don’t care to have anyone feeding me a pack of lies based on their conclusion that it’s for my own good. I’ve found that most of us, regardless of how ignorant we might appear to those who imagine themselves our intellectual betters, are very astute at deciding for ourselves what’s “for our own good,” and certainly better at it than any self-appointed intellectual elite. Furthermore, it seems to me that, regardless of what ends we happen to have in mind, we are a great deal more likely to achieve them if the actions we take in pursuing them are based on the truth rather than on pleasant lies. Indeed, the very ends we seek will vary strongly depending on whether we choose them based on facts or illusions. That will be the case regardless of how good we are as a species at ascertaining the truth, and regardless of whether we can ever have a certain knowledge of the truth or not. Certainly, the truth is illusive, but we are more likely to approach it by actually seeking it than by promoting illusions that are supposed by the self-anointed guardians of our spiritual well-being to be “for our own good.”
As for the notion that our fundamental goal in life should be the pursuit of some kind of illusory and drugged happiness, I consider it absurd. Why is it that we are capable of being happy to begin with? Like almost everything else of any real significance about us, we can be happy because, and only because, that capacity happened to increase the probability that we would survive and reproduce. It follows that, to the extent that we can even speak of an “objective” end, happiness is purely secondary.
What, then, of the purpose and meaning of life? I can only speak for myself, but as an atheist I find a purpose and meaning and grandeur in life that seems to me incomparably preferable to the tinsel paradises of the true believers. All it takes to come to that conclusion is to stop taking life for granted. Look at yourself in the mirror! It’s incredibly, wonderfully improbable that a creature like you, with hands, and eyes, and a heart, and a brain, not to mention all this “stuff” around us are even here. As a “purpose” and a “meaning of life” it may only be my subjective whim, but I have a passionate desire that this little flicker of life in the middle of a vast universe, a flicker that may very well be unique, will continue. For it to continue, it is not necessary for me to be happy. It is necessary for me to survive and reproduce. Beyond that it is necessary for me to seek to insure the survival of my species, and beyond that to seek to insure the survival of life itself. Are these things objectively necessary? In short, no. In the end, they are just personal whims, but I’m still passionate about them for all that. Why? Perhaps because virtually everything about me exists because it happened to promote those goals. If I failed to pursue those goals, I would be a sick and dysfunctional biological entity, and it displeases me to think of myself in those terms. Hence, my, admittedly subjective and personal, purpose in life.
But why should “I” have a purpose in life? Don’t “I” blink into existence, and then back out of it in a moment? What could possibly be the point if I’m only going to be here for a moment, and then cease to exist forever? I think that question is motivated by a fundamental confusion over who “I” am. After all, what is really essential about “me”? It can’t be my conscious mind. I am quite confident that it really has just popped into existence for a moment, and will soon die forever. It follows that my consciousness can only be ancillary and secondary to what is really essential about “me”. It would be absurd, and quite unparsimonious of Nature, if everything about me were to suffer the same fate.
So the question becomes, what is it about me that won’t necessarily suffer that fate? It is, of course, my genes. In three and a half billion years, they, and the precursors that gave rise to them, have never died. That have all been links in an unbroken chain of life stretching back over an almost inconceivably long time, and that can potentially stretch on an inconceivably long time into the future. “I” am the link in the chain that exists in the here and now, and that will determine whether the chain will continue, or be snuffed out. I know what my choice is. It is a choice that, as far as I am concerned, gives an abiding meaning and purpose to my life. It is also, of course, a “selfish” choice, and I have nothing to say about what others “should” do, because there is no objective answer to that question. You must decide for yourself.
UPDATE: Jerry Coyne’s reaction to Johnson’s article may be found here.
Posted on December 1st, 2013 2 comments
Morality exits because of evolved behavioral traits. They are its ultimate cause. Without them, morality as we know it, in all of its various complex manifestations would cease to exist. Without them, the subjective perception in the brains of individuals of such things as good, evil, and rights would disappear as well. We perceive all of these as objects, as independent things-in-themselves, because individuals who perceived them in that way were more likely to survive and reproduce. However, they do not exist as things-in-themselves, a fact that has led to endless confusion in creatures such as ourselves, who are capable of reasoning about these nonexistent objects that seem so real.
It follows that, in spite of the legions of philosophers over the centuries who have presumed to enlighten us about the objective “should,” such an entity is as imaginary as unicorns. There is no objective reason why individuals “should” do anything in order to embrace good and reject evil, because good and evil are not objects. The same applies to the State. From a moral point of view (and it can be assumed in what follows that I am speaking of that point of view when I use the term “should”), there is no objective reason why the State should act one way in order to be good, or should not act another way in order to avoid evil. When an individual says that the state should do one thing, and not another, (s)he is simply expressing a personal desire. That, of course, applies to my own point of view. When I speak of what the State should or should not do, I am merely expressing a personal opinion, based on my own conjecture about the kind of state I would like to live in.
In the first place, we can say that there is no essential connection between the modern State and morality, because no such entity as the modern State existed during the time over which the behavioral traits we associate with morality evolved. However, a State that does not take morality into account is unlikely to be effective at achieving the goals its citizens have set for it, because it is the nature of those citizens to be influenced by moral predispositions. If a sufficient number of them perceive that the State is acting immorally, or violating what seem to them to be their rights, they may resist its laws, or rebel.
If the State is to act “morally,” does it follow that there should be an establishment of religion, whether of the spiritual or the secular variety? Based on the empirical evidence of our history, and what I know of human behavior, it seems to me that it does not. The value to the state of an established moral system lies in the potential of welding all its citizens into a single ingroup. It seems plausible that a single ingroup would be more effective at achieving the common goals of a State’s citizens then a collection distinct ingroups, each of which might perceive one or more of the others as outgroups. In such cases the expression of hatred and hostility towards the outgroup(s) would likely be disruptive.
Unfortunately, established moral systems throughout history have all tended to be unstable and counterproductive. From the time Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire until the final fall of its Byzantine remnant, there was constant strife between Trinitarians and Anti-Trinitarians, iconodules and iconoclasts, those who accepted the Three Chapters and those who condemned them, etc. Later attempts to preserve single ingroup orthodoxy spawned the massacre of the Albigensians, the long decades of the Hussite wars, the century of intermittent warfare between the Catholics and the Huguenots in France, and many another bloody chapter in human history. Established religions became instruments of exploitation in the hands of the powerful, resulting in the bloody reprisals of the French Revolution, the Spanish Civil War, etc. A problem with established religions has always been that people cannot change deeply held beliefs at will, and they resent being forced to pretend they believe things when they don’t. Typically, force is necessary to suppress that resentment, as we have seen in modern Iran. The “right” of Freedom of Religion” is basically a recognition of these drawbacks.
The more recent secular religions have fared no better. The two most familiar examples of the 20th century, Communism and Nazism, for example, both found it necessary to brutally suppress any opposition. The “great rewards” of such religions, whether in the form of a utopian classless society or a Teutonic golden age, are worldly rather than in the great beyond, and eventually become noticeable by their absence. All moral systems have outgroups as well as ingroups and, in the case of the secular religions, these also tend to be worldly rather than spiritual. In the case of the Communists and the Nazis, this led to the mass slaughter of the “bourgeoisie” and the Jews, respectively, robbing the State of many citizens, who often happened to be among the most intelligent and productive. It would seem that these two dire examples would be enough in themselves to deter us from any further experiments along similar lines. Remarkably, however, as those who have read the books of the likes of Sam Harris and Joshua Greene are aware, we continue to cobble away on new “scientific” versions, seemingly oblivious to the outcomes of our past attempts.
As an anodyne to all these problems, the philosophers of the Enlightenment sought to limit the power of the State by establishing Rights, such as freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, etc. While these Rights are not things-in-themselves, they are perceived as such. Though they are merely subjective constructs, they can still acquire legitimacy if they are generally accepted and hallowed by tradition. Democracy was held forth as the proper vehicle for promoting these rights and guarding against the abuse of power by autocratic rulers. As implemented, modern democracies have hardly been perfect, but have been more stable than autocratic forms of government, and have often, although not invariably, survived such challenges as hard economic times and war. However, their drawbacks are also clearly visible. For example, recently they have been powerless to resist the massive influx of culturally alien populations that are far more likely to be a source of future civil strife if not worse than to be of any long term benefit to the existing citizens whose welfare these democratic states are supposed to be protecting. They benefit elites as a source of votes and cheap labor, but are likely to be harmful to society as a whole in the long term. In short, the jury is still out as to whether the post-Enlightenment democracies will eventually be perceived as Good or Evil.
It is not clear what if any alternative system might actually be better than democracy. The Chinese oligarchy has certainly had remarkable success in expanding the economic and military power of that country. However, its legitimacy is based on its supposed representation of the bankrupt, foreign ideology of Marxism. In spite of that, in a traditionalist country like China it may hold onto “the mandate of heaven” for a long time in spite of the glaring contradictions between its supposed ideology and its practice.
In general, “virtuous” states – those free of corruption, that do not cheat or steal from their citizens, and that are effective in enforcing laws that are perceived as just – are more effective at promoting the common weal than their opposites. Heraclitus’ dictum that “character is destiny” likely applies to states as well as individuals. I personally think that states are far more likely to be “virtuous” in that sense if their powers are carefully circumscribed and limited. Whenever new moral systems are implemented, “scientific” or otherwise, those limits tend to be dissolved. When it comes to the State, it is probably better to think in terms of “Thou shalt not” than in terms of “Thou shalt.” Two that come to mind include Thou shalt not kill (except, as Voltaire suggested, in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets), and Thou shalt not torture.
Posted on October 2nd, 2013 No comments
We are a social species. It stands to reason that natural selection has equipped us with a suite of behavioral predispositions suitable for such a species. A subset of those predispositions is the ultimate cause of what we know and experience as morality. One might say that Mother Nature wasn’t too finicky about such irrelevancies as rational consistency in designing the necessary mental equipment. She created the compelling illusion in our minds that such imaginary objects as Good, Evil, and Rights actually exist, and then hedged them about with powerful emotions that inclined us to reward Good and punish Evil. The fact that we’re here demonstrates that the system has worked well enough so far, although it has shown distinct signs of becoming dysfunctional of late.
I don’t know whether it ever occurred to Mother Nature that we might someday become clever and nosey enough to wonder where these objects came from. I never asked her. I rather suspect that she assumed the problem would be patched over via the invention of imaginary super beings. In that case, the objects would exist just because that’s the way the imaginary super being(s) wanted it, end of story. She probably never bothered about the possibility that some of us might realize that the imaginary super beings weren’t really all that plausible. After all, no one could accuse her of pussy footing around when it came to moral illusions. Good and Evil would appear as real things in the imaginations of believers and infidels alike. If the infidels couldn’t trace their existence to a God, well, they would just have to be creative and come up with something else.
And creative the infidels have certainly been. They’ve come up with all kinds of systems and rationalizations in the hope of saving the Good and Evil objects from vanishing into thin air. They are similar in that all of them are even more implausible than belief in imaginary super beings. The amusing thing is that the true believers can see through the charade without the least difficulty, whereas the “rational” infidels persist in floundering about in the darkness.
Consider, for example, a piece Dennis Prager just wrote for National Review Online, packaged as “A Response to Richard Dawkins.” Prager cuts to the chase with the following:
If there is no God, the labels “good” and “evil” are merely opinions. They are substitutes for “I like it” and “I don’t like it.” They are not objective realities.
Thank you, Mr. Prager. I couldn’t have said it better myself. That is a perfectly clear and straightforward statement of a simple truth that so many of my fellow “rational” atheists seem completely unable to grasp. There is simply no mechanism whereby the moral emotions in the mind of one individual can stroll over, smack another individual up alongside the head, and acquire the legitimacy to apply to that other individual as well. Atheist moralists are like so many zombies, still wandering aimlessly about in their imaginary world of good and evil even though they’ve just been shot between the eyes. The bullet that hit them is the realization that evolved behavioral predispositions are the ultimate cause of moral behavior. As Mr. Prager says, they do, indeed, have very pronounced opinions about the precise nature of Good and Evil. The problem is that such opinions are analogous to having opinions about the color of a unicorns horn. They are opinions about objects that don’t exist.
Unfortunately, belief in imaginary super beings is just as ineffectual as the fantasies of the atheists when it comes to conjuring up Good and Evil Things and endowing them with objective reality. Consider, for example, the rest of Mr. Prager’s article. It’s basically a statement of the familiar fallacy that, because (Judeo-Christian) God-based morality results in Good (as imagined by Mr. Prager), and atheist morality results in Evil (as imagined by Mr. Prager), therefore God must exist. In fact, there is no logical mechanism whereby the mind of Mr. Prager can force God from non-existence into existence by virtue of the fact that a God is required to transmute his Good and his Evil into objective realities. The truth of God’s existence or non-existence does not depend on Mr. Prager’s opinion touching on how his presence might affect the moral climate.
No matter, Prager stumbles on with his version of the now familiar “proof” that (Judeo-Christian) God-based moral systems result in Good, but secular ones result in Evil, and that the (Judeo-Christian) God must therefore exist. Apparently he knows enough history to realize that to believe this “proof” it is necessary to stand reality on its head. The slaughter of countless Jews through the ages, the murder of hundreds of thousands of innocent women as “witches,” the extermination of the Albigensians, the decades of bloody warfare conducted by “good” Christians to stamp out the Hussite heresy, the slaughter of the French Huguenots, and countless other similar events are the real legacy of Christianity. Prager is aware of this, and so would have us believe that Christianity has been successfully “tamed” in the 20th century. As he puts it,
But if that isn’t enough, how about the record of the godless 20th century, the cruelest, bloodiest, most murderous century on record? Every genocide of the last century — except for the Turkish mass murder of the Armenians and the Pakistani mass murder of Hindus in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) — was committed by a secular anti-Jewish and anti-Christian regime. And as the two exceptions were Muslim, they are not relevant to my argument. I am arguing for the God and Bible of Judeo-Christian religions.
In fact, the God and Bible of the Judeo-Christian religions weren’t as spotless as all that, even in the 20th century. Consider, for example, the bloody history of the “Black Hundreds” in Russia just before the Bolshevik Revolution. They murdered tens of thousands of Jews in the bloody pogroms that were one of their favorite pastimes. The degree to which they were inspired by Christianity should be evident from the image of one of their marches I’ve posted below. No, I’m sorry, but I put little faith in Mr. Prager’s assertion that, while Christianity may have been responsible for inspiring astounding levels of bloody mayhem over the centuries, the Christians promise to be good from now on.
We are moral beings. We will act morally regardless of whether we believe in imaginary supermen or not, because it is our nature to act morally. As is obvious from the many variations in the details of moral rules among human societies, our moralities are not rigidly programmed by our genes. Within the limits imposed by our innate moral predispositions, we can shape our moral systems to suit our needs. It seems to me that our efforts in that direction are more likely to be successful if we leave religious fantasies, whether of the spiritual or secular variety, out of the process.
Posted on May 5th, 2013 4 comments
I believe in keeping up interstellar appearances. If aliens from outer space ever do visit us, I don’t want to be embarrassed. For example, it would be nice if they concluded that, given the rather short time since we shared a common ancestor with chimpanzees, we are actually rather smart. As things now stand, that’s most unlikely. What is likely is that they’ll have a hearty laugh at our expense, especially when they discover that we refer to ourselves as “Man the Wise.” In the first place, a large majority of us still believe in imaginary super-beings who plan to boil us in hell for billions and trillions of years for the paltry sins they knew we were predestined to commit and couldn’t possibly avoid during our brief lives, or who are divided up into a complicated mélange of “spirit” and human-like sexual characteristics. In the second, they will notice that, even though we have known about evolution for more than a century and a half, we still ascribe all sorts of supernatural qualities to morality as well. Shameful! The snickers and knowing glances at interstellar cocktail parties will be unbearable.
It may be that a benign zoologist or two among them will observe what orgasmic pleasure we get out of striking self-righteous poses, and how addicted we are to imagining ourselves as “good” and the others as “evil,” and will frown at all this levity at our expense. Such delicious pleasures are easy to rationalize, and hard to part with. Besides, surely some of the very interstellar wags who laugh the loudest at our expense belong to species that commited follies in their “gilded youth” that were just as bad, if not worse. Still, I’m keeping a paper bag handy to put over my head at need if the time comes.
The God thing is bad enough, but, as the sympathetic zoologists might point out, at least it’s understandable. Our species has an inordinate fear of dying and, since we’ve also managed the whimsical trick of identifying our consciousness, an entirely secondary entity that exists because it promoted genetic survival, with our “selves,” we imagine there’s no way out. We either have to face the fact that we’re going to “depart from among men,” as the historian Procopius always put it, or – we have to invent an imaginary super-being to save us.
The morality thing is a different matter. We don’t keep up that charade to avoid death. We just do it because it’s fun. Members of our species love to imagine themselves as noble heroes in a never-ending battle against evil. It “promotes high self-esteem.” It enables us to do remarkably selfish things in the name of selflessness. It even diverts our attention from our impending end and, when combined with the God illusion, offers an illusory way of escaping it. Dealing with people who are enamored of their own righteousness is always an inconvenience. Occasionally it’s much worse than that. They become psychopathic, manage to convince others that they’re right, and commit mass murder as a way of eliminating the evil people. It turns out that the God nexus isn’t even necessary. Even people who avoid that first illusion usually fall victim to the second – that Good and Evil are real things, objects in themselves.
The rationalization of the illusion is always flimsy enough. In the case of religious believers, we have been provided with an example by Christian apologist William Lane Craig. It goes like this:
If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.
Objective moral values do exist.
Therefore, God exists.
This is a farrago of nonsense. What does the existence of a super-being have to do with objective morality? Certainly, he can fry us in hell for billions and trillions of years for daring to disagree with him, but in the end, his opinion of good and evil is just that – an opinion. His opinion is no more legitimate than anyone else’s by virtue of the fact that he can either torture us forever on the one hand, or shack us up with 72 virgins on the other. In other words, there is no way in which moral values can become objects just because he wants it that way. The existence of a God is irrelevant to the existence of objective moral values.
As for the second component of the syllogism, it is a statement of faith, not fact. If objective moral values really do exist, how is it that, after all these thousands of years, we are still waiting for one of the moralists to catch one in his butterfly net and show it to us, neatly mounted on a pin? As for the third component, it evaporates without the first two.
The attempts of the atheists are just as persistent, and just as absurd. They often take the form of conflating a utilitarian ought with a moral ought. A typical example that is actually offered as a “rebuttal” to the Christian syllogism above recently appeared at Secular Outpost. The author, Bradley Bowen, starts out reasonably enough, noting that,
One obvious atheistic objection would be to reject or cast doubt on premise (2). If one rejects or doubts that objective moral values exist, then this argument will fail to be persuasive.
Then, however, he begins wading into the swamp:
Another possible objection is to reject or cast doubt upon premise (1). Some atheists accept moral realism, and thus believe that the non-existence of God is logically compatible with objective moral values. I will be focusing on this particular objection to the MOVE (Craig) argument.
Religious people have a way of becoming very acute logicians when it comes to assessing the moral illusions of atheists. William Lane Craig is no exception. Bowen quotes him as follows:
I must confess that this alternative strikes me as incomprehensible, an example of trying to have your cake and eat it too. What does it mean to say, for example, that the moral value justice just exists? I understand what it is for a person to be just, but I draw a complete blank when it is said that, in the absence of any people, justice itself exists. Moral values seem to exist as properties of persons, not as abstractions–or at any rate, I don’t know what it means for a moral value to exist as an abstraction. Atheistic moral realists, seeming to lack any adequate foundation in reality for moral values, just leave them floating in an unintelligible way.
Reasonable enough. Here, of course, it is obvious that Craig is referring to justice as an objective moral good. He also points out the simple and seemingly obvious fact, at least since the days of Darwin, that, absent a God, moral values are “properties of persons.” Well put! While human morality can manifest itself in countless varieties of rules, systems, and laws depending on time and circumstances, the ultimate reason for its existence is a “property of persons.” In all its variations, it represents the expression of evolved behavioral traits. Absent those ultimate causes, carried about in the genetic material of each “person,” morality as most people understand the term would disappear.
Bowen, however, kicks against the goads. For him, dispensing with “objective moral values” would be as hard as giving up chocolate, or even sex. It would take all the joy out of life. To preserve them, he comes up with a “proof” just as chimerical as Craig’s syllogism. In essence, it is just a crude and transparent attempt to ignore the word “objective.” According to Bowen,
Perhaps Craig is correct that some thinkers who accept AMR (Atheistic Moral Realism) believe that justice exists as an abstraction independent of any human beings or persons, but this is NOT a logical implication of AMR, as far as I can see. Moral realism claims that moral judgments can be true or false, and that some moral judgments are in fact true. It is hard to see how one can get from these claims to the metaphysical claim that justice is an entity that exists independently of humans or persons.
It is not hard to see at all. If justice does not exist independently of humans or persons, then it is subjective, not objective. Bowen has simply decided to ignore the term “objective.” This becomes more clear in the following:
I think Craig is correct in being skeptical about justice existing as an abstract entity independently of the existence of agents or persons. If justice is, first and foremost, an attribute or characteristic of actions, then it does appear to be implausible to think of justice as an abstract entity. However, an attribute (such as ‘green’) may be correctly ascribed to a particular entity (such as ‘grass’ or ‘this patch of grass’) without it being the case that the attribute constitutes an independently existing entity.
In that sense, there certainly is such a thing as “green.” No doubt if we were smart enough, we could dissect all the molecules, hormones, and atomic interactions that account for the impression “green.” However, if there is really any distinction between subjective and objective at all, green remains subjective. In other words, it is the impression left on the mind of an individual by certain real things, in this case, photons. It is, however, not the things themselves. Bowen is left with the burden of demonstrating how justice and all the rest of his moral subjects are magically transformed into objects. That, after all, is the whole point of Craig’s use of the term “objective.” How does justice, as described by Bowen, acquire the ability to leap out of his skull, or of any other skull for that matter, and become an “object.” By what mysterious process does it acquire that legitimacy?
No, I’m sorry, Virginia, but I have more bad news for you. Not only is there not a Santa Claus, but there is no God, and no objective morality. Don’t despair, though. Santa Claus was certainly a grievous loss, but we’d all be much better off without the other two. In the end, lies are liabilities. “God” motivates us to fly airplanes full of people into tall buildings, and “objective morality” convinces us that we are perfectly justified in murdering millions of people because they are Jews or “bourgeoisie.”
Well, in spite of these rather obvious drawbacks, just as we are certainly descended from apes, most of us are certainly still absurd enough to believe in Gods and “objective morality.” When it comes to potential interstellar visitors, I can but paraphrase Darwin’s apocryphal noble lady and hope that these absurdities don’t become generally known. I’m still keeping my paper bag handy, though.