Posted on December 20th, 2014 No comments
‘Twas the month before Christmas, and Bill O’Reilly launched his usual jihad against the purported “War on Christmas.” It drew the predictable counterblasts from the Left, and I just happened to run across one that appeared back on December 4 on Huffpo, entitled “A War on Reason, Not on Christmas.” I must admit I find the “War on Christmas” schtick tiresome. Conservatives rightly point to the assorted liberal cults of victimization as so much pious grandstanding. It would be nice if they practiced what they preach and refrained from concocting similar cults of their own. Be that as it may, I found the article in question somewhat more unctuous and self-righteous than usual, and left a comment to that effect. It was immediately deleted.
My comment included no ad hominem attacks, nor was it abusive. I simply disagreed with the author on a few points, and noted that the political Left has an exaggerated opinion of its devotion to reason. The main theme of the article was the nature of the political divide in the U.S. According to the author, it is less between rich and poor than between “reasonable” liberals and “irrational” conservatives. As he put it,
Before imploding in the face of his sordid extramarital trysts, presidential candidate John Edwards based his campaign on the idea of two Americas, one rich the other poor. He was right about the idea that American is divided, but wrong about the nature of the division. The deeper and more important split is defined by religiosity, not riches.
The conflict between these two world views is made apparent in the details of our voting booth preferences. Religiosity alone is the most important, obvious and conclusive factor in determining voter behavior. Simply put, church goers tend to vote Republican. Those who instead go the hardware store on Sunday vote Democrat by wide margins.
He then continued,
Those who accept the idea of god tend to divide the world into believers and atheists. Yet that is incorrect. Atheist means “without god” and one cannot be without something that does not exist. Atheism is really a pejorative term that defines one world view as the negative of another, as something not what something else is.
This evoked my first comment, which seemed to me rather harmless on the face of it. I merely said that as an atheist myself, I had no objection to the term, and would prefer to avoid the familiar game of inventing ever more politically correct replacements until we ended up with some abomination seven or eight syllables long. However, what followed was even more remarkable. The author proceeded to deliver himself of a pronouncement about the nature of morality that might have been lifted right out of one of Ardrey’s books. In a section entitled, “Secular and Religious Morality,” he writes,
Traits that we view as moral are deeply embedded in the human psyche. Honesty, fidelity, trustworthiness, kindness to others and reciprocity are primeval characteristics that helped our ancestors survive. In a world of dangerous predators, early man could thrive only in cooperative groups. Good behavior strengthened the tribal bonds that were essential to survival. What we now call morality is really a suite of behaviors favored by natural selection in an animal weak alone but strong in numbers. Morality is a biological necessity and a consequence of human development, not a gift from god.
Exactly! Now, as I’ve often pointed out to my readers, if morality really is the expression of evolved traits as the author suggests, it exists because it happened to enhance the chances that certain genes we carry would survive and reproduce in the environment in which they happened to appear. There is no conceivable way in which they could somehow acquire the magic quality of corresponding to some “real, objective” morality in the sky. There is no way in which they could assume a “purpose” attributed to them by anyone, whether on the left or the right of the political spectrum. Finally, there is no way in which they could acquire the independent legitimacy to dictate to anyone the things they “really” ought or ought not to do. So much is perfectly obvious. Assuming one really is “reasonable,” it follows immediately from what the author of the article says about the evolved origins of morality above. That, of course, is not how the Left is spinning the narrative these days.
No, for a large faction on the secular Left, the fact that morality is evolved means not merely that the God-given morality of the Christians and other religious sects is “unreasonable.” For them, it follows that whatever whims they happen to tart up as the secular morality du jour become “reasonable.” That means that they are not immoral, or amoral. They are, by default, the bearers of the “true morality.” In the article in question it goes something like this:
The species-centric arrogance of religion cultivates a dangerous attitude about our relationship with the environment and the resources that sustain us. Humanists tend to view sustainability as a moral imperative while theists often view environmental concerns as liberal interference with god’s will. Conservative resistance to accepting the reality of climate change is just one example, and another point at which religious and secular morality diverge, as the world swelters.
It’s wonderful, really. The Left has always been addicted to moralistic posing, and now they don’t have to drop the charade! Now they can be as self-righteous as ever, as devotees of this secular version of morality that has miraculously acquired the power to become a thing-in-itself, presumably drifting up there in the clouds somewhere beyond the profane ken of the unenlightened Christians. As it happens, at the moment my neighbors are largely Mormon, and I must say their dogmas appear to me to be paragons of “reason” compared to this secular version of morality in the sky.
Of course, I couldn’t include all these observations in the Huffpo comment section. I merely pointed out that what the author had said about morality would have branded him as a heretic no more than 20 years ago, and evoked frenzied charges of “racism” and “fascism” from the same political Left in which he now imagines himself so comfortably ensconced. That’s because 20 years ago the behavioral sciences were still in thrall to the Blank Slate orthodoxy, as they had been for 50 years and more at the time. That orthodoxy was the greatest debacle in the history of science, and it was the gift, not of the Right, but of the “reasonable” secular Left. That was the point I made in the comment section, along with the observation that liberals would do well to keep it in mind before they break their arms patting themselves on the back for being so “reasonable.”
The author concluded his article with the following:
There is no war on Christmas; the idea is absurd at every level. Those who object to being forced to celebrate another’s religion are drowning in Christmas in a sea of Christianity dominating all aspects of social life. An 80 percent majority can claim victimhood only with an extraordinary flight from reality. You are probably being deafened by a rendition of Jingle Bells right now. No, there is no war on Christmas, but make no mistake: the Christian right is waging a war against reason. And they are winning. O’Reilly is riding the gale force winds of crazy, and his sails are full.
I must agree that the beloved Christian holiday does have a fighting chance of surviving the “War on Christmas.” Indeed, Bill O’Reilly himself has recently been so sanguine as to declare victory. When it comes to popular delusions, however, I suspect the Left’s delusion that it has a monopoly on “reason” is likely to be even more enduring. As for the deletion of my comment, we all know about the Left’s proclivity for suppressing speech that they find “offensive.” Thin skins are encountered in those political precincts at least as frequently as the characteristic delusions about “reason.”
Posted on December 14th, 2014 No comments
…to tell me why, in the absence of data, they were so sure that religion was bad for the world. That is, how do they know that if the world had never had religion, it would be better than it is now?
That would seem to be an empirical question, resolvable only with data. Yet as far as I can see (and I haven’t read every comment), most readers feel that the question can be resolved not with data, but with logic or from first principles. Or, they cite anecdotes like religiously-inspired violence (my response would be that it’s easy to measure deaths, but not so easy to measure the consolation and well being that, believers claim, religion brings them). But pointing out that religion does bad stuff doesn’t answer the question if it’s been harmful on the whole.
As an atheist myself, my answer would be that the question is neither empirical nor resolvable with logic from first principles, because it implies an objective standard whereby such terms as “bad,” “better,” and “harmful” can be defined. No such objective standard exists. At best, one can identify the consequences and then decide whether they are “go0d” or “bad” based on one’s personal subjective whims. As long as it is clearly understood that my reply is based on that standard, I would say that religion is “bad.”
Supernatural beings either exist or they don’t. I don’t claim to know the truth of the matter with absolute certainly. I don’t claim to know anything with absolute certainty. I base my actions and my goals in life on what I consider probable rather than absolute truths, and I consider the chance that a God or other supernatural beings exist to be vanishingly small.
The question then becomes, do I, again from my personal point of view, consider it a good thing for other people to believe in supernatural beings even though I consider that belief an illusion. In short, the answer is no. It will never be possible for us to know and understand ourselves, either as individuals or as a species, if we believe things that are false, and yet have a profound impact on our understanding of where we come from, what the future holds for us, what morality is and why it exists, the nature of our most cherished goals, and how we live our lives. Our very survival may depend on whether or not we have an accurate knowledge of ourselves. I want my species to survive, and therefore I want as many of us as possible to have that knowledge.
According to a current manifestation of the naturalistic fallacy, religion “evolved,” and therefore it is “good.” Among other places, articles to this effect have appeared at the This View of Life website, edited by David Sloan Wilson, a noted proponent of group selection. Examples may be found here and here. According to the latter:
For Darwin, an inevitable conflict between evolution and religion could not exist for the simple reason that religiosity and religions had been biocultural products of evolution themselves! He realized in the 19th century what many religious Creationists and so-called “New Atheists” are trying to ignore in their odd alliance to this day: If evolutionary theory is true, it must be able to explain the emergence of our cognitive tendencies to believe in supernatural agencies and the forms and impacts of its cultural products.
I’m not sure which passages from the work of Darwin the article’s author construed to mean that he believed that “an inevitable conflict between evolution and religion could not exist,” but the idea is nonsense in any case. Many flavors of both Christianity and Islam explicitly deny the theory of evolution, and therefore a conflict most certainly does exist. That conflict will not disappear whether religiosity and religions are biocultural products of evolution or not. Assuming for the sake of argument that they are, that mere fact would be irrelevant to the questions of whether religiosity and religions are “good,” or whether supernatural beings actually exist or not.
In any case, I doubt that religiosity and religion are biocultural products of evolution in any but a very limited sense. It is most unlikely that genes could be “smart enough” to distinguish between supernatural and non-supernatural agencies in the process of installing innate behavioral tendencies in our brains. Some subset of our suite of innate behavioral predispositions might make it more likely for us to respond to and behave towards “leaders” in some ways and not in others. Once we became sufficiently intelligent to imagine supernatural beings, it became plausible that we might imagine one as “leader,” and culture could take over from there to come up with the various versions of God or gods that have turned up from time to time. That does not alter the fact that the “root cause” of these manifestations almost certainly does not directly “program” belief in the supernatural.
This “root cause,” supposing it exists, is to be found in our genes, and our genes are not in the habit of rigidly determining what we believe or how we act. In other words, our genes cannot force us to believe in imaginary beings, as should be obvious from the prevalence of atheists on the planet. Because of our genes we may “tend” to believe in imaginary beings, but it is at least equally likely that because of them we “tend” to engage in warfare. Supposing both tendencies exist, that mere fact hardly insures that they are also “good.” Insisting that the former is “good” is equivalent to the belief that it is “good” for us to believe certain lies. This begs the question of how anyone is to acquire the legitimate right to determine for the rest of us that it is “good” for us to believe in lies, not to mention which particular version of the lie is “most good.”
One can argue ad nauseum about whether, on balance, religion has been “good” because of the comfort and consolation if provides in this vale of tears, the art products it has spawned, and the sense of community it has encouraged, or “bad” because of the wars, intolerance, bigotry, and social strife that can be chalked up to its account. In the end, it seems to me that the important question is not who “wins” this argument, but whether religious claims are true or not. If, as I maintain, they are not, then, from my personal point of view, it is “good” that we should know it. It matters in terms of answering such questions as what we want to do with our lives and why.
Consider, for example, the question of life after death. Most of us don’t look forward to the prospect of death with any particular relish, and it is certainly plausible to claim that religion provides us with the consolation of an afterlife. Suppose we look at the question from the point of view of our genes. They have given rise to our consciousness, along with most of the other essential features of our physical bodies, because consciousness has made it more probable that those genes would survive and reproduce. When we fear death, we fear the death of our consciousness, but as far as the genes are concerned, consciousness is purely ancillary – a means to an end. If they “program” an individual to become a Catholic priest in order to inherit eternal life, and that individual fails to have children as a result, then, from this “genes point of view,” they have botched it.
In a sense, it is more rational to claim that “we” are our genes rather than that “we” are this ancillary entity we refer to as consciousness. In that case, “we” have never died. “Our” lives have existed in an unbroken chain, passed from one physical form to another for billions of years. The only way “we” can die is for the last physical “link in the chain” to fail to have children. Of course, genes don’t really have a point of view, nor do they have a purpose. They simply are. I merely point out that it would be absurd to imagine that “we” suddenly spring into existence when we are born, and that “we” then die and disappear forever with the physical death of our bodies. Why on earth would Mother Nature put up with such nonsense? It seems to me that such an irrational surmise must be based on a fundamental confusion about who “we” actually are.
Posted on December 3rd, 2014 1 comment
The human types afflicted with the messianic itch have never been too choosy about the ideology they pick to scratch it. For example, the Nazis turned up some of their most delirious converts among the ranks of former Communists, and vice versa. The “true believer” can usually make do with whatever is available. The main thing is that whatever “ism” he chooses enables him to maintain the illusion that he is saving the world and clearing the path to some heavenly or terrestrial paradise, and at the same time supplies him with an ingroup of like-minded zealots. In the 20th century both Communism and Nazism/fascism, which had served admirably in their time, collapsed, leaving an ideological vacuum behind. As we all know, nature abhors a vacuum, and something had to fill it. Paradoxically, that “something” turned out to be radical Islam. For the true believers, it is now pretty much the only game in town. The result of this ideological sea change has been quite spectacular. The “human types” one would normally have expected to find in the ranks of the atheist Communists 50 or 75 years ago are now powerfully attracted to the latest manifestation of industrial strength religious fanaticism.
So far the ideological gap between the secular left that supplied the Communists of yesteryear and the jihadis of today has been a bit too wide for most western “progressives” to hop across. Instead, they’ve been forced to settle for casting longing gazes at the antics of the less inhibited zealots on the other side of the chasm. They can’t quite manage the ideological double back flip between the culture they come from and obscurantist Islam. Instead, they seize on surrogates, defending the “oppressed” Palestinians against the “apartheid” Israelis, meanwhile furiously denouncing anyone who dares to criticize the new inamorata they are forced to love from afar as “islamophobic.”
An interesting manifestation of this phenomenon recently turned up on the website of The Jacobin Magazine, which styles itself, “The leading voice of the American left.” In an article entitled “Old Atheism, New Empire,” one Luke Savage, described as “a student of political theory and formerly the editor of Canada’s largest student newspaper,” demonstrates that the New Atheists are not really the paladins of Enlightenment they claim to be, but are actually conducting a clever underground campaign to defend imperialism and provide a “smokescreen for the injustice of global capitalism!” Similar attacks on such New Atheist stalwarts as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens are becoming increasingly common as the Left’s love affair with radical Islam continues to blossom. The New Atheists, in turn, are finding that the firm ground on the left of the ideological spectrum they thought they were standing on has turned to quicksand.
It isn’t hard to detect the Islamist pheromones in the article in question. We notice, for example, that Savage isn’t particularly concerned about New Atheist attacks on religion in general. He hardly mentions Christianity. When it comes to Islam, however, it’s a different story. As Savage puts it,
It is against the backdrop of the war on terror, with its violent and destructive adventurism, that the notion of a monolithic evil called “Islam” has found a sizable constituency in the circles of liberal respectability.
As one might expect, this is followed by the de rigueur charge of racism:
The excessive focus on Islam as something at once monolithic and exceptionally bad, whose backwards followers need to have their rights in democratic societies suppressed and their home countries subjected to a Western-led civilizing process, cannot be called anything other than racist.
Moslem zealots, we find, aren’t really the enemy of, but actually belong in the pantheon of, officially endorsed and certified victim groups:
Criticisms of the violence carried out by fundamentalists of any kind – honor killings, suicide bombings, systemic persecution of women or gay people, or otherwise – are neither coherent nor even likely to be effective when they falsely attribute such phenomena to some monolithic orthodoxy.
The cognoscenti will have immediately noticed some amusing similarities between this rhetoric and that used to defend Communism in a bygone era. Notice, for example, the repeated insistence that Islam is not “monolithic.” Back in the day, one of the most hackneyed defenses of Communism was also that it was not “monolithic.” No doubt it was a great comfort to the millions slowly starving to death in the Gulag, or on their way to get a bullet in the back of the neck, that they at least weren’t the victims of a “monolithic” assassin. In case that’s too subtle for you, Savage spells it out, quoting from a book by Richard Seymour:
The function of [Hitchens’] antitheism was structurally analogous to what Irving Howe characterized as Stalinophobia…the Bogey-Scapegoat of Stalinism justified a new alliance with the right, obliviousness towards the permanent injustices of capitalist society, and a tolerance for repressive practices conducted in the name of the “Free World.” In roughly isomorphic fashion Hitchens’ preoccupation with religion…authorized not just a blind eye to the injustices of capitalism and empire but a vigorous advocacy of the same.
One would think that defending “the opiate of the masses” would be a bitter pill for any dedicated fighter against “capitalism and empire” to swallow, but Savage manages it with aplomb. Channeling the likes of Karen Armstrong, David Bentley Hart, and the rest of the “sophisticated Christians,” he writes,
Whether directed at Catholicism, Paganism, or Islam, the methodology employed to expose the inherent “irrationality” of all religions betrays a fundamental misunderstanding (or perhaps misrepresentation) of the nature of religious discourses, beliefs, and practices.
If that’s not quite rarified enough for you, how about this:
Moreover, the core assertion that forms the discursive nucleus of books like The God Delusion, God is Not Great, and The End of Faith – namely, that religious texts can be read as literal documents containing static ideas, and that the ensuing practices are uniform – is born out by neither real, existing religion or by its historical reality as a socially and ideologically heterogeneous phenomenon.
This is particularly significant in relation to the New Atheists’ denunciations of what they call “the doctrine of Islam” because it renders bare their false ontology of religion – one which more or less assumes that fundamentalism is the product of bad ideas rather than particular social and material conditions.
So Stalin wasn’t a bad boy. He just had a bad environment. See how that works? At this point Marx must be spinning in his grave, so we’ll leave these eloquent defenses of religion at that, and let the old man get some rest. In point of fact Marxism was itself a religion for all practical purposes. It just happened to be a secular one, with an earthly rather than a heavenly paradise. In its heyday, Communism had to damn the older, spiritual versions because messianic religions are never tolerant. Now that it’s defunct as an effective vehicle for militant zealotry, it’s pointless to continue trying to defend it from its spiritual competition.
In any case, the “progressive” flirtation with medieval obscurantism continues unabated. Will it ever become a full-fledged embrace? I suppose it’s not completely out of the question, but a lot of ideological baggage will have to be ditched along the way to that consummation. As for the New Atheists, one might say that they’ve just had a religious experience in spite of themselves. They’ve all been excommunicated.
Thanks to Tom at Happyjar.com for the cartoon. Check out his store!
Posted on November 1st, 2014 3 comments
Sometimes the best metrics for public intellectuals are the short articles they write for magazines. There are page limits, so they have to get to the point. It isn’t as easy to camouflage vacuous ideas behind a smoke screen of verbiage. Take, for example, the case of Oswald Spengler. His “Decline of the West” was hailed as the inspired work of a prophet in the years following its publication in 1918. Read Spengler’s Wiki entry and you’ll see what I mean. He should have quit while he was ahead.
Fast forward to 1932, and the Great Depression was at its peak. The Decline of the West appeared to be a fait accompli. Spengler would have been well-advised to rest on his laurels. Instead, he wrote an article for The American Mercury, still edited at the time by the Sage of Baltimore, H. L. Mencken, with the reassuring title, “Our Backs are to the Wall!” It was a fine synopsis of the themes Spengler had been harping on for years, and a prophecy of doom worthy of Jeremiah himself. It was also wrong.
According to Spengler, high technology carried within itself the seeds of its own collapse. Man had dared to “revolt against nature.” Now the very machines he had created in the process were revolting against man. At the time he wrote the article he summed up the existing situation as follows:
A group of nations of Nordic blood under the leadership of British, German, French, and Americans command the situation. Their political power depends on their wealth, and their wealth consists in their industrial strength. But this in turn is bound up with the existence of coal. The Germanic peoples, in particular, are secured by what is almost a monopoly of the known coalfields…
Spengler went on to explain that,
Countries industrially poor are poor all around; they cannot support an army or wage a war; therefore they are politically impotent; and the workers in them, leaders and led alike, are objects in the economic policy of their opponents.
No doubt he would have altered this passage somewhat had he been around to witness the subsequent history of places like Vietnam, Algeria, and Cambodia. Willpower, ideology, and military genius have trumped political and economic power throughout history. Spengler simply assumed they would be ineffective against modern technology because the “Nordic” powers had not been seriously challenged in the 50 years before he wrote his book. It was a rash assumption. Even more rash were his assumptions about the early demise of modern technology. He “saw” things happening in his own times that weren’t really happening at all. For example,
The machine, by its multiplication and its refinement, is in the end defeating its own purpose. In the great cities the motor-car has by its numbers destroyed its own value, and one gets on quicker on foot. In Argentina, Java, and elsewhere the simple horse-plough of the small cultivator has shown itself economically superior to the big motor implement, and is driving the latter out. Already, in many tropical regions, the black or brown man with his primitive ways of working is a dangerous competitor to the modern plantation-technic of the white.
Unfortunately, motor cars and tractors can’t read, so went right on multiplying without paying any attention to Spengler’s book. At least he wasn’t naïve enough to believe that modern technology would end because of the exhaustion of the coalfields. He knew that we were quite clever enough to come up with alternatives. However, in making that very assertion, he stumbled into what was perhaps the most fundamental of all his false predictions; the imminence of the “collapse of the West.”
It is, of course, nonsense to talk, as it was fashionable to do in the Nineteenth Century, of the imminent exhaustion of the coal-fields within a few centuries and of the consequences thereof – here, too, the materialistic age could not but think materially. Quite apart from the actual saving of coal by the substitution of petroleum and water-power, technical thought would not fail ere long to discover and open up still other and quite different sources of power. It is not worth while thinking ahead so far in time. For the west-European-American technology will itself have ended by then. No stupid trifle like the absence of material would be able to hold up this gigantic evolution.
Alas, “so far in time” came embarrassingly fast, with the discovery of nuclear fission a mere six years later. Be that as it may, among the reasons that this “gigantic evolution” was unstoppable was what Spengler referred to as “treason to technics.” As he put it,
Today more or less everywhere – in the Far East, India, South America, South Africa – industrial regions are in being, or coming into being, which, owing to their low scales of wages, will face us with a deadly competition. the unassailable privileges of the white races have been thrown away, squandered, betrayed.
In other words, the “treason” consisted of the white race failing to keep its secrets to itself, but bestowing them on the brown and black races. They, however, were only interested in using this technology against the original creators of the “Faustian” civilization of the West. Once the whites were defeated, they would have no further interest in it:
For the colored races, on the contrary, it is but a weapon in their fight against the Faustian civilization, a weapon like a tree from the woods that one uses as scaffolding, but discards as soon as it has served its purpose. This machine-technic will end with the Faustian civilization and one day will lie in fragments, forgotten – our railways and steamships as dead as the Roman roads and the Chinese wall, our giant cities and skyscrapers in ruins, like old Memphis and Babylon. The history of this technic is fast drawing to its inevitable close. It will be eaten up from within. When, and in what fashion, we so far know not.
Spengler was wise to include the Biblical caveat that, “…about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Matthew 24:36). However, he had too much the spirit of the “end time” Millennialists who have cropped up like clockwork every few decades for the last 2000 years, predicting the imminent end of the world, to leave it at that. Like so many other would-be prophets, his predictions were distorted by a grossly exaggerated estimate of the significance of the events of his own time. Christians, for example, have commonly assumed that reports of war, famine and pestilence in their own time are somehow qualitatively different from the war, famine and pestilence that have been a fixture of our history for that last 2000 years, and conclude that they are witnessing the signs of the end times, when, “…nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places” (Matthew 24:7). In Spengler’s case, the “sign” was the Great Depression, which was at its climax when he wrote the article:
The center of gravity of production is steadily shifting away from them, especially since even the respect of the colored races for the white has been ended by the World War. This is the real and final basis of the unemployment that prevails in the white countries. It is no mere crisis, but the beginning of a catastrophe.
Of course, Marxism was in high fashion in 1932 as well. Spengler tosses it in for good measure, agreeing with Marx on the inevitability of revolution, but not on its outcome:
This world-wide mutiny threatens to put an end to the possibility of technical economic work. The leaders (bourgeoisie, ed.) may take to flight, but the led (proletariat, ed.) are lost. Their numbers are their death.
Spengler concludes with some advice, not for us, or our parents, or our grandparents, but our great-grandparents generation:
Only dreamers believe that there is a way out. Optimism is cowardice… Our duty is to hold on to the lost position, without hope, without rescue, like that Roman soldier whose bones were found in front of a door in Pompeii, who, during the eruption of Vesuvius, died at his post because they forgot to relieve him. That is greatness. That is what it means to be a thoroughbred. The honorable end is the one thing that can not be taken from a man.
One must be grateful that later generations of cowardly optimists donned their rose-colored glasses in spite of Spengler, went right on using cars, tractors, and other mechanical abominations, and created a world in which yet later generations of Jeremiahs could regale us with updated predictions of the end of the world. And who can blame them? After all, eventually, at some “day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven,” they are bound to get it right, if only because our sun decides to supernova. When that happens, those who are still around are bound to dust off their ancient history books, smile knowingly, and say, “See, Spengler was right after all!”
Posted on October 12th, 2014 No comments
Franz de Waal’s The Bonobo and the Atheist is interesting for several reasons. As the title of this post suggests, it demonstrates the disconnect between the theory and practice of morality in the academy. It’s one of the latest brickbats in the ongoing spat between the New Atheists and the “accommodationist” atheists. It documents the current progress of the rearrangement of history in the behavioral sciences in the aftermath of the Blank Slate debacle. It’s a useful reality check on the behavior of bonobos, the latest “noble savage” among the primates. And, finally, it’s an entertaining read.
In theory, de Waal is certainly a subjective moralist. As he puts it, “the whole point of my book is to argue a bottom up approach” to morality, as opposed to the top down approach: “The view of morality as a set of immutable principles, or laws, that are ours to discover.” The “bottom” de Waal refers to are evolved emotional traits. In his words,
The moral law is not imposed from above or derived from well-reasoned principles; rather, it arises from ingrained values that have been there since the beginning of time.
My views are in line with the way we know the human mind works, with visceral reactions arriving before rationalizations, and also with the way evolution produces behavior. A good place to start is with an acknowledgment of our background as social animals, and how this background predisposes us to treat each other. This approach deserves attention at a time in which even avowed atheists are unable to wean themselves from a semireligious morality, thinking that the world would be a better place if only a white-coated priesthood could take over from the frocked one.
So far, so good. I happen to be a subjective moralist myself, and agree with de Waal on the origins of morality. However, reading on, we find confirmation of a prediction made long ago by Friedrich Nietzsche. In Human, All Too Human, he noted the powerful human attachment to religion and the “metaphysics” of the old philosophers. He likened the expansion of human knowledge to a ladder, or tree, up which humanity was gradually climbing. As we reached the top rungs, however, we would begin to notice that the old beliefs that had supplied us with such great emotional satisfaction in the past were really illusions. At that point, our tendency would be to recoil from this reality. The “tree” would begin to grow “sprouts” in reverse. We would balk at “turning the last corner.” Nietzsche imagined that developing a new philosophy that could accommodate the world as it was instead of the world as we wished it to be would be the task of “the great thinkers of the next century.” Alas, a century is long past since he wrote those words, yet to all appearances we are still tangled in the “downward sprouts.”
Nowhere else is this more apparent than in the academy, where a highly moralistic secular Puritanism prevails. Top down, objective morality is alive and well, and the self-righteous piety of the new, secular priesthood puts that of the old-fashioned religious Puritans in the shade. All this modern piety seems to be self-supporting, levitating in thin air, with none of the props once supplied by religion. As de Waal puts it,
…the main ingredients of a moral society don’t require religion, since they come from within.
Clearly, de Waal can see where morality comes from, and how it evolved, and why it exists, but, even with these insights, he too recoils from “climbing the last rungs,” and “turning the final corner.” We find artifacts of the modern objective morality prevalent in the academy scattered throughout his book. For example,
Science isn’t the answer to everything. As a student, I learned about the “naturalistic fallacy” and how it would be the zenith of arrogance for scientists to think that their work could illuminate the distinction between right and wrong. This was not long after World War II, mind you, which had brought us massive evil justified by a scientific theory of self-directed evolution. Scientists had been much involved in the genocidal machine, conducting unimaginable experiments.
American and British scientists were not innocent, however, because they were the ones who earlier in the century had brought us eugenics. They advocated racist immigration laws and forced sterilization of the deaf, blind, mentally ill, and physically impaired, as well as criminals and members of minority races.
I am profoundly skeptical of the moral purity of science, and feel that its role should never exceed that of morality’s handmaiden.
One can consider humans as either inherently good but capable of evil or as inherently evil yet capable of good. I happen to belong to the first camp.
None of these statements make any sense in the absence of objective good and evil. If, as de Waal claims repeatedly elsewhere in his book, morality is ultimately an expression of emotions or “gut feelings,” analogs of which we share with many other animals, and which exist because they evolved, then the notions that scientists are or were evil, period, or that science itself can be morally impure, period, or that humans can be good, period, or evil, period, are obvious non sequiturs. De Waal has climbed up the ladder, peaked at what lay just beyond the top rungs, and jumped back down onto Nietzsche’s “backward growing sprouts.” Interestingly enough, in spite of that de Waal admires the strength of one who was either braver or more cold-blooded, and kept climbing; Edvard Westermarck. But I will have more to say of him later.
The Bonobo and the Atheist is also interesting from a purely historical point of view. The narrative concocted to serve as the “history” of the behavioral sciences continues to be adjusted and readjusted in the aftermath of the Blank Slate catastrophe, probably the greatest scientific debacle of all time. As usual, the arch-villain is Robert Ardrey, who committed the grave sin of being right about human nature when virtually all the behavioral scientists and professionals, at least in the United States, were wrong. Imagine the impertinence of a mere playwright daring to do such a thing! Here’s what de Waal has to say about him:
Confusing predation with aggression is an old error that recalls the time that humans were seen as incorrigible murderers on the basis of signs that our ancestors ate meat. This “killer ape” notion gained such traction that the opening scene of Stanley Kubrick’s movie 2001: A Space Odyssey showed one hominin bludgeoning another with a zebra femur, after which the weapon, flung triumphantly into the air, turned into an orbiting spacecraft. A stirring image, but based on a single puncture wound in the fossilized skull of an ancestral infant, known as the Taung Child. It’s discoverer had concluded that our ancestors must have been carnivorous cannibals, an idea that the journalist Robert Ardrey repackaged in African Genesis by saying that we are risen apes rather than fallen angels. It is now considered likely, however, that the Taung Child had merely fallen prey to a leopard or eagle.
I had to smile when I read this implausible yarn. After all, anyone can refute it by simply looking up the source material, not to mention the fact that there’s no lack of people who’ve actually read Ardrey, and are aware that the “Killer Ape Theory” is a mere straw man concocted by his enemies. De Waal is not one of them. Not only has he obviously not read Ardrey, but he probably knows of him at all only at third or fourth hand. If he had, he’d realize that he was basically channeling Ardrey in the rest of his book. Indeed, much of The Bonobo and the Atheist reads as if it had been lifted from Ardrey’s last book, The Hunting Hypothesis, complete with the ancient origins of morality, Ardrey’s embrace of de Waal’s theme that humans are genuinely capable of altruism and cooperation, resulting in part, as also claimed by de Waal, from his adoption of a hunting lifestyle, and his rejection of what de Waal calls “Veneer Theory,” the notion that human morality is merely a thin veneer covering an evil and selfish core. For example, according to de Waal,
Hunting and meat sharing are at the root of chimpanzee sociality in the same way that they are thought to have catalyzed human evolution. The big-game hunting of our ancestors required even tighter cooperation.
This conclusion is familiar to those who have actually read Ardrey, but was anathema to the “Men of Science” as recently as 15 years ago. Ardrey was, of course, never a journalist, and his conclusion that Australopithecine apes had hunted was based, not on the “single puncture wound” in the Taung child’s skull, but mainly on the statistical anomaly of numbers of a particular type of bone that might have been used as a weapon found in association with the ape remains far in excess of what would be expected if they were there randomly. To date, no one has ever explained that anomaly, and it remains carefully swept under the rug. In a word, the idea that Ardrey based his hypothesis entirely “on a single puncture wound” is poppycock. In the first place, there were two puncture wounds, not one. Apparently, de Waal is also unaware that Raymond Dart, the man who discovered this evidence, has been rehabilitated, and is now celebrated as the father of cave taphonomy, whereas those who disputed his conclusions about what he had found, such as C. K. Brain, who claimed that the wounds were caused by a leopard, are now in furious rowback mode. For example, from the abstract of a paper in which Brain’s name appears at the end of the list of authors,
The ca. 1.0 myr old fauna from Swartkrans Member 3 (South Africa) preserves abundant indication of carnivore activity in the form of tooth marks (including pits) on many bone surfaces. This direct paleontological evidence is used to test a recent suggestion that leopards, regardless of prey body size, may have been almost solely responsible for the accumulation of the majority of bones in multiple deposits (including Swartkrans Member 3) from various Sterkfontein Valley cave sites. Our results falsify that hypothesis and corroborate an earlier hypothesis that, while the carcasses of smaller animals may have been deposited in Swartkrans by leopards, other kinds of carnivores (and hominids) were mostly responsible for the deposition of large animal remains.
Meanwhile, we find that none other than Stephen Jay Gould has been transmogrified into a “hero.” As documented by Steven Pinker in The Blank Slate, Gould was basically a radical Blank Slater, unless one cares to give him a pass because he grudgingly admitted that, after all, eating, sleeping, urinating and defecating might not be purely learned behaviors, after all. The real Steven Jay Gould rejected evolutionary psychology root and branch, and was a co-signer of the Blank Slater manifesto that appeared in the New York Times in response to claims about human nature as reserved as those of E. O. Wilson in his Sociobiology. He famously invented the charge of “just so stories” to apply to any and all claims for the existence of human behavioral predispositions. Now, in The Bonobo and the Atheist, we find Gould reinvented as a good evolutionary psychologist. His “just so stories” only apply to the “excesses” of evolutionary psychology. We find the real Gould, who completely rejected the idea of “human nature,” softened to a new, improved Gould who merely “vehemently resisted the idea that every single human behavior deserves an evolutionary account.” If anyone was a dyed-in-the-wool habitue of the Blank Slate establishment in its heyday, it was Gould, but suddenly we learn that “Several skirmishes between him and the evolutionary establishment unfolded in the pages of the New York Review of Books in 1997.” I can only suggest that anyone who honestly believes that a new “establishment” had already replaced the Blank Slate prior to 1997 should read Napoleon Chagnon’s Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes – The Yanomamö and the Anthropologists, published as recently as last year. No matter, according to de Waal, “The greatest public defender of evolution this country has ever known was Stephen Jay Gould.”
Perhaps one can best understand the Gould panegyrics in connection with another of the major themes of de Waal’s book; his rejection of Richard Dawkins and the rest of the New Atheists. De Waal is what New Atheist Jerry Coyne would refer to as an “accommodationist,” that is, an atheist who believes that the atheist lions should lie down with the religious sheep. As it happens, Gould was the Ur-accommodationist, and inventor of the phrase “nonoverlapping magisterial,” or NOMA to describe his claim that science and religion occupy separate spheres of knowledge. One can find a good summary of the objections to NOMA from the likes of “New Atheists” Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Coyne on Prof. Coyne’s website, Why Evolution is True, for example, here and here.
It’s hard to understand de Waal’s bitter opposition to atheist activism as other than yet another example of Nietzsche’s “climbing down onto the backward pointing shoots.” Indeed, as one might expect from such instances of “turning back,” it’s not without contradictions. For example, he writes,
Religion looms as large as an elephant in the United States, to the point that being nonreligious is about the biggest handicap a politician running for office can have, bigger than being gay, unmarried, thrice married, or black.
And yet he objects to the same kind of activism among atheists that has been the most effective antidote to such bigotry directed at, for example, gays and blacks. For some reason, atheists are just supposed to smile and take it. De Waal accuses Dawkins, Harris and the rest of being “haters,” but I know of not a single New Atheist that term can really be accurately applied to, and certainly not to the likes of Dawkins, Harris or Coyne. Vehement, on occasion, yes, but haters of the religious per se? I don’t think so. De Waal agrees with David Sloan Wilson that “religion” evolved. I can certainly believe that predispositions evolved that have the potential to manifest themselves as religion, but “religion” per se, complete with imaginary spiritual beings? Not likely. Nevertheless, De Waal claims it is part of our “social skin.” And yet, in spite of this claim that religion “evolved,” a bit later we find him taking note of a social phenomenon that apparently directly contradicts this conclusion:
The secular model is currently being tried out in northern Europe, where it has progressed to the point that children naively ask why there are so many “plus signs” on large buildings called “churches.”
Apparently, then, “evolved religion” only infected a portion of our species in northern Europe, and they all moved to the United States. Finally, in his zeal to defend religion, de Waal comes up with some instances of “moral equivalence” that are truly absurd. For example,
I am as sickened (by female genital mutilation, ed.) as the next person, but if Harris’s quest is to show that religion fails to promote morality, why pick on Islam? Isn’t genital mutilation common in the United States, too, where newborn males are routinely circumcised without their consent? We surely don’t need to go all the way to Afghanistan to find valleys in the moral landscape.
As it happens I know of several instances in which my undergraduate classmates voluntarily had themselves circumcised, not for any religious motive, but because otherwise their girlfriends wouldn’t agree to oral sex. One wonders whether de Waal can cite similar instances involving FGM.
Oh, well, I suppose I shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth. Anyone who believes in a “bottom up” version of subjective morality can’t be all bad, according to my own subjective judgment, of course. Indeed, de Waal even has the audacity to point out that bonobos, those paragons of primate virtue extolled so often as role models for our own species do, occasionally fight. Along with Jonathan Haidt, he’s probably the closest thing to a “kindred spirit” I’m likely to find in academia. The icing on the cake is that he is aware of and admires the brilliant work of Edvard Westermarck on morality. What of Westermarck, you ask. Well, I’ll take that up in another post.
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.