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  • What is the “Atheist Agenda?”

    Posted on March 22nd, 2014 Helian 4 comments

    There is none.  An atheist is someone who doesn’t believe in a God or gods, period!  Somehow, that simple definition just never seems to register in the minds of large cohorts of atheists and believers alike.  Take, for example, Theo Hobson, who supplies us with his own, idiosyncratic definition in a piece entitled “Atheism is an Offshoot of Deism” that recently turned up in the Guardian:

    Atheism is less distinct from deism than it thinks. It inherits the semi-Christian assumptions of this creed.

    Atheism derives from religion? Surely it just says that no gods exist, that rationalism, or ‘scientific naturalism’, is to be preferred to any form of supernaturalism. Actually, no: in reality what we call atheism is a form of secular humanism; it presupposes a moral vision, of progressive humanitarianism, of trust that universal moral values will triumph. (Of course there is also the atheism of Nietzsche, which rejects humanism, but this is not what is normally meant by ‘atheism’).

    So what we know as atheism should really be understood as an offshoot of deism. For it sees rationalism as a benign force that can liberate our natural goodness. It has a vision of rationalism saving us, uniting us.

    Sorry, but I beg to differ with you Theo.  There certainly are many delusional atheists who embrace such a “moral vision,” but the notion that all of them do is nonsense.  For example, I reject any such “moral vision,” which Michael Rosen accurately described as “Religion Lite.”  If you’ll trouble yourself to read the comments after your article, you’ll see I’m not alone.  For example, from commenter Whiterthanwhite,

    So is my Afairyism an offshoot of my five-year-old’s belief in fairies?  Is my Afatherchristmasism an offshoot of her belief in Father Christmas?

    Topher chimes in,

    Indeed.  Certain (rather more arrogant) religious people insist on seeing atheism as a reflection of theism rather than a rejection of it. It makes them feel better I guess, but of course is absolutely misguided.

    Dogfondler adds,

    Yes what a bag of bollocks this is. Atheism is an ‘offshoot’ of deism the way that absence is an offshoot of presence.  It seems that what theists can’t stand about atheism is the sheer absence of belief. Get over it.

    Ituae concurs,

    Can you, and others like you, please stop talking about atheism as if it were a belief system? I don’t believe in God. Doesn’t mean a subscribe to whatever incoherent, ill-thought-out Humanism you’re passing off as philosophy.

    There are many similar comments, but as noted above, it never seems to register, even among some atheists.  Follow an atheist website long enough, and you’re sure to run across commenters who insist on associating atheism with veganism, progressivism, schemes for gladdening us with assorted visions of “human flourishing,” and miscellaneous secular Puritans of all stripes.  No.  I don’t think so!  Atheism doesn’t even come pre-packaged with “scientific rationalism.”  It is merely the absence of a belief in a God or gods – Period! Aus!  Schluss!  Basta!

    If any word is long overdue for a re-definition, it’s “religion,” not “atheism.”  Instead of being rigidly associated with theism, it should embrace all forms of belief in imaginary, supernatural entities, or at least those with normative powers.  In particular, in addition to a God or gods, it should include belief in such things as Rights, Good, and Evil as things-in-themselves, independent of the subjective impressions of them that exist in the minds of individuals.

    Among other things, such a re-definition would add a certain coherence to theories according to which the predisposition to embrace “religion” is an evolved behavior.  I rather doubt that we’ll eventually find something quite so specific as “You shall believe in supernatural beings!” hard-wired in our brains.  On the other hand, there may be predispositions that make it substantially more likely that belief in such beings will follow once a certain level of intelligence is reached.  I suspect that the origins of secular religions such as Communism will eventually be found by rummaging about in the very same behavioral baggage.  I’m not the only one who’s seen the affinity.  Many others have spoken of the “popes,” “bishops,” and “priesthood” of Communism and its antecedents, for almost as long as they’ve been around.

    In any case, not all atheists are secular Puritans who embrace these various versions of “religion lite.”  I personally hope our species will eventually grow up enough to jettison them along with the older editions.  Darwin immediately grasped the truth, as did many others since him.  It follows immediately from his theory.  Evolved behavioral traits are the ultimate cause for the existence of morality and the perception of such subjective entities as Good and Evil that go with it.  That is the simple truth, and it follows that belief in the existence of Good and Evil as objective things with some kind of a legitimate, independent normative power, whether ones tastes run to the versions preferred by the “heavy” or “lite” versions of religion, is a chimera.

    Does that mean it’s time to jettison morality?  No, sorry, our species doesn’t have that option.  We will continue to act morally in spite of the vociferous objections of legions of philosophers, because it is our nature to act morally.  It’s a “good” thing, too, because even if morality isn’t “real,” we would have a very hard time getting along without it.  On the other hand, we do have the option of recognizing the pathologically self-righteous among us for the charlatans they are.

    Elmer Gantry

  • Morality and the Lament of the Liberal Atheists

    Posted on March 11th, 2014 Helian 6 comments

    Atheists of the ideological type that might be described as “progressive” or “liberal” have a problem.  In general, they are extremely moralistic and self-righteous.  Read their articles, visit their blogs, or just follow one of them on Twitter for a while, and you’ll see what I mean.  Take New Atheist kingpin Richard Dawkins, for example.  In the last week alone he has tweeted anathemas against sexists, racists, animal abusers, and female genital mutilators.  The problem with this is that atheists lack any legitimate basis for applying their moral judgments to anyone.  As political philosopher Michael Rosen puts it, their tacit assumption of such legitimacy amounts to “religion lite.”

    Rosen’s comment appeared in a review of American philosopher, legal scholar, and liberal atheist Ronald Dworkin’s book, Religion Without God, that recently appeared in The Nation.  Noting that Dworkin accepted “the full, independent reality of value,” Rosen, himself a liberal atheist, points out that there is a problem with this claim.  There is no more evidence for it than there is for the existence of God.  He sums up the implications in the final paragraph of his review:

    I cannot see that describing the target of our disagreements about value as existing in a fully independent, objective realm is anything other than religion lite:  the religious idea of eternal goodness without the miraculous elements of omnipotent divine will and personal immortality.  Yet I am one with Dworkin in thinking that even a fully secular individual should contemplate the universe not just with curiosity and wonder but with reverence and gratitude.  Still, behind me I hear a voice – a Nietzschean one, perhaps – that tells me that what Dworkin and I are looking at is no more than a penumbra, the few rays that remain in the sky after the sun of revealed religion has set.  If that is so, then the coming night may be dark indeed.

    This sums up the dilemma of the liberal atheist very nicely.  They want to continue sitting comfortably on a branch they have just sawed off.  Religious believers notice this immediately and laugh, with good reason.  the world view of the modern liberal may well turn out to be as dangerous as that of any religious fanatic, but at the same time it’s a joke.  It is as moralistic as that of the most self-righteous Pharisee, or the most pious Puritan, utterly dependent on the existence in an “independent, objective realm” of Good, Evil, and Rights to have any semblance of rationality, but lacking any evidence or rational basis for belief in such mirages.  The continuing stream of news from the realm of science, which good liberals must at least pretend to respect, to the effect that the ultimate basis for morality may be found in the evolved behavioral predispositions of an animal species with a particularly large brain has done nothing to help matters.  All this is happening at a time when the modern incarnation of the liberal can hardly engage in a rational debate without constantly falling back on the illusion of moral superiority as his inevitable ultima ratio.  No wonder Rosen senses the approach of darkness for liberal atheists.  What happens when the very basis of the ultima ratio disappears?

    But what of the rest of us?  Are dark times approaching for us as well?  There might be a nuclear holocaust tomorrow for all I know.  However, no matter what the future brings, I like our chances of survival better if we base our decisions on what is true rather than on what is false.  It may be you think that a chaotic world of moral relativism is inevitable if there is no objective Good and Evil.  It may be you think human beings will lose their dignity if there is no God.  It may be that you think that tyranny and oppression will be our lot if there are no objective Rights.  True or not, one thing is certain.  None of these fears will cause Good, Evil, God, or Rights to magically pop into existence, independent of the minds that dream them up.  You may not be happy about reality, but it will stubbornly persist in being real in spite of you.

    Such fears are also unrealistic.  Moral relativism is the ground state of living things.  It doesn’t work for a social species like ours.  If every one of us tried to monopolize all the available resources within his grasp at the cost of everyone else, the chances that any given individual would survive and reproduce would be drastically reduced.  Therefore, morality.  It exists because, from an evolutionary perspective, it works.  It will continue to function just as it always has, even if 100,000 philosophers shout at the top of their lungs that it’s irrational.  Of course it is, but it doesn’t matter.  We will continue to perceive the good and evil that seem so real to our imaginations as absolutes.  It is our nature to do so, and it will only be possible for us to override that nature by an act of will.  When it comes to regulating our social interactions, morality is the only game in town.  There is no viable substitute.  Within certain limits, of course, there is a great deal of flexibility in exactly what these “absolutes” will be.  Assuming we value the survival of our species, we would do well to choose them wisely, and limit their scope to the bare necessities.

    It will never be possible to ignore human moral emotions with impunity.  They aren’t going anywhere, and “rational” arguments will never really be rational unless they are taken into account.  That said, it seems obvious that decisions regarding the optimum minimum wage, how we should react to the situation in Ukraine, and what the law should be regarding corporations were not contemplated by Mother Nature when she devised morality.  Perhaps it would behoove us to at least attempt to apply our limited powers of reason to deciding such matters, rather than just allowing ourselves to be carried along on a tide of moral emotions.  Those among us who invariably react to those whose opinions differ from their own in such matters with outrage and virtuous indignation are not only tiresome, but irrational.  The liberal atheists may sense the darkness as the façade of their cherished righteousness collapses around them.  The rest of us, however, can breathe a sigh of relief.

  • Anthropocentric “Facts” and the Illusion of Value

    Posted on February 21st, 2014 Helian 2 comments

    In my last post I noted Jonathan Haidt’s classification of facts as “anthropocentric” and “non-anthropocentric” in his refutation of Sam Harris’ scientific morality.  The terms were coined by philosopher David Wiggins, and Haidt defines them as follows:

    Facts of chemistry, physics, and other hard sciences are non-anthropocentric. They do not depend on any aspect of human nature. If intelligent aliens had come to visit the earth long before humans appeared, they would have found that the earth is the third planet from the sun, and that copper is a better conductor of electricity than is aluminum.

    Anthropocentric facts, in contrast, are only true given the kinds of creatures that we happen to be, due to the twists and turns of our evolutionary history. Examples include the facts that  sugar is sweeter than ascorbic acid, and that extended solitary confinement is painful. Those are not just my personal opinions; they are facts about sugar  and isolation.

    As I pointed out earlier, the value of such terms is dubious.  When applied to morality, they are downright misleading, because they rationalize the elevation of moral judgments to the status of “facts.”

    Consider the examples given of the sweetness of sugar and the pain of solitary confinement.  “Sweet” describes a sensation experienced through one of the senses, namely, taste.  Senses are diagnostic tools that evolved because they enabled the life forms that possessed them to perceive facts about the environment, the knowledge of which made it more likely that they would survive and reproduce.  If we taste something as sweet, or feel it as hard, or see it as green, those impressions tell us something about the real, physical nature of the objects we are sensing.  All these subjective impressions are referred to in the jargon of philosophy as “qualia.”  Philosophers argue endlessly over the nature of their existence, whether they can exist in the context of materialism, their implications for  the mind-body problem, etc., etc.  Sophisticated Christians even use them to bamboozle themselves and amaze their friends with fancy proofs of the existence of God.  That’s neither here nor there as far as this blog post is concerned.  What matters is that all of them exist because, at some point in the past, their existence enhanced the probability that our ancestors would survive and reproduce, and that all of them are subjective impressions in the minds of individuals.

    To the extent that they are “facts,” then, these qualia exist only as such subjective impressions.  Physical objects can give rise to them (in the case of sense perceptions) or not (in the case of subjective impressions of good, evil, rights, values, etc.), and they can communicate information about the qualities of physical objects.  However, they are not physical aspects of the objects in themselves.  For that reason, it can be very misleading to label them as facts, even if one tosses in the qualifying adjective “anthropocentric.”  They are only “facts” if one bears constantly in mind exactly what kind of “facts” they are.

    Haidt’s essay is a case in point.  Having introduced the term “anthropocentric,” he immediately begins using it as a rationalization for converting subjective to objective.  In the end, he drops the adjective altogether, and suddenly, we no longer find ourselves talking about subjective impressions, but simply about “facts.”  He begins his perambulation into the swamp by claiming that his own, subjective impressions must necessarily be the same as everyone elses:

    Those are not just my personal opinions; they are facts about sugar  and isolation.

    In fact, they are his personal opinions.  I firmly believe Mother Nature has been parsimonious in this affair, and hasn’t gone to the trouble of having everyone experience “sweet” and “pain” differently, but I have no way of proving it.  As the philosopher Daniel Dennett pointed out, qualia are private.  In other words, there is no way for me to describe to a blind person precisely what I mean when I say describe something as “red.”  Haidt continues with such remarkable assertions as,

    Because of our shared evolutionary history, it will be an anthropocentric fact everywhere that sugar is sweeter than ascorbic acid. Yet many other anthropocentric facts are emergent –– they emerge only when people interact, in a particular cultural or historical era. Prices are a good example: It is a fact that gold is more valuable than silver. That is not just my opinion.

    I’m sure Haidt could argue very convincingly that gold really is more valuable than silver.  The last time I checked, the price of gold was 60 times that of silver, give or take.  However, that price is the distillation of subjective value judgments by many individuals.  It has nothing to do with the objective nature of gold or silver, nor does it make sense to insist that gold “really” is more valuable than silver unless we are careful to add that we are speaking of subjective impressions as they exist at a given time and place.  It is also a “fact” that when people read a statement like, “It is a fact that gold is more valuable than silver,” they will take it to mean just what it says, without calling to mind any hair-splitting distinctions between “anthropocentric” and “non-anthropocentric.”

    This willy-nilly conflating of objective and subjective continues when Haidt finally gets around to discussing the theme of his essay; morality.  Suddenly, all the adjectives somehow melt off the “emergent culture-specific anthropocentric truths” Haidt was talking about in earlier paragraphs, and we find them standing there naked as simple “truths.”  For example,

    I believe that moral truths are of this sort. This still makes it possible to critique practices in other cultures. All cuisines are not equal – French cuisine was better than 1950s American, and Julia Child offered Americans a way to improve. Similarly, a culture that oppresses categories of people against their will is worse than one that does not. Massive human rights violations, in which large numbers of victims are crying out for foreign assistance, can justify a military response  from other nations. But the fact that humanity has reached that point is an emergent fact about modernity and our changing moral standards.

    Here, Haidt has ended by bamboozling himself.  In the end, the difference between him and Harris isn’t one of substance, but of a mere sterile quibble over which “facts” can be described as “scientific” and which not.  Other than Haidt’s qualification that the “facts” only apply at a given place and time, after “emerging,” the result is exactly the same.  The subjective strings drop away, and impressions in the minds of individuals suddenly and magically acquire normative powers over other individuals.  Some cultures really are “worse” than others.  Some military responses really are “just.”  In the last sentence of Haidt’s quote, we find that the impressions that some cultures are “bad” and some military interventions are “just” can be transmogrified into “facts” merely by virtue of a shift in popular opinion.  Thanks to this magic elixir, the impressions “good” and “evil” spring out of their cocoons, and emerge as full-fledged Things-in-Themselves.  From good and evil, they are transformed into “Good” and “Evil,” complete with the autonomous power to bludgeon anyone who doesn’t happen to be quite on the same page with Haidt’s or Harris’ version of modernity.

    Haidt is really too smart for this.  It’s hard for me to imagine how he could come up with stuff like this after writing a book like The Righteous Mind, unless he’s finally succumbed to the moralistic bullying that Harris invariably resorts to when anyone points out the obvious absurdity of his “scientific morality.”  Perhaps it finally became unbearable to Haidt to have to put up with accusations that he is “evil” because he doesn’t believe that female genital mutilation, for example, is objectively “bad.”  In the end, he cooked up this stew of philosophical leftovers so he, too, could declare, in the odor of sanctity, and without qualification, that, “Female genital mutilation is bad.”

    As it happens, the subjective impression that FGM is bad exists in my consciousness, too.  I hope many others will agree with me, and that together we can end FGM once and for all.  I am no “moral relativist.”  Unlike Haidt and Harris, I have gone beyond the writing of essays and have taken up a weapon to fight for these subjective impressions of mine in the past.  I found these impressions, these whims, if you will, entirely adequate to justify my actions to myself.  It is simply worth it to me to put my life on the line to end certain things that I don’t want to live with.  However, it was never necessary for me to stoop to the lazy conceit that I was fighting for the Good-in-Itself.  Indeed, I am firmly convinced there is no such thing.  And while Haidt may be disappointed to hear it, there is also no such thing as an emergent, culture-specific, anthropocentric Good-in-Itself.





  • Four Lame Responses to Sam Harris’ Moral Landscape Challenge

    Posted on February 18th, 2014 Helian 1 comment

    Four of the editors at David Sloan Wilson’s This View of Life website have submitted essays in response to Sam Harris’ Moral Landscape Challenge.  That challenge was to refute the central premise of Harris’ book, The Moral Landscape, which is as follows:

    Morality and values depend on the existence of conscious minds—and specifically on the fact that such minds can experience various forms of well-being and suffering in this universe. Conscious minds and their states are natural phenomena, fully constrained by the laws of the universe (whatever these turn out to be in the end). Therefore, questions of morality and values must have right and wrong answers that  fall within the purview of science (in principle, if not in practice). Consequently, some people and cultures will be right (to a greater or lesser degree), and some will be wrong, with respect to what they deem important in life.

    All of the four editors (Jiro Tanaka, Michael Price, Mark Sloan, and Jonathan Haidt) are apparently aware that moral emotions exist because they evolved.  At least one of them, Haidt, has read, understood, and quotes at length in his own work David Hume’s masterful demonstration that it is impossible to use reason to establish moral truths in his A Treatise of Human Nature.  It is a testimony to the powerful force of the illusions that the process of evolution has planted in our minds, causing us to interpret our emotional responses as actual objects or things that exist independently of our minds, that none of the four could supply a simple, straightforward response to the challenge.  In fact, to a greater or lesser extent, all four of them, with the possible exception of Haidt, actually agreed with Harris, at least by implication, that the illusions are real.

    It boggles the mind, really.  Presumably all four of these gentlemen are aware that moral emotions are just that – moral emotions.  The ultimate cause of those emotions, and the only reason that they exist at all, is evolution by natural selection.  One can pontificate about the wild and spectacular differences in the actual manner in which those emotions are expressed in different human cultures all day long, but the ultimate cause remains the same.  Evolved traits do not have a purpose.  Purpose implies a creator, and presumably all four reject that hypothesis.  Moral emotions, like every other evolved trait, exist because their presence increased the probability that the genes responsible for the existence of those traits would survive and reproduce.  Moral emotions, and the associated illusions of the existence of Good and Evil as things in themselves, exist as subjective impressions in the minds of individuals.  There is no way in which they can acquire the power to transcend those individual minds, and acquire some kind of a mysterious “scientific” normative power over other individuals.  There is no way that they can magically acquire a purpose.

    So much is really obvious without the benefit of Darwin’s theories.  Suppose there were no human beings in the universe.  Would morality exist?  Would one stone on some rocky planet be “Good,” and another “Evil?”  Obviously, the answer is no.  Now supply that universe with one human individual with the usual suite of moral emotions.  Would the presence of those emotions in the mind of one individual suddenly change everything?  Would objective Good and Evil suddenly ripple out from the mind of that one individual at the speed of light, acquiring some kind of normative power independent of the mind of the individual throughout the entire universe?  No.  Suppose we supplied the universe with more such individuals.  Is there any conceivable way in which the moral emotions of the first individual could jump out of his skull, acquire an independent existence of their own, and acquire the power to prescribe to the newcomers what they, too, are bound to agree are Good and Evil?  No.

    Still, the illusions commonly trump reality, even in the most carefully reasoned attempts to approach the subject of morality.  Like Kafka’s Castle, it beckons like a real thing, yet remains out of reach.  Mother Nature didn’t mess around.  As if taunting their authors, she left her stamp on all four essays.  In the first, entitled Necessary but not Sufficient, Jiro Tanaka, immediately concedes that the term well-being, as used by Harris, “carries moral weight.”  Really?  What on earth does he mean by that?  How can something have “moral weight” unless there is some objective standard by which to measure that weight?  Reading further in the essay, we find that Tanaka doesn’t really disagree with Harris at all about the possibility of a “scientific morality.”  He’s simply quibbling about how to get there.  For example, he writes,

    Harris’s “multiple peaks” argument sidesteps the fact that a concern for well-being, while a necessary condition for a scientific morality, is still far from sufficient.

    Despite the presence of irrationality in academe, there are also rational scholars who are conversant with modern science. How is “science” in the broad sense any different from the best moral philosophy and political science as we have it already?

    In other words, there actually is a “scientific morality,” which enables us, among other things, to establish a Good by which we can answer such questions as what is the “best” moral philosophy.  There’s no fundamental disagreement here at all; just a minor squabble over details.  Chalk up one for Harris.

    In his How Science Can Help Us Be More Reasonable About Morality, Price has apparently concluded, against all reason, that Harris is unaware of the evolutionary wellsprings of morality.  The man has a degree in philosophy from Stanford and a Ph.D. in neuroscience, and yet Price presumes to lecture him like a child about the characteristics of our moral emotions.  For example, he writes,

    Humans are adapted to strive for goals that would have promoted their individual fitness (genetic survival and reproduction) in the evolutionary past.

    and, therefore,

    If people use moral rules to better pursue their shared interests, then it becomes clear why Harris’ proposal – that reason-based morality ought to promote the well-being of conscious creatures – will not generally apply. People judge the reasonableness of a moral rule not by how much it benefits conscious beings in general, or even other people in general, but primarily by how much they perceive the rule to promote the interests they share with their group.

    A promising start, and yet, somehow, Price cannot cut to the chase and pin down the reasons why Harris’ attempts to redirect morality “will not generally apply.”  Instead, his cart runs into the same rut as Tanaka’s.  He, too, ends up actually agreeing with Harris that a particular version of the Good is real; apparently the one currently favored in the ivory towers of academia.  His only problem with Sam is that he hasn’t chosen the optimum path to approach it.  After carefully explaining to the infant Sam the basic characteristics of evolved human moral emotions, he cobbles together his own approach to the summum bonum of “well-being.”  Choosing as his example the problem of income inequality, he writes,

    The wealthier classes tend to argue that inequality is morally justified (e.g., “It’s the result of rewarding people who work harder than others”), whereas the more deprived classes tend to say it’s immoral (e.g., “It results from unequal opportunities”).

    Then, in what must come as an epiphany to Sam, he reveals that a couple of academics named Wilkinson and Pickett have triumphantly solved the problem!  All that’s necessary to get the lion to lie down with the lamb is to explain to them that they will be much better off forming a bigger “group” whose “well-being” will best be served by (you guessed it), adopting the Good favored in academia.  He writes,

    Wilkinson and Pickett attempt to transcend this conflict by focusing on inequality’s impact on the larger group to which both coalitions belong: They present evidence that countries with higher inequality score worse on many different indicators of national performance. Their analysis has not been without its critics, but regardless, they have the right idea about how to be reasonable about morality: They attempt to assess the moral value of a group’s practice by investigating how successfully that practice has been in promoting the group members’ shared interests. Their analysis indicates how an appeal to a higher-level coalitional interest (the national interest) could help transcend lower-level coalitional conflicts between socioeconomic classes.

    One can just imagine Harris (and Karl Marx) slapping their foreheads at this point and exclaiming, “Gee, why didn’t I think of that!”   All we need to do to get those greedy rich people to joyfully redistribute all their wealth is to dump a batch of “studies” in their lap about the correlation between high income inequality and national performance!  Then the scales will fall from their eyes and they will become truly Good, or, as Price puts it, they will finally grasp the “moral value” of coughing up their wealth.  In other words, Price doesn’t dispute the existence of “moral value.”  He just has his own ideas about how to approach it.  Chalk up number two for Harris.

    On to the third essay.  The first few paragraphs of Mark Sloan’s essay, Mainstream science of morality contradicts Sam Harris’ central claim, are even more promising than Price’s.  He writes,

    …the largest component of what people consider morality is a natural phenomenon with the universal function of increasing the benefits of cooperation in groups; however, morality lacks any fixed, ultimate goal. Indeed, morality as a natural phenomenon has been used by groups to obtain a range of goals such as reproductive fitness and increased material goods – as well as increased well-being.

    This contradicts Sam Harris’ claim that, as a matter of science, the goal of moral behavior is fixed as well-being.

    There is plentiful evidence in science for the claim that morality, as a natural phenomenon, has no fixed ultimate goal. No equivalent evidence exists in science for Harris’ claim: Harris cannot coherently claim that the goal of a natural phenomenon “ought” to be something different than it “is” without agreeing that the hybrid product is no longer a purely natural phenomenon. This moves his contention beyond the domain of science.

    And then, Sloan wanders off into the same swamp as Price and Tanaka.  He is no more able than them to resist the power of the illusion.  For him, as for the other two, the Good exists.  Without even bothering to provide a basis for the claim that his version of the Good actually exists (and his version just happens to agree with the version currently favored in academia, wink, wink, nod, nod), he simply throws it out there, and sagely explains to Sam that either science is the wrong tool, or his version of science is too crude a tool, to approach it.  It’s really hard to tell which one, because at this point Sloan’s essay becomes completely incoherent.  Sloan associates his version of the Good, which is presumably floating out there in the luminiferous ether with an independent life of its own, like those of Tanaka and Price, with “altruistic cooperation strategy”:

    What can the science of morality tell us about right and wrong moral norms? Using morality as a natural phenomenon as its criterion, science can tell us if the moral norm actually is an altruistic cooperation strategy and therefore moral in this sense.

    and if something is “moral in this sense,” it turns out to be really Good!  Sloan doesn’t leave us hanging on this point.  He spells it out for us:

    Consider the norms: “Homosexuality is evil,” and “women must be subservient to men.” These both have the necessary “violators deserve punishment” part and altruistic parts of all altruistic cooperation strategies as described above. However, are they really altruistic cooperation strategies? They appear to be if you look no further than the in-groups that may altruistically cooperate to impose them and benefit. But how do they measure up regarding altruistic cooperation between the in-group and the out-group? They reduce altruistic cooperation because the out-group generally cannot equally punish the in-group; consequently, the out-group is exploited. So these two norms (like all norms allowing exploitation) are immoral by this universal moral standard.

    Indeed, it turns out that Sloan is in possession of some kind of an absolute standard for deciding what is “shameful,” as he continues,

    Could acknowledgement of the two norms’ shameful origins in exploitation and that they are immoral by this universal moral standard change the mind of a religious person? I expect a religious person would be more likely to reinterpret Holy Scriptures – motivated by these science of morality insights, rather than being motivated by simply being told “Science shows the ultimate goal of morality is well-being.” Let’s do all we can to make the science of morality useful to religious people; some need a lot of help.

    And so, this “universal moral standard” certainly exists.  Like the other two, Sloan is just quibbling about the best way to realize it.  Chalk up number three for Harris.

    It is with a heavy heart that I turn to Haidt.  I have admired his books and papers.  He really seems to “get it.”  At least he doesn’t fall into the same slough as the others by actually agreeing with Harris about the existence of the Good, and merely quibbling about how to get there.  Haidt is someone who, by all appearances, should be able to debunk Harris’ “scientific morality” in a few sentences, and yet, somehow, he can’t seem to cut to the chase.  Instead, he comes down with a severe case of philosophical flatulence before our eyes.

    In his essay, Why I think Sam Harris is wrong about morality, Haidt comes up with two objections to Harris’ claim.  The first is that “well-being” can’t be measured in “an objective way that is similar to measurements in the natural sciences.”  This is really just arguing over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.  All Harris has to do is marshal his gazillions of counter-arguments that well-being can, in fact, be measured scientifically, and we are right back where we started from.  Haidt introduces his next objection by trotting out two completely unnecessary bits of philosophical jargon, succeeding thereby in throwing a smoke screen over the rest of the objection.  He uses one of the terms in the title of the objection itself: The claim that moral facts are non-anthropocentric facts.  To avoid confusing the reader any more than necessary, I will let Haidt speak for himself:

    The philosopher David Wiggins (1987) distinguishes between “Non-anthropocentric” and “anthropocentric” facts. (This is similar to Locke’s distinction between primary and secondary qualities).  Facts of chemistry, physics, and other hard sciences are non-anthropocentric. They do not depend on any aspect of human nature. If intelligent aliens had come to visit the earth long before humans appeared, they would have found that the earth is the third planet from the sun, and that copper is a better conductor of electricity than is aluminum.

    Anthropocentric facts, in contrast, are only true given the kinds of creatures that we happen to be, due to the twists and turns of our evolutionary history. Examples include the facts that  sugar is sweeter than ascorbic acid, and that extended solitary confinement is painful. Those are not just my personal opinions; they are facts about sugar  and isolation.

    Harris is asserting that correct moral claims are non-anthropocentric facts. He is asserting that if intelligent aliens came to Earth today, they could in principle judge the moral worth of human societies, as long as they learned about human brains and could take accurate measures of well-being.

    But moral facts are anthropocentric facts. If intelligent aliens came to visit, we can have no confidence that they would reach the same moral conclusions that Harris reaches, based on his utilitarian ethos.

    All I can say to Haidt is, “Lose the ‘anthropocentric’ and ‘non-anthropocentric,’ already!”  It’s just not that complicated!  The illusion of the Good increased the probability that our genes would survive and reproduce.  It exists only for that reason.  There is no way that it can somehow shed its evolutionary strings and become a real thing.  The answer Harris is looking for, but will certainly fail to see, is really just as simple as that.

    Apparently Harris received hundreds of essays in response to his challenge.  Forgive me if I don’t read any more of them.

  • “The Experience of God”: An “Adult Christian” vs. the New Atheists

    Posted on February 1st, 2014 Helian 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.”

  • Joshua Greene’s “Moral Tribes”: The Minting of a New Morality

    Posted on January 24th, 2014 Helian No comments

    Joshua Greene is a professor of psychology at Harvard.  In reality, he’s not proposing an entirely new morality, but an updated version of John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism.  Greene refers to it as “Deep Pragmatism.” He describes his goal in writing Moral Tribes as follows:

    This book is an attempt to understand morality from the ground up.  It’s about understanding what morality is, how it got here, and how it’s implemented in our brains.  It’s about understanding the deep structure of moral problems as well as the differences between the problems that our brains were designed to solve and the distinctively modern problems we face today.  Finally, it’s about taking this new understanding of morality and turning it into a universal moral philosophy that members of all human tribes can share.

    I won’t go into too much detail about Greene’s version of utilitarianism, or his rationale for proposing it.  Suffice it to say that Greene is familiar with Darwin.  He knows that our moral emotions exist because they promoted our survival and procreation.  In other words, they evolved, as he puts it, as a solution to the Tragedy of the Commons, familiar to students of philosophy.  However, while they solved that problem by promoting cooperation within groups, they did nothing to solve the problem of hostility between groups.  In Greene’s words,

    Our moral brains did not evolve for cooperation between groups (at least not all groups).  How do we know this?  Why couldn’t morality have evolved to promote cooperation in a more general way?  Because universal cooperation is inconsistent with the principles governing evolution by natural selection.

    In other words, Greene knows about ingroups and outgroups.   He refers to this lack of universal cooperation as the “Tragedy of Commonsense Morality.”  As he puts it,

    Morality did not evolve to promote universal cooperation.  On the contrary, it evolved as a device for successful intergroup competition.  In other words, morality evolved to avert the Tragedy of the Commons, but it did not evolve to avert the Tragedy of Commonsense Morality.

    In proposing a solution to this problem, Greene introduces us to a metaphor that appears repeatedly throughout the rest of the book.  He compares the human moral machinery to a camera that has both an automatic, point and shoot mode and a manual mode.  It’s basically just a revamped version of the old reason versus untamed emotion dichotomy that has busied philosophers since Plato’s allegory of the chariot.  In general, the automatic mode is fine for dealing with problems within groups.  However, as Greene puts it,

    …the Tragedy of Commonsense Morality is a tragedy of moral inflexibility.  There is strife on the new pastures not because herders are hopelessly selfish, immoral, or amoral, but because they cannot step outside their respective moral perspectives.  How should they think?  The answer is now obvious:  They should shift into manual mode.

    In other words, we need to stop and think.  However, as he points out, “reasoning has no end of its own.”  I other words, he explicitly agrees with Hume, who wrote that reason is a “slave of the passions,” noting that “reason cannot produce good decisions without some kind of emotional input, however indirect.”  And what is that emotional input to be?  Basically, the desire for “happiness,” that sine qua non of utilitarians everywhere, combined with impartiality, which Greene claims is the “essence of morality.”  Now, of these two, impartiality is the only one that really has anything to do with human moral emotions per se.  Assuming for the sake of argument that happiness, and particularly the esoteric version in which utilitarians take such delight, is something we all want, it can hardly be said that people who are unhappy are also evil, and vice versa.  Focusing on impartiality, Greene writes,

    First, the human manual mode is, by nature, a cost-benefit reasoning system that aims for optimal consequences.  Second, the human manual mode is susceptible to the ideal of impartiality.  And, I submit, this susceptibility is not tribe-specific.  Members of any tribe can get the idea behind the Golden Rule.  Put these two things together and we get manual modes that aspire, however imperfectly, to produce consequences that are optimal from an impartial perspective, giving equal weight to all people.

    Here I can but wonder what species Greene is talking about.  It certainly isn’t ours.  I could cite dozens of passages in his own book that demonstrate that he himself has anything but an “impartial perspective.”  In any case, the result of brewing together happiness and impartiality to create what Greene refers to as a new “metamorality” is predictable.  It stands human morality completely on its head.  Divorced completely from the reasons it evolved to begin with, this new utilitarian morality, which Greene likes to refer to as “Deep Pragmatism,” insists that we reject the “inflexible, automatic mode, moral gizmos” that belong to the normal human complement of moral emotions whenever they don’t promote “happiness.”  We are not referring to our own happiness here.  Rather, we are to become servants of the happiness of all mankind.  As Greene puts it,

    Utilitarianism is a very egalitarian philosophy, asking the haves to do a lot for the have-nots.  Were you to wake up tomorrow as a born-again utilitarian, the biggest change in your life would be your newfound devotion to helping unfortunate others.

    We can excuse Mill for promoting such a philosophy.  He wrote before his philosophy could be informed by work of Darwin.  As a result, even though he was aware of contemporary theories claiming an innate basis to moral behavior, he rejected them.  In other words, he was a Blank Slater, though certainly not in the same sense as the ideologically motivated Blank Slaters who came after him, or the religiously motivated Blank Slaters, like Locke, who came before him.  As a result, he believed that the human mind could adopt virtually any morality, and concluded that the best one would be that which was also most useful.  Clearly, he realized that, if morality were innate, it would have profound implications for his theories.  As I have written elsewhere, I think it highly probable that, if he had lived in our times, he would have put two and two together and rejected utilitarianism.

    Not so Greene.   As he puts it,

    We can, for example, donate money to faraway strangers without expecting anything in return.  From a biological point of view, this is just a backfiring glitch, much like the invention of birth control.  But from our point of view as moral beings who can kick away the evolutionary ladder, it may be exactly what we want.  Morality is more than what it evolved to be.

    Kick away the evolutionary ladder?  Turn morality on its head?  Such notions are delusional unless you believe in some kind of objective “moral truth.”  Greene claims that he’s “agnostic” when it comes to the idea of moral truth, and it doesn’t really matter as far as utilitarianism is concerned, but that’s nonsense.  There has to be some reason for rejecting normal human “automatic mode” moral emotions in favor of some “meta-morality” that serves purposes that are diametrically opposed to the reasons that moral emotions evolved to begin with, and I can think of no other reason than an irrational faith in some kind of objective moral truth.  And in spite of his disclaimers, one can cite dozens of passages in his book that demonstrate that he does embrace what Mill referred to as “transcendental morality.”  For example,

    (referring to someone in a fine Italian suit that will be ruined if he wades into a pond to save a drowning child) Is it morally acceptable to let this child drown in order to save your suit?  Clearly not, we say.  That would be morally monstrous.

    Utilitarianism says that we should do whatever really works best, in the long run, and not just for the moment.  (Implies that there is a universal standard of what is “best.”)

    Happiness is the ur-value, the Higgs boson of normativity, the value that gives other values their value.

    We’ll dispense with the not especially moral goal of spreading genes and focus instead on the more proximate goal of cooperation.

    In other words, dangling before Greene’s imagination is a Morality that has nothing to do with the reasons that led to the evolution of moral behavior to begin with.  I have different goals.  I don’t hide them behind a smokescreen of “meta-morality.”  They are, first, to promote the survival of my own genes, second, to promote the survival of my species, and third, to promote the survival of terrestrial life.  I do not consider my conscious mind anything but a transitory, evolved aspect of my phenotype, but to that mind there is something sublime and majestic in being the link in a chain of life that has existed for billions of years.  The idea that I will be the last link in that chain is repugnant to me.  Serving as a “happiness pump” for a huge colony of happy ants that has no perceptible reason for existing except to “flourish” and be “happy” is completely repugnant to me.

    Greene, of course, is of a different opinion.  I agree that it may be possible to sort out such differences in “manual mode,” but one that is based as much as possible on reason and that takes as little account of morality as possible.  As far as I’m concerned, nothing could be more selfish than attempting to tart up my own whims as a “meta-morality.”  The result of such attempts in the past should serve as a sufficient deterrent from trying it again, even with a philosophy as transparently impractical to implement as utilitarianism.  Greene is well aware of these potential drawbacks.  He writes,

    History offers no shortage of grand utopian visions gone bad, including the rise and (nearly complete) fall of communism during the twentieth century.  Communists such as Stalin and Mao justified thousands of murders, millions more deaths from starvation, and repressive totalitarian governments in the name of the “greater good.”  Shouldn’t we be very wary of people with big plans who say that it’s all for the greater good?  Yes, we should.  Especially when those big plans call for big sacrifices.  And especially, especially when the people making the sacrifices (or being sacrificed!) are not the ones making the big plans.  But this wariness is perfectly pragmatic, utilitarian wariness.  What we’re talking about here is avoiding bad consequences.  Aiming for the greater good does not mean blindly following any charismatic leader who says that it’s all for the greater good.  That’s a recipe for disaster.

    So Greene thinks that the whole Communist debacle, with its gestation period of well over a century, during which time its development was carried forward by a host of convinced theorists, many of whom were neither charismatic themselves nor particularly attracted to charismatic leaders, could have easily been avoided if its adepts had just been “pragmatic,” and had been more circumspect in their choice of leaders?  Sorry, but I think a better way to avoid such catastrophes in the future would be to stop cobbling together new “meta-moralities” altogether.

    We cannot dispense with morality, at least at the level of individual interactions.  We’re not smart enough to do without it.  That said, we can at least attempt to understand its evolutionary roots and the reasons for its existence, and, in the realization that the traits we associate with moral behavior evolved at times utterly unlike the present, do our best to keep our moral emotions from blowing up in our faces.  Greene’s utilitarianism will never be a miraculous solution to the “Tragedy of Commonsense Morality.”  There will always be ingroups and outgroups, and they will always be hostile to each other, manual mode or no manual mode.  What could possibly be more manifest than the furious hostility of Greene’s own liberal tribe to their conservation outgroup?  If we are to survive, we must learn to manage this hostility, and creating yet another new moral system seems to me an extremely unpromising approach to the problem.



  • David Gelernter and the Angst of the Philosophers

    Posted on January 8th, 2014 Helian 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.

  • Science vs. Ideology in Genetics, in which Richard Dawkins and Professor Ceiling Cat Admonish David Dobbs

    Posted on December 8th, 2013 Helian 1 comment

    Cultural determinism is like the Paris fashions.  It defies ridicule.  The idea is so useful that it won’t drown, despite the torrent of contradictory facts it has been submerged under lately.  The cobbling of utopias is great fun, and utopia is ever so much more plausible if only everything can be changed to the heart’s desire by culture and environment.  One of the more flamboyant examples of the phenomenon recently turned up in Aeon Magazine in the form of an article penned by science journalist David Dobbs.

    The title of the article, Die, Selfish Gene, Die, is provocative enough.  The Selfish Gene, of course, was the subject of a book with that title by Richard Dawkins.  Rubbing salt in the wound, Dobbs adds the byline, “The selfish gene is one of the most successful science metaphors ever invented. Unfortunately, it’s wrong.”  All this irritated Dawkins’ friend Jerry Coyne, to the point that he not only read the rather lengthy article, but penned a pair of rebuttals on his Why Evolution is True website.  It wasn’t hard.

    Dobbs’ claim that Dawkins’ selfish gene version of evolution is wrong was based on his embrace of the idea of genetic accommodation.  Coyne (known to his students as Professor Ceiling Cat, for reasons that will be obvious to anyone who visits his blog) described the idea in his second rebuttal as follows;

    Today’s discussion is on what Dobbs and some of the heroes of his piece (especially Dr. Mary Jane West-Eberhard) see as the truly novel and non-Darwinian refutation of the selfish gene idea: the idea of genetic accommodation.  “Genetic accommodation” has other names: it’s also been called “The Baldwin Effect” and “genetic assimilation.”  But all of these names refer to a single mechanism: instead of existing genetic variation being subject to natural selection in an existing or changing environment, the environment itself evokes phenotypic (not genetic) variation, which is then somehow fixed in the species’ genome.

    Dobbs’ version of this idea leads him to some rather startling assertions.  For example, he writes,

    Gene expression is what makes a gene meaningful, and it’s vital for distinguishing one species from another.  We humans, for instance, share more than half our genomes with flatworms; about 60 per cent with fruit flies and chickens; 80 per cent with cows; and 99 per cent with chimps.  Those genetic distinctions aren’t enough to create all our differences from those animals – what biologists call our phenotype, which is essentially the recognizable thing a genotype builds.  This means that we are human, rather than wormlike, flylike, chickenlike, feline, bovine, or excessively simian, less because we carry different genes from those other species than because our cells read differently our remarkably similar genomes as we develop from zygote to adult.  The writing varies – but hardly as much as the reading.

    Great shades of Trofim Lysenko!  One can almost see the great Soviet con man in one of his Siberian laboratories, turning out a race of centaurs by astutely tweaking the “reading” of the genes of a zebra.  Where is Dobbs going with this?  Let’s cut to the chase and have a look at his thumbnail sketch of genetic accommodation:

    There lies the quick beating heart of her (Mary Jane West-Eberhard’s) argument: the gene follows. And one of the ways the gene follows is through this process called genetic accommodation. Genetic accommodation is a clunky term for a graceful process. It takes a moment to explain. But bear with me a moment, and you’ll understand how you, dear reader, could evolve into a fast and deadly predator.

    Genetic accommodation involves a three-step process.

    First, an organism (or a bunch of organisms, a population) changes its functional form — its phenotype — by making broad changes in gene expression. Second, a gene emerges that happens to help lock in that change in phenotype. Third, the gene spreads through the population.

    For example, suppose you’re a predator. You live with others of your ilk in dense forest. Your kind hunts by stealth: you hide among trees, then jump out and snag your meat. You needn’t be fast, just quick and sneaky.

    You get faster. You mate with another fast hunter, and your kids, hunting with you from early on, soon run faster than you ever did.

    Then a big event — maybe a forest fire, or a plague that kills all your normal prey — forces you into a new environment. This new place is more open, which nixes your jump-and-grab tactic, but it contains plump, juicy animals, the slowest of which you can outrun if you sprint hard. You start running down these critters. As you do, certain genes ramp up expression to build more muscle and fire the muscles more quickly. You get faster. You’re becoming a different animal. You mate with another fast hunter, and your kids, hunting with you from early on, soon run faster than you ever did. Via gene expression, they develop leaner torsos and more muscular, powerful legs. By the time your grandchildren show up, they seem almost like different animals: stronger legs, leaner torsos, and they run way faster than you ever did. And all this has happened without taking on any new genes.

    Then a mutation occurs in one grandkid. This mutation happens to create stronger, faster muscle fibres. This grandchild of yours can naturally and easily run faster than her fastest siblings and cousins. She flies. Her children inherit the gene, and because their speed wows their mating prospects, they mate early and often, and bear lots of kids. Through the generations, this sprinter’s gene thus spreads through the population.

    Now the thing is complete. Your descendants have a new gene that helps secure the adaptive trait you originally developed through gene expression alone. But the new gene didn’t create the new trait. It just made it easier to keep a trait that a change in the environment made valuable. The gene didn’t drive the train; it merely hopped aboard.

    In fact, all this is so banal, and so lacking in any serious departure from anything Dawkins said in The Selfish Gene, that Coyne apparently assumed that he’d missed something, and accused Dobbs of Lamarckism.  After all, if he wasn’t at least implying Lamarckism between the lines, there isn’t the shadow of a hook in this scenario on which to hang the claim that such “genetic accommodation” is in any way revolutionary, non-Darwinian, or non-Dawkinsian.  In fact, if you read the passage closely, you’ll see there’s nothing Lamarckian about it at all.  The kids and grandkids don’t get faster and stronger by inheritance or acquired characteristics, but merely by hanging out with their parental role models.  Evidently Dawkins himself noticed, because at this point he chimed in and wrote his own rebuttal, patiently Fisking Dobbs article, and quite reasonably pointing out that there was nothing in all this that contradicted Darwin or himself in any substantial way at all.

    Coyne and Dawkins concluded from all this that Dobbs was merely grandstanding.  As Dawkins put it, his article was,

    …infected by an all-too-common journalistic tendency, the adversarial urge to (presumably) boost circulation and harvest clicks by pretending to be controversial. You have a topic X, which you laudably want to pass on to your readers. But it’s not enough that X is interesting in its own right; you have to adversarialise it: yell that X is revolutionary, new, paradigm-shifting, dramatically overthrowing some Y.

    True enough, but as scientists often do, Dawkins sees the basic absurdity of the article clearly enough, but fails to see that it is absurd, not because it is bad science, but because it is an ideological morality tale.  Let’s allow Dobbs to explain the moral of the story in his own words:

    The gene does not lead, it follows.

    And ‘evolution is not about single genes’ (West-Eberhard) says.  It’s about genes working together.

    It’s not a selfish gene or a solitary genome.  It’s a social genome.

    Not the selfish gene, but the social genome.

    And so, thanks to the environment, the collective once again triumphs over the “selfish” individual.  If you don’t get the ideological point, dear reader, I’m not going to spell it out for you.  I’ll let the ideologues do that for themselves.  See, for example, Drugged Individualism, in the November 1934 issue of the American Mercury, or The Myth of Individuality (by Theodore Dreiser, no less) in the March issue of the same year.  The hive mind hasn’t changed much in 80 years.


  • Danish Progress in Suppressing Thoughtcrime

    Posted on November 20th, 2013 Helian 2 comments

    According to the ever-vigilant hbd*chick, the Danish kangaroo court for scientists that goes by the moniker of the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty is once again enforcing the Law of the Suspects in that unhappy land.  Readers may recall its earlier adventures in suppressing the heretical writings of Bjorn Lomborg, who dared to offend the righteous by exposing real dishonesty in the environmental sciences.  This time we find it hurling its pious anathemas at the head of Helmuth Nyborg, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Aarhus University.  It seems that Prof. Nyborg has been courageous or foolhardy enough to publish papers on eugenics, a field which has long been under the interdict of the pathologically pious.  Once a favorite playground of what Nyborg refers to as the Academic Left, those worthies abandoned it long ago after discovering its value as a prop for their favorite sport of striking self-righteous poses.

    It’s remarkable that there never seems to be a lack of candidates shameless enough to serve as inquisitors on this Danish version of the Court of Star Chamber.  New ones keep turning up all the time.  Apparently they live in such a hermetically sealed echo chamber that they’re unaware of the rather harsh judgment of history on their antecedents in the Halls of Justice.  Such names as Torquemada, Roland Freisler, and Andrey Vishinsky come to mind.  Apropos Vishinsky, according to hbd*chick, Jens Mammen, one of the three defenders of scientific righteousness responsible for bringing the Nyborg case to the baleful attention of the Danish inquisitors, was actually a Communist himself for 14 years until 1988, when all the Marxist rats began scurrying off the sinking ship.  The other two include Morten Kjeldgaard, who has set up a creepy website devoted to hounding Nyborg, and Jens Kvorning, a “teaching lecturer” in Aalborg University’s Department of Communication and Psychology, an area of expertise which would seem to leave him singularly unqualified to challenge scientific results in the field of eugenics.

    As far as the merits of this particular case are concerned, I can but echo hbd*chick’s quote from Steven Pinker’s letter to the Danish Thought Police:

    I am writing to protest the shocking and disgraceful treatment of Dr. Helmuth Nyborg following publication of his report on possible gender differences in average IQ scores.  Dr. Nyborg may be mistaken, but the issue he is addressing is a factual one, and can only be evaluated by an open examination of the evidence.  To ‘investigate’ him, shut down his research, or otherwise harass him because his findings are politically incorrect is unworthy of an institution dedicated to the understanding of reality.  It is reminiscent of the persecution of Galileo, the crippling of Soviet science and agriculture under Lysenko, and the attempt of the American religious right wing to inhibit the teaching of evolution in the schools.

    No one has the right to legislate the truth.  It can only be discovered by free inquiry, and that includes investigations that may make people uncomfortable.  This is the foundation of liberal society, and it is threatened by attempts to interfere with Dr. Nyborg and his research.  If he is incorrect, that will be established by a community of scholars who examine his evidence and arguments and criticize them in open forums of debate, not by the exercise of force to prevent him from pursuing his research.  These are the tactics of a police state, and bring shame on any institution that uses them.

    I don’t always agree with Pinker, but you have to hand it to the man.  At least he has the right enemies.  As for eugenics, the name may have fallen into disfavor, but the science has always carried on under different names.  The main difference between Nyborg and the other practitioners is that he is courageous enough to call his specialty by its proper name.  The main premise of the field is that there are significant genetic differences among both individual humans and human groups that influence the level of mental and physical performance that individuals can achieve in like circumstances.  That premise would seem to be true, as demonstrated by the fact that evolution happened.  The alternative view favored by the Danish inquisitors of the world, that no such human biodiversity exists, requires that all human groups, no matter how great the spatial separation, arrived at precisely equal capabilities, particularly as concerns intelligence, around 50,000 years ago, at which point our evolution came to a screeching halt, with the possible exception of certain traits such as lactose tolerance, that have been scrutinized by the Thought Police and found to be innocent of conflicts with the approved dogmas of political correctness.  All this seems rather implausible, unless it is recalled that here we are speaking more of the narrative of a secular religion than anything recognizable as “science.”

    Be that as it may, I must add that I am in sympathy with those who would prefer that modern states refrain from further attempts to use the science to “improve” their inmates.  Such attempts in the past have been less that successful at enhancing “human flourishing.”  As for individuals, we have been practicing eugenics, along with the birds, the bees, and the rest of the mammals, through our choice of mates since time immemorial.  If we learn new truths and acquire new technologies that enable individuals to make similar choices in the future with more predictable results, so much the better for us.  It’s only to be expected that the Danish inquisitors among us will always seek to deprive us of the right to make such choices.  However, I doubt that they’ll ever be able to control “science” in every country as effectively as they do in Denmark.  Just as they always have in the past, people will vote with their feet.

  • On the Unbearable Lightness of Objective Morality

    Posted on October 14th, 2013 Helian 2 comments

    There are still objective moralists – lots of them.  Of course, billions of people on the planet are objective moralists because they believe in God, but that’s the trivial case.  I’m not referring to them.  I’m referring to the legions of philosophers, ethicists, and moralists who sawed that particular branch off long ago, and yet imagine they can still sit on it.  It reminds me of an old “Itchy and Scratchy” episode on “The Simpsons.”  Itchy tears out Scratchy’s heart and hands it to him as a valentine.  Scratchy is charmed, and carries on as if nothing were amiss until he happens to read the bold headline in his newspaper, “You Need a Heart to Live!”  So it is with the objective moralists.  They insist that their treasured object needs neither a heart nor a God to exist.  It exists because they say so, and after all, they are the experts.  More importantly, it exists because they would not at all approve of a world in which it didn’t.

    An interesting example of the genre recently turned up in the pages of The New Atlantis in the form of an article entitled, The Evolutionary Ethics of E. O. Wilson.  It was penned by Whitley Kaufman, a professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.  Kaufman is also an objective moralist, and his article is intended as a refutation of E. O. Wilson’s “evolutionary ethics.”  He informs us that “the discipline of evolutionary ethics can be divided into two broad camps.”  Supposedly Wilson belongs to the first camp, which “views evolutionary explanations of morality as a way to improve our understanding of what is moral and to put ethical claims on a stronger foundation.”  However, Kaufman finally gets around to telling us where he stands in describing the second camp:

    But there is a second, more radical school of thought in evolutionary ethics.  This view holds that evolutionary biology, rather than providing a basis for improving or modernizing ethics, shows that the idea of objective ethical rules is inherently mistaken.

    Returning to the same theme a bit later he writes,

    …the discovery that ethical values have been shaped by evolution should not necessarily have any dire implications for the objective status of ethical claims.

    That might well be true if there were even the faintest basis for the “objective status of ethical claims.”  In fact, there is none, and Kaufman makes no effort to supply one.  Objective moralists seldom do.  It seems to them that the Good and Evil objects that dance before their eyes are so light that they can float about in the ether without support.  It’s a common illusion among those who have reached terminal velocity as gravity pulls them crashing down to earth.

    By all means, read Kaufman’s essay from end to end.  You will search in vain for any justification of the claim that there is such a thing as objective morality.  Instead, you will find a very typical mélange of appeals to emotion, moralistic posing, and insistences that, because the author wouldn’t like it if there were no objective morality, therefore objective morality must exist.

    For example, in a section entitled Disquieting Precedents, he dangles familiar bugaboos before our eyes.  They include Social Darwinism, eugenics, and, of course, the Nazis.  These are all, supposedly, the misshapen children of evolutionary ethics.  In a nutshell, the argument goes like this:  I feel really, really strongly that Social Darwinism, eugenics, and Nazism are evil.  It would be really, really outrageous for anyone to believe that Social Darwinism, eugenics, and Nazism are good.  Therefore, it follows that Social Darwinism, eugenics, and Nazism are objectively evil.  Using similar logic, one can easily prove the existence of a God.  After all, if God didn’t exist, we couldn’t go to heaven after we die, the bad people we resent wouldn’t go to hell, and our prayers for our favorite football team would never be answered.  Therefore, there must be a God.

    A little later, Kaufman puts this “it just can’t be” argument into an even simpler form.  Taking issue with Wilson he writes,

    In his 1986 essay “Moral Philosophy as Applied Science,” written with philosopher Michael Ruse, he (E. O. Wilson) argues that we now understand that we have been “deceived by our genes” into believing that morality objectively binds us, that there is a real right versus wrong.

    This view is best characterized as a form of moral nihilism, the idea that moral obligations do not exist.  Wilson tries to avoid the nihilistic position by insisting that the illusion of right and wrong is so deeply built into us that even recognizing it as an illusion will not likely make a difference in our behavior.  But committed moral nihilists reject this response:  realizing that moral claims are illusions surely means that moral claims are false.  There is, under this view, no real ethical difference between the actions of the vilest criminal and the most virtuous saint.

    In other words, we have the following additional arguments for objective morality:  a) I don’t like moral nihilists at all, and, since moral nihilists deny the existence of objective right and wrong, therefore objective right and wrong must exist, b) I don’t at all like the idea that there is no objective moral difference between the vilest criminal and the most virtuous saint, so there must be an objective moral difference between them, and, c) It would be a great shame if the mirage of a cool spring of water and palm trees shimmering ahead of me on the desert floor weren’t real.  Therefore they must be real.  Do any of these arguments make sense to you?  They certainly don’t to me.  A bit further on Kaufman writes,

    There are stronger grounds than Wilson offers, however, for rejecting the moral nihilism that some say is a consequence of evolutionary biology.  Consider an analogy with mathematics and science.  Like our ability to think about the morality of our actions, the cognitive abilities underlying mathematics and science are in some sense products of evolution.  But this fact has no significant implications regarding our ability to objectively study mathematics or physics, and it certainly does not imply that numbers, molecules, or, for that matter, genes, brains, and bodies studied by evolutionary biologists are fictions.  Likewise, the discovery that ethical values have been shaped by evolution should not necessarily have any dire implications for the objective status of ethical claims… To try to do ethics without genuine values and prescriptive moral principles is like trying to do science without recourse to facts and observations.

    There’s a novel proof for you.  Objective Good and Evil must exist because Prof. Kaufman requires them to do his job.  Actually, I’m entirely willing to believe in genuine values and prescriptive moral principles if Professor Kaufman could just catch one in his butterfly net and bring it in for me to observe.  That’s really where his ox is gored.  If there is no objective morality, people like him really have nothing to teach us, other than their opinions tarted up as “objects.”  I’m sorry about that, but the fact doesn’t alter reality one bit.  According to Kaufman,

    In order to fully comprehend human nature, there must always be a place for philosophy, history, literary studies, and even theology – disciplines that complement the natural sciences and fill in the picture of the human being as a free and rational agent.

    I personally don’t care what discipline my knowledge comes from.  You can call it science, or philosophy, or history, or whatever you like.  But regardless of where it comes from, I must insist that if people make assertions about objects that are supposed to exist independently of their subjective minds, they provide some data, some actual evidence that those objects exist.  Absent such data, but with plenty of data demonstrating that those “objects” are just what E. O. Wilson says they are – subjective illusions – I will continue in the belief that they are just that.

    Evolved behavioral predispositions are the ultimate reason for the existence of human morality.  Absent those predispositions, our morality as we know it would cease to exist.  In my opinion, that is the simple truth.  It will remain the truth whether its implications are unpleasant to the Kaufmans of the world or not.  Social Darwinism, eugenics, and Nazism are obviously possible, though hardly inevitable, outcomes if people engage in faulty reasoning about what they should do in response to their moral emotions.  If we really want to avoid such outcomes in the future, wouldn’t it be advisable to understand the truth about our moral emotions and where morality comes from?  It seems to me that would be wiser than attempting to ban them by insisting that everyone believe in imaginary objects.  That would amount to insisting that we repeat the same mistakes over again.  After all, there were no stronger believers in objective morality than the Nazis unless, perhaps, it was the Communists.  For them, the ultimate, objective Good was the welfare of the German Volk.  They tolerated no moral relativism on that score whatsoever.  For the Communists, the objective Good was achieving the future classless utopia.  They, too, allowed no moral relativism touching on that ultimate goal.  It seems to me that the lesson we really should have learned from Nazism and Communism is that such illusions of objective Good can be very dangerous, and we should be wary of anyone who comes along trying to peddle a new and improved version.

    There is no reason we will cease to be moral beings because we have finally learned to understand morality.  Just as E. O. Wilson said, it is our nature to be moral beings.  If there be moral nihilists who assume they can break the rules because the rules are conventions rather than objects, we will continue to punish them just as we have always punished such moral nihilists in the past.  I, for one, will have no problem with that.  However, it seems to me that the interactions of modern nation states armed with nuclear weapons bear little resemblance to those that prevailed during the long period over which the behavioral traits we associate with morality evolved.  Under the circumstances it seems to me imprudent to regulate those interactions with reference to imaginary Good and Evil objects.  We did, after all, have some rather unpleasant experiences during the last century trying to do just that.  Let us refrain from compounding the error by attempting to repeat those experiments.  I have very little faith in the efficacy of the vaunted intelligence of our species.  However, it seems to me that in such cases we should leave off trying to cobble together new moral systems and actually try to be reasonable.

    As for Good and Evil objects, I am not intransigent.  I am entirely willing to believe in them.  All I ask is that Professor Kaufman rope one and show it to me.