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  • Morality and the Spiritualism of the Atheists

    Posted on May 11th, 2018 Helian No comments

    I’m an atheist.  I concluded there was no God when I was 12 years old, and never looked back.  Apparently many others have come to the same conclusion in western democratic societies where there is access to diverse opinions on the subject, and where social sanctions and threats of force against atheists are no longer as intimidating as they once were.  Belief in traditional religions is gradually diminishing in such societies.  However, they have hardly been replaced by “pure reason.”  They have merely been replaced by a new form of “spiritualism.”  Indeed, I would maintain that most atheists today have as strong a belief in imaginary things as the religious believers they so often despise.  They believe in the “ghosts” of good and evil.

    Most atheists today may be found on the left of the ideological spectrum.  A characteristic trait of leftists today is the assumption that they occupy the moral high ground. That assumption can only be maintained by belief in a delusion, a form of spiritualism, if you will – that there actually is a moral high ground.  Ironically, while atheists are typically blind to the fact that they are delusional in this way, it is often perfectly obvious to religious believers.  Indeed, this insight has led some of them to draw conclusions about the current moral state of society similar to my own.  Perhaps the most obvious conclusion is that atheists have no objective basis for claiming that one thing is “good” and another thing is “evil.”  For example, as noted by Tom Trinko at American Thinker in an article entitled “Imagine a World with No Religion,”

    Take the Golden Rule, for example. It says, “Do onto others what you’d have them do onto you.” Faithless people often point out that one doesn’t need to believe in God to believe in that rule. That’s true. The problem is that without God, there can’t be any objective moral code.

    My reply would be, that’s quite true, and since there is no God, there isn’t any objective moral code, either.  However, most atheists, far from being “moral relativists,” are highly moralistic.  As a consequence, they are dumbfounded by anything like Trinko’s remark.  It pulls the moral rug right out from under their feet.  Typically, they try to get around the problem by appealing to moral emotions.  For example, they might say something like, “What?  Don’t you think it’s really bad to torture puppies to death?”, or, “What?  Don’t you believe that Hitler was really evil?”  I certainly have a powerful emotional response to Hitler and tortured puppies.  However, no matter how powerful those emotions are, I realize that they can’t magically conjure objects into being that exist independently of my subjective mind.  Most leftists, and hence, most so-called atheists, actually do believe in the existence of such objects, which they call “good” and “evil,” whether they admit it explicitly or not.  Regardless, they speak and act as if the objects were real.

    The kinds of speech and actions I’m talking about are ubiquitous and obvious.  For example, many of these “atheists” assume a dictatorial right to demand that others conform to novel versions of “good” and “evil” they may have concocted yesterday or the day before.  If those others refuse to conform, they exhibit all the now familiar symptoms of outrage and virtuous indignation.  Do rational people imagine that they are gods with the right to demand that others obey whatever their latest whims happen to be?  Do they assume that their subjective, emotional whims somehow immediately endow them with a legitimate authority to demand that others behave in certain ways and not in others?  I certainly hope that no rational person would act that way.  However, that is exactly the way that many so-called atheists act.  To the extent that we may consider them rational at all, then, we must assume that they actually believe that whatever versions of “good” or “evil” they happen to favor at the moment are “things” that somehow exist on their own, independently of their subjective minds.  In other words, they believe in ghosts.

    Does this make any difference?  I suggest that it makes a huge difference.  I personally don’t enjoy being constantly subjected to moralistic bullying.  I doubt that many people enjoy jumping through hoops to conform to the whims of others.  I submit that it may behoove those of us who don’t like being bullied to finally call out this type of irrational, quasi-religious behavior for what it really is.

    It also makes a huge difference because this form of belief in imaginary objects has led us directly into the moral chaos we find ourselves in today.  New versions of “absolute morality” are now popping up on an almost daily basis.  Obviously, we can’t conform to all of them at once, and must therefore put up with the inconvenience of either keeping our mouths shut or risk being furiously condemned as “evil” by whatever faction we happen to offend.  Again, traditional theists are a great deal more clear-sighted than “atheists” about this sort of thing.  For example, in an article entitled, “Moral relativism can lead to ethical anarchy,” Christian believer Phil Schurrer, a professor at Bowling Green State University, writes,

    …the lack of a uniform standard of what constitutes right and wrong based on Natural Law leads to the moral anarchy we see today.

    Prof. Schurrer is right about the fact that we live in a world of moral anarchy.  I also happen to agree with him that most of us would find it useful and beneficial if we could come up with a “uniform standard of what constitutes right and wrong.”  Where I differ with him is on the rationality of attempting to base that standard on “Natural Law,” because there is no such thing.  For religious believers, “Natural Law” is law passed down by God, and since there is no God, there can be no “Natural Law,” either.  How, then, can we come up with such a uniform moral code?

    I certainly can’t suggest a standard based on what is “really good” or “really bad” because I don’t believe in the existence of such objects.  I can only tell you what I would personally consider expedient.  It would be a standard that takes into account what I consider to be some essential facts.  These are as follows.

    • What we refer to as morality is an artifact of “human nature,” or, in other words, innate predispositions that affect our behavior.
    • These predispositions exist because they evolved by natural selection.
    • They evolved by natural selection because they happened to improve the odds that the genes responsible for their existence would survive and reproduce at the time and in the environment in which they evolved.
    • We are now living at a different time, and in a different environment, and it cannot be assumed that blindly responding to the predispositions in question will have the same outcome now as it did when those predispositions evolved.  Indeed, it has been repeatedly demonstrated that such behavior can be extremely dangerous.
    • Outcomes of these predispositions include a tendency to judge the behavior of others as “good” or “evil.”  These categories are typically deemed to be absolute, and to exist independently of the conscious minds that imagine them.
    • Human morality is dual in nature.  Others are perceived in terms of ingroups and outgroups, with different standards applying to what is deemed “good” or “evil” behavior towards those others depending on the category to which they are imagined to belong.

    I could certainly expand on this list, but the above are certainly some of the most salient and essential facts about human morality.  If they are true, then it is possible to make at least some preliminary suggestions about how a “uniform standard” might look.  It would be as simple as possible.  It would be derived to minimize the dangers referred to above, with particular attention to the dangers arising from ingroup/outgroup behavior.  It would be limited in scope to interactions between individuals and small groups in cases where the rational analysis of alternatives is impractical due to time constraints, etc.  It would be in harmony with innate human behavioral traits, or “human nature.”  It is our nature to perceive good and evil as real objective things, even though they are not.  This implies there would be no “moral relativism.”  Once in place, the moral code would be treated as an absolute standard, in conformity with the way in which moral standards are usually perceived.  One might think of it as a “moral constitution.”  As with political constitutions, there would necessarily be some means of amending it if necessary.  However, it would not be open to arbitrary innovations spawned by the emotional whims of noisy minorities.

    How would such a system be implemented?  It’s certainly unlikely that any state will attempt it any time in the foreseeable future.  Perhaps it might happen gradually, just as changes to the “moral landscape” have usually happened in the past.  For that to happen, however, it would be necessary for significant numbers of people to finally understand what morality is, and why it exists.  And that is where, as an atheist, I must part company with Mr. Trinko, Prof. Schurrer, and the rest of the religious right.  Progress towards a uniform morality that most of us would find a great deal more useful and beneficial than the versions currently on tap, regardless of what goals or purposes we happen to be pursuing in life, cannot be based on the illusion that a “natural law” exists that has been handed down by an imaginary God, any more than it can be based on the emotional whims of leftist bullies.  It must be based on a realistic understanding of what kind of animals we are, and how we came to be.  However, such self knowledge will remain inaccessible until we shed the shackles of religion.  Perhaps, as they witness many of the traditional churches increasingly becoming leftist political clubs before their eyes, people on the right of the political spectrum will begin to find it less difficult to free themselves from those shackles.  I hope so.  I think that an Ansatz based on simple, traditional moral rules, such as the Ten Commandments, is more likely to lead to a rational morality than one based on furious rants over who should be allowed to use what bathrooms.  In other words, I am more optimistic that a useful reform of morality will come from the right rather than the left of the ideological spectrum, as it now stands.  Most leftists today are much too heavily invested in indulging their moral emotions to escape from the world of illusion they live in.  To all appearances they seriously believe that blindly responding to these emotions will somehow magically result in “moral progress” and “human flourishing.”  Conservatives, on the other hand, are unlikely to accomplish anything useful in terms of a rational morality until they free themselves of the “God delusion.”  It would seem, then, that for such a moral “revolution” to happen, it will be necessary for those on both the left and the right to shed their belief in “spirits.”

     

  • Of Tim Hunt and Elementary Morality

    Posted on June 21st, 2015 Helian 33 comments

    If we are evolved animals, then it is plausible that we have evolved behavioral traits, and among those traits are a “moral sense.”  So much was immediately obvious to Darwin himself.  To judge by the number of books that have been published about evolved morality in the last couple of decades, it makes sense to a lot of other people, too.  The reason such a sense might have evolved is obvious, especially among highly social creatures such as ourselves.  The tendency to act in some ways and not in others enhanced the probability that the genes responsible for those tendencies would survive and reproduce.  It is not implausible that this moral sense should be strong, and that it should give rise to such powerful impressions that some things are “really good,” and others are “really evil,” as to produce a sense that “good” and “evil” exist independently as objective things.  Such a moral sense is demonstrably very effective at modifying our behavior.  It hardly follows that good and evil really are independent, objective things.

    If an evolved moral sense really is the “root cause” for the existence of all the various and gaudy manifestations of human morality, is it plausible to believe that this moral sense has somehow tracked an “objective morality” that floats around out there independent of any subjective human consciousness?  No.  If it really is the root cause, is there some objective mechanism whereby the moral impressions of one human being can leap out of that individual’s skull and gain the normative power to dictate to another human being what is “really good” and “really evil?”  No.  Can there be any objective justification for outrage?  No.  Can there be any objective basis for virtuous indignation?  No.  So much is obvious.  Under the circumstances it’s amazing, even given the limitations of human reason, that so many of the most intelligent among it just don’t get it.  One can only attribute it to the tremendous power of the moral emotions, the great pleasure we get from indulging them, and the dominant role they play in regulating all human interactions.

    These facts were recently demonstrated by the interesting behavior of some of the more prominent intellectuals among us in reaction to some comments at a scientific conference.  In case you haven’t been following the story, the commenter in question was Tim Hunt,- a biochemist who won a Nobel Prize in 2001 with Paul Nurse and Leland H. Hartwell for discoveries of protein molecules that control the division (duplication) of cells.  At a luncheon during the World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul, South Korea, he averred that women are a problem in labs because “You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them, they cry.”

    Hunt’s comment evoked furious moral emotions, not least among atheist intellectuals.  According to PZ Myers, proprietor of Pharyngula, Hunt’s comments revealed that he is “bad.”  Some of his posts on the subject may be found here, here, and here.  For example, according to Myers,

    Oh, no! There might be a “chilling effect” on the ability of coddled, privileged Nobel prize winners to say stupid, demeaning things about half the population of the planet! What will we do without the ability of Tim Hunt to freely accuse women of being emotional hysterics, or without James Watson’s proud ability to call all black people mentally retarded?

    I thought Hunt’s plaintive whines were a big bowl of bollocks.

    All I can say is…fuck off, dinosaur. We’re better off without you in any position of authority.

    We can glean additional data in the comments to these posts that demonstrate the human version of “othering.”  Members of outgroups, or “others,” are not only “bad,” but also typically impure and disgusting.  For example,

    Glad I wasn’t the only–or even the first!–to mention that long-enough-to-macramé nose hair. I think I know what’s been going on: The female scientists in his lab are always trying hard to not stare at the bales of hay peeking out of his nostrils and he’s been mistaking their uncomfortable, demure behaviour as ‘falling in love with him’.

    However, in creatures with brains large enough to cogitate about what their emotions are trying to tell them, the same suite of moral predispositions can easily give rise to stark differences in moral judgments.  Sure enough, others concluded that Myers and those who agreed with him were “bad.”  Prominent among them was Richard Dawkins, who wrote in an open letter to the London Times,

    Along with many others, I didn’t like Sir Tim Hunt’s joke, but ‘disproportionate’ would be a huge underestimate of the baying witch-hunt that it unleashed among our academic thought police: nothing less than a feeding frenzy of mob-rule self-righteousness.”

    The moral emotions of other Nobel laureates informed them that Dawkins was right.  For example, according to the Telegraph,

    Sir Andre Geim, of the University of Manchester who shared the Nobel prize for physics in 2010 said that Sir Tim had been “crucified” by ideological fanatics , and castigated UCL for “ousting” him.

    Avram Hershko, an Israeli scientist who won the 2004 Nobel prize in chemistry, said he thought Sir Tim was “very unfairly treated.”  He told the Times: “Maybe he wanted to be funny and was jet lagged, but then the criticism in the social media and in the press was very much out of proportion. So was his prompt dismissal — or resignation — from his post at UCL .”

    All these reactions have one thing in common.  They are completely irrational unless one assumes the existence of “good” and “bad” as objective things rather than subjective impressions.  Or would you have me believe, dear reader, that statements like, “fuck off, dinosaur,” and allusions to crucifixion by “ideological fanatics” engaged in a “baying witch-hunt,” are mere cool, carefully reasoned suggestions about how best to advance the officially certified “good” of promoting greater female participation in the sciences?  Nonsense!  These people aren’t playing a game of charades, either.  Their behavior reveals that they genuinely believe, not only in the existence of “good” and “bad” as objective things, but in their own ability to tell the difference better than those who disagree with them.  If they don’t believe it, they certainly act like they do.  And yet these are some of the most intelligent representatives of our species.  One can but despair, and hope that aliens from another planet don’t turn up anytime soon to witness such ludicrous spectacles.

    Clearly, we can’t simply dispense with morality.  We’re much too stupid to get along without it.  Under the circumstances, it would be nice if we could all agree on what we will consider “good” and what “bad,” within the limits imposed by the innate bedrock of morality in human nature.  Unfortunately, human societies are now a great deal different than the ones that existed when the predispositions that are responsible for the existence of morality evolved, and they tend to change very rapidly.  It stands to reason that it will occasionally be necessary to “adjust” the types of behavior we consider “good” and “bad” to keep up as best we can.  I personally doubt that the current practice of climbing up on rickety soap boxes and shouting down anathemas on anyone who disagrees with us, and then making the “adjustment” according to who shouts the loudest, is really the most effective way to accomplish that end.  Among other things, it results in too much collateral damage in the form of shattered careers and ideological polarization.  I can’t suggest a perfect alternative at the moment, but a little self-knowledge might help in the search for one.  Shedding the illusion of objective morality would be a good start.

    soapbox

  • The Regrettable Overreach of “Faith versus Fact”

    Posted on June 12th, 2015 Helian 10 comments

    The fact that the various gods that mankind has invented over the years, including the currently popular ones, don’t exist has been sufficiently obvious to any reasonably intelligent pre-adolescent who has taken the trouble to think about it since at least the days of Jean Meslier.  That unfortunate French priest left us with a Testament that exposed the folly of belief in imaginary super-beings long before the days of Darwin.  It included most of the “modern” arguments, including the dubious logic of inventing gods to explain everything we don’t understand, the many blatant contradictions in the holy scriptures, the absurdity of the notion that an infinitely wise and perfect being could be moved to fury or even offended by the pathetic sins of creatures as abject as ourselves, the lack of any need for a supernatural “grounding” for human morality, and many more.  Over the years these arguments have been elaborated and expanded by a host of thinkers, culminating in the work of today’s New Atheists.  These include Jerry Coyne, whose Faith versus Fact represents their latest effort to talk some sense into the true believers.

    Coyne has the usual human tendency, shared by his religious opponents, of “othering” those who disagree with him.  However, besides sharing a “sin” that few if any of us are entirely free of, he has some admirable traits as well.  For example, he has rejected the Blank Slate ideology of his graduate school professor/advisor, Richard Lewontin, and even goes so far as to directly contradict him in FvF.  In spite of the fact that he is an old “New Leftist” himself, he has taken a principled stand against the recent attempts of the ideological Left to dismantle freedom of speech and otherwise decay to its Stalinist ground state.  Perhaps best of all as far as a major theme of this blog is concerned, he rejects the notion of objective morality that has been so counter-intuitively embraced by Sam Harris, another prominent New Atheist.

    For the most part, Faith versus Fact is a worthy addition to the New Atheist arsenal.  It effectively dismantles the “sophisticated Christian” gambit that has encouraged meek and humble Christians of all stripes to imagine themselves on an infinitely higher intellectual plane than such “undergraduate atheists” as Richard Dawkins and Chris Hitchens.  It refutes the rapidly shrinking residue of “God of the gaps” arguments, and clearly illustrates the difference between scientific evidence and religious “evidence.”  It destroys the comfortable myth that religion is an “other way of knowing,” and exposes the folly of seeking to accommodate religion within a scientific worldview.  It was all the more disappointing, after nodding approvingly through most of the book, to suffer one of those “Oh, No!” moments in the final chapter.  Coyne ended by wandering off into an ideological swamp with a fumbling attempt to link obscurantist religion with “global warming denialism!”

    As it happens, I am a scientist myself.  I am perfectly well aware that when an external source of radiation such as that emanating from the sun passes through an ideal earthlike atmosphere that has been mixed with a dose of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, impinges on an ideal earthlike surface, and is re-radiated back into space, the resulting equilibrium temperature of the atmosphere will be higher than if no greenhouse gases were present.  I am also aware that we are rapidly adding such greenhouse gases to our atmosphere, and that it is therefore reasonable to be concerned about the potential effects of global warming.  However, in spite of that it is not altogether irrational to take a close look at whether all the nostrums proposed as solutions to the problem will actually do any good.

    In fact, the earth does not have an ideal static atmosphere over an ideal static and uniform surface.  Our planet’s climate is affected by a great number of complex, interacting phenomena.  A deterministic computer model capable of reliably predicting climate change decades into the future is far beyond the current state of the art.  It would need to deal with literally millions of degrees of freedom in three dimensions, in many cases using potentially unreliable or missing data.  The codes currently used to address the problem are probabilistic, reduced basis models, that can give significantly different answers depending on the choice of initial conditions.

    In a recently concluded physics campaign at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, scientists attempted to achieve thermonuclear fusion ignition by hitting tiny targets containing heavy isotopes of hydrogen with the most powerful laser system ever built.  The codes they used to model the process should have been far more accurate than any current model of the earth’s climate.  These computer models included all the known relevant physical phenomena, and had been carefully benchmarked against similar experiments carried out on less powerful laser systems.  In spite of that, the best experimental results didn’t come close to the computer predictions.  The actual number of fusion reactions hardly came within two orders of magnitude of expected values.  The number of physical approximations that must be used in climate models is far greater than were necessary in the Livermore fusion codes, and their value as predictive tools must be judged accordingly.

    In a word, we have no way of accurately predicting the magnitude of the climate change we will experience in coming decades.  If we had unlimited resources, the best policy would obviously be to avoid rocking the only boat we have at the moment.  However, this is not an ideal world, and we must wisely allocate what resources we do have among competing priorities.  Resources devoted to fighting climate change will not be available for medical research and health care, education, building the infrastructure we need to maintain a healthy economy, and many other worthy purposes that could potentially not only improve human well-being but save many lives.  Before we succumb to frantic appeals to “do something,” and spend a huge amount of money to stop global warming, we should at least be reasonably confident that our actions will measurably reduce the danger.  To what degree can we expect “science” to inform our decisions, whatever they may be?

    For starters, we might look at the track record of the environmental scientists who are now sounding the alarm.  The Danish scientist Bjorn Lomborg examined that record in his book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, in areas as diverse as soil erosion, storm frequency, deforestation, and declining energy resources.  Time after time he discovered that they had been crying “wolf,” distorting and cherry-picking the data to support dire predictions that never materialized.  Lomborg’s book did not start a serious discussion of potential shortcomings of the scientific method as applied in these areas.  Instead he was bullied and vilified.  A kangaroo court was organized in Denmark made up of some of the more abject examples of so-called “scientists” in that country, and quickly found Lomborg guilty of “scientific dishonesty,” a verdict which the Danish science ministry later had the decency to overturn.  In short, the same methods were used against Lomborg as were used decades earlier to silence critics of the Blank Slate orthodoxy in the behavioral sciences, resulting in what was possibly the greatest scientific debacle of all time.  At the very least we can conclude that all the scientific checks and balances that Coyne refers to in such glowing terms in Faith versus Fact have not always functioned with ideal efficiency in promoting the cause of truth.  There is reason to believe that the environmental sciences are one area in which this has been particularly true.

    Under the circumstances it is regrettable that Coyne chose to equate “global warming denialism” a pejorative term used in ideological squabbles that is by its very nature unscientific, with some of the worst forms of religious obscurantism.  Instead of sticking to the message, in the end he let his political prejudices obscure it.  Objections to the prevailing climate change orthodoxy are hardly coming exclusively from the religious fanatics who sought to enlighten us with “creation science,” and “intelligent design.”  I invite anyone suffering from that delusion to have a look at some of the articles the physicist and mathematician Lubos Motl has written about the subject on his blog, The Reference Frame.  Examples may be found here, here and, for an example with a “religious” twist,  here.  There he will find documented more instances of the type of “scientific” behavior Lomborg cited in The Skeptical Environmentalist.  No doubt many readers will find Motl irritating and tendentious, but he knows his stuff.  Anyone who thinks he can refute his take on the “science” had better be equipped with more knowledge of the subject than is typically included in the bromides that appear in the New York Times.

    Alas, I fear that I am once again crying over spilt milk.  I can only hope that Coyne has an arrow or two left in his New Atheist quiver, and that next time he chooses a publisher who will insist on ruthlessly chopping out all the political Nebensächlichkeiten.  Meanwhile, have a look at his Why Evolution is True website.  In addition to presenting a convincing case for evolution by natural selection and a universe free of wrathful super beings, Professor Ceiling Cat, as he is known to regular visitors for reasons that will soon become apparent to newbies, also posts some fantastic wildlife pictures.  And if it’s any consolation, I see his book has been panned by John Horgan.  Anyone with enemies like that can’t be all bad.  Apparently Horgan’s review was actually solicited by the editors of the Wall Street Journal.  Go figure!  One wonders what rock they’ve been sleeping under lately.

  • Faith versus Fact: New Atheism Rejects the Blank Slate

    Posted on June 6th, 2015 Helian 6 comments

    Jerry Coyne just launched another New Atheist salvo against the Defenders of the Faith in the form of his latest book, Faith versus Fact.  It’s well written and well reasoned, effectively squashing the “sophisticated Christian” gambit of the faithful, and storming some of their few remaining “God of the gaps” redoubts.  However, one of its most striking features is its decisive rejection of the Blank Slate.  The New Atheists have learned to stop worrying and love innate morality!

    Just like the Blank Slaters of yore, the New Atheists may be found predominantly on the left of the political spectrum.  In Prof. Coyne’s case the connection is even more striking.  As a graduate student, his professor/advisor was none other than Blank Slate kingpin Richard Lewontin of Not In Our Genes fame!  In spite of that, in Faith versus Fact he not only accepts but positively embraces evolutionary psychology in general and innate morality in particular.  Why?

    It turns out that, along with the origin of life, the existence of consciousness, the “fine tuning” of physical constants, etc.,  one of the more cherished “gaps” in the “God of the gaps” arguments of the faithful is the existence of innate morality.  As with the other “gap” gambits, the claim is that it couldn’t exist unless God created it.  As noted in an earlier post, the Christian philosopher Francis Hutcheson used a combination of reason and careful observation of his own species to demonstrate the existence of an innate “moral sense,” building on the earlier work of Anthony Ashley-Cooper and others early in the 18th century.  The Blank Slaters would have done well to read his work.  Instead, they insisted on the non-existence of human nature, thereby handing over this particular “gap” to the faithful by default.   Obviously, Prof. Coyne had second thoughts, and decided to snatch it back.  However, he doesn’t quite succeed in breaking entirely with the past.  Instead, he insists on elevating “cultural morality” to a co-equal status with innate morality, and demonstrates that he has swallowed Steven Pinker’s fanciful “academic version” of the history of the Blank Slate in the process.  Allow me to quote at length some of the relevant passages from his book:

    Evolution disproves critical parts of both the Bible and the Quran – the creation stories – yet millions have been unable to abandon them.  Finally, and perhaps most important, evolution means that human morality, rather than being imbued in us by God, somehow arose via natural processes:  biological evolution involving natural selection on behavior, and cultural evolution involving our ability to calculate, foresee, and prefer the results of different behaviors.

    Here we encounter the conflation of biological and cultural evolution, which are described as if they were independent factors accounting for the “rise” of human morality.  This tendency to embrace innate explanations while at the same time clinging to the “culture and learning” of the Blank Slate as a distinct, quasi-independent determinant of moral behavior is a recurring theme in FvF.  A bit later Coyne seems to return to the Darwinian fold, citing his comments on “well-marked social instincts.”

    In his 1871 book The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, where Darwin first applied his theory of evolution by natural selection to humans, he did not neglect morality.  In chapter 3, he floats what can be considered the first suggestion that our morality may be an elaboration by our large brains of social instincts evolved in our ancestors:  “The following proposition seems to me in a high degree probable – namely, that any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well developed, or nearly as well developed, as in man.”

    This impression is apparently confirmed in the following remarkable passage:

    A century later, the biologist Edward O. Wilson angered many by asserting the complete hegemony of biology over ethics:  “Scientists and humanists should consider together the possibility that the time has come for ethics to be removed temporarily from the hands of the philosophers and biologicized.”  Wilson’s statement, in the pathbreaking book Sociobiology:  The New Synthesis, really began the modern incursion of evolution into human behavior that has become the discipline of evolutionary psychology.  In the last four decades psychologists, philosophers, and biologists have begun to dissect the cultural and evolutionary roots of morality.

    Here we find, almost verbatim, Steven Pinker’s bowdlerized version of the “history” of the Blank Slate, featuring E. O. Wilson as the knight in shining armor who came out of nowhere to “begin the modern incursion of evolution into human behavior,” with the publication of Sociobiology in 1975.  Anyone with even a faint familiarity with the source material knows that Pinker’s version is really nothing but a longish fairy tale.  The “modern incursion of evolution into human behavior” was already well underway in Europe in 1951, when Niko Tinbergen published his The Study of Instinct.  It was continued there through the 50’s and 60’s in the work of Konrad Lorenz, Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, and many others.  Long before the appearance of Sociobiology, Robert Ardrey began the publication of a series of four books on evolved human nature that really set in motion the smashing of the Blank Slate orthodoxy in the behavioral sciences.  There is literally nothing of any significance in Sociobiology bearing on the “incursion of evolution into human behavior” or the emergence of what came to be called evolutionary psychology that is not merely an echo of work that had been published by Ardrey, Lorenz, Tinbergen, and others many years earlier.  No matter.  It would seem that Pinker’s fanciful “history” has now been transmogrified into one of Coyne’s “facts.”

    But I digress.  As noted above, even as Coyne demolishes morality as one of the “gaps” that must be filled by inventing a God by noting its emergence as an evolved trait, and even as he explicitly embraces evolutionary psychology, which has apparently only recently become “respectable,” he can never quite entirely free himself from the stench of the Blank Slate.  Finally, as if frightened by his own temerity, and perhaps feeling the withering gaze of his old professor/advisor Lewontin, Coyne executes a partial retreat from the territory he has just attempted to reconquer:

    In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker makes a strong case that since the Middle Ages most societies have become much less brutal, due largely to changes in what’s considered moral.  So if morality is innate, it’s certainly malleable.  And that itself refutes the argument that human morality comes from God, unless the moral sentiments of the deity are equally malleable.  The rapid change in many aspects of morality, even in the last century, also suggests that much of its “innateness” comes not from evolution but from learning.  That’s because evolutionary change simply doesn’t occur fast enough to explain societal changes like our realization that women are not an inferior moiety of humanity, or that we shouldn’t torture prisoners.  The explanation for these changes must reside in reason and learning:  our realization that there is no rational basis for giving ourselves moral privilege over those who belong to other groups.

    Here we find the good professor behaving for all the world like one of Niko Tinbergen’s famous sticklebacks who, suddenly realizing he has strayed far over the established boundary of his own territory, rushes back to more familiar haunts.  Only one of Lewontin’s “genetic determinists” would be obtuse enough to suggest that the meanderings of 21st century morality are caused by “evolution,” and those are as rare as unicorns.  Obviously, no such extraordinarily rapid evolution is necessary.  The innate wellsprings of human morality need not “evolve” at all to account for these wanderings, which are adequately accounted for by the fact that they represent the mediation of a relatively static “moral sense” in a rapidly changing environment through the consciousness of creatures with large brains.  As brilliantly demonstrated by Hutcheson in his An Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions and Affections, absent this “root cause” in the form of evolved behavioral predispositions, “reason and learning” could chug along for centuries without spitting out anything remotely resembling morality.  Innate behavioral predispositions are the basis of all moral behavior, and without them morality as we know it would not exist.  The only role of “reason and learning” is in interpreting and mediating the “moral passions.”  Absent those passions, there would be literally nothing to be reasoned about or learned that would manifest itself as moral behavior.  They, and not “reason and learning” are the sine qua non for the existence of morality.

    But let us refrain from looking this particular gift horse in the mouth.  In general, as noted above, the New Atheists may be found more or less in the same region of the ideological spectrum as was once occupied by the Blank Slaters.  If they are now constrained to add innate behavior to their arsenal as one more weapon in their continuing battle against the faithful, so much the better for all of us.  If nothing else it enhances the chances that, at least for the time being, students of human behavior will be able to continue acquiring the knowledge we need to gain self-understanding without fear of being bullied and intimidated for pointing out facts that happen to be politically inconvenient.

  • …and Speaking of the New Atheists

    Posted on May 17th, 2015 Helian 6 comments

    New Atheist bashing is all the rage these days.  The gloating tone at Salon over New Atheist Sam Harris’ humiliation by Noam Chomsky in their recent exchange over the correct understanding of something that doesn’t exist referred to in my last post is but one of many examples.  In fact, New Atheists aren’t really new, and neither is New Atheist bashing.  Thumb through some of the more high brow magazines of the 1920’s, for example, and chances are you’ll run across an article describing the then current crop of atheists as aggressive, ignorant, clannish, self-righteous and, in short, prone to all the familiar maladies that supposedly also afflict the New Atheists of today.  And just as we see today, the more “laid back” atheists were gleefully piling on then as now.  They included H. L. Mencken, probably the most famous atheist of the time, who deplored aggressive atheism in his recently republished autobiographical trilogy.  Unfortunately he’s no longer around to explain the difference between “aggressive” atheism, and his own practice of heaping scorn and ridicule on the more backward believers.  Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that Mencken was by nature a conservative.  He abhorred any manifestation of the “Uplift,” a term which in those days meant more or less the same thing as “progressive” today.

    I think the difference between these two species of atheists has something to do with the degree to which they resent belonging to an outgroup.  Distinguishing between ingroups and outgroups comes naturally to our species.  This particular predisposition is ostensibly not as beneficial now as it was during the period over which it evolved.  A host of pejorative terms have been invented to describe its more destructive manifestations, such as racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, etc., all of which really describe the same phenomenon.  Those among us who harbor no irrational hatreds of this sort must be rare indeed.  One often finds it present in its more virulent forms in precisely those individuals who consider themselves immune to it.  Atheists are different, and that’s really all it takes to become identified as an outgroup,

    Apparently some atheists don’t feel themselves particularly inconvenienced by this form of “othering,” especially in societies that have benefited to some extent from the European Enlightenment.  Others take it more seriously, and fight back using the same tactics that have been directed against them.  They “other” their enemies and seek to aggressively exploit human moral emotions to gain the upper hand.  That is exactly what has been done quite successfully at one time or another by many outgroups, including women, blacks, and quite spectacularly lately, gays.  New Atheists are merely those who embrace such tactics in the atheist community.

    I can’t really blame my fellow atheists for this form of activism.  One doesn’t choose to be an atheist.  If one doesn’t believe in God, then other than in George Orwell’s nightmare world of “1984,” one can’t be “cured” into becoming a Christian or a Moslem, any more than a gay can be “cured” into becoming heterosexual, or a black “cured” into becoming white.  However, for reasons having to do with the ideological climate in the world today that are much too complicated to address in a short blog post, New Atheists are facing a great deal more resistance than members of some of society’s other outgroups.  This resistance is coming, not just from religious believers, but from their “natural” allies on the ideological left.

    Noam Chomsky’s scornful treatment of Sam Harris, accompanied by the sneers of the leftist editors of Salon, is a typical example of this phenomenon.  Such leaders as Harris, Richard Dawkins, and the late Christopher Hitchens are the public “face” of the New Atheist movement, and as a consequence are often singled out in this way.  Of course they have their faults, and I’ve criticized the first two myself on this blog and elsewhere.  However, many of the recent attacks, especially from the ideological left, are neither well-reasoned nor, at least in terms of my own subjective moral emotions, even fair.  Often they conform to hackneyed formulas; the New Atheists are unsophisticated, they don’t understand what they’re talking about, they are bigoted, they are harming people who depend on religious beliefs to give “meaning” to their lives, etc.

    A typical example, which was also apparently inspired by the Harris/Chomsky exchange, recently turned up at Massimo Pigliucci’s Scientia Salon.  Entitled “Reflections on the skeptic and atheist movements,” it was ostensibly Pigliucci’s announcement that, after being a longtime member and supporter, he now wishes to “disengage” from the club.  As one might expect, he came down squarely in favor of Chomsky, who is apparently one of his heroes.  That came as no surprise to me, as fawning appraisals of Blank Slate kingpins Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould have also appeared at the site.  It had me wondering who will be rehabilitated next.  Charles Manson?  Jack the Ripper?  Pigliucci piques himself on his superior intellect which, we are often reminded, is informed by both science and a deep reading of philosophy.  In spite that, he seems completely innocent of any knowledge that the Blank Slate debacle ever happened, or of Lewontin’s and Gould’s highly effective role in propping it up for so many years, using such “scientific” methods as bullying, vilification and mobbing of anyone who disagreed with them, including, among others, Robert Trivers, W. D. Hamilton, Konrad Lorenz, and Richard Dawkins.  Evidence of such applications of “science” are easily accessible to anyone who makes even a minimal effort to check the source material, such as Lewontin’s Not in Our Genes.

    No matter, Pigliucci apparently imagines that the Blank Slate was just a figment of Steven Pinker’s fevered imagination.  With such qualifications as a detector of “fools,” he sagely nods his head as he informs us that Chomsky “doesn’t suffer fools (like Harris) gladly.”  With a sigh of ennui, he goes on, “And let’s not go (again) into the exceedingly naive approach to religious criticism that has made Dawkins one of the “four horsemen” of the New Atheism.”  The rest of the New Atheist worthies come in for similar treatment.  By all means, read the article.  You’ll notice that, like virtually every other New Atheist basher, whether on the left or the right of the ideological spectrum, Pigliucci never gets around to mentioning what these “naïve” criticisms of religion actually are, far less to responding to or discussing them.

    It’s not hard to find Dawkins’ “naïve” criticisms of religion.  They’re easily available to anyone who takes the trouble to look through the first few chapters of his The God Delusion.  In fact, most of them have been around at least since Jean Meslier wrote them down in his Testament almost 300 years ago.  Religious believers have been notably unsuccessful in answering them in the ensuing centuries.  No doubt they might seem naïve if you happen to believe in the ephemeral and hazy versions of God concocted by the likes of David Bentley Hart and Karen Armstrong.  They’ve put that non-objective, non-subjective, insubstantial God so high up on the shelf that it can’t be touched by atheists or anyone else.  The problem is that that’s not the God that most people believe in.  Dawkins can hardly be faulted for directing his criticisms at the God they do believe in.  If his arguments against that God are really so naïve, what can possibly be the harm in actually answering them?

    As noted above, New Atheist bashing is probably inevitable given the current ideological fashions.  However, I suggest that those happy few who are still capable of thinking for themselves think twice before jumping on the bandwagon.  In the first place, it is not irrational for atheists to feel aggrieved at being “othered,” any more than it is for any other ostracized minority.  Perhaps more importantly, the question of whether religious beliefs are true or not matters.  Today one actually hears so-called “progressive” atheists arguing that religious beliefs should not be questioned, because it risks robbing the “little people” of a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives.  Apparently the goal is to cultivate delusions that will get them from cradle to grave with as little existential Angst as possible.  It would be too shocking for them to know the truth.  Beyond the obvious arrogance of such an attitude, I fail to see how it is doing anyone a favor.  People supply their own “meaning of life,” depending on their perceptions of reality.  Blocking the path to truth and promoting potentially pathological delusions in place of reality seems more a betrayal than a “service” to me.  To the extent that anyone cares to take my own subjective moral emotions seriously, I can only say that I find substituting bland religious truisms for a chance to experience the stunning wonder, beauty and improbability of human existence less a “benefit” than an exquisite form of cruelty.

  • Clash of the Moral Titans: Sam Harris vs. Noam Chomsky

    Posted on May 16th, 2015 Helian 2 comments

    Sam Harris and Noam Chomsky have a lot in common.  Both are familiar public intellectuals, both are atheists, and both are well to the left of center politically.  Both are also true believers in the fantasy of objective morality.  As I noticed on my latest visit to the Salon website, however, that hasn’t deterred them from hurling anathemas at each other.  Harris landed some weak jabs in a recent exchange of verbal fisticuffs, but according to Salon, Chomsky won by a knockout in the later rounds.  A complete, blow by blow account may be found on Sam’s website, along with his own post mortem.

    Apparently it all began when Harris tried to, in his words, “engineer a public conversation with Chomsky about the ethics of war, terrorism, state surveillance, and related topics.”  As he wrote on his blog,

    For decades, Noam Chomsky has been one of the most prominent critics of U.S. foreign policy, and the further left one travels along the political spectrum, the more one feels his influence. Although I agree with much of what Chomsky has said about the misuses of state power, I have long maintained that his political views, where the threat of global jihadism is concerned, produce dangerous delusions. In response, I have been much criticized by those who believe that I haven’t given the great man his due.

    To clear the air, he wrote a pleasant note to Chomsky suggesting that they engage in a public conversation to, “explore these disagreements, clarify any misunderstandings,” and “attempt to find some common ground.”  Not one to be taken in by such pleasantries, old pro Chomsky immediately positioned himself on the moral high ground.  His tart reply:

    Perhaps I have some misconceptions about you.  Most of what I’ve read of yours is material that has been sent to me about my alleged views, which is completely false.  I don’t see any point in a public debate about misreadings.  If there are things you’d like to explore privately, fine.  But with sources.

    Harris should have known going in that hardcore “progressive” leftists never have friendly differences of opinion with anyone on matters more significant than the weather.  Anyone who disagrees with them is automatically tossed into their outgroup, and acquires all the usual characteristics of the denizens thereof.  They are, of course, always immoral, and commonly disgusting and mentally incompetent as well.  That’s often how Harris portrays those who disagree with him on questions of morality himself.  Nevertheless, he walked right into Chomsky’s punch, admitting the possibility that he may have misread him.  He merely threw in the caveat that, if so, it could only have happened in a passage in his first book, The End of Faith, as that was the only time he’d ever mentioned Chomsky’s work in writing.  That was plenty for Chomsky.  In effect, Harris had just handed him the opportunity to pick his own battlefield.  He did so with alacrity.  As it happens, in the passage in question, Harris had objected to Chomsky’s condemnation of the Clinton Administration’s decision to bomb the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan in the context of remarks about the 9/11 attacks.  As he put it:

    Chomsky does not hesitate to draw moral equivalences here: “For the first time in modern history, Europe and its offshoots were subjected, on home soil, to the kind of atrocity that they routinely have carried out elsewhere.”

    Citing the passage in his own work Harris referred to, Chomsky immediately fired back, denying that it had ever been his intent to “draw moral equivalences”:

    Let’s turn to what you did say—a disquisition on “moral equivalence.” You fail to mention, though, that I did not suggest that they were “morally equivalent” and in fact indicated quite the opposite.  I did not describe the Al-Shifa bombing as a “horrendous crime” committed with “wickedness and awesome cruelty.” Rather, I pointed out that the toll might be comparable, which turns out on inquiry (which is not undertaken here, and which apologists for our crimes ignore), turns out to be, quite likely, a serious understatement.

    Having thus seized the moral high ground, he proceeded to rain down pious punches on Harris, demonstrating that he was not merely wrong, but grossly immoral.  His ensuing replies include such choice examples as,

    You also ignored the fact that I had already responded to your claim about lack of intention—which, frankly, I find quite shocking on elementary moral grounds, as I suspect you would too if you were to respond to the question raised at the beginning of my quoted comment.

    Harris is willfully blind to the crimes of the Clinton Administration:

    And of course they knew that there would be major casualties.  They are not imbeciles, but rather adopt a stance that is arguably even more immoral than purposeful killing, which at least recognizes the human status of the victims, not just killing ants while walking down the street, who cares?

    He is morally depraved for abetting this crime:

    Your own moral stance is revealed even further by your complete lack of concern about the apparently huge casualties and the refusal even to investigate them.

    and,

    I’ve seen apologetics for atrocities before, but rarely at this level – not to speak of the refusal to withdraw false charges, a minor fault in comparison.

    Chomsky closes on a magnanimous note:

    I’ll put aside your apologetics for the crimes for which you and I share responsibility, which, frankly, I find quite shocking, particularly on the part of someone who feels entitled to deliver moral lectures.

    Harris is game enough, but staggers on rubbery legs for the rest of the fight.  Even in the midst of these blows, he can’t rid himself of the idée fixe that it’s possible to have a polite exchange with someone like Chomsky on differences of opinion about morality.  In the post mortem on his website, it’s clear that he still doesn’t know what hit him.  It’s virtually impossible to win arguments about objective morality with the likes of Chomsky unless you grasp the fundamental truth that there’s no such thing as objective morality.  In fact, the whole debate was about subjective perceptions that are, as Westermarck put it, entirely outside the realm of truth claims.

    I can only suggest that next time, instead of getting “down in the weeds,” as he puts it, in a debate with Chomsky about who is “really” the most morally pure, Harris consider the matter pragmatically.  In fact, Chomsky is, and always has been, what Lenin referred to as “a useful idiot.”  The net effect of all his moralistic hair splitting has been to aid and abet ideologies for which most sane people would just as soon avoid serving as guinea pigs, and to demoralize those who would seek to stand in their way.  The most egregious example is probably the moral support he provided for the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia at the very time it was perpetrating what was probably, at least on a per capita basis, the worst act of genocide in human history, resulting in the virtual decapitation of a whole country and the annihilation of a large percentage of its population.  There are many accounts of his role in this affair on the Internet, and I invite interested readers to have a look at them.  One of the more balanced accounts may be found here.  Here, too, Chomsky would run rings around Harris if he attempted to debate his role on moralistic grounds.  Here, too, he could claim that he had never deliberately drawn any “moral equivalence,” that he had never intended to support the Khmer Rouge, and that those who suggest otherwise are immoral because of a, b, and c.  However, it is a fact that Pol Pot and his cronies made very effective use of his remarks in their propaganda, among other things, predictably exploiting them to draw “moral equivalence” in blithe disregard of Chomsky’s assertions about his “intent.”

    In fact, Chomsky has been a virtual poster boy for potential tyrannies of all stripes.  One might say he has been an “equal opportunity” useful idiot.  Once when I was visiting Germany I happened to glance at the offerings of a local newsstand, and saw the smiling face of none other than Noam Chomsky smiling down at me from the front page of the neo-Nazi “Deutsche National-Zeitung!”   In the accompanying article, the fascists cited him as an ideal example of a true American hero.  I note in passing that tyrants themselves usually have no illusions about the real nature of such paragons of morality.  Once Stalin had successfully exploited them to gain absolute power, he shot or consigned to the Gulag every single one he could lay his hands on.

    In a word, I suggest that Sam take some advice that my father once passed down to me regarding such affairs:  “Never get in a pissing contest with a skunk.”  You don’t need to convince anyone that you’re more morally pure than Chomsky in order to realistically assess the net effect of all his “piety.”  You just need to realize that, from a purely subjective point of view, it is “good” to survive.

  • Of the War on Christmas and the Thinness of Leftist Skins

    Posted on December 20th, 2014 Helian No comments

    ‘Twas the month before Christmas, and Bill O’Reilly launched his usual jihad against the purported “War on Christmas.” It drew the predictable counterblasts from the Left, and I just happened to run across one that appeared back on December 4 on Huffpo, entitled “A War on Reason, Not on Christmas.” I must admit I find the “War on Christmas” schtick tiresome. Conservatives rightly point to the assorted liberal cults of victimization as so much pious grandstanding. It would be nice if they practiced what they preach and refrained from concocting similar cults of their own. Be that as it may, I found the article in question somewhat more unctuous and self-righteous than usual, and left a comment to that effect. It was immediately deleted.

    My comment included no ad hominem attacks, nor was it abusive. I simply disagreed with the author on a few points, and noted that the political Left has an exaggerated opinion of its devotion to reason. The main theme of the article was the nature of the political divide in the U.S. According to the author, it is less between rich and poor than between “reasonable” liberals and “irrational” conservatives. As he put it,

    Before imploding in the face of his sordid extramarital trysts, presidential candidate John Edwards based his campaign on the idea of two Americas, one rich the other poor. He was right about the idea that American is divided, but wrong about the nature of the division. The deeper and more important split is defined by religiosity, not riches.

    The conflict between these two world views is made apparent in the details of our voting booth preferences. Religiosity alone is the most important, obvious and conclusive factor in determining voter behavior. Simply put, church goers tend to vote Republican. Those who instead go the hardware store on Sunday vote Democrat by wide margins.

    He then continued,

    Those who accept the idea of god tend to divide the world into believers and atheists. Yet that is incorrect. Atheist means “without god” and one cannot be without something that does not exist. Atheism is really a pejorative term that defines one world view as the negative of another, as something not what something else is.

    This evoked my first comment, which seemed to me rather harmless on the face of it. I merely said that as an atheist myself, I had no objection to the term, and would prefer to avoid the familiar game of inventing ever more politically correct replacements until we ended up with some abomination seven or eight syllables long. However, what followed was even more remarkable. The author proceeded to deliver himself of a pronouncement about the nature of morality that might have been lifted right out of one of Ardrey’s books. In a section entitled, “Secular and Religious Morality,” he writes,

    Traits that we view as moral are deeply embedded in the human psyche. Honesty, fidelity, trustworthiness, kindness to others and reciprocity are primeval characteristics that helped our ancestors survive. In a world of dangerous predators, early man could thrive only in cooperative groups. Good behavior strengthened the tribal bonds that were essential to survival. What we now call morality is really a suite of behaviors favored by natural selection in an animal weak alone but strong in numbers. Morality is a biological necessity and a consequence of human development, not a gift from god.

    Exactly! Now, as I’ve often pointed out to my readers, if morality really is the expression of evolved traits as the author suggests, it exists because it happened to enhance the chances that certain genes we carry would survive and reproduce in the environment in which they happened to appear. There is no conceivable way in which they could somehow acquire the magic quality of corresponding to some “real, objective” morality in the sky. There is no way in which they could assume a “purpose” attributed to them by anyone, whether on the left or the right of the political spectrum. Finally, there is no way in which they could acquire the independent legitimacy to dictate to anyone the things they “really” ought or ought not to do. So much is perfectly obvious. Assuming one really is “reasonable,” it follows immediately from what the author of the article says about the evolved origins of morality above. That, of course, is not how the Left is spinning the narrative these days.

    No, for a large faction on the secular Left, the fact that morality is evolved means not merely that the God-given morality of the Christians and other religious sects is “unreasonable.” For them, it follows that whatever whims they happen to tart up as the secular morality du jour become “reasonable.” That means that they are not immoral, or amoral. They are, by default, the bearers of the “true morality.”  In the article in question it goes something like this:

    The species-centric arrogance of religion cultivates a dangerous attitude about our relationship with the environment and the resources that sustain us. Humanists tend to view sustainability as a moral imperative while theists often view environmental concerns as liberal interference with god’s will. Conservative resistance to accepting the reality of climate change is just one example, and another point at which religious and secular morality diverge, as the world swelters.

    It’s wonderful, really. The Left has always been addicted to moralistic posing, and now they don’t have to drop the charade! Now they can be as self-righteous as ever, as devotees of this secular version of morality that has miraculously acquired the power to become a thing-in-itself, presumably drifting up there in the clouds somewhere beyond the profane ken of the unenlightened Christians. As it happens, at the moment my neighbors are largely Mormon, and I must say their dogmas appear to me to be paragons of “reason” compared to this secular version of morality in the sky.

    Of course, I couldn’t include all these observations in the Huffpo comment section. I merely pointed out that what the author had said about morality would have branded him as a heretic no more than 20 years ago, and evoked frenzied charges of “racism” and “fascism” from the same political Left in which he now imagines himself so comfortably ensconced. That’s because 20 years ago the behavioral sciences were still in thrall to the Blank Slate orthodoxy, as they had been for 50 years and more at the time. That orthodoxy was the greatest debacle in the history of science, and it was the gift, not of the Right, but of the “reasonable” secular Left. That was the point I made in the comment section, along with the observation that liberals would do well to keep it in mind before they break their arms patting themselves on the back for being so “reasonable.”

    The author concluded his article with the following:

    There is no war on Christmas; the idea is absurd at every level. Those who object to being forced to celebrate another’s religion are drowning in Christmas in a sea of Christianity dominating all aspects of social life. An 80 percent majority can claim victimhood only with an extraordinary flight from reality. You are probably being deafened by a rendition of Jingle Bells right now. No, there is no war on Christmas, but make no mistake: the Christian right is waging a war against reason. And they are winning. O’Reilly is riding the gale force winds of crazy, and his sails are full.

    I must agree that the beloved Christian holiday does have a fighting chance of surviving the “War on Christmas.” Indeed, Bill O’Reilly himself has recently been so sanguine as to declare victory.  When it comes to popular delusions, however, I suspect the Left’s delusion that it has a monopoly on “reason” is likely to be even more enduring.  As for the deletion of my comment, we all know about the Left’s proclivity for suppressing speech that they find “offensive.”  Thin skins are encountered in those political precincts at least as frequently as the characteristic delusions about “reason.”

  • Frans de Waal’s “The Bonobo and the Atheist”: The Objective Morality of a Subjective Moralist

    Posted on October 12th, 2014 Helian No comments

    Franz de Waal’s The Bonobo and the Atheist is interesting for several reasons.  As the title of this post suggests, it demonstrates the disconnect between the theory and practice of morality in the academy.  It’s one of the latest brickbats in the ongoing spat between the New Atheists and the “accommodationist” atheists.  It documents the current progress of the rearrangement of history in the behavioral sciences in the aftermath of the Blank Slate debacle.  It’s a useful reality check on the behavior of bonobos, the latest “noble savage” among the primates.  And, finally, it’s an entertaining read.

    In theory, de Waal is certainly a subjective moralist.  As he puts it, “the whole point of my book is to argue a bottom up approach” to morality, as opposed to the top down approach:  “The view of morality as a set of immutable principles, or laws, that are ours to discover.”  The “bottom” de Waal refers to are evolved emotional traits.  In his words,

    The moral law is not imposed from above or derived from well-reasoned principles; rather, it arises from ingrained values that have been there since the beginning of time.

    My views are in line with the way we know the human mind works, with visceral reactions arriving before rationalizations, and also with the way evolution produces behavior.  A good place to start is with an acknowledgment of our background as social animals, and how this background predisposes us to treat each other.  This approach deserves attention at a time in which even avowed atheists are unable to wean themselves from a semireligious morality, thinking that the world would be a better place if only a white-coated priesthood could take over from the frocked one.

    So far, so good.  I happen to be a subjective moralist myself, and agree with de Waal on the origins of morality.  However, reading on, we find confirmation of a prediction made long ago by Friedrich Nietzsche.  In Human, All Too Human, he noted the powerful human attachment to religion and the “metaphysics” of the old philosophers.  He likened the expansion of human knowledge to a ladder, or tree, up which humanity was gradually climbing.  As we reached the top rungs, however, we would begin to notice that the old beliefs that had supplied us with such great emotional satisfaction in the past were really illusions.  At that point, our tendency would be to recoil from this reality.  The “tree” would begin to grow “sprouts” in reverse.  We would balk at “turning the last corner.”  Nietzsche imagined that developing a new philosophy that could accommodate the world as it was instead of the world as we wished it to be would be the task of “the great thinkers of the next century.”  Alas, a century is long past since he wrote those words, yet to all appearances we are still tangled in the “downward sprouts.”

    Nowhere else is this more apparent than in the academy, where a highly moralistic secular Puritanism prevails.  Top down, objective morality is alive and well, and the self-righteous piety of the new, secular priesthood puts that of the old-fashioned religious Puritans in the shade.  All this modern piety seems to be self-supporting, levitating in thin air, with none of the props once supplied by religion.  As de Waal puts it,

    …the main ingredients of a moral society don’t require religion, since they come from within.

    Clearly, de Waal can see where morality comes from, and how it evolved, and why it exists, but, even with these insights, he too recoils from “climbing the last rungs,” and “turning the final corner.”  We find artifacts of the modern objective morality prevalent in the academy scattered throughout his book.  For example,

     Science isn’t the answer to everything.  As a student, I learned about the “naturalistic fallacy” and how it would be the zenith of arrogance for scientists to think that their work could illuminate the distinction between right and wrong.  This was not long after World War II, mind you, which had brought us massive evil justified by a scientific theory of self-directed evolution.  Scientists had been much involved in the genocidal machine, conducting unimaginable experiments.

    American and British scientists were not innocent, however, because they were the ones who earlier in the century had brought us eugenics.  They advocated racist immigration laws and forced sterilization of the deaf, blind, mentally ill, and physically impaired, as well as criminals and members of minority races.

    I am profoundly skeptical of the moral purity of science, and feel that its role should never exceed that of morality’s handmaiden.

    One can consider humans as either inherently good but capable of evil or as inherently evil yet capable of good.  I happen to belong to the first camp.

    None of these statements make any sense in the absence of objective good and evil.  If, as de Waal claims repeatedly elsewhere in his book, morality is ultimately an expression of emotions or “gut feelings,” analogs of which we share with many other animals, and which exist because they evolved, then the notions that scientists are or were evil, period, or that science itself can be morally impure, period, or that humans can be good, period, or evil, period, are obvious non sequiturs.  De Waal has climbed up the ladder, peaked at what lay just beyond the top rungs, and jumped back down onto Nietzsche’s “backward growing sprouts.”  Interestingly enough, in spite of that de Waal admires the strength of one who was either braver or more cold-blooded, and kept climbing; Edvard Westermarck.  But I will have more to say of him later.

    The Bonobo and the Atheist is also interesting from a purely historical point of view.  The narrative concocted to serve as the “history” of the behavioral sciences continues to be adjusted and readjusted in the aftermath of the Blank Slate catastrophe, probably the greatest scientific debacle of all time.  As usual, the arch-villain is Robert Ardrey, who committed the grave sin of being right about human nature when virtually all the behavioral scientists and professionals, at least in the United States, were wrong.  Imagine the impertinence of a mere playwright daring to do such a thing!  Here’s what de Waal has to say about him:

    Confusing predation with aggression is an old error that recalls the time that humans were seen as incorrigible murderers on the basis of signs that our ancestors ate meat.  This “killer ape” notion gained such traction that the opening scene of Stanley Kubrick’s movie 2001:  A Space Odyssey showed one hominin bludgeoning another with a zebra femur, after which the weapon, flung triumphantly into the air, turned into an orbiting spacecraft.  A stirring image, but based on a single puncture wound in the fossilized skull of an ancestral infant, known as the Taung Child.  It’s discoverer had concluded that our ancestors must have been carnivorous cannibals, an idea that the journalist Robert Ardrey repackaged in African Genesis by saying that we are risen apes rather than fallen angels.  It is now considered likely, however, that the Taung Child had merely fallen prey to a leopard or eagle.

    I had to smile when I read this implausible yarn.  After all, anyone can refute it by simply looking up the source material, not to mention the fact that there’s no lack of people who’ve actually read Ardrey, and are aware that the “Killer Ape Theory” is a mere straw man concocted by his enemies.  De Waal is not one of them.  Not only has he obviously not read Ardrey, but he probably knows of him at all only at third or fourth hand.  If he had, he’d realize that he was basically channeling Ardrey in the rest of his book.  Indeed, much of The Bonobo and the Atheist reads as if it had been lifted from Ardrey’s last book, The Hunting Hypothesis, complete with the ancient origins of morality, Ardrey’s embrace of de Waal’s theme that humans are genuinely capable of altruism and cooperation, resulting in part, as also claimed by de Waal, from his adoption of a hunting lifestyle, and his rejection of what de Waal calls “Veneer Theory,” the notion that human morality is merely a thin veneer covering an evil and selfish core.  For example, according to de Waal,

    Hunting and meat sharing are at the root of chimpanzee sociality in the same way that they are thought to have catalyzed human evolution.  The big-game hunting of our ancestors required even tighter cooperation.

    This conclusion is familiar to those who have actually read Ardrey, but was anathema to the “Men of Science” as recently as 15 years ago.  Ardrey was, of course, never a journalist, and his conclusion that Australopithecine apes had hunted was based, not on the “single puncture wound” in the Taung child’s skull, but mainly on the statistical anomaly of numbers of a particular type of bone that might have been used as a weapon found in association with the ape remains far in excess of what would be expected if they were there randomly.  To date, no one has ever explained that anomaly, and it remains carefully swept under the rug.  In a word, the idea that Ardrey based his hypothesis entirely “on a single puncture wound” is poppycock.  In the first place, there were two puncture wounds, not one.  Apparently, de Waal is also unaware that Raymond Dart, the man who discovered this evidence, has been rehabilitated, and is now celebrated as the father of cave taphonomy, whereas those who disputed his conclusions about what he had found, such as C. K. Brain, who claimed that the wounds were caused by a leopard, are now in furious rowback mode.  For example, from the abstract of a paper in which Brain’s name appears at the end of the list of authors,

    The ca. 1.0 myr old fauna from Swartkrans Member 3 (South Africa) preserves abundant indication of carnivore activity in the form of tooth marks (including pits) on many bone surfaces. This direct paleontological evidence is used to test a recent suggestion that leopards, regardless of prey body size, may have been almost solely responsible for the accumulation of the majority of bones in multiple deposits (including Swartkrans Member 3) from various Sterkfontein Valley cave sites. Our results falsify that hypothesis and corroborate an earlier hypothesis that, while the carcasses of smaller animals may have been deposited in Swartkrans by leopards, other kinds of carnivores (and hominids) were mostly responsible for the deposition of large animal remains.

    Meanwhile, we find that none other than Stephen Jay Gould has been transmogrified into a “hero.”  As documented by Steven Pinker in The Blank Slate, Gould was basically a radical Blank Slater, unless one cares to give him a pass because he grudgingly admitted that, after all, eating, sleeping, urinating and defecating might not be purely learned behaviors, after all.  The real Steven Jay Gould rejected evolutionary psychology root and branch, and was a co-signer of the Blank Slater manifesto that appeared in the New York Times in response to claims about human nature as reserved as those of E. O. Wilson in his Sociobiology.  He famously invented the charge of “just so stories” to apply to any and all claims for the existence of human behavioral predispositions.  Now, in The Bonobo and the Atheist, we find Gould reinvented as a good evolutionary psychologist.  His “just so stories” only apply to the “excesses” of evolutionary psychology.  We find the real Gould, who completely rejected the idea of “human nature,” softened to a new, improved Gould who merely “vehemently resisted the idea that every single human behavior deserves an evolutionary account.”  If anyone was a dyed-in-the-wool habitue of the Blank Slate establishment in its heyday, it was Gould, but suddenly we learn that “Several skirmishes between him and the evolutionary establishment unfolded in the pages of the New York Review of Books in 1997.”  I can only suggest that anyone who honestly believes that a new “establishment” had already replaced the Blank Slate prior to 1997 should read Napoleon Chagnon’s Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes – The Yanomamö and the Anthropologists, published as recently as last year.  No matter, according to de Waal, “The greatest public defender of evolution this country has ever known was Stephen Jay Gould.”

    Perhaps one can best understand the Gould panegyrics in connection with another of the major themes of de Waal’s book; his rejection of Richard Dawkins and the rest of the New Atheists.  De Waal is what New Atheist Jerry Coyne would refer to as an “accommodationist,” that is, an atheist who believes that the atheist lions should lie down with the religious sheep.  As it happens, Gould was the Ur-accommodationist, and inventor of the phrase “nonoverlapping magisterial,” or NOMA to describe his claim that science and religion occupy separate spheres of knowledge.  One can find a good summary of the objections to NOMA from the likes of “New Atheists” Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Coyne on Prof. Coyne’s website, Why Evolution is True, for example, here and here.

    It’s hard to understand de Waal’s bitter opposition to atheist activism as other than yet another example of Nietzsche’s “climbing down onto the backward pointing shoots.”  Indeed, as one might expect from such instances of “turning back,” it’s not without contradictions.  For example, he writes,

    Religion looms as large as an elephant in the United States, to the point that being nonreligious is about the biggest handicap a politician running for office can have, bigger than being gay, unmarried, thrice married, or black.

    And yet he objects to the same kind of activism among atheists that has been the most effective antidote to such bigotry directed at, for example, gays and blacks.  For some reason, atheists are just supposed to smile and take it.  De Waal accuses Dawkins, Harris and the rest of being “haters,” but I know of not a single New Atheist that term can really be accurately applied to, and certainly not to the likes of Dawkins, Harris or Coyne.  Vehement, on occasion, yes, but haters of the religious per se?  I don’t think so.  De Waal agrees with David Sloan Wilson that “religion” evolved.  I can certainly believe that predispositions evolved that have the potential to manifest themselves as religion, but “religion” per se, complete with imaginary spiritual beings?  Not likely.  Nevertheless, De Waal claims it is part of our “social skin.”  And yet, in spite of this claim that religion “evolved,” a bit later we find him taking note of a social phenomenon that apparently directly contradicts this conclusion:

    The secular model is currently being tried out in northern Europe, where it has progressed to the point that children naively ask why there are so many “plus signs” on large buildings called “churches.”

    Apparently, then, “evolved religion” only infected a portion of our species in northern Europe, and they all moved to the United States.  Finally, in his zeal to defend religion, de Waal comes up with some instances of “moral equivalence” that are truly absurd.  For example,

    I am as sickened (by female genital mutilation, ed.) as the next person, but if Harris’s quest is to show that religion fails to promote morality, why pick on Islam?  Isn’t genital mutilation common in the United States, too, where newborn males are routinely circumcised without their consent?  We surely don’t need to go all the way to Afghanistan to find valleys in the moral landscape.

    As it happens I know of several instances in which my undergraduate classmates voluntarily had themselves circumcised, not for any religious motive, but because otherwise their girlfriends wouldn’t agree to oral sex.  One wonders whether de Waal can cite similar instances involving FGM.

    Oh, well, I suppose I shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth.  Anyone who believes in a “bottom up” version of subjective morality can’t be all bad, according to my own subjective judgment, of course.  Indeed, de Waal even has the audacity to point out that bonobos, those paragons of primate virtue extolled so often as role models for our own species do, occasionally fight.  Along with Jonathan Haidt, he’s probably the closest thing to a “kindred spirit” I’m likely to find in academia.  The icing on the cake is that he is aware of and admires the brilliant work of Edvard Westermarck on morality.  What of Westermarck, you ask.  Well, I’ll take that up in another post.

  • An Appeal to Conservative Atheists: “C’mon, Man!”

    Posted on March 24th, 2014 Helian 2 comments

    No doubt sports fans are aware of the “C’mon Man” collections of the sports week’s worst bloopers and blown calls on ESPN.  That was my reaction on reading a piece entitled Yes, Atheism and Conservatism Are Compatible by fellow conservative atheist Charles C. W. Cooke at National Review Online.  The article was a reaction to the recent unceremonious eviction of the atheist group American Atheists from a booth at CPAC after they had been invited to attend by current Chair of the American Conservative Union, Al Cardenas.

    Cooke started out well enough, quoting the Interdict by fire-breathing Christian zealot Brent Bozell that led to the eviction:

    The invitation extended by the ACU, Al Cardenas and CPAC to American Atheists to have a booth is more than an attack on conservative principles.  It is an attack on God Himself.  American Atheists is an organization devoted to the hatred of God.  How on earth could CPAC, or the ACU and its board of directors, and Al Cardenas condone such an atrocity?

    to which Cooke quite reasonably responds,

    The particular merits of the American Atheists group to one side, this is a rather astounding thing for Bozell to have said. In just 63 words, he confuses disbelief in God for “hatred” for God — a mistake that not only begs the question but is inherently absurd (one cannot very well hate what one does not believe is there); he condemns an entire conference on the basis of one participant — not a good look for a struggling movement, I’m afraid; and, most alarmingly perhaps, he insinuates that one cannot simultaneously be a conservative and an atheist. I reject this idea — and with force.

    and

    If atheism and conservatism are incompatible, then I am not a conservative. And nor, I am given to understand, are George Will, Charles Krauthammer, Anthony Daniels, Walter Olson, Heather Mac Donald, James Taranto, Allahpundit, or S. E. Cupp.

    He continues with the same point that I made in a recent post:

    One of the problems we have when thinking about atheism in the modern era is that the word has been hijacked and turned into a political position when it is no such thing. The Oxford English Dictionary defines an “atheist” as someone who exhibits “disbelief in, or denial of, the existence of a god.” That’s me right there — and that really is the extent of it.

    Cooke continues with an assessment of the Christian legacy in world history which is rather more benevolent than anything I would venture.  And then he goes completely off the tracks.  As readers of this blog might guess, it happens in the context of an issue that speaks to our moral emotions – the question of Rights.  Again quoting Cooke,

    A great deal of the friction between atheists and conservatives seems to derive from a reasonable question.  “If you don’t consider that human beings are entitled to ‘God given’ liberties,” I am often asked, “don’t you believe that the unalienable rights that you spend your days defending are merely the product of ancient legal accidents or of the one-time whims of transient majorities?”  Well, no, not really.  As far as I can see, the American settlement can thrive perfectly well within my worldview.  God or no God, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence are all built upon centuries of English law, human experience, and British and European philosophy, and the natural-law case for them stands nicely on its own.

    Not really.  Sorry, but without a God, the “natural-law case for them” collapses as a non sequitur.  Without a God, “natural law” can’t grab a single Right, Good, or Evil out of anyone’s subjective consciousness and magically transmute it into a thing-in-itself.  And in spite of the fervent wringing of hands of every conservative on the face of the planet, the fact that it can’t won’t cause a God to miraculously spring into existence.  The subjective perception of rights in the human consciousness will continue to function just as it always has.  That perception isn’t going anywhere, and neither requires, nor will it pay any attention to the Christians who are disappointed because there’s no God to transmute the perception into an independent Thing, nor to atheists, conservative and otherwise, are disappointed because they can’t transmute it into a Thing by invoking equally imaginary “natural laws.”   Adding insult to injury, Cooke continues,

    “Of the nature of this being (God),” Jefferson wrote to John Adams in 1817, “we know nothing,”  Neither do I.  Indeed, I do not believe that there is a “being” at all.  And yet one can reasonably take Jefferson’s example and, without having to have an answer as to what created the world, merely rely upon the same sources as he did – upon Locke and Newton and Cicero and Bacon and, ultimately, upon one’s own human reason.  From this, one can argue that the properties of the universe suggest self-ownership, that this self-ownership yields certain rights that should be held to be unalienable, and that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.  After all, that’s what we’re all righting for, Right?

    (Pause for loud forehead slap.)  Locke, Newton, Cicero and Bacon?  Smart men, no doubt, but what on earth could they conceivably have known about the evolutionary origins of such concepts as Rights?  Good grief, Locke was a Blank Slater, albeit one of a much different color than the likes of John Stuart Mill or Ashley Montagu.  Are we really to believe that one can become enlightened concerning “Rights” by reading Locke, Newton, Cicero, and Bacon until one reaches a state of Don Quixote-like stupefaction?  “Human reason?”  Hey, I’m game, as long as the chain of rational arguments doesn’t include the “miracle happens” step introduced in one of Gary Larson’s “The Far Side” cartoons.   And the leap from “human reason” to “self-ownership” as a property of the universe?  All I can say is, Cooke should have stopped while he was ahead.  C’mon, man!

  • 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.