The “Moral Philosophers” and the “Power of the Air”

In Ephesians 2:2 we read,

Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience.

Now we behold the “atheist” ideologues of the Left channeling Saint Paul.  They are not atheists after all.  They, too, believe in “the power of the air.”  It hovers over our heads like the Holy Ghost in the guise of a “Moral Law.”  It is a powerful spirit indeed, able to dictate to us all what we ought and ought not to do.  Trump has had the interested effect of exposing this latest mutation of religious belief with crystal clarity.  Consider the recent pronouncements of some of the lead actors.  According to Daniel Dennett,

Regretfull Trump voters:  It’s not to late to apologize, join the lawful resistance and pass it on.  Act now.  Every day you wait adds guilt.

Richard Dawkins chimes in:

“Make America great again?”  Obama’s America already WAS great.  And now look what you’ve got!  A childishly vain, ignorant, petulant wrecker.

Sam Harris piles on:

I think Trump’s “Muslim Ban” is a terrible policy.  Not only is it unethical with respect to the plight of refugees, it is bound to be ineffective in stopping the spread of Islamism.

Finally, “pro-conservative” Jonathan Haidt lays his cards on the table:

Presidents can revise immigration policies.  But to close the door on refugees and lock out legal residents is in-American and morally wrong.

I have added italics and bolding to some key phrases.  Absent a spirit, a ghost, a “power of the air” in the form of an objective Moral Law, none of these statements makes the least sense.  Is evolution by natural selection capable of “adding guilt?”  Do random processes in nature determine what is “ethical” and “unethical?”  Did nascent behavioral traits evolving in the mind of Homo erectus suddenly jump over some imaginary line and magically acquire the power to determine what is “morally right” and “morally wrong?”  I think not.   Only a “power of the air” can make objective decisions about what “adds guilt,” or is “unethical,” or is “morally wrong.”

What we are witnessing is a remarkable demonstration of the power of evolved mental traits among the self-appointed “rational” members of our species.  Our ubiquitous tendency to identify with an ingroup and hate and despise an outgroup?  It’s there in all its glory.  Start plucking away at the ideological bits and pieces that define the intellectual shack these “atheists” live in like so many patches of tar paper, and they react with mindless fury.  Forget about a rational consideration of alternatives.  The ingroup has been assaulted by “the others!”  It is not merely a question of “the others” being potentially wrong.  No!  By the “power of the air” they are objectively and absolutely evil, disgusting, and deplorable, not to mention “like Hitler.”

This, my friends, is what moral chaos looks like.  Instead of accepting the evolutionary genesis of moral behavior and considering even the most elementary implications of this fundamental truth, we are witnessing the invention of yet another God.  This “power of the air” comes in the form of an animal known as “objective moral law” with the ability to change its spots and colors with disconcerting speed.  It spews out “Goods” and “Evils,” which somehow exist independently of the minds that perceive them.  We are left in ignorance of what substance these wraiths consist.  None of the learned philosophers mentioned above has ever succeeded in plucking one out of the air and mounting it on a board for the rest of us to admire.  They are “spirits,” and of course we are all familiar with the nature of “spirits.”

In a word, we live among “intelligent” animals endowed with strange delusions, courtesy of Mother Nature.  Shockingly enough, we belong to the same species.  How much smarter than the rest can we really be?  The Puritans of old used to wrack their brains to expose the “sins” lurking in their minds.  We would be better advised to wrack our brains to expose our own delusions.  One such delusion is likely the vain hope that we will find a path out of the prevailing moral chaos anytime soon.  At best, it may behoove us to be aware of the behavioral idiosyncrasies of our fellow creatures and to take some elementary precautions to protect ourselves from the more dangerous manifestations thereof.

The God Myth and the “Humanity Can’t Handle The Truth” Gambit

Hardly a day goes by without some pundit bemoaning the decline in religious faith.  We are told that great evils will inevitably befall mankind unless we all believe in imaginary super-beings.  Of course, these pundits always assume a priori that the particular flavor of religion they happen to favor is true.  Absent that assumption, their hand wringing boils down to the argument that we must all somehow force ourselves to believe in God whether that belief seems rational to us or not.  Otherwise, we won’t be happy, and humanity won’t flourish.

An example penned by Dennis Prager entitled Secular Conservatives Think America Can Survive the Death of God that appeared recently at National Review Online is typical of the genre.  Noting that even conservative intellectuals are becoming increasingly secular, he writes that,

They don’t seem to understand that the only solution to many, perhaps most, of the social problems ailing America and the West is some expression of Judeo-Christian religion.

In another article entitled If God is Dead…, Pat Buchanan echoes Prager, noting, in a rather selective interpretation of history, that,

When, after the fall of the Roman Empire, the West embraced Christianity as a faith superior to all others, as its founder was the Son of God, the West went on to create modern civilization, and then went out and conquered most of the known world.

The truths America has taught the world, of an inherent human dignity and worth, and inviolable human rights, are traceable to a Christianity that teaches that every person is a child of God.

Today, however, with Christianity virtually dead in Europe and slowly dying in America, Western culture grows debased and decadent, and Western civilization is in visible decline.

Both pundits draw attention to a consequence of the decline of traditional religions that is less a figment of their imaginations; the rise of secular religions to fill the ensuing vacuum.  The examples typically cited include Nazism and Communism.  There does seem to be some innate feature of human behavior that predisposes us to adopt such myths, whether of the spiritual or secular type.  It is most unlikely that it comes in the form of a “belief in God” or “religion” gene.  It would be very difficult to explain how anything of the sort could pop into existence via natural selection.  It seems reasonable, however, that less specialized and more plausible behavioral traits could account for the same phenomenon.  Which begs the question, “So what?”

Pundits like Prager and Buchanan are putting the cart before the horse.  Before one touts the advantages of one brand of religion or another, isn’t it first expedient to consider the question of whether it is true?  If not, then what is being suggested is that mankind can’t handle the truth.  We must be encouraged to believe in a pack of lies for our own good.  And whatever version of “Judeo-Christian religion” one happens to be peddling, it is, in fact, a pack of lies.  The fact that it is a pack of lies, and obviously a pack of lies, explains, among other things, the increasingly secular tone of conservative pundits so deplored by Buchanan and Prager.

It is hard to understand how anyone who uses his brain as something other than a convenient stuffing for his skull can still take traditional religions seriously.  The response of the remaining true believers to the so-called New Atheists is telling in itself.  Generally, they don’t even attempt to refute their arguments.  Instead, they resort to ad hominem attacks.  The New Atheists are too aggressive, they have bad manners, they’re just fanatics themselves, etc.  They are not arguing against the “real God,” who, we are told, is not an object, a subject, or a thing ever imagined by sane human beings, but some kind of an entity perched so high up on a shelf that profane atheists can never reach Him.  All this spares the faithful from making fools of themselves with ludicrous mental flip flops to explain the numerous contradictions in their holy books, tortured explanations of why it’s reasonable to assume the “intelligent design” of something less complicated by simply assuming the existence of something vastly more complicated, and implausible yarns about how an infinitely powerful super-being can be both terribly offended by the paltry sins committed by creatures far more inferior to Him than microbes are to us, and at the same time incapable of just stepping out of the clouds for once and giving us all a straightforward explanation of what, exactly, he wants from us.

In short, Prager and Buchanan would have us somehow force ourselves, perhaps with the aid of brainwashing and judicious use of mind-altering drugs, to believe implausible nonsense, in order to avoid “bad” consequences.  One can’t dismiss this suggestion out of hand.  Our species is a great deal less intelligent than many of us seem to think.  We use our vaunted reason to satisfy whims we take for noble causes, without ever bothering to consider why those whims exist, or what “function” they serve.  Some of them apparently predispose us to embrace ideological constructs that correspond to spiritual or secular religions.  If we use human life as a metric, P&B would be right to claim that traditional spiritual religions have been less “bad” than modern secular ones, costing only tens of millions of lives via religious wars, massacres of infidels, etc., whereas the modern secular religion of Communism cost, in round numbers, 100 million lives, and in a relatively short time, all by itself.  Communism was also “bad” to the extent that we value human intelligence, tending to selectively annihilate the brightest portions of the population in those countries where it prevailed.  There can be little doubt that this “bad” tendency substantially reduced the average IQ in nations like Cambodia and the Soviet Union, resulting in what one might call their self-decapitation.  Based on such metrics, Prager and Buchanan may have a point when they suggest that traditional religions are “better,” to the extent that one realizes that one is merely comparing one disaster to another.

Can we completely avoid the bad consequences of believing the bogus “truths” of religions, whether spiritual or secular?  There seems to be little reason for optimism on that score.  The demise of traditional religions has not led to much in the way of rational self-understanding.  Instead, as noted above, secular religions have arisen to fill the void.  Their ideological myths have often trumped reason in cases where there has been a serious confrontation between the two, occasionally resulting in the bowdlerization of whole branches of the sciences.  The Blank Slate debacle was the most spectacular example, but there have been others.  As belief in traditional religions has faded, we have gained little in the way of self-knowledge in their wake.  On the contrary, our species seems bitterly determined to avoid that knowledge.  Perhaps our best course really would be to start looking for a path back inside the “Matrix,” as Prager and Buchanan suggest.

All I can say is that, speaking as an individual, I don’t plan to take that path myself.  I has always seemed self-evident to me that, whatever our goals and aspirations happen to be, we are more likely to reach them if we base our actions on an accurate understanding of reality rather than myths, on truth rather than falsehood.  A rather fundamental class of truths are those that concern, among other things, where those goals and aspirations came from to begin with.  These are the truths about human behavior; why we want what we want, why we act the way we do, why we are moral beings, why we pursue what we imagine to be noble causes.  I believe that the source of all these truths, the “root cause” of all these behaviors, is to be found in our evolutionary history.  The “root cause” we seek is natural selection.  That fact may seem inglorious or demeaning to those who lack imagination, but it remains a fact for all that.  Perhaps, after we sacrifice a few more tens of millions in the process of chasing paradise, we will finally start to appreciate its implications.  I think we will all be better off if we do.

Of Moral Truths and Moral Smoke Screens

I’m hardly the only one who’s noticed the evolutionary origins of morality.  I’m not even the only one who’s put two and two together and realized that, as a consequence, objective morality is a chimera.  Edvard Westermarck arrived at the same conclusion more than a century ago, pointing out the impossibility of truth claims about good and evil.  Many of my contemporaries agree on these fundamental facts.  However, it would seem that very few of them agree with me on the implications of these truths for each of us as individuals.

Consider, for example, a recent post by Michael Shepanski, entitled Morality without smoke, that appeared on his blog Step Back, Step Forward.  Shepanski appears to have no reservations about the evolutionary origins of morality, noting that those origins don’t imply the Hobbesian conclusion that all human behavior is motivated by self-interest:

To begin, human nature is not the horrible thing that some have imagined. I’m looking at you, Thomas Hobbes:

Hereby it is manifest, that during the time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called Warre; and such a warre, as is of every man, against every man.

That was written in 1651, and since then we have learnt something about evolutionary psychology. It turns out that our genes have equipped us with more than narrow self-interest: we come with innate tendencies towards (among other things) altruism, empathy, loyalty, and retribution. Also society has systems of rewards and punishments to keep us mostly in line, whether we’re innately disposed to it or not.

Shepanski also appears to accept the conclusion that, as a result of the evolutionary origins of morality, all the religious and secular edifices concocted so far as a “basis” for it are really just so much smoke.  However, he denies the implication that this implies the “end of morality.”  Rather, he would prefer a “morality without smoke,” meaning one that doesn’t have a “mystical foundation.”  The problem is that he has no such morality to offer:

About now, you might expect me to put forward some non-mystical basis for morals: something from science perhaps. No, that is not my plan. I don’t believe it’s possible. I’m with the philosopher David Hume, who said we can never reason from matters of fact alone to a moral conclusion: we can’t derive an “ought” from an “is”.

I agree with Shepanski about the lack of an objective, or “smoke-free” basis for morality, and I also agree that the lack of such a basis does not imply the “end of morality.”  Morality certainly isn’t going anywhere, regardless of the musings of the philosophers.  It is part of our nature, and a part that we could not well do without even if that were possible, which it isn’t.  This is where things really get interesting, however, and not just in the context of Shepanski’s paper, but in general.  What are the consequences of the facts set forth above?  What “should” we do in view of them?  What do they imply in terms of how individuals should interpret their own moral emotions?

According to Shepanski,

And I agree with Hume because (a) as a matter of logic, I don’t see how you can ever get a conclusion that uses the moral words (“ought”, “should”, “good”, “evil” etc.) from premises that don’t use those words (unless the conclusion is completely vacuous), and (b) to my knowledge, no-one has ever found a way around Hume’s law (and even if some ingenious workaround can be found, we don’t want to put morality on hold while we’re waiting for it).

Summing up so far: basing morals on mysticism is noxious, and basing morals on science alone looks impossible. What next?

Tell the truth?  Accept the fact that objective morality is as imaginary as Santa Claus, and consider rationally where we go from there?  Well, not quite.  Again quoting Shepanski,

When you get to that point, and someone asks you what your moral bedrock is based on, my advice is: don’t answer. Keep mum. Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt. Zip it. (Or if you really must have some words to fill an awkward conversational silence, then it’s probably harmless to say any of the following: “It’s a deeply held personal belief,” “It’s just the way I was brought up,” or “These truths we hold to be self-evident”. Just don’t attempt a real defense: don’t attempt to deduce your moral bedrock from anything else.)

In other words, as my old drama teacher used to put it, “Ad lib!”  Just make sure you never reveal the little man behind the curtain.  Manipulate moral emotions to your heart’s content, but just make sure you never tell the truth.  Of course, this “solution” is very convenient for the “experts on ethics.”  They get to continue pretending that they’re actually experts about something real.  That, of course, is exactly what the legions of them plying their trade in academia and elsewhere are doing as I write this.

As I pointed out above, what’s interesting about Shepanski’s take on morality is that he derives it from the same basic facts as my own.  In short, he realizes that there is no such thing as objective morality, and he knows that morality is the expression of evolved behavioral traits in creatures with large brains, capable of reasoning about what their moral emotions are trying to tell them.  As he puts it:

Without smoke, moral principles are pegged to one thing only: our willingness to accept their consequences. Which consequences we are willing to accept is determined, to a large extent, by our evolved psychological tendencies, including altruism, empathy, and self-interest. Within the human species these evolved tendencies are probably more similar than different, so there is hope that our moral principles will converge. Reasoning with one other…, can bring the convergence forward.

Is that really what we “ought” to do?  Embrace a future in which the best manipulators of moral emotions get to guide their “convergence” to whatever end state they happen to prefer?  I can’t answer that question.  Like Shepanski, I lack any “bedrock” basis for telling anyone what they “ought” to do as a matter of principle.  When it comes to “oughts,” I must limit myself to suggesting what they “ought” to do as a mere matter of utility in order to best achieve goals that, for one reason or another, happen to be important to them.  With that caveat, I suggest that they ought not to follow Shepanski’s advice.

If human morality is really the expression of evolved behavioral traits, as Shepanski and I both agree, than those traits didn’t just suddenly pop into existence.  Perhaps, like the human eye, they arose from extremely primitive origins, and were gradually refined to their present state over the eons.  Regardless of the precise sequence of events, it’s clear that they evolved in times radically different from the present.  If they evolved, then they must have had some survival value at the time they evolved.  It is certainly not obvious, and indeed it would be surprising, if they were similarly effective in promoting our survival today.  One can cite many examples in which they appear to be accomplishing precisely the opposite, leading to what I have referred to elsewhere as “morality inversions.”

In other words, while I think it likely that most of us have some subjective notion of purpose, of the meaning of life, of aspirations or goals that are important to us, I very much doubt that a “convergence” of morality will prove to be the most effective way for most of us to achieve those ends.  In the first place, manipulating atavistic emotions strikes me as a dangerous game.  In the second, human moral emotions don’t promote “convergence.”  As Sir Arthur Keith pointed out long ago, they are dual in nature, and include an innate tendency to identify an outgroup, whose members it is natural to despise and hate.  One need only glance through the comment section of any blog or website hosted by some proponent of the “brotherhood of man” to find abundant artifacts of the intense hatred felt for the ideological “other.”  Hatred of the “other” has been with us throughout recorded history, is alive and well today, especially among those of us who most pique themselves on their superior piety and moral purity, and will certainly continue to be a prominent trait of our species for a long time to come.

What do I suggest as a more “useful” approach than Shepanski’s “convergence?”  The truth is always a good place to start.  We have the misfortune to live in an age dominated by Puritans in both the traditional spiritual and modern secular flavors.  Their demands to be taken seriously as well as the wellsprings of such power as they possess is absolutely dependent on maintaining the illusion that there are such things as objective good and evil.  As a result, promoting a general knowledge and appreciation of the consequences of the truth won’t be easy.  It will entail pulling the rug out from under these obscurantists.  Beyond that, we need to restrict morality to the limits within which we can’t do without it, such as the common, day-to-day interactions of human beings.  My personal preference would be to come up with a common morality that limits the harm we do to each other as much as possible, while at the same time leaving each of us as free as possible to pursue whatever goals in life we happen to have.

None of the above are likely to happen anytime soon.  No doubt that will come as some comfort to those who “feel in their bones” that good and evil are real things, independent of the human minds that concoct them.  Still, it seems that there’s an increasing tendency, at least in some parts of the world, for people to jettison the silly notion of God into the same realms as Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.  If that trend is any indication, perhaps there is at least a ray of hope.

Whither Morality?

There are no such things as objective good and evil.  Human morality is a behavioral artifact of natural selection.  What’s that?  If there’s no objective morality then anything is permitted?  If there’s no objective morality then Hitler wasn’t really evil?  If there’s no objective morality then it’s just as true that female genital mutilation is “good” as that it is “evil?”  If there’s no objective morality, then “moral progress” is a fantasy?  To all this the answer is obvious.  So what?

What are you telling me?  That you don’t want to deal with reality?  That the consequences of the truth are so bad that the truth can’t be true?  That if the truth were generally known, civilization would collapse into a chaos of moral relativism?  That if the level of virtuous indignation among learned professors of philosophy increases beyond a certain point, objective good and evil will magically pop out of the luminiferous aether like Athena from the head of Zeus?  I don’t think so.

Good and evil are purely subjective constructs.  That is the truth.  What if, overnight, the entire human population of the planet suddenly accepted that truth?  What would happen?  I’m not the pope, dear reader.  I lack the divine gift of infallibility.  All I can serve up on this blog is my opinion, and my opinion is that nothing much would change, or at least not in a hurry.  In any case, I doubt the result could be any worse than the world of absurd morality inversions and self-righteous scarecrows we live in now.

We would certainly not all become moral relativists, because it is our nature to perceive good and evil as absolute objects.  I can show you examples of highly intelligent people who have accepted the truth of the subjectivity of moral claims, and yet continue to strike pious poses with the assurance of so many saints, hurling down anathemas on anyone with the temerity to rub their moral emotions the wrong way.  No, the orgasmic pleasure of virtuous indignation is much too great for anything like moral relativism to insinuate itself among us.  I suspect that, even if we all accepted the truth, nothing much would change in our moral behavior, or at least not in a hurry.

On the other hand, some of us might begin to realize that the behavior inspired by our moral emotions hasn’t exactly been accomplishing the same thing lately as it did when those emotions evolved.  Indeed, for many of us, moral behavior is accomplishing the opposite.  Where once it promoted life, now it promotes death.  In the radically altered environment we have created for ourselves, we witness the remarkable sight of both western liberals and Moslem suicide bombers joyfully embracing their own extinction.

Assuming that care has been taken to point out to these individuals some of the facts set forth above, I certainly have no objection to their rushing to their own destruction.  If they insist that they must because Allah demands it, or the “moral progress” of mankind makes it imperative, so be it.  I would, however, ask of them the same thing that I would ask of someone who is considered doing away with themselves by jumping in front of a passenger train, or leaping off a highway overpass into rush hour traffic; be so kind as to not involve the rest of us.

And what of the residue of mankind that decides, on sober consideration of the truth about morality, that they would prefer survival to the alternative after all?  Given the damage uncritical indulgence of moral emotions has done in our recent history, I suggest it would behoove us to constrain their sphere within the narrowest possible limits.  It seems clear that we can’t do without morality in our day-to-day interactions with each other as individuals.  There is simply no viable alternative.  To serve that purpose, it should be possible to come up with a simple moral code in harmony with our emotional nature that reduces friction among us to a minimum.  As noted above, we are not moral relativists by nature.  Most of us would tend to perceive the rules of such a code as absolutes.  “Free riders” who decide to ignore the rules, because of the absence of a God to back them up, or they because they conclude the rules lack objective legitimacy, or because they decide society has no right to constrain their behavior, would be dealt with in the same way that free riders have always been dealt with in healthy societies since time immemorial.  They would be punished in a way that demonstrated both to themselves and others that there was nothing to be gained and much to lose by their defiance.

On the other hand, when it comes to making broad policy decisions on a higher level, the reasons for making them one way and not another should be carefully scrutinized.  In the end, those reasons will never amount to a distillation of pure logic.  As Hume rightly pointed out, reason must always be the slave of passion.  An emotional whim of some kind or another will always lie at the tail end of the chain of logic.  It will be important to determine exactly what that whim is, and why satisfying it will work to what most of us would consider their advantage, and not their harm or destruction.

All this is painted with a very broad brush, of course.  In the end, the result would depend on a great deal of trial and error, not to mention the inevitable decision each of us will make regarding who belongs to their ingroup and who their outgroup.  The ingroup will never, under any circumstances, include “all mankind.”  It should be chosen wisely, based, among other things, on whether ones whim is to survive or not.

Would such a world, based on a clear appreciation of the truth about morality, be better than the one we have now?  That, of course, will depend on each individual’s point of view.  I think that, for most of us, the result will be agreeable enough.  If nothing else, it should reduce to a bare minimum the number of pious peck sniffs whose constant state of offended virtuous indignation is such a nuisance for the rest of us.

Extreme Altruism – The Case of the Pathological Do-Gooder

The Guardian just published an article by Larissa MacFarquhar entitled, “Extreme altruism: should you care for strangers at the expense of your family?”  The byline reads as follows:

The world is full of needless suffering. How should each of us respond? Should we live as moral a life as possible, even giving away most of our earnings? A new movement argues that we are not doing enough to help those in need.

It’s a tribute to the power of the emotions responsible for what we call morality that, more than a century after Westermarck published The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas, questions like the one in the title are still considered rational, and that a “moral life” is equated with “giving away most of our earnings.”  Westermarck put it this way:

As clearness and distinctness of the conception of an object easily produces the belief in its truth, so the intensity of a moral emotion makes him who feels it disposed to objectivise the moral estimate to which it gives rise, in other words, to assign to it universal validity.  The enthusiast is more likely than anybody else to regard his judgments as true, and so is the moral enthusiast with reference to his moral judgments.  The intensity of his emotions makes him the victim of an illusion.

and

The presumed objectivity of moral judgments thus being a chimera, there can be no moral truth in the sense in which this term is generally understood.  The ultimate reason for this is, that the moral concepts are based upon emotions, and that the contents of an emotion fall entirely outside the category of truth.

The article tells the tale of one Julia Wise, whom MacFarquhar refers to as a “do-gooder.”  She doesn’t use the term in the usual pejorative sense, but defines a “do-gooder” as,

…a human character who arouses conflicting emotions. By “do-gooder” here I do not mean a part-time, normal do-gooder – someone who has a worthy job, or volunteers at a charity, and returns to an ordinary family life in the evenings. I mean a person who sets out to live as ethical a life as possible. I mean a person who is drawn to moral goodness for its own sake. I mean someone who commits himself wholly, beyond what seems reasonable. I mean the kind of do-gooder who makes people uneasy.

Julia is just such a person.  MacFarquhar describes her as follows:

Julia believed that because each person was equally valuable, she was not entitled to care more for herself than for anyone else; she believed that she was therefore obliged to spend much of her life working for the benefit of others. That was the core of it; as she grew older, she worked out the implications of this principle in greater detail. In college, she thought she might want to work in development abroad somewhere, but then she realised that probably the most useful thing she could do was not to become a white aid worker telling people in other countries what to do, but, instead, to earn a salary in the US and give it to NGOs that could use it to pay for several local workers who knew what their countries needed better than she did. She reduced her expenses to the absolute minimum so she could give away 50% of what she earned. She felt that nearly every penny she spent on herself should have gone to someone else who needed it more. She gave to whichever charity seemed to her (after researching the matter) to relieve the most suffering for the least money.

Interestingly, Julia became an atheist at the age of eleven.  In other words, she must have been quite intelligent by human standards.  In spite of that, it apparently never occurred to her to question the objectivity of moral judgments.  I’ve always found it surprising that so many religious believers who become atheists don’t reason a bit further and grasp the fact that they no longer have a legitimate basis for making moral judgments.  They commonly consider themselves smarter than religious believers, and yet they cling to the illusion that the basis is still there, as solid as ever.  Religious believers can usually detect the charade immediately, and notice with a chuckle that the atheist has just sawed off the branch they thought they were sitting on.  Alas, the faithful are no less delusional than the infidels.  Again quoting Westermarck,

To the verdict of a perfect intellect, that is, an intellect which knows everything existing, all would submit; but we can form no idea of a moral consciousness which could lay claim to a similar authority.  If the believers in an all-good God, who has revealed his will to mankind, maintain that they in this revelation possess a perfect moral standard, and that, consequently, what is in accordance with such a standard must be objectively right, it may be asked what they mean by an “all-good” God.  And in their attempt to answer this question, they would inevitably have to assume the objectivity they wanted to prove.

In any event, Julia’s case is a perfect example of why it is useful to understand what morality actually is, and why it exists.  The truth was obvious enough to Darwin, and of course, to Westermarck and several other great thinkers who followed him.  Morality is the manifestation of evolved behavioral traits.  It exists because it enhanced the probability that the genetic material that gave rise to it would survive and replicate itself.  Julia, however, lives in a world radically different from the world in which the evolution of morality took place.  She is an extreme example of what can happen when environmental changes outpace the ability of natural selection to keep up.  She suffers from an assortment of morality inversions.  It’s as if she had decided to use her hands to cut her throat, or her legs to jump off a cliff.  In short, she is a pathological do-gooder.

Several examples are mentioned in the article.  In general, she believes that it is “good” to hand over money and other valuable resources that might have enhanced her own chances of genetic survival to genetically unrelated individuals, even though the chances that they will ever return the favor to her or her children are vanishingly small.  She very nearly decides it would be “immoral” to have children because, according to the article,

Children would be the most expensive nonessential thing she could possibly possess, so by having children of her own she would be in effect killing other people’s children.

However, she manages to dodge this bullet by reasoning that she and her husband will be able to indoctrinate their child with their own pathological “values.”  The decision to have a child becomes “good” as long as the parents are confident that they can control its environment sufficiently well to insure that it will grow up as emotionally crippled as they are.  Of course, such therapeutic generational brainwashing is unlikely to be a “good” long term strategy for survival.  MacFarquhar concludes her article with the question,

What would the world be like if everyone thought like a do-gooder? What if everyone believed that his family was no more important or valuable than anyone else’s? What if everyone decided that spontaneity or self-expression or certain kinds of beauty or certain kinds of freedom were less vital, or less urgent, than relieving other people’s pain?

Assuming the environment remains more or less the same, the answer is simple enough.  The Julias of the world would die out.  In the end, that’s really the only answer that matters.  Is Julia therefore “wrong,” or even “immoral” for clinging to her pathologically altruistic lifestyle?  Of course not, because the question implies the objective existence of things – Good and Evil – that are actually imaginary.  One cannot logically claim that either using your hands to cut your throat, or using your legs to jump off a cliff, is objectively immoral.  One must be content with the observation that such actions seem a bit counter-intuitive.

The Alternate Reality Fallacy

The alternate reality fallacy is ubiquitous.  Typically, it involves the existence of a deity, and goes something like this:  “God must exist because otherwise there would be no absolute good, no absolute evil, no unquestionable rights, life would have no purpose, life would have no meaning,” and so on and so forth.  In other words, one must only demonstrate that a God is necessary.  If so, he will automatically pop into existence.  The video of a talk by Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias included below is provided as an illustrative data point for the reader.

The talk, entitled, “The End of Reason:  A Response to the New Atheists,” was Zacharias’ contribution to the 2012 Contending with Christianity’s Critics Conference in Dallas.  I ran across it at Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution is True website in the context of a discussion of rights.  We find out where Zacharias is coming from at minute 4:15 in the talk when he informs us that the ideas,

…that steadied this part of the world, rooted in the notion of the ineradicable difference between good and evil, facts on which we built our legal system, our notions of justice, the very value of human life, how intrinsic worth was given to every human being,

all have a Biblical mooring.  Elaborating on this theme, he quotes Chesterton to the effect that “we are standing with our feet firmly planted in mid-air.”  We have,

…no grounding anymore to define so many essential values which we assumed for many years.

Here Zacharias is actually stating a simple truth that has eluded many atheists.  Christianity and other religions do, indeed, provide some grounding for such things as objective rights, objective good, and objective evil.  After all, it’s not hard to accept the reality of these things if the alternative is to burn in hell forever.  The problem is that the “grounding” is an illusion.  The legions of atheists who believe in these things, however, actually are “standing with their feet firmly planted in mid-air.”  They have dispensed even with the illusion, sawing off the limb they were sitting on, and yet they counterintuitively persist in lecturing others about the nature of these chimeras as they float about in the vacuum, to the point of becoming quite furious if anyone dares to disagree with them.  Zacharias’ problem, on the other hand, isn’t that he doesn’t bother to provide a grounding.  His problem is his apparent belief in the non sequitur that, if he can supply a grounding, then that grounding must necessarily be real.

Touching on this disconcerting tendency of many atheists to hurl down anathemas on those they consider morally impure in spite of the fact that they lack any coherent justification for their tendency to concoct novel values on the fly, Zacharias remarks at 5:45 in the video,

The sacred meaning of marriage (and others) have been desacralized, and the only one who’s considered obnoxious is the one who wants to posit the sacredness of these issues.

Here, again, I must agree with him.  Assuming he’s alluding to the issue of gay marriage, it makes no sense to simply dismiss anyone who objects to it as a bigot and a “hater.”  That claim is based on the obviously false assumption that no one actually takes their religious beliefs seriously.  Unfortunately, they do, and there is ample justification in the Bible, not to mention the Quran, for the conclusion that gay marriage is immoral.  Marriage has a legal definition, but it is also a religious sacrament.  There is no rational basis for the claim that anyone who objects to gay marriage is objectively immoral.  Support for gay marriage represents, not a championing of objective good, but the statement of a cultural preference.  The problem with the faithful isn’t that they are all haters and bigots.  The problem is that they construct their categories of moral good and evil based on an illusion.

Beginning at about 6:45 in his talk, Zacharias continues with the claim that we are passing through a cultural revolution, which he defines as a,

decisive break with the shared meanings of the past, particularly those which relate  to the deepest questions of the nature and purpose of life.

noting that culture is,

an effort to provide a coherent set of answers to the existential questions that confront all human beings in the passage of their lives.

In his opinion, it can be defined in three different ways. First, there are theonomous cultures.  As he puts it,

These are based on the belief that God has put his law into our hearts, so that we act intuitively from that kind of reasoning.  Divine imperatives are implanted in the heart of every human being.

Christianity is, according to Zacharias, a theonomous belief.  Next, there are heteronymous cultures, which derive their laws from some external source.  In such cultures, we are “dictated to from the outside.”  He cites Marxism is a heteronymous world view.  More to the point, he claims that Islam also belongs in that category.  Apparently we are to believe that this “cultural” difference supplies us with a sharp distinction between the two religions.  Here we discover that Zacharias’ zeal for his new faith (he was raised a Hindu) has outstripped his theological expertise.  Fully theonomous versions of Christianity really only came into their own among Christian divines of the 18th century.  The notion, supported by the likes of Francis Hutcheson and the Earl of Shaftesbury, that “God has put his law into our hearts,” was furiously denounced by other theologians as not only wrong, but incompatible with Christianity.  John Locke was one of the more prominent Christian thinkers among the many who denied that “divine imperatives are implanted in the heart of every human being.”

But I digress.  According to Zacharias, the final element of the triad is autonomous culture, or “self law”, in which everyone is a law into him or herself.  He notes that America is commonly supposed to be such a culture.  However, at about the 11:00 minute mark he notes that,

…if I assert sacred values, suddenly a heteronymous culture takes over, and tells me I have no right to believe that.  This amounts to a “bait and switch.”  That’s the new world view under which the word “tolerance” really operates.

This regrettable state of affairs is the result of yet another triad, in the form of the three philosophical evils which Zacharias identifies as secularization, pluralism, and privatization.  They are the defining characteristics of the modern cultural revolution.  The first supposedly results in an ideology without shame, the second in one without reason, and the third in one without meaning.  Together, they result in an existence without purpose.

One might, of course, quibble with some of the underlying assumptions of Zacharias’ world view.  One might argue, for example, that the results of Christian belief have not been entirely benign, or that the secular societies of Europe have not collapsed into a state of moral anarchy.  That, however, is really beside the point.  Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that everything Zacharias says about the baleful effects of the absence of Christian belief is true.  It still begs the question, “So what?”

Baleful effects do not spawn alternate realities.  If the doctrines of Christianity are false, then the illusion that they supply meaning, or purpose, or a grounding for morality will not transmute them into the truth.  I personally consider the probability that they are true to be vanishingly small.  I do not propose to believe in lies, whether their influence is portrayed as benign or not.  The illusion of meaning and purpose based on a belief in nonsense is a paltry substitute for the real thing.  Delusional beliefs will not magically become true, even if those beliefs result in an earthly paradise.  As noted above, the idea that they will is what I refer to in my title as the alternate reality fallacy.

In the final part of his talk, Zacharias describes his own conversion to Christianity, noting that it supplied what was missing in his life.  In his words, “Without God, reason is dead, hope is dead, morality is dead, and meaning is gone, but in Christ we recover all these.”  To this I can but reply that the man suffers from a serious lack of imagination.  We are wildly improbable creatures sitting at the end of an unbroken chain of life that has existed for upwards of three billion years.  We live in a spectacular universe that cannot but fill one with wonder.  Under the circumstances, is it really impossible to relish life, and to discover a reason for cherishing and preserving it, without resort to imaginary super beings?  Instead of embracing the awe-inspiring reality of the world as it is, does it really make sense to supply the illusion of “meaning” and “purpose” by embracing the shabby unreality of religious dogmas?  My personal and admittedly emotional reaction to such a choice is that it is sadly paltry and abject.  The fact that so many of my fellow humans have made that choice strikes me, not as cause for rejoicing, but for shame.

Richard Dawkins and the Chimera of “Moral Duty”

Apparently militant New Atheist Richard Dawkins believes there is such a thing as “moral duty.”  In a recent tweet he wrote, citing an article in the Washington Post,

US has as much moral duty to accept Syrian refugees as Europe. If not more.

It’s too bad Socrates isn’t still around to “learn” the nature of this “moral duty” from Dawkins the same way he did from Euthyphro.  I’m sure the resulting dialog would have been most amusing.

Where on earth does an atheist like Dawkins get the idea that there is such a thing as moral duty?  I doubt that he has even thought about it.  After all, if moral duty is not just a subjective figment of his imagination and is capable of acquiring the legitimacy to apply not only to himself, but to the entire population of the United States as well, it must somehow exist as an entity in itself.  How else could it acquire that legitimacy?  There is no logical justification for the claim that mere subjective artifacts of the consciousness of Richard Dawkins, or any other human individual for that matter, are born automatically equipped with the right to dictate “oughts” to other individuals.  They cannot possibly acquire the necessary legitimacy simply by virtue of the fact that the physical processes in the brain responsible for their existence have occurred.  In what form, then, does “moral duty” exist as an independent thing-in-itself?  To claim that “moral duty” is not a thing, or an object, is tantamount to admitting that it doesn’t exist.  In what other form can it possibly manifest itself?  As a spirit?  If that is Dawkins’ claim, then he is every bit as religious as the most delusional speaker in tongues.  As dark matter, perhaps?  If so then Dawkins must know more about it then the world’s best physicists.

We’re not talking about a deep philosophical issue here.  I really can’t understand why the question doesn’t occur immediately to anyone who claims to be an atheist.  (Of course, it should occur to religious believers as well, as noted by Socrates well over 2000 years ago.  However, the response that they have a “moral duty” because they don’t want to burn in hell for quintillions of years is at least worth considering).  In any case, the question certainly occurred to me shortly after I became an atheist at the age of 12.  Then, as now, the world was infested with are commonly referred to today as Social Justice Warriors.  Then, as now, they were in a constant state of outrage over one thing or another.  And then, as now, they expected the rest of the world to take their tantrums of virtuous indignation seriously.  Is it really irrational to pose the simple question, “Why?”  I asked myself that question, and quickly came to the conclusion that these people are charlatans.

The question remains and is just as relevant today as it was then, whether one accepts Darwinian explanations for the origin of morality or not.  However, for atheists who have some respect for the methods of science, I would claim that natural selection is at once the most logical as well as the most parsimonious explanation for the existence of morality.  It is the root cause from which spring all its gaudy and multifarious guises.  If that is the case, then one can only speak of morality in scientific terms as a manifestation of evolved behavioral predispositions.  As such, there is no possible way for it to acquire objective legitimacy.  In other words, the claim that all Americans, or any other subset of the human population, has a genuine “moral duty” of any kind is a mirage.  If anything, this would appear to be doubly true in the case claimed by Dawkins.  It is yet another instance of what I have previously referred to as a “morality inversion.”  “Morality” is invoked as the reason for doing things that accomplish the opposite of that which accounts for the very existence of morality to begin with.

What?  You don’t agree with me?  Well, if “moral duties” are not made of anything, then they don’t exist, so they must be objects of some kind.  They must be made of something.  By all means, go out and capture a free range “moral duty,” and prove me wrong.  Show it to me!  I hope it’s green.  That’s my favorite color.

Scientific Morality and the Illusion of Progress

British philosophers demonstrated the existence of a “moral sense” early in the 18th century.  We have now crawled through the rubble left in the wake of the Blank Slate debacle and finally arrived once again at a point they had reached more than two centuries ago.  Of course, men like Shaftesbury and Hutcheson thought this “moral sense” had been planted in our consciousness by God.  When Hume arrived on the scene a bit later it became possible to discuss the subject in secular terms.  Along came Darwin to suggest that the existence of this “moral sense” might have developed in the same way as the physical characteristics of our species; via evolution by natural selection.  Finally, a bit less than half a century later, Westermarck put two and two together, pointing out that morality was a subjective emotional phenomenon and, as such, not subject to truth claims.  His great work, The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas, appeared in 1906.  Then the darkness fell.

Now, more than a century later, we can once again at least discuss evolved morality without fear of excommunication by the guardians of ideological purity.  However, the guardians are still there, defending a form of secular Puritanism that yields nothing in intolerant piety to the religious Puritans of old.  We must not push the envelope too far, lest we suffer the same fate as Tim Hunt, with his impious “jokes,” or Matt Taylor, with his impious shirt.  We cannot just blurt out, like Westermarck, that good and evil are merely subjective artifacts of human moral emotions, so powerful that they appear as objective things.  We must at least pretend that these “objects” still exist.  In a word, we are in a holding pattern.

One can actually pin down fairly accurately the extent to which we have recovered since our emergence from the dark age.  We are, give or take, about 15 years pre-Westermarck.  As evidence of this I invite the reader’s attention to a fascinating “textbook” for teachers of secular morality that appeared in 1891.  Entitled Elements of Ethical Science: A Manual for Teaching Secular Morality, by John Ogden, it taught the subject with all the most up-to-date Darwinian bells and whistles.  In an introduction worthy of Sam Harris the author asks the rhetorical question,

Can pure morality be taught without inculcating religious doctrines, as these are usually interpreted and understood?

and answers with a firm “Yes!”  He then proceeds to identify the basis for any “pure morality:”

Man has inherently a moral nature, an innate moral sense or capacity.  This is necessary to moral culture, since, without the nature or capacity, its cultivation were impossible… This moral nature or capacity is what we call Moral Sense.  It is the basis of conscience.  It exists in man inherently, and, when enlightened, cultivated, and improved, it becomes the active conscience itself.  Conscience, therefore, is moral sense plus intelligence.

The author recognizes the essential role of this Moral Sense as the universal basis of all the many manifestations of human morality, and one without which they could not exist.  It is to the moral sentiments what the sense of touch is to the other senses:

(The Moral Sense) furnishes the basis or the elements of the moral sentiments and conscience, much in the same manner in which the cognitive facilities furnish the data or elements for thought and reasoning.  It is not a sixth sense, but it is to the moral sentiments what touch is to the other senses, a base on which they are all built or founded; a soil into which they are planted, and from which they grow… All the moral sentiments are, therefore, but the concrete modifications of the moral sense, or the applications of it, in a developed form, to the ordinary duties of life, as a sense of justice, of right and wrong, of obligation, duty, gratitude, love, etc., just as seeing, hearing, tasting and smelling are but modified forms of feeling or touch, the basis of all sense.

And here, in a manner entirely similar to so many modern proponents of innate morality, Ogden goes off the tracks.  Like them, he cannot let go of the illusion of objective morality.  Just as the other senses inform us of the existence of physical things, the moral sense must inform us of the existence of another kind of “thing,” a disembodied, ghostly something that floats about independently of the “sense” that “detects” it, in the form of a pure, absolute truth.  There are numerous paths whereby one may, more or less closely, approach this truth, but they all converge on the same, universal thing-in-itself:

…it must be conceded that, while we have a body of incontestable truth, constituting the basis of all morality, still the opinions of men upon minor points are so diverse as to make a uniform belief in dogmatical principles impossible.  The author maintains that moral truths and moral conduct may be reached from different routes or sources; all converging, it is true, to the same point:  and that it savors somewhat of illiberality to insist upon a uniform belief in the means or doctrines whereby we are to arrive at a perfect knowledge of the truth, in a human sense.

The means by which this “absolute truth” acquires the normative power to dictate “oughts” to all and sundry is described in terms just as fuzzy as those used by the moral pontificators of our own day, as if it were ungenerous to even ask the question:

When man’s ideas of right and wrong are duly formulated, recognized and accepted, they constitute what we denominate MORAL LAW.  The moral law now becomes a standard by which to determine the quality of human actions, and a moral obligation demanding obedience to its mandates.  The truth of this proposition needs no further confirmation.

As they say in the academy to supply missing steps in otherwise elegant proofs, it’s “intuitively obvious to the casual observer.”  In those more enlightened times, only fifteen years elapsed before Westermarck demolished Ogden’s ephemeral thing-in-itself, pointing out that it couldn’t be confirmed because it didn’t exist, and was therefore not subject to truth claims.  I doubt that we’ll be able to recover the same lost ground so quickly in our own day.  Secular piety reigns in the academy, in some cases to a degree that would make the Puritans of old look like abandoned debauchees, and is hardly absent elsewhere.  Savage punishment is meted out to those who deviate from moral purity, whether flippant Nobel Prize winners or overly principled owners of small town bakeries.  Absent objective morality, the advocates of such treatment would lose their odor of sanctity and become recognizable as mere absurd bullies.  Without a satisfying sense of moral rectitude, bullying wouldn’t be nearly as much fun.  It follows that the illusion will probably persist a great deal longer than a decade and a half this time around.

Be that as it may, Westermarck still had it right.  The “moral sense” exists because it evolved.  Failing this basis, morality as we know it could not exist.  It follows that there is no such thing as moral truth, or any way in which the moral emotions of one individual can gain a legitimate power to dictate rules of behavior to some other individual.  Until we find our way back to that rather elementary level of self-understanding, it will be impossible for us to deal rationally with our own moral behavior.  We’ll simply have to leave it on automatic pilot, and indulge ourselves in the counter-intuitive hope that it will serve our species just as well now as it did in the vastly different environment in which it evolved.

Of Tim Hunt and Elementary Morality

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”

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.