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.

More Fun with Moral Realism

What is moral realism?  Edvard Westermarck provided a good definition in the first paragraph of his Ethical Relativity:

Ethics is generally looked upon as a “normative” science, the object of which is to find and formulate moral principles and rules possessing objective validity.  The supposed objectivity of moral values, as understood in this treatise, implies that they have a real existence apart from any reference to a human mind, that what is said to be good or bad, right or wrong, cannot be reduced merely to what people think to be good or bad, right or wrong.  It makes morality a matter of truth and falsity, and to say that a judgment is true obviously means something different from the statement that it is thought to be true.  The objectivity of moral judgments does not presuppose the infallibility of the individual who pronounces such a judgment, nor even the accuracy of a general consensus of opinion; but if a certain course of conduct is objectively right, it must be thought to be right by all rational beings who judge truly of the matter and cannot, without error, be judged to be wrong.

Westermarck dismissed moral realism as a chimera.  So do I.  Indeed, in view of what we now know about the evolutionary origins of moral emotions, the idea strikes me as ludicrous.  It is, however, treated as matter-of-factly as if it were an unquestionable truth, and not only in the general public.  Philosophers merrily discuss all kinds of moral conundrums and paradoxes in academic journals, apparently in the belief that they have finally uncovered the “truth” about such matters, to all appearances with no more fear of being ridiculed than the creators of the latest Paris fashions.  The fact is all the more disconcerting if one takes the trouble to excavate the reasons supplied for this stubborn belief that subjective emotional constructs in the minds of individuals actually relate to independent things.  Typically, they are threadbare almost beyond belief.

Recently I discussed the case of G. E. Moore, who, after dismissing the arguments of virtually everyone who had attempted a “proof” of moral realism before him as fatally flawed by the naturalistic fallacy, supplied a “proof” of his own.  It turned out that the “objective good” consisted of those things that were most likely to please an English country gentleman.  The summum bonum was described as something like sitting in a cozy house with a nice glass of wine while listening to Beethoven.  The only “proof” supplied for the independent existence of this “objective good” was Moore’s assurance that he was an expert in such matters, and that it was obvious to him that he was right.

I recently uncovered another such “proof,” this time concocted in the fertile imagination of the Swedish philosopher Torbjörn Tännsjö. It turned up in an interview on the website of 3:AM Magazine under the title, The Hedonistic Utilitarian.  In response to interviewer Richard Marshall’s question,

Why are you a moral realist and what difference does this make to how you go about investigating morals from, for example, a non-realist?

Tännsjö replies,

I am indeed a moral realist.  In particular, I believe that one basic question, what we ought to do, period (the moral question), is a genuine one.  There exists a true answer to it, which is independent of our thought and conceptualization.  My main argument in defense of the position is this.  It is true (independently of our conceptualization) that it is wrong to inflict pain on a sentient creature for no reason (she doesn’t deserve it, I haven’t promised to do it, it is not helpful to this creature or to anyone else if I do it, and so forth).  But if this is a truth, existing independently of our conceptualization, then at least one moral fact (this one) exists and moral realism is true.  We have to accept this, I submit, unless we can find strong reasons to think otherwise.

In reading this, I was reminded of PFC Littlejohn, who happened to serve in my unit when I was a young lieutenant in the Army.  Whenever I happened to pull his leg more egregiously than even he could bear, he would typically respond, “You must be trying to bullshit me, sir!”  Apparently Tännsjö doesn’t consider Darwin’s theory, or Darwin’s own opinion regarding the origin of the moral emotions, or the flood of books and papers on the evolutionary origins of moral behavior, or the convincing arguments for the selective advantage of just such an emotional response as he describes, or the utter lack of evidence for the physical existence of “moral truths” independent of our “thought and conceptualization,” as sufficiently strong reasons “to think otherwise.”  Tännsjö continues,

Moral nihilism comes with a price we can now see.  It implies that it is not wrong (independently of our conceptualization) to do what I describe above; this does not mean that it is all right to do it either, of course, but yet, for all this, I find this implication from nihilism hard to digest.  It is not difficult to accept for moral reasons.  If it is false both that it is wrong to perform this action and that it is righty to perform it, then we need to engage in difficult issues in deontic logic as well.

Yes, in the same sense that deontic logic is necessary to determine whether it is true or false that there are fairies in Richard Dawkins’ garden.  No deontic logic is necessary here – just the realization that Tännsjö is trying to make truth claims about something that is not subject to truth claims.  The claim that it is objectively “not wrong” to do what he describes is as much a truth claim, and therefore just as irrational, as the claim that it is wrong.  As for his equally irrational worries about “moral nihilism,” his argument is similar to those of the religious true believers who think that, because they find a world without a God unpalatable, one must therefore perforce pop into existence.  Westermarck accurately described the nature of Tännsjö’s “proof” in his The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas, where he wrote,

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

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.

Today, Westermarck is nearly forgotten, while G. E. Moore is a household name among moral philosophers.  The Gods and angels of traditional religions seem to be in eclipse in Europe and North America, but “the substance of things hoped for,” and “the evidence of things not seen” are still with us, transmogrified into the ghosts and goblins of moral realism.  We find atheist social justice warriors hurling down their anathemas and interdicts more furiously than anything ever dreamed of by the Puritans and Pharisees of old, supremely confident in their “objective” moral purity.

And what of moral nihilism?  Dream on!  Anyone who seriously believes that anything like moral nihilism can result from the scribblings of philosophers has either been living under a rock, or is constitutionally incapable of observing the behavior of his own species.  Human beings will always behave morally.  The question is, what kind of a morality can we craft for ourselves that is both in harmony with our moral emotions, that does the least harm, and that most of us can live with.  I personally would prefer one that is based on an accurate understanding of what morality is and where it comes from.

Do I think that anything of the sort is on the horizon in the foreseeable future?  No.  When it comes to belief in religion and/or moral realism, one must simply get used to living in Bedlam.

James Burnham and the Anthropology of Liberalism

James Burnham was an interesting anthropological data point in his own right.  A left wing activist in the 30’s, he eventually became a Trotskyite.  By the 50’s however, he had completed an ideological double back flip to conservatism, and became a Roman Catholic convert on his deathbed.  He was an extremely well-read intellectual, and a keen observer of political behavior.  His most familiar book is The Managerial Revolution, published in 1941.  Among others, it strongly influenced George Orwell, who had something of a love/hate relationship with Burnham.  For example, in an essay in Tribune magazine in January 1944 he wrote,

Recently, turning up a back number of Horizon, I came upon a long article on James Burnham’s Managerial Revolution, in which Burnham’s main thesis was accepted almost without examination.  It represented, many people would have claimed, the most intelligent forecast of our time.  And yet – founded as it was on a belief in the invincibility of the German army – events have already blown it to pieces.

A bit over a year later, in February 1945, however, we find Burnham had made more of an impression on Orwell than the first quote implies.  In another essay in the Tribune he wrote,

…by the way the world is actually shaping, it may be that war will become permanent.  Already, quite visibly and more or less with the acquiescence of all of us, the world is splitting up into the two or three huge super-states forecast in James Burnham’s Managerial Revolution.  One cannot draw their exact boundaries as yet, but one can see more or less what areas they will comprise.  And if the world does settle down into this pattern, it is likely that these vast states will be permanently at war with one another, although it will not necessarily be a very intensive or bloody kind of war.

Of course, these super-states later made their appearance in Orwell’s most famous novel, 1984.  However, he was right about Burnham the first time.  He had an unfortunate penchant for making wrong predictions, often based on the assumption that transitory events must represent a trend that would continue into the indefinite future.  For example, impressed by the massive industrial might brought to bear by the United States during World War II, and its monopoly of atomic weapons, he suggested in The Struggle for the World, published in 1947, that we immediately proceed to force the Soviet Union to its knees, and establish a Pax Americana.  A bit later, in 1949, impressed by a hardening of the U.S. attitude towards the Soviet Union after the war, he announced The Coming Defeat of Communism in a book of that name.  He probably should have left it at that, but reversed his prognosis in Suicide of the West, which appeared in 1964.  By that time it seemed to Burnham that the United States had become so soft on Communism that the defeat of Western civilization was almost inevitable.  The policy of containment could only delay, but not stop the spread of Communism, and in 1964 it seemed that once a state had fallen behind the Iron Curtain it could never throw off the yoke.

Burnham didn’t realize that, in the struggle with Communism, time was actually on our side.  A more far-sighted prophet, a Scotsman by the name of Sir James Mackintosh, had predicted in the early 19th century that the nascent versions of Communism then already making their appearance would eventually collapse.  He saw that the Achilles heel of what he recognized was really a secular religion was its ill-advised proclamation of a coming paradise on earth, where it could be fact-checked, instead of in the spiritual realms of the traditional religions, where it couldn’t.  In the end, he was right.  After they had broken 100 million eggs, people finally noticed that the Communists hadn’t produced an omelet after all, and the whole, seemingly impregnable edifice collapsed.

One thing Burnham did see very clearly, however, was the source of the West’s weakness – liberalism.  He was well aware of its demoralizing influence, and its tendency to collaborate with the forces that sought to destroy the civilization that had given birth to it.  Inspired by what he saw as an existential threat, he carefully studied and analyzed the type of the western liberal, and its evolution away from the earlier “liberalism” of the 19th century.  Therein lies the real value of his Suicide of the West.  It still stands as one of the greatest analyses of modern liberalism ever written.  The basic characteristics of the type he described are as familiar more than half a century later as they were in 1964.  And this time his predictions regarding the “adjustments” in liberal ideology that would take place as its power expanded were spot on.

Burnham developed nineteen “more or less systematic set of ideas, theories and beliefs about society” characteristic of the liberal syndrome in Chapters III-V of the book, and then listed them, along with possible contrary beliefs in Chapter VII.  Some of them have changed very little since Burnham’s day, such as,

It is society – through its bad institutions and its failure to eliminate ignorance – that is responsible for social evils.  Our attitude toward those who embody these evils – of crime, delinquency, war, hunger, unemployment, communism, urban blight – should not be retributive but rather the permissive, rehabilitating, education approach of social service; and our main concern should be the elimination of the social conditions that are the source of the evils.

Since there are no differences among human beings considered in their political capacity as the foundation of legitimate, that is democratic, government, the ideal state will include all human beings, and the ideal government is world government.

The goal of political and social life is secular:  to increase the material and functional well-being of humanity.

Some of the 19 have begun to change quite noticeably since the publication of Suicide of the West in just the ways Burnham suggested.  For example, items 9 and 10 on the list reflect a classic version of the ideology that would have been familiar to and embraced by “old school” liberals like John Stuart Mill:

Education must be thought of as a universal dialogue in which all teachers and students above elementary levels may express their opinions with complete academic freedom.

Politics must be though of as a universal dialogue in which all persons may express their opinions, whatever they may be, with complete freedom.

Burnham had already noticed signs of erosion in these particular shibboleths in his own day, as liberals gained increasing control of academia and the media.  As he put it,

In both Britain and the United States, liberals began in 1962 to develop the doctrine that words which are “inherently offensive,” as far-Right but not communist words seem to be, do not come under the free speech mantle.

In our own day of academic safe spaces and trigger warnings, there is certainly no longer anything subtle about this ideological shift.  Calls for suppression of “offensive” speech have now become so brazen that they have spawned divisions within the liberal camp itself.  One finds old school liberals of the Berkeley “Free Speech Movement” days resisting Gleichschaltung with the new regime, looking on with dismay as speaker after speaker is barred from university campuses for suspected thought crime.

As noted above, Communism imploded before it could overwhelm the Western democracies, but the process of decay goes on.  Nothing about the helplessness of Europe in the face of the current inundation by third world refugees would have surprised Burnham in the least.  He predicted it as an inevitable expression of another fundamental characteristic of the ideology – liberal guilt.  Burnham devoted Chapter 10 of his book to the subject, and noted therein,

Along one perspective, liberalism’s reformist, egalitarian, anti-discrimination, peace-seeking principles are, or at any rate can be interpreted as, the verbally elaborated projections of the liberal sense of guilt.

and

The guilt of the liberal causes him to feel obligated to try to do something about any and every social problem, to cure every social evil.  This feeling, too, is non-rational:  the liberal must try to cure the evil even if he has no knowledge of the suitable medicine or, for that matter, of the nature of the disease; he must do something about the social problem even when there is no objective reason to believe that what he does can solve the problem – when, in fact, it may well aggravate the problem instead of solving it.

I suspect Burnham himself would have been surprised at the degree to which such “social problems” have multiplied in the last half a century, and the pressure to do something about them has only increased in the meantime.  As for the European refugees, consider the following corollaries of liberal guilt as developed in Suicide of the West:

(The liberal) will not feel uneasy, certainly not indignant, when, sitting in conference or conversation with citizens of countries other than his own – writers or scientists or aspiring politicians, perhaps – they rake his country and his civilization fore and aft with bitter words; he is as likely to join with them in the criticism as to protest it.

It follows that,

…the ideology of modern liberalism – its theory of human nature, its rationalism, its doctrines of free speech, democracy and equality – leads to a weakening of attachment to groups less inclusive than Mankind.

All modern liberals agree that government has a positive duty to make sure that the citizens have jobs, food, clothing, housing, education, medical care, security against sickness, unemployment and old age; and that these should be ever more abundantly provided.  In fact, a government’s duty in these respects, if sufficient resources are at its disposition, is not only to its own citizens but to all humanity.

…under modern circumstances there is a multiplicity of interests besides those of our own nation and culture that must be taken into account, but an active internationalism in feeling as well as thought, for which “fellow citizens” tend to merge into “humanity,” sovereignty is judged an outmode conception, my religion or no-religion appears as a parochial variant of the “universal ideas common to mankind,” and the “survival of mankind” becomes more crucial than the survival of my country and my civilization.

For Western civilization in the present condition of the world, the most important practical consequence of the guilt encysted in the liberal ideology and psyche is this:  that the liberal, and the group, nation or civilization infected by liberal doctrine and values, are morally disarmed before those whom the liberal regards as less well off than himself.

The inevitable implication of the above is that the borders of the United States and Europe must become meaningless in an age of liberal hegemony, as, indeed, they have.  In 1964 Burnham was not without hope that the disease was curable.  Otherwise, of course, he would never have written Suicide of the West.  He concluded,

But of course the final collapse of the West is not yet inevitable; the report of its death would be premature.  If a decisive changes comes, if the contraction of the past fifty years should cease and be reversed, then the ideology of liberalism, deprived of its primary function, will fade away, like those feverish dreams of the ill man who, passing the crisis of his disease, finds he is not dying after all.  There are a few small signs, here and there, that liberalism may already have started fading.  Perhaps this book is one of them.

No, liberalism hasn’t faded.  The infection has only become more acute.  At best one might say that there are now a few more people in the West who are aware of the disease.  I am not optimistic about the future of Western civilization, but I am not foolhardy enough to predict historical outcomes.  Perhaps the fever will break, and we will recover, and perhaps not.  Perhaps there will be a violent crisis tomorrow, or perhaps the process of dissolution will drag itself out for centuries.  Objectively speaking, there is no “good” outcome and no “bad” outcome.  However, in the same vein, there is no objective reason why we must refrain from fighting for the survival or our civilization, our culture, or even the ethnic group to which we belong.

As for the liberals, perhaps they should consider why all the fine moral emotions they are so proud to wear on their sleeves exist to begin with.  I doubt that the reason has anything to do with suicide.

By all means, read the book.

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.

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.

But What of Shaftesbury?

In this and my previous post, I discuss some British philosophers that even most well-educated laypeople have never heard of.  Why?  Because they shed a great deal of light on the subjects of human nature and morality.  These subjects are critical to our self-understanding, which, in turn, is critical to our survival.  If we had read, understood, and built on what they taught, we might have avoided wandering into many of the blind alleys into which we were led by subsequent generations of the “men of science.”  The most damaging and delusional blind alley of all was the Blank Slate orthodoxy.  Ironically, it was enforced by exploiting the very moral emotions whose existence it denied, setting back the behavioral sciences and moral philosophy by more than a century in the process.  View, if you like, these posts as an attempt to pick up the lost threads.

In my previous post I highlighted the philosophy of Francis Hutcheson.  I note in passing that he was actually born in Ireland, and studied and received his degree in Scotland.  I did that because Hutcheson was the first, or at least the first I know of, to elaborate a well thought out and coherent theory of the origins of morality in an innate “moral sense,” demonstrating in the process why, absent such a moral sense, moral behavior is not even possible.  In other words, the “root cause” of morality is this moral sense.  Furthermore, Hutcheson explained why, as a consequence, it is impossible to distinguish between good and evil using reason alone.  Two hundred years later the great Finnish moral philosopher Edvard Westermarck, who had read and admired Hutcheson, noted that in the ensuing years, his contention that, “the moral concepts are ultimately based on emotions either of indignation or approval, is a fact which a certain school of thinkers have in vain attempted to deny.”

That said, it is hardly true that the works of many other 18th century British authors do not contain ideas similar to Hutcheson’s.  Such authors are often able to see further and more clearly than those who have come before by virtue of the privilege of, as Einstein put it, “sitting on the shoulders of giants.”  In Hutcheson’s case, one such giant was Anthony Ashley-Cooper, the third Earl of Shaftesbury.  Hutcheson certainly left no one in doubt concerning his debt to Shaftesbury in his own time.  Sir James MacKintosh, who left sketches of many forgotten British moral philosophers who are well worth reading today in his, “On the progress of ethical philosophy, chiefly during the XVIIth & XVIIIth centuries,” which first appeared as a supplement to the Encyclopedia Brittanica in 1829, went so far as to refer to Shaftesbury as Hutcheson’s “master.”  Although Shaftesbury was born in England, MacKintosh claimed that, “…the philosophy of Shaftesbury was brought by Hutcheson from Ireland,” after it and similar works had been suppressed in England for some time “by an exemplary but unlettered clergy.”

Like Hutcheson, many of the themes in Shaftesbury’s writings would have sounded very familiar to modern evolutionary psychologists.  For example, he had this to say on the Blank Slate ideology of his day:

It was Mr. Locke that struck at all fundamentals, threw all order and virtue out of the world, and made the very ideas of these… unnatural and without foundation in our minds.

Locke, of course, is often cited as a forerunner of the Blank Slaters of the 20th century, although the comparison isn’t entirely accurate.  He rejected innate morality because it was incompatible with his Christian theology rather than the secular “progressive” ideology of a later day.

The key theme of Hutcheson’s work as far as the modern science of morality is concerned – the existence of an innate “moral sense” – is, if anything, emphasized even more strongly in the writings of Shaftesbury.  For example, from his Inquiry Concerning Virtue or Merit, probably his most important work on morality as far as modern readers are concerned,

Sense of right and wrong therefore being as natural to us as natural affection itself, and being a first principle in our constitution and make; there is no speculative opinion, persuasion or belief, which is capable immediately or directly to exclude or destroy it.  That which is of original and pure nature, nothing beside contrary habit or custom (a second nature) is able to displace.  And this affection being an original one of earliest rise in the soul or affectionate part; nothing beside a contrary affection, by frequent check and control, can operate upon it, so as either to diminish it in part, or destroy it in whole.

A somewhat startling aspect of Shaftesbury’s work, given the time in which it was written, was his recognition of the continuity between human beings and other animal species.  For example, again from the Inquiry,

We know that every creature has a private good and interest of his own, which Nature has compelled him to seek, by all the advantages afforded him within the compass of his make.  We know that there is in reality a right and a wrong state of every creature, and that this right one is by nature forwarded and by himself affectionately sought.

and

We have found that, to deserve the name of good or virtuous, a creature most have all his inclinations and affections, his dispositions of mind and temper, suitable, and agreeing with the good of his kind, or of that system in which he is included, and of which he constitutes a part.

and, finally,

The ordinary animals appear unnatural and monstrous when they lose their proper instincts, forsake their kind, neglect their offspring, and pervert those functions or capacities bestowed by nature.  How wretched must it be, therefore, for man, of all other creatures, to lose that sense and feeling which is proper to him as a man, and suitable to his character and genius?

If one didn’t know better, one might easily imagine that E. O. Wilson’s latest book, The Meaning of Human Existence, with its assertions about our “good” nature being the result of group selection, and our “evil” nature the result of selection at the level of the individual, had been inspired by Shaftesbury.  For example,

There being allowed therefore in a creature such affections as these towards the common nature or system of the kind, together with those other which regard the private nature or self-system, it will appear that in following the first of these affections, the creature must on many occasions contradict and go against the latter.  How else should the species be preserved?  Or what would signify that implanted natural affection, by which a creature through so many difficulties and hazards preserves its offspring and supports its kind.

One must hope that such passages won’t draw down on Shaftesbury’s head the anathemas of Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker as the great heresiarch of group selection theory.

In a remarkable passage that might have been lifted from the pages of Westermarck, Shaftesbury reveals some doubt regarding the objective existence of good and evil, in spite of our tendency to imagine them in that way:

If there be no real amiableness or deformity in moral acts, there is at least an imaginary one of full force.  Though perhaps the thing itself should not be allowed in nature, the imagination or fancy of it must be allowed to be from nature alone.  Nor can anything besides art and strong endeavor, with long practice and meditation, overcome such a natural prevention or prepossession of the mind in favor of this moral distinction.

Finally, at the risk of exhausting the patience of even my most dogged readers, allow me to throw in another aspect of Shaftesbury’s writings that would put him “ahead of his time” even if he were alive today; his dispassionate and temperate comments on the subject of atheism.  Consider, for example, the following:

…it does not seem, that atheism should of itself be the cause of any estimation or valuing of anything as fair, noble, and deserving which was the contrary.  It can never, for instance, make it be thought that the being able to eat man’s flesh, or commit bestiality, is good and excellent in itself.  But this is certain, that by means of corrupt religion or superstition, many things the most horridly unnatural and inhuman come to be received as excellent, good, and laudable in themselves.

and

…religion, (according as the kind may prove) is capable of doing great good or harm, and atheism nothing positive in either way.   For however it may be indirectly an occasion of men’s losing a good and sufficient sense of right and wrong, it will not, as atheism merely, be the occasion of setting up a false species of it, which only false religion or fantastical opinion, derived commonly through superstition or credulity, is able to effect.

To confirm those observations, one need look no further than recent events in the Middle East.  When it comes to “fantastical opinion, derived commonly through superstition or credulity,” the 20th century gave us two outstanding examples, in the form of Communism and Nazism.  Pundits like Bill O’Reilly claim that atheism itself is responsible for all the crimes of these modern secular versions of “corrupt religion.”  This was a form of bigotry of which Shaftesbury, writing three centuries earlier, give or take, was not capable.

Of course, Shaftesbury no more wrote in a vacuum than Hutcheson.  Similar themes may be found in the work of many other British moral philosophers of the time.  In particular, Joseph Butler, like Hutcheson, borrowed heavily from Shaftesbury in developing his own ideas regarding the origins of morality in human nature.  Brief descriptions of the work of many others may be found in the book by Sir James MacKintosh referred to above, and in Michael Gill’s excellent book, The British Moralists on Human Nature and the Birth of Secular Ethics.

E. O. Wilson’s “The Meaning of Human Existence:” Doubling Down on Group Selection

It’s great to see another title by E. O. Wilson.  Reading his books is like continuing a conversation with a wise old friend.  If you run into him on the street you don’t expect to hear him say anything radically different from what he’s said in the past.  However, you always look forward to chatting with him because he’s never merely repetitious or tiresome.   He always has some thought-provoking new insight or acute comment on the latest news.  At this stage in his life he also delights in puncturing the prevailing orthodoxies, without the least fear of the inevitable anathemas of the defenders of the faith.

In his latest, The Meaning of Human Existence, he continues the open and unabashed defense of group selection that so rattled his peers in his previous book, The Social Conquest of Earth.  I’ve discussed some of the reasons for their unease in an earlier post.  In short, if it can really be shown that the role of group selection in human evolution has been as prominent as Wilson claims, it will seriously mar the legacy of such prominent public intellectuals as Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker, as well as a host of other prominent scientists, who have loudly and tirelessly insisted on the insignificance of group selection.  It will also require some serious adjustments to the fanciful yarn that currently passes as the “history” of the Blank Slate affair.  Obviously, Wilson is firmly convinced that he’s on to something, because he’s not letting up.  He dismisses the alternative inclusive fitness interpretation of evolution as unsupported by the evidence and at odds with the most up-to-date mathematical models.  In his words,

Although the controversy between natural selection and inclusive fitness still flickers here and there, the assumptions of the theory of inclusive fitness have proved to be applicable only in a few extreme cases unlikely to occur on Earth on any other planet.  No example of inclusive fitness has been directly measured.  All that has been accomplished is an indirect analysis called the regressive method, which unfortunately has itself been mathematically invalidated.

Interestingly, while embracing group selection, Wilson then explicitly agrees with one of the most prominent defenders of inclusive fitness, Richard Dawkins, on the significance of the gene:

The use of the individual or group as the unit of heredity, rather than the gene, is an even more fundamental error.

Very clever, that, a preemptive disarming of the predictable invention of straw men to attack group selection via the bogus claim that it implies that groups are the unit of selection.  The theory of group selection already has a fascinating, not to mention ironical, history, and its future promises to be no less entertaining.

When it comes to the title of the book, Wilson himself lets us know early on that its just a forgivable form of “poetic license.”  In his words,

In ordinary usage the word “meaning” implies intention.  Intention implies design, and design implies a designer.  Any entity, any process, or definition of any word itself is put into play as a result of an intended consequence in the mind of the designer.  This is the heart of the philosophical worldview of organized religions, and in particular their creation stories.  Humanity, it assumes, exists for a purpose.  Individuals have a purpose in being on Earth.  Both humanity and individuals have meaning.

Wilson is right when he says that this is what most people understand by the term “meaning,” and he decidedly rejects the notion that the existence of such “meaning” is even possible later in the book by rejecting religious belief more bluntly than in any of his previous books.  He provides himself with a fig leaf in the form of a redefinition of “meaning” as follows:

There is a second, broader way the word “meaning” is used, and a very different worldview implied.  It is that the accidents of history, not the intentions of a designer, are the source of meaning.

I rather suspect most philosophers will find this redefinition unpalatable.  Beyond that, I won’t begrudge Wilson his fig leaf.  After all, if one takes the trouble to write books, one generally also has an interest in selling them.

As noted above, another significant difference between this and Wilson’s earlier books is his decisive support for what one might call the “New Atheist” line, as set forth in books by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens.  Obviously, Wilson has been carefully following the progress of the debate.  He rejects religions, significantly in both their secular as well as their traditional spiritual manifestations, as both false and dangerous, mainly because of their inevitable association with tribalism.  In his words,

Religious warriors are not an anomaly.  It is a mistake to classify believers of particular religious and dogmatic religionlike ideologies into two groups, moderate versus extremist.  The true cause of hatred and violence is faith versus faith, an outward expression of the ancient instinct of tribalism.  Faith is the one thing that makes otherwise good people do bad things.

and, embracing the ingroup/outgroup dichotomy in human moral behavior I’ve often alluded to on this blog,

The great religions… are impediments to the grasp of reality needed to solve most social problems in the real world.  Their exquisitely human flaw is tribalism.  The instinctual force of tribalism in the genesis of religiosity is far stronger than the yearning for spirituality.  People deeply need membership in a group, whether religious or secular.  From a lifetime of emotional experience, they know that happiness, and indeed survival itself, require that they bond with oth3ers who share some amount of genetic kinship, language, moral beliefs, geographical location, social purpose, and dress code – preferably all of these but at least two or three for most purposes.  It is tribalism, not the moral tenets and humanitarian thought of pure religion, that makes good people do bad things.

Finally, in a passage worthy of New Atheist Jerry Coyne himself, Wilson denounces both “accommodationists” and the obscurantist teachings of the “sophisticated Christians:”

Most serious writers on religion conflate the transcendent quest for meaning with the tribalistic defense of creation myths.  They accept, or fear to deny, the existence of a personal deity.  They read into the creation myths humanity’s effort to communicate with the deity, as part of the search for an uncorrupted life now and beyond death.  Intellectual compromisers one and all, they include liberal theologians of the Niebuhr school, philosophers battening on learned ambiguity, literary admirers of C. S. Lewis, and others persuaded, after deep thought, that there most be Something Out There.  They tend to be unconscious of prehistory and the biological evolution of human instinct, both of which beg to shed light on this very important subject.

In a word, Wilson has now positioned himself firmly in the New Atheist camp.  This is hardly likely to mollify many of the prominent New Atheists, who will remain bitter because of his promotion of group selection, but at this point in his career, Wilson can take their hostility pro granulum salis.

There is much more of interest in The Meaning of Human Existence than I can cover in a blog post, such as Wilson’s rather vague reasons for insisting on the importance of the humanities in solving our problems, his rejection of interplanetary and/or interstellar colonization, and his speculations on the nature of alien life forms.  I can only suggest that interested readers buy the book.

Of the War on Christmas and the Thinness of Leftist Skins

‘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.”

The New Atheists as Imperialist Warmongers; Leftist Islamophilia in the Afterglow of Communism

The human types afflicted with the messianic itch have never been too choosy about the ideology they pick to scratch it.  For example, the Nazis turned up some of their most delirious converts among the ranks of former Communists, and vice versa.  The “true believer” can usually make do with whatever is available.  The main thing is that whatever “ism” he chooses enables him to maintain the illusion that he is saving the world and clearing the path to some heavenly or terrestrial paradise, and at the same time supplies him with an ingroup of like-minded zealots.  In the 20th century both Communism and Nazism/fascism, which had served admirably in their time, collapsed, leaving an ideological vacuum behind.  As we all know, nature abhors a vacuum, and something had to fill it.  Paradoxically, that “something” turned out to be radical Islam.  For the true believers, it is now pretty much the only game in town.  The result of this ideological sea change has been quite spectacular.  The “human types” one would normally have expected to find in the ranks of the atheist Communists 50 or 75 years ago are now powerfully attracted to the latest manifestation of industrial strength religious fanaticism.

So far the ideological gap between the secular left that supplied the Communists of yesteryear and the jihadis of today has been a bit too wide for most western “progressives” to hop across.  Instead, they’ve been forced to settle for casting longing gazes at the antics of the less inhibited zealots on the other side of the chasm.  They can’t quite manage the ideological double back flip between the culture they come from and obscurantist Islam.  Instead, they seize on surrogates, defending the “oppressed” Palestinians against the “apartheid” Israelis, meanwhile furiously denouncing anyone who dares to criticize the new inamorata they are forced to love from afar as “islamophobic.”

An interesting manifestation of this phenomenon recently turned up on the website of The Jacobin Magazine,  which styles itself, “The leading voice of the American left.”  In an article entitled “Old Atheism, New Empire,” one Luke Savage, described as “a student of political theory and formerly the editor of Canada’s largest student newspaper,” demonstrates that the New Atheists are not really the paladins of Enlightenment they claim to be, but are actually conducting a clever underground campaign to defend imperialism and provide a “smokescreen for the injustice of global capitalism!”  Similar attacks on such New Atheist stalwarts as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens are becoming increasingly common as the Left’s love affair with radical Islam continues to blossom.  The New Atheists, in turn, are finding that the firm ground on the left of the ideological spectrum they thought they were standing on has turned to quicksand.

It isn’t hard to detect the Islamist pheromones in the article in question.  We notice, for example, that Savage isn’t particularly concerned about New Atheist attacks on religion in general.  He hardly mentions Christianity.  When it comes to Islam, however, it’s a different story.  As Savage puts it,

It is against the backdrop of the war on terror, with its violent and destructive adventurism, that the notion of a monolithic evil called “Islam” has found a sizable constituency in the circles of liberal respectability.

As one might expect, this is followed by the de rigueur charge of racism:

The excessive focus on Islam as something at once monolithic and exceptionally bad, whose backwards followers need to have their rights in democratic societies suppressed and their home countries subjected to a Western-led civilizing process, cannot be called anything other than racist.

Moslem zealots, we find, aren’t really the enemy of, but actually belong in the pantheon of, officially endorsed and certified victim groups:

Criticisms of the violence carried out by fundamentalists of any kind – honor killings, suicide bombings, systemic persecution of women or gay people, or otherwise – are neither coherent nor even likely to be effective when they falsely attribute such phenomena to some monolithic orthodoxy.

The cognoscenti will have immediately noticed some amusing similarities between this rhetoric and that used to defend Communism in a bygone era.  Notice, for example, the repeated insistence that Islam is not “monolithic.”  Back in the day, one of the most hackneyed defenses of Communism was also that it was not “monolithic.”  No doubt it was a great comfort to the millions slowly starving to death in the Gulag, or on their way to get a bullet in the back of the neck, that they at least weren’t the victims of a “monolithic” assassin.  In case that’s too subtle for you, Savage spells it out, quoting from a book by Richard Seymour:

The function of [Hitchens’] antitheism was structurally analogous to what Irving Howe characterized as Stalinophobia…the Bogey-Scapegoat of Stalinism justified a new alliance with the right, obliviousness towards the permanent injustices of capitalist society, and a tolerance for repressive practices conducted in the name of the “Free World.”  In roughly isomorphic fashion Hitchens’ preoccupation with religion…authorized not just a blind eye to the injustices of capitalism and empire but a vigorous advocacy of the same.

One would think that defending “the opiate of the masses” would be a bitter pill for any dedicated fighter against “capitalism and empire” to swallow, but Savage manages it with aplomb.  Channeling the likes of Karen Armstrong, David Bentley Hart, and the rest of the “sophisticated Christians,” he writes,

Whether directed at Catholicism, Paganism, or Islam, the methodology employed to expose the inherent “irrationality” of all religions betrays a fundamental misunderstanding (or perhaps misrepresentation) of the nature of religious discourses, beliefs, and practices.

If that’s not quite rarified enough for you, how about this:

Moreover, the core assertion that forms the discursive nucleus of books like The God Delusion, God is Not Great, and The End of Faith – namely, that religious texts can be read as literal documents containing static ideas, and that the ensuing practices are uniform – is born out by neither real, existing religion or by its historical reality as a socially and ideologically heterogeneous phenomenon.

and this:

This is particularly significant in relation to the New Atheists’ denunciations of what they call “the doctrine of Islam” because it renders bare their false ontology of religion – one which more or less assumes that fundamentalism is the product of bad ideas rather than particular social and material conditions.

So Stalin wasn’t a bad boy.  He just had a bad environment.  See how that works?  At this point Marx must be spinning in his grave, so we’ll leave these eloquent defenses of religion at that, and let the old man get some rest.  In point of fact Marxism was itself a religion for all practical purposes.  It just happened to be a secular one, with an earthly rather than a heavenly paradise.  In its heyday, Communism had to damn the older, spiritual versions because messianic religions are never tolerant.  Now that it’s defunct as an effective vehicle for militant zealotry, it’s pointless to continue trying to defend it from its spiritual competition.

In any case, the “progressive” flirtation with medieval obscurantism continues unabated.  Will it ever become a full-fledged embrace?  I suppose it’s not completely out of the question, but a lot of ideological baggage will have to be ditched along the way to that consummation.  As for the New Atheists, one might say that they’ve just had a religious experience in spite of themselves.  They’ve all been excommunicated.

happyjar

 

Thanks to Tom at Happyjar.com for the cartoon.  Check out his store!

 

 

Morality Addiction in the Academy

One would think that, at the very least, evolutionary psychologists would have jettisoned their belief in objective morality by now.  After all, every day new papers are published about the evolutionary roots of morality, the actual loci in the brain that give rise to different types of moral behavior, and the existence in animals of some of the same traits we associate with morality in humans.  Now, if morality evolved, it must have done so because it enhanced the odds that the genes responsible for it would survive and reproduce.  It cannot somehow acquire a life of its own and decide that it actually has some other “purpose” in mind.  The spectacle of human “experts in ethics” arbitrarily reassigning its purpose in that way is even more ludicrous.  In spite of all that, faith in the existence of disembodied good and evil persists in the academy, in defiance of all logic, in evolutionary psychology as in other disciplines.  It’s not surprising really.  For some time now academics of all stripes have been heavily invested in the myth of their own moral superiority.  Eliminate objective morality, and the basis of that myth evaporates like a mirage.  Self-righteousness and heroin are both hard habits to kick.

Examples aren’t hard to find.  An interesting one turned up in the journal Evolutionary Psychology lately.  Entitled Evolutionary Awareness and submitted by authors Gregory Gorelick and Todd Shackelford, the abstract reads as follows:

In this article, we advance the concept of “evolutionary awareness,” a metacognitive framework that examines human thought and emotion from a naturalistic, evolutionary perspective. We begin by discussing the evolution and current functioning of the moral foundations on which our framework rests. Next, we discuss the possible applications of such an evolutionarily-informed ethical framework to several domains of human behavior, namely: sexual maturation, mate attraction, intrasexual competition, culture, and the separation between various academic disciplines. Finally, we discuss ways in which an evolutionary awareness can inform our cross-generational activities—which we refer to as “intergenerational extended phenotypes”—by helping us to construct a better future for ourselves, for other sentient beings, and for our environment.

Those who’ve developed a nose for such things can already sniff the disembodied good and evil things-in-themselves levitating behind the curtain.  The term “better future” is a dead giveaway.  No future can be “better” than any other in an objective sense unless there is some legitimate standard of comparison that doesn’t depend on the whim of individuals.  As we read on, our suspicions are amply confirmed.  As far as its theme is concerned, the paper is just a rehash of what Konrad Lorenz and Robert Ardrey were suggesting back in the 60’s; that there are such things as innate human behavioral predispositions, that on occasion they have promoted warfare and the other forms of mayhem that humans have indulged in over the millennia, and that it would behoove us to take this fact into account and try to find ways to limit the damage.  Unfortunately, they did so at a time when the Blank Slate, probably the greatest scientific imposture ever heard of, was at its most preposterous extreme.  They were ridiculed and ignored by the “men of science” and forgotten.  Now that the Blank Slate orthodoxy has finally collapsed after reigning supreme for the better part of half a century, their ideas are belatedly being taken seriously again, albeit without ever giving them credit or mentioning their names.

There is, however, an important difference.  In reading through the paper, one finds that the authors believe not only in evolved morality, necessarily a subjective phenomenon, but are true believers in a shadowy thing-in-itself that exists alongside of it.  This thing is objective morality, as noted above, an independent, and even “scientific,” something that has a “purpose” quite distinct from the reasons that explain the existence of evolved morality.  The “purpose” in high fashion at the moment is usually some version of the “human flourishing” ideology advocated by Sam Harris.  No evidence has ever been given for this concoction.  Neither Sam Harris nor anyone else has ever been able to capture one of these ghostly “goods” or “evils” and submit it for examination in the laboratory.  No matter, their existence is accepted as a matter of faith, accompanied by a host of “proofs” similar to those that are devised to “prove” the existence of God.

Let us examine the artifacts of the faith in these ghosts in the paper at hand.  As it happens, it’s lousy with them.  On page 785, for example, we read,

Because individual choices lead to cultural movements and social patterns (Kenrick, Li, and Butner, 2003), it is up to every individual to accept the responsibility of an evolutionarily-informed ethics.

Really?  If so, where does this “responsibility” come from?  How does it manage to acquire legitimacy?  Reading a bit further on page 785, we encounter the following remarkable passage:

However, as with any intellectually-motivated course of action, developing an evolutionarily-informed ethics entails an intellectual sacrifice: Are we willing to forego certain reproductive benefits or personal pleasures for the sake of building a more ethical community? Such an intellectual endeavor is not just relevant to academic debates but is also of great practical and ethical importance. To apply the paleontologist G. G. Simpson’s (1951) ethical standard of knowledge and responsibility, evolutionary scientists have the responsibility of ensuring that their findings are disseminated as widely as possible. In addition, evolutionarily-minded researchers should expand their disciplinary boundaries to include the application of an evolutionary awareness to problems of ethical and practical importance. Although deciphering the ethical dimension of life’s varying circumstances is difficult, the fact that there are physical consequences for every one of our actions—consequences on other beings and on the environment—means that, for better or worse, we are all players in constructing the future of our society and that all our actions, be they microscopic or macroscopic, are reflected in the emergent properties of our society (Kenrick et al., 2003).

In other words, not only is the existence of this “other” morality simply assumed, but we also find that its “purpose” actually contradicts the reasons that have resulted in the evolution of morality to begin with.  It is supposed to be “evolutionarily-informed,” and yet we are actually to “forego certain reproductive benefits” in its name.  Later in the paper, on page 804, we find that this apparent faith in “real” good and evil, existing independently of the subjective variety that has merely evolved, is not just a momentary faux pas.  In the author’s words,

It is not clear what the effects of being evolutionarily aware of our political and social behaviors will be. At the least, we can raise the level of individual and societal self-awareness by shining the light of evolutionary awareness onto our religious, political, and cultural beliefs. Better still, by examining our ability to mentally time travel from an evolutionarily aware perspective, we might envision more humane futures rather than using this ability to further our own and our offspring’s reproductive interests. In this way, we may be able to monitor our individual and societal outcomes and direct them to a more ethical and well-being-enhancing direction for ourselves, for other species, for our—often fragile—environment, and for the future of all three.

Here the authors leave us in no doubt.  They have faith in an objective something utterly distinct from evolved morality, and with entirely different “goals.”  Not surprisingly, as already noted above, this “something” actually does turn out to be a version of the “scientific” objective morality proposed by Sam Harris.  For example, on page 805,

As Sam Harris suggested in The Moral Landscape (2010), science has the power not only to describe reality, but also to inform us as to what is moral and what is immoral (provided that we accept certain utilitarian ethical foundations such as the promotion of happiness, flourishing, and well-being—all of which fall into Haidt’s (2012) “Care/Harm” foundation of morality).

No rational basis is ever provided, by Harris or anyone else, for how these “certain utilitarian ethical foundations” are magically transmuted from the whims of individuals to independent objects, which then somehow hijack human moral emotions and endow them with a “purpose” that has little if anything to do with the reasons that explain the evolution of those emotions to begin with.  It’s all sufficiently absurd on the face of it, and yet understandable.  Jonathan Haidt gives a brilliant description of the reasons that self-righteousness is such a ubiquitous feature of our species in The Righteous Mind.  As a class, academics are perhaps more addicted to self-righteousness than any other.  There are, after all, whole departments of “ethical experts” whose very existence becomes a bad joke unless they can maintain the illusion that they have access to some mystic understanding of the abstruse foundations of “real” good and evil, hidden from the rest of us.  The same goes for all the assorted varieties of “studies” departments, whose existence is based on the premise that there is a “good” class that is being oppressed by an “evil” class.  At least since the heyday of Communism, academics have cultivated a faith in themselves as the special guardians of the public virtue, endowed with special senses that enable them to sniff out “real” morality for the edification of the rest of us.

Apropos Communism, it actually used to be the preferred version of “human flourishing.”  As Malcolm Muggeridge put it in his entertaining look at The Thirties,

In 1931, protests were made in Parliament against a broadcast by a Cambridge economist, Mr. Maurice Dobb, on the ground that he was a Marxist; now (at the end of the decade, ed.) the difficulty would be to find an economist employed in any university who was not one.

Of course, this earlier sure-fire prescription for “human flourishing” cost 100 million human lives, give or take, and has hence been abandoned by more forward-looking academics.  However, a few hoary leftovers remain on campus, and there is an amusing reminder of the fact in the paper.  On page 784 the authors admit that attempts to tinker with human nature in the past have had unfortunate results:

Indeed, totalitarian philosophies, whether Stalinism or Nazism, often fail because of their attempts to radically change human nature at the cost of human beings.

Note the delicate use of the term “Stalinism” instead of Communism.  Meanwhile, the proper term is used for Nazism instead of “Hitlerism.”  Of course, mass terror was well underway in the Soviet Union under Lenin, long before Stalin took over supreme power, and the people who carried it out weren’t inspired by the “philosophy” of “socialism in one country,” but by a fanatical faith in a brave new world of “human flourishing” under Communism.  Nazism in no way sought to “radically change human nature,” but masterfully took advantage of it to gain power.  The same could be said of the Communists, the only difference being that they actually did attempt to change human nature once they were in power.  I note in passing that some other interesting liberties are taken with history in the paper.  For example,

Christianity may have indirectly led to the fall of the Roman Empire by pacifying its population into submission to the Vandals (Frost, 2010), as well as the fall of the early Viking settlers in Greenland to “pagan” Inuit invaders (Diamond, 2005)—two outcomes that collectively highlight the occasional inefficiency (from a gene’s perspective) of cultural evolution.

Of course, the authors apparently only have these dubious speculations second hand from Frost and Diamond, whose comments on the subject I haven’t read, but they would have done well to consider some other sources before setting down these speculations as if they had any authority.  The Roman Empire never “fell” to the Vandals.  They did sack Rome in 455 with the permission, if not of the people, at least of the gatekeepers, but the reason had a great deal more to do with an internal squabble over who should be emperor than with any supposed passivity due to Christianity.  Indeed, the Vandals themselves were Christians, albeit of the Arian flavor, and their north African kingdom was itself permanently crushed by an army under Belisarius sent by the emperor Justinian in 533.  Both certainly considered themselves “Romans,” as the date of 476 for the “fall of the Roman Empire” was not yet in fashion at the time.  There are many alternative theories to the supposition that the Viking settlements in Greenland “fell to the Inuits,” and to state this “outcome” as a settled fact is nonsense.

But I digress.  To return to the subject of objective morality, it actually appears that the authors can’t comprehend the fact that it’s possible to believe anything else.  For example, they write,

 Haidt’s approach to the study of human morality is non-judgmental. He argues that the Western, cosmopolitan mindset—morally centered on the Care/Harm foundation—is limited because it is not capable of processing the many “moralities” of non-Western peoples. We disagree with this sentiment. For example, is Haidt really willing to support the expansion of the “Sanctity/Degradation” foundation (and its concomitant increase in ethnocentrism and out-group hostility)? As Pinker (2011) noted, “…right or wrong, retracting the moral sense from its traditional spheres of community, authority, and purity entails a reduction of violence” (p. 637).

Here the authors simply can’t grok the fact that Haidt is stating an “is,” not an “ought.”  As a result, this passage is logically incomprehensible as it stands.  The authors are disagreeing with a “sentiment” that doesn’t exist.  They are incapable of grasping the fact that Haidt, who has repeatedly rejected the notion of objective morality, is merely stating a theory, not some morally loaded “should.”

From my own subjective point of view, it is perhaps unfair to single out these two authors.  The academy is saturated with similar irrational attempts to hijack morality in the name of assorted systems designed to promote “human flourishing,” in the fond hope that the results won’t be quite so horrific as were experienced under Communism, the last such attempt to be actually realized in practice.  The addiction runs deep.  Perhaps we shouldn’t take it too hard.  After all, the Blank Slate was a similarly irrational addiction, but it eventually collapsed under the weight of its own absurdity after a mere half a century, give or take.  Perhaps, like the state was supposed to do under Communism, faith in the chimera of objective morality, or at least those versions of it not dependent on the existence of imaginary super-beings, will “whither away” in the next 50 years as well.  We can but hope.