Sunday, March 16, 2008


Natural Morality

As an Apathetic Agnostic ("We Don't Know and We Don't Care"), I find myself often in the uncomfortable position of being disliked by both sides in the theist/atheist divide.

Not that it stops me much.

Just to show that I have never gotten over the adolescent urge to poke a hornet's nest with a stick just to see what will happen, I have to say that I find PZ Myers reaction to John Gray's article in The Guardian, "The atheist delusion," somewhat puzzling. I'm not puzzled by his animosity to the article. PZ is quite correct that it misrepresents what science is. And the attempt to lay the Holocaust at the feet of science is bizarrely wrong. As PZ says, "Science is a kind of totemic word that is invoked by many ... to represent all kinds of nonsense," though he seems to miss the point that much the same could be said about the word "religion."

What puzzles me is PZ's characterization of Gray as an apologist for and defender of religion. Now, I know little about Gray (except that he is not the Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus guy) but the article lacks an overt argument for or defense of religion. Gray does say that religion answers a human need for meaning that may be better met by myth than explanation. But that is not a controversial statement. He does not say that is a good thing, merely a fact of human history. Certainly, Gray nowhere "assign[ed] responsibility for purpose and meaning to the gatekeepers of faith," as PZ claims.

It is hard to see how else Gray's piece can be called a defense of religion. It is true that he attacks atheism -- primarily a particular subgroup of atheists -- and that some or all of his thrusts are false or overstated. But that alone doesn't constitute a defense of religion ... unless you hold that any attack on atheism or atheists counts as support of religion. But that would be a false dichotomy. Surely the actions of any one atheist or group of atheists can be criticized (even badly) by people uninterested in or even antagonistic to religion without their becoming apologists for religion. It is either a logical error or a failure of objectivity to see every criticism of atheism as lauding religion.

But that's merely prelude to what really interests me. I think PZ mistakes Gray's argument about ethics ... perhaps with help from Gray. As Gray formulates it:

The problem with the secular narrative is not that it assumes progress is inevitable (in many versions, it does not). It is the belief that the sort of advance that has been achieved in science can be reproduced in ethics and politics. In fact, while scientific knowledge increases cumulatively, nothing of the kind happens in society.
The fact that Gray then goes on to give some bad examples of the lack of ethical progress does not obviate the point. Contrary to what PZ seems to think, Gray was not denying that something like progress has occurred. Indeed, Gray says: "The growth of knowledge is a fact only postmodern relativists deny." Nor does he deny that some forms of progress are good -- Gray asserts that the relatively new idea of liberal societies "are worth resolutely defending" against tyrannies such as religious theocracies would impose. The question is the connection between the two.

Recently, John Haught, the Georgetown University theologian who testified for the good guys in the Kitzmiller case, made a similar point in his article "Amateur atheists: Why the new atheism isn't serious."

Dawkins declares that the biblical God is a monster, Harris that God is evil, Hitchens that God is not great. But without some fixed sense of rightness how can one distinguish what is monstrous, evil or "not great" from its opposite? In order to make such value judgments one must assume, as the hard-core atheists [such as Nietzsche] are honest enough to acknowledge, that there exists somewhere, in some mode of being, a realm of rightness that does not owe its existence completely to human invention, Darwinian selection or social construction. And if we allow the hard-core atheists into our discussion, we can draw this conclusion: If absolute values exist, then God exists. But if God does not exist, then neither do absolute values, and one should not issue moral judgments as though they do.

Belief in God or the practice of religion is not necessary in order for people to be highly moral beings. We can agree with soft-core atheists [i.e. the so-called "New Atheists] on this point. But the real question, which comes not from me but from the hard-core atheists [such as Nietzsche], is: Can you rationally justify your unconditional adherence to timeless values without implicitly invoking the existence of God?
Without subscribing to Haught's argument for god-based morality, I think it is right to say that the New Atheists exhibit what can only be called "righteous indignation" at religious practices and believers. The question Haught and Gray are asking, each in a different way, is what is the source of the moral certitude necessary to sustain such indignation? Why should "progress," particularly in scientific knowledge, equate, in any way, to ethical progress? Certainly, such concepts do not derive from nature. Any such notion runs afoul of the is/ought problem, sometimes called the Naturalistic Fallacy. In it's relevant form, the is/ought argument holds that it is not justifiable to call something "good" simply because it is a fact of nature. A commonly given example of the fallacy would be "Social Darwinism" (to the extent such a philosophy/movement actually existed), where natural selection was taken to be something that, simply because it was natural, necessarily produced a "good" and, therefore, should be applied within human society.

So where do we get morality and ethics from? If it comes from our nature as social animals, then what "objective" standard can serve to separate "good" from "bad"? For example, if we conceive (for sake of argument and in accordance with Dawkins' "meme" hypothesis) that our "socialization gene/meme" has a number of alleles, two of which are "secular democracy" and "Islamic theocracy," what more would nature say about them, other than that each successfully "reproduces" (by maintaining themselves over time) and each serves the function of organizing the body of the society in which the alleles reside? The attributes of the Islamic theocracy allele, such as the subjugation of women and aggressive maintenance of the state religion, are merely the way the allele expresses itself morphologically and the only "natural" measure of the allele and the morphology it produces is whether it continues to maintain itself within the larger population of societies.

In fact, the stability and cohesion of Islamic theocracies may make them more robust than secular democracies. By nature's yardstick, the Islamic theocracy allele may well be the "better" one. Larry Moran recently suggested that the Islamic allele is not the best way to create a workable society in the 21st century, by which I took him to mean a society that takes advantage of all the technological advances (and, perhaps, the political freedoms) we in the West enjoy. But that itself is a value judgment that is not delivered by nature. The outcome of natural selection among societies could just as well favor a society based on 12th century technology exercised in a theocratic state. And if nature does not make one or the other a moral "good," does Larry's (or my) preference for the fruits of technology and the freedoms of liberal democracies do so? If so, why?

Without resort to some transcendent source of morality and relying merely on naturalism, can we justify our condemnation of the "evils" of religion or our expectations of ethical progress stemming from the expansion of human knowledge?

I think we may be able to do so, at least in part, but it will take more heavy lifting than PZ or others of the New Atheists have done so far. But more on that later.

I guess I would categorise myself as an apathetic atheist - I've not yet found any convincing evidence for the existence of god(s), and I can't be bothered to look any further.

So although I read and comment on PZ's blog, and I am quite happy to criticise the practical impact of various cults and religions, I am not motivated to ban or stop god(s) belief in other people.

The thing that disappoints me most is that many people make an emotional judgement about theism or atheism, and then try to find rational justifications for their views. I guess it is part of human nature (including nurture, possibly) to categorize events or people into binary categories. It's a shame when most of the world seems to be organised into smoothish gradations of grey. I think I can see why Gray and Haught criticize the rationale of the New Atheists.

I guess that if you and I were to sit down and draw up some more finely divided scale of belief (imperfect though that might be) where 1 is total theism and 10 is total atheism then we might find that people in neighbouring classes might get on reasonably well, but people from the extremes will never get on, or persuade distant classes by reason alone.

I'll be blogging on this more but one interesting point is that, if theism/atheism are subject to some sort of evolutionary process, that would mean that morals/beliefs are products of the action of local "environments" on individual "populations." One possible way to spread the kind of reason and education that we would like to see, is to spread "our" environment and incorporate more people into "our" population. Instead, the New Atheists are trying to set up their own separate population and drive even the moderate religious out of the population of "reasonable people," exactly the opposite strategy.
Or we could just speciate into the God Struck (Homo adoratio) and the God Free (Homo sapiens) and let those in the middle choose...
But, since the God Struck way outnumber the God Free as it is and most of the middle already lean toward the God Struck, it might just be that the God Free go extinct.
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