Nisbet and Kitcher

I see that my fellow bloggers have not been idle during my absence. Matt Nisbet has another one of his Dawkins bashing posts up. This time his champion is philosopher Phillip Kitcher.

Nisbet quotes Kitcher as follows, from a recent podcast of Point of Inquiry:

DJ Grothe: Did you write the book to sell secular humanism, or maybe in a more limited way atheism to the public? All these anti-God books are the real rage right now, Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens…your book is addressing some of the same topics, are you addressing the same audience…

Kitcher: Well I’m actually not happy with any of the books you mentioned, I haven’t read all of them. The ones I have read and the parts I have read of others, suggests to me that there is a biting tone about them, which is of course being picked up in the press. They are in many ways unremittingly negative books, they want to get rid of this stuff, they want to sink it, they want to throw it away.

DJ Grothe: Without providing much of an alternative, they are attacking…

Kitcher: Right, and without seeing that while religion has in so many places and at so many times given rise to extremes of human unhappiness and suffering and continues to do so today. On the other hand, it has also provided a lot of consolation, a lot of meaning, a lot of genuine uplift for people. I think to simply snatch this away, and in effect say, in the voice of a very commanding doctor, “Oh read a couple pages of the origin, and you will feel better in the morning,” Um, that’s simply not enough. I think there has to be something more about the contribution of secular humanism than we see at the moment.

Nisbet continues:

Later in the interview, Kitcher describes the central question of his book as “How do we make sense of human values and how do we move forward in a post-religious age?”

In part, he says his book addresses “why the kinds of things that you get from Dawkins and Dennett and so on, really strike people as shrill, unfeeling, and unsatisfying.” According to Kitcher, even if the critiques of religion are true, there is no reason for atheists to gloat, instead they should be actively exploring alternatives and replacements to religion. He says he is skeptical that you can tell people that religion is a myth and believe that the public will respond. Instead, Kitcher views the persistence of religion as a product of threat and unease in life and society. Without offering a positive vision and alternative to religion, supernatural beliefs will always exist.

There is so much to criticize here. Since Nisbet makes this complaint so often, perhaps he can give an example of what he means as an alternative or replacement to religion. The only alternative to religion of which I am aware is the one where you find comfort and satisfaction in your life through some combination of work and family. If something more than that is required I fail to see how atheism can provide it.

And I hardly think it is a fair criticism to say that Dawkins has some obligation to write books that satisfy people’s emotional cravings. His interest was in presenting certain facts and arguments regarding the existence of God in a way that people would find readable and understandable, and in that task he succeeded admirably. Books such as his play an important role in gaining acceptance for a secular view of the world.

But the most important point is that Kitcher’s now book Living With Darwin: Evolution, Design, and the Future of Faith, offers precisely nothing in the way of comfort to people who see evolution as a threat to morality and religious faith. Quite the contrary, he mostly just confirms their fears. His book is even more devastating for Christianity than those of his predecessors.

Unlike Dawkins and Dennett, who argue primarily that evolution menaces religion indirectly by refuting the argument from design in biology, Kitcher argues that evolution per se is a threat to Christianity. The final chapter of his book lays out his argument. After first describing the familiar argument that God and Darwin need not be in conflict, Kitcher writes:

I agree with some parts of this account. With any major piece of science, it is possible to idenitfy unsolved problems, and to conjure up a “case for balance,” a case that would require significant work and attention to expose for the charade it is. Present the “case for balance” in evolutionary theory to people who are already worried about the impact of Darwinain ideas on their children, people who lack the tools to identify its chicanery, people who don’t have the motivation to probe it as they would other heterodox claims, and it’s highly likely that you’ll success in rallying them to the cause. Where I demur, however, is in the thought that the worries about Darwinism are themselves unfounded, that the supporters of intelligent design have misguidedly erected a non-existent opposition between Darwinism and the religious doctrines central to their faith. (121) (Emphasis Added)

After briefly discussing a handful of famous people in history who have found Darwinism and faith to be incompatible, we get this:

Perhaps this is overwrought, even neurotic? I don’t think so. Romanes, like James, like the evangelical Christians who rally behind intelligent design today, appreciate that Darwinism is subversive. They recognize that the Darwinian picture of life is at odds with a particular kind of religion, providentialist religion, as I shall call it. A large number of Christians, not merely those who maintain that virtually all of the Bible must be read literally, are providentialists. For they believe that the universe has been created by a Being who has a great design, a Being who cares for his creatures, who observes the fall of every sparrow and who is especially concerned with humanity. Yet the story of a wise and loving Creator who has planned life on earth, letting it unfold over four billion years by the processes envisaged in evolutionary theory, is hard to sustain when you think about the details. (122-123)

More like impossible to sustain, by the time Kitcher gets through with it. After devoting the next ten pages or so to a cogent argument for why reconciling traditional Christianity with Darwin requires some serious mental gymnastics, he next turns to supernaturalism generally. He also devotes quite a few pages to a discussion of why the claims made in the New Testament can not be taken at face value.

I find Kitcher completely convincing in this. I agree that the picture of natural history depicted by evolutionary theory is effectively impossible to reconcile with the one found in traditional Christianity, and the problem goes well beyond a conflict with a literal interpretation of Genesis.

So where is the comfort in this? Where is the satisfying alternative to providentialist religion? Kitcher’s only nod in that direction is to conjure up something he calls “spiritual religion:”

Second, and more importantly, the critique of providentialism and supernaturalism leaves open the possibility of what I have called “spritual religion.” monotheisms can generate a version of spiritual religion by giving up the literal truth of the stories sontested by the enlightenment case. How can this be done? I shall illustrate the possibility by using the example of Christianity.

Spiritual Christians abandon almost all the standard stories about the life of Jesus. They give up on the extraordinary birth, the miracles, the literal resurrection. What survive are the teachings, the precepts and parables, and the eventual journey to Jerusalem and the culminating moment of the Crusifixion. That moment of suffering and sacrifice is seen, not as the prelude to some triumphant return and the promise of eternal salvation — all that, to repeat, is literally false — but as symbolic presentation of the importance of compassion and of love without limits. We are to recognize our own predicament, the human predicament, through the lens of the man of the cross. (152-153)

If you are inclined to favor this approach, rest assured that Kitcher very quickly proceeds to point out the two obvious problems with it. First, for anyone accustomed to supernatural religion, most people in other words, so watered down a conception of Christianity is unlikely to be very satisfying. Second, spiritual religion looks an awful lot like plain old secular humanism. Admiring at least some of the moral teachings of Jesus while denying his divinity is something most atheists are perfectly happy to do.

The remainder of the book offers some speculations for why providentialist religion continues to thrive in the US, despite the evidence against it. Kitcher offers much food for thought here, but he offers nothing to suggest how people are to find emotional comfort once they give up their faith in God.

So please, Dr. Kitcher, do not pretend that your book is any less biting or hard-nosed than those of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris or Hitchens. Do not pretend that you offer a soothing alternative to traditional religion, thereby filling a gap left by previous books. Do not think that you can lay waste to every substantive claim of traditional religion, and then mitigate the damage by writing:

Where does this barrage of arguments leave us? Darwin’s most militant defenders would insist that they take us all the way to secularism, even that they constitute a knockdown case for atheism. I dissent from that conclusion for two reasons. First, even though the enlightenment case demonstrates that, taken as literal truth, the stories and historical claims of all the religions about which we know are overwhelmingly likely to be mistaken, it does not follow that the world contains nothing beyond the entities envisaged by our current scientific picture of it. The history of inquiry shows that our horizons have often expanded to encompass things previously undreamed of in anyone’s natural philosophy. Whether inquiry will ever disclose anything that can satisfy the religious impulse, that can merit the title of “transcendent,” is itself doubtful, and we can be confident that, even if this remote possibility is realized, it will not approximate any of the stories our species has so fsr produced. It would be arrogant, however, to declare categorically that there is nothing that might answer to our vague conception of the transcendent — there is too much that we do not yet know. (152)

Of course, atheists do not declare categorically that there is nothing vaguely transcendent in the world. They argue simply that supernatural Gods are extremely unlikely to exist, on much the same basis as does Kitcher himself. But that’s a different post.

Comments

  1. #1 pough
    July 19, 2007

    I thought the demand for an alternative was strikingly stupid. The same argument applies to Easter Bunnies and Santa Claus, does it not? What do we replace them with? (The satisfactions of reality and maturity, perhaps.)

  2. #2 David D.G.
    July 19, 2007

    Why should there have to be an alternative at all? When you get rid of the superstitions, what remains is reality — or at least as close an understanding of it as we can manage, and getting closer all the time. Improved knowledge and understanding surely constitute something from which one can derive much comfort and satisfaction; at least, they beat the heck out of ignorance and “faith.” And if nothing else, at least what comforts we can get from reality generally ARE real, and are not just illusions. The promises of religion are empty fraud.

    Oh, and Jason, please use SpellCheck or something to catch your typos. Your writing will read so much better and more easily without them, and your arguments will come across not only with increased clarity but also with a greatly improved “image.” Think of it as being like brushing off lint, combing hair, and making a final “appearance check” before you go in for an interview to make sure that your appearance won’t detract from what you want to convey. Apart from this trivial problem, this was an excellent blog.

    ~David D.G.

  3. #3 Jason Rosenhouse
    July 19, 2007

    David-

    Yeah, the typos were a bit worse than usual in that one. I think I’ve corrected them all now. Sorry about that. Glad you liked the entry otherwise.

  4. #4 matthew
    July 19, 2007

    Holy crap Jason, great post but you seriously need to run it through a spell checker and let it grind away for a few minutes.

  5. #5 Blake Stacey, OM
    July 19, 2007

    Edit: “has so fsr produced” in final blockquote from Kitcher.

  6. #6 matthew
    July 19, 2007

    Doh, someone allready said it, sorry Jason, I know you’re trying to play catch up. Here, have a free laugh: http://youtube.com/watch?v=hEOck04wmUI

  7. #7 RBH
    July 19, 2007

    I recently read Kitcher’s book and had much the same impression, though you (Jason) expressed it much more clearly than I could have. Thanks!

  8. #8 Derek James
    July 19, 2007

    It sounds like Kitcher doesn’t do a great job of putting forth a positive secular alternative to religion, but I strongly disagree with the premise that one does not need to be articulated by atheists.

    Some ill-defined appeal to work and family just ain’t gonna do it. And some here don’t think there needs to be an alternative at all.

    But belief systems determine the basis for our morality and the meaning we derive from life. Your underlying value structure defines how you behave on a daily basis, how you resolve ethical conflicts, decide the merit of public policy, and find meaning the world. Unless a well-articulated system can be put forth that at the very least gives guidelines for these aspects of life, I don’t think the criticism is unwarranted.

    That doesn’t mean I don’t think the recent spate of atheism books isn’t a good thing. Antiquated belief structures need to be razed to the ground, but hard work needs to be done to build up new secular frameworks in their place. To not do so is inexcusable and lazy thinking.

  9. #9 Tyler DiPietro
    July 19, 2007

    Following from Derek, in my mind the main benefit of the “New Atheism” genre is that it’s mounting an effective counterattack to a temporally localized problem. Ancient belief structures are exerting far too much maleficent influence in the modern world. Having a slew of more intellectually honest critics instead of the usual conciliatory doublethink (in both secular and religious forms) is what is needed.

    Personally, I think Dawkins metaphor of religion as a “mind virus” is apt in that religions mutate to survive. I don’t think we can wipe out religion completely, it will eventually just morph into something else, and that something else will probably be unrecognizable to it’s antecedents. Religion resolved the cognitive dissonance incurred from the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment by assimilating a good deal of humanist philosophy and placing itself epistemologically “outside of science”. That’s a state of affairs that would have been unheard of to religious adherents just a few centuries ago. If the Enlightenment, p. II gets off the ground, as I hope it does, religion will find some way to resolve that cognitive dissonance as well.

    I don’t think it’s our job to articulate an “alternative” to religion, such presupposes that religion is the only extant belief system that performs the functions it’s adherents extol. Need a sense of wonder, a sense of belonging, a system of ethics, a system of aesthetics? Secular philosophy has been working in that area for quite a long time. And Dawkins, Harris, Dennett, Hitchens presuming to prescribe any such system would undermine their insistence that reasoning and conversation should establish their validity.

  10. #10 Blake Stacey, OM
    July 19, 2007

    One problem is that lately the best-sellers have been attacks upon religion in particular, whereas if you look at a well-read skeptic’s bookshelf, you’ll find a wider variety of volumes — candles shining in different directions into the dark, to use an allusive but optically implausible metaphor. In addition to criticizing other forms of pernicious credulity, some of these books put forth positive visions (naturally, incomplete and not applicable to everybody).

    We just need to do that all over again now that the audience is bigger.

    Need a sense of wonder, a sense of belonging, a system of ethics, a system of aesthetics? Secular philosophy has been working in that area for quite a long time. And Dawkins, Harris, Dennett, Hitchens presuming to prescribe any such system would undermine their insistence that reasoning and conversation should establish their validity.

    Yeah, what he said.

  11. #11 Tulse
    July 19, 2007

    But belief systems determine the basis for our morality and the meaning we derive from life. Your underlying value structure defines how you behave on a daily basis, how you resolve ethical conflicts, decide the merit of public policy, and find meaning the world. Unless a well-articulated system can be put forth that at the very least gives guidelines for these aspects of life, I don’t think the criticism is unwarranted.

    Which would explain why the far more secular European countries are cesspools of violence, murder, rape, and rampant grasping individualism.

  12. #12 Tyler DiPietro
    July 19, 2007

    “Yeah, what he said.”

    Your mom said it.

  13. #13 Derek James
    July 20, 2007

    Need a sense of wonder, a sense of belonging, a system of ethics, a system of aesthetics? Secular philosophy has been working in that area for quite a long time.

    Great…they’ve got it all figured out then. Which system(s) do you adhere to? As far as I can tell, the most coherent secular philosophical framework is Objectivism, and it endorses rational self-interest and radical egoism. It’s also a borderline cult.

    And Dawkins, Harris, Dennett, Hitchens presuming to prescribe any such system would undermine their insistence that reasoning and conversation should establish their validity.

    How exactly?

    Actually, it seems to me that Harris actually goes further than the others mentioned in offering the basis for a secular system of ethics. In The End of Faith he says: “A rational approach to ethics becomes possible once we realize that questions of right and wrong are really questions about the happiness and suffering of sentient creatures.” He actually develops these ideas somewhat, but falls far short of actually articulating a foundational framework for a moral system. And focus on happiness as the ultimate value isn’t really new…it’s another version of hedonism, and is conceptually flawed in a number of ways. But at least Harris did give it a half-hearted effort.

    In his recent follow-up to his debate with Al Sharpton on Hardball, Hitchens was pressed to reveal the basis for his distinctions between right and wrong. He basically said our sense of right and wrong is innate…that every person knows that it’s wrong to steal and kill and the rest of it, which is a hopelessly horrible answer. I’ve seen other atheists in interviews as evasive as Hitchens, and either unwilling or unable to even answer the question. It gives atheists a bad name.

    If you can’t articulate the basis of your meaning and morals, you’re no better than an unthinking fundamentalist religious adherent.

  14. #14 Tulse
    July 20, 2007

    Derek, are you completely unfamiliar with the area of ethics in philosophy? You know, Mill, Hume, Kant, Moore, Rawls, etc. etc. etc.? You think that all philosophers rely on the divine to root their systems?

    And using God as the “foundation” of an ethical system is merely a cheat — it simply shoves the problem of good onto the alleged judgement of an invisible, undetectable non-human being, rather than providing any sort of consistent rational foundational justification (just look at all the horrors that have been committed in the name of religion, including actions approved of by the highest authorities in those religions).

    If you want to know right from wrong, work it out yourself — don’t cede your rationality by asking some supernatural entity to tell you.

  15. #15 pough
    July 20, 2007

    But belief systems determine the basis for our morality and the meaning we derive from life. Your underlying value structure defines how you behave on a daily basis, how you resolve ethical conflicts, decide the merit of public policy, and find meaning the world. Unless a well-articulated system can be put forth that at the very least gives guidelines for these aspects of life, I don’t think the criticism is unwarranted.

    I’m not even remotely convinced by your assertions. I think far many more things than belief systems define and influence our morality, and I also think that belief systems are far weaker at affecting our decisions than most people assume. I also think that whether or not something is “well-articulated” has very little impact indeed on our morality.

    Is there any particular reason you’re asserting such things? It strikes me as being the kind of thing that people simply believe because it seems so right in their heads, but never really question. Here. I’ll question it for you.

    What’s the well-articulated belief system that inspires chimps to pass the sticky on the left hand side with no hope of getting anything in return? Where’s the lack of one that allows folks like Vitter to cheat on his wife while extolling marital virtue?

    Hitchens was right. We’re social animals. We probably have varying degrees of morality hardwired and some that we learn as we grow up; not by any well-articulated belief system or rationale, but simply by being a part of a group of others. You can find some spectacular morality in atheist Japan. You can find some horrific morality in Religiontown. It’s not a case of well-articulated belief systems, although they may have some impact. But how much, really?

    At least do more than just assert it’s important. Show that it’s important.

  16. #16 Tyler DiPietro
    July 20, 2007

    “Great…they’ve got it all figured out then. Which system(s) do you adhere to?”

    You completely missed the point. I was saying that in the absense of religion people would have to settle moral and other questions currently considered in the domain of religion through secular philosophical means. That doesn’t mean we adopt rigid systems, which is why your example here…

    “As far as I can tell, the most coherent secular philosophical framework is Objectivism, and it endorses rational self-interest and radical egoism. It’s also a borderline cult.”

    …has nothing to do with what I’m talking about. You’re right, Objectivism is a secular personality cult built around an amateur philosopher, and among professional and academic philosophers it occupies a similar status to creationism in biology. But what I mean when I invoke secular philosophy is a method of discourse. I have my own opinions on these matters, I’m sure you have your which greatly differ from mine (we’ll get to those below). But conversation and reasoning should be used to establish the validity of philosophical propositions, not mere appeals to supernaturalism. That “they’ve got it all figured out” is the exact opposite of the point I was making.

    However, it is worth noting that your interpretation, indicated by that latter comment, is an instance of the problem we have. People assume that a prescriptive belief system is needed to provide ethical judgements, “meaning”, etc. That’s the idea we should be repudiating, not sustaining by forging an ad hoc substitution.

    “Actually, it seems to me that Harris actually goes further than the others mentioned in offering the basis for a secular system of ethics. In The End of Faith he says: “A rational approach to ethics becomes possible once we realize that questions of right and wrong are really questions about the happiness and suffering of sentient creatures.” He actually develops these ideas somewhat, but falls far short of actually articulating a foundational framework for a moral system.”

    That is a foundational framework. You accept a certain premise as axiomatic and proceed from there. Going by the nature of the claim itself, it’s no more or less a foundational framework than theism. From a logical standpoint, the proposition of theistic morality is something along the lines of “Objective morality is feasible if and only if god(s) exist”. That is, it’s an antecedent/consequent relation, and if the antecedent is false, the consequent is also false. Simply saying we should assume god exists because it provides a foundational framework is nothing but rhetorical handwaving. If god doesn’t exist, then pretending he does provides no better a case for objective morality than a claim like “My friend Beckie says you should do this, and she’s always right.”

    “And focus on happiness as the ultimate value isn’t really new…it’s another version of hedonism, and is conceptually flawed in a number of ways. But at least Harris did give it a half-hearted effort.”

    Well, no one said it was new, but you misplace it’s ancestry. What Harris articulates is really a sort of utilitarianism rather than hedonism. Hedonism focuses on individual pleasure while utilitarianism tends to focus in some way or another on collective happiness.

    It’s also interesting to note that other disciplines have their own problems with a lack of a foundational basis. Epistemology is one such discipline, since in some form or another you always have to assume the reliability of subjective experience to justify claims to knowledge. Solipsism, while seemingly absurd and unfalsifiable, is a perfectly internally consistent idea. We don’t abandon the idea of knowledge simply because we can’t recursively prove it’s validity beyond a certain point. The recently deceased Richard Rorty actually argued against foundationalism of this sort.

    In a similar way, a provisional solution would simply be to assume that a certain state of affairs is desireable, but leave such assumptions open to change. Human happiness and suffering is as good a place to start as any.

  17. #17 MartinM
    July 20, 2007

    But belief systems determine the basis for our morality and the meaning we derive from life. Your underlying value structure defines how you behave on a daily basis, how you resolve ethical conflicts, decide the merit of public policy, and find meaning the world. Unless a well-articulated system can be put forth that at the very least gives guidelines for these aspects of life, I don’t think the criticism is unwarranted.

    I think you’ll find that many believers actually had morals before coming to religion. Religion doesn’t provide a basis for morality; it merely claims to. If we can demonstrate that claim to be false, a la Euthypro, for example, then where is the need for an alternative?

  18. #18 J. J. Ramsey
    July 20, 2007

    This quote from Massimo Pigliucci’s blog post “How to do away with religion, really” may clarify what Kitcher has in mind:

    Kitcher pointed out that all of those secular countries have two things in common: the kind of social networks that are largely absent from American society, and the sort of government-sponsored safety net that makes people feel like they aren’t constantly one short step from total ruin, should they lose their job or health insurance. Not coincidentally, these two things are precisely what churches worldwide strive to provide, and it works.

  19. #19 scienceteacherinexile
    July 20, 2007

    Actually, I believe religion is more detrimental to morality. Speaking from my experience, those true believers believe that they are not capable of being good, so as long as they ask God to forgive them, it’s cool. We have all sinned and deserve Hell. This really bothers me, because with that logic, there is not a distinction between me blaspheming God and someone killing their wife. They’re both sins, God will forgive both of us if we ask, and we will both get into Heaven. Sorry, I can’t buy it.
    And speaking of Heaven and Hell, most people I knew growing up (myself included) did not go to church or pray for forgiveness out of a sense that it was the right thing to do. We prayed because we were too scared that God would char-broil our ass for eternity if we didn’t.
    Excuse me, but when I finally broke away from my thorough childhood indoctrination, there was no empty space there. I did not need a “secular patch” to get me over my “religious addiction”.
    I believe my morality to be greatly improved. For example, “fag bashing” when I was a young man did not contradict my indoctrination. I never did it, though I know others from my church who did, and I don’t mean verbally. For me it never seemed right, and after my enlightenment it became downright repulsive. Why? Because I learned that I am in control of my morals, and I have the responsibility to THINK about what is right or wrong.
    And you know what, even without a belief system, it is 12 or so years on, and I have not become the selfish, amoral, evil, (insert noun here) that some seemed to think we all will become without relion-based morals. Thank you very little.

  20. #20 matthew
    July 20, 2007

    I went to church when I was little, and though morality must have come up in church, I wasn’t paying attention, church was boring. Morality was taught to me by my parents. They didn’t use the bible to teach me right from wrong, not because they didn’t believe in the bible, but because they didn’t need it. Their own life experiences verified the teachings that they received from their own parents. Just as my life experiences have verfied the teachings of my parents.

  21. #21 Caledonian
    July 20, 2007

    You’re right, Objectivism is a secular personality cult built around an amateur philosopher, and among professional and academic philosophers it occupies a similar status to creationism in biology.

    Ah, but among professional and academic scientists, philosophy occupies a similiar status to creationism in biology.

    I certainly won’t be arguing that Objectivism is rigorously correct, but why should we care what philosophers say about it?

  22. #22 Derek James
    July 20, 2007

    Some people apparently got the idea that I’m a religious apologist. Well, no. I’m an atheist. And I don’t think value systems based on religious belief are worthwhile.

    Also, I don’t think value systems based on innate morality are worthwhile. If you’re primarily appealing to your innate sense of morality, you’re essentially deferring to what your genes want. And what your genes want is simply to replicate. This usually manifests in valuation of things like a healthy, reproductively viable mate, the accumulation of wealth/power, etc. However there is an evolutionary basis for altruistic behavior. There is kin selection. But the point is, if you’re appealing to your innate sense of morality, you’re passively relying on valuing the sorts of things evolution has programmed you to, rather than using reason to sort it out. As Dawkins says in The Selfish Gene, “We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.” Hitchens is apparently fine with passively following the marching orders of the replicating molecules in his body. I’m not.

    I agree that value systems should be developed from a rational, scientific standpoint, not a supernatural one. I’m familiar with utilitarianism, categorical imperatives, and the like. Yes, there has been a great deal of moral philosophizing, but in the modern age, as an atheist, I see very few cohesive, organized value systems from which to choose. Is it the position of most people here that atheists must necessarily assemble their value systems piecemeal? That there is no hope in finding some common values and actually meeting and organizing on the basis of that common ground?

  23. #23 Blake Stacey, OM
    July 20, 2007

    First, let me say that I’d like to see an exposition of secular value systems and non-religious moral philosophy, written at the same level and aimed to the same audience as the books of Le Nouvel Athéisme. After the tearing-down comes the time to build up, and all that. Still, some points:

    0. Past a certain (ill-defined) point, building a value system “piecemeal” sounds to me beneficial and appealing, just as I believe developing one’s musical, literary and artistic tastes individualistically is a good idea.

    1. Genes don’t want. The word “selfish” is applied to them as a verbal convenience.

    2. The “selfish gene” model is a mean-field theory, only strictly applicable to panmictic populations anyway.

    3. When we study the evolutionary origins of altruism, we begin with the observation that human beings (and animals in general) can show behavior which doesn’t look like crude self-interest. Explaining that phenomenon in terms of DNA sequences does not obviate the original observation, any more than the discovery that atoms are mostly empty space and the solidity of matter is an emergent property due to Pauli exclusion makes it hurt any less when I stub my toe against a rock.

  24. #24 Rieux
    July 20, 2007

    Jason wrote:

    And I hardly think it is a fair criticism to say that Dawkins has some obligation to write books that satisfy people’s emotional cravings.

    I agree, but it shouldn’t go unnoticed that Dawkins wrote an entire book, Unweaving the Rainbow, precisely in an attempt to show that “emotional cravings” for meaning, happiness, awe, etc., need not go unsatisfied just because one rejects religious faith and the conclusions based on same. And both Harris’ The End of Faith and (especially at the end) Hitchens’ god is not Great argue that there are very real reservoirs of value that remain to be tapped even by rational people who hold a naturalistic account of the universe.

    So I think the notion that these guys’ work urges people to give up religion without offering any hint of how they are to make sense of meaning and value afterward can only be maintained in ignorance of what the three have actually written. It is, as usual, a strawman argument.

  25. #25 pough
    July 20, 2007

    Derek, I didn’t make any assumptions about your religion, I simply don’t agree with what you’re saying and I thought I stated it relatively clearly. You seem to be arguing that without a “well-articulated belief system” – which does not have to be a religion – we will descend into some kind of zombie fuckfest. I don’t think that will happen, even though it sounds kinda fun. I also don’t think that a belief system has very much impact on people. Once again, do you have any reason to think it does?

  26. #26 Tyler DiPietro
    July 20, 2007

    “Ah, but among professional and academic scientists, philosophy occupies a similiar status to creationism in biology.”

    Well, for some that is true, but I don’t think that attitude is as prevalent as the attitude toward creationism from biologists (and other scientists).

    As for why we should care about what philosophers say about it, well, it would presume to value of philosophy as a discipline. I’m not aware of your position on that. My own position is that, while hardly as rigorous as science and mathematics, academic philosophy is still a complex discipline that requires the assimilation of a lot of background subject matter to understand. Whether that implies the value of a consensus among philosophers is, I guess, and open question.

  27. #27 Derek James
    July 20, 2007

    So I think the notion that these guys’ work urges people to give up religion without offering any hint of how they are to make sense of meaning and value afterward can only be maintained in ignorance of what the three have actually written. It is, as usual, a strawman argument.

    I haven’t read Hitchens’ book, but as I said, in speaking appearances promoting the book he seems satisfied in relying on an innate sense of morality, which again is simply deferring to our evolutionary dispositions rather than using our nice big brains to figure out the best way to live. Of the New Atheists, Harris goes the furthest, I think. But from what I have read, these authors are much more concerned with the tearing down rather than the building up.

    And pough, the actions you take are a direct result of your beliefs about the world and the things you value (i.e. your goals). I’m studying to be a cognitive scientist, focused primarily on neocortical modeling and AI. Any system with agency has beliefs (things it thinks about the world), values, and goals. These are either a result of evolution, learning/reasoning, or direct programming. A chess-playing program has the implicit goal of winning chess games. It plays in a way to try to bring about a winning state. A chess-playing program programmed to move randomly essentially has no goals. A biological organism has the implicit goals of propagating its genes into future generations. An ant acts in ways that maximize the propagation of its genes into future generations. It has implicit intermediate goals (eating, finding shelter, etc.), but they serve the overarching goal of gene propagation, and they were brought about via evolutionary processes.

    Mammals with larger brains can acquire information and act in ways that are either in accord with the implicit goals of their genes, or they can choose not to. If they rely on their innate sense of morality, again they’re deferring to their evolutionary dispositions.

    If you’d like the make the case that how you behave is not based upon your beliefs, values, and goals, I’d certainly like to hear it.

  28. #28 pough
    July 20, 2007

    If you’d like the make the case that how you behave is not based upon your beliefs, values, and goals, I’d certainly like to hear it.

    I’m saying that how you behave isn’t based (much) on an external set of well-articulated beliefs. A well-articulated set of beliefs would come from a person’s innate and socialized morality. That’s why insisting on such a thing first, or the bottom would drop out of our world, sounds odd to me.

    How many of our moral behaviours are the result of socialization from a time when anything well-articulated would be comprehensible?

    …he seems satisfied in relying on an innate sense of morality, which again is simply deferring to our evolutionary dispositions rather than using our nice big brains to figure out the best way to live.

    I don’t know about you, but when I defer to my evolutionary disposition, it includes a nice big brain that helps me figure out the best way to live. Our reason and our morality are a part of us.

  29. #29 DuWayne
    July 20, 2007

    Derek James -

    I don’t really understand why you think there must be a “cohesive, organized value systems from which to choose.” I don’t think that very many people actually develop their sense of morality and ethics that way. Indeed, I think it is counterintuitive to think that they should.

    The biggest problem with using religious dogma to define one’s morality, is that it is basically an amoral approach. One of the major problems with the religious approach is obvious, that fear of God is required to keep us in line, the assumption that without God, there is no reason to behave.

    But this misses the larger issue, which you define with the question; “Is it the position of most people here that atheists must necessarily assemble their value systems piecemeal?” That is most certainly my position, but I would extend the same necessity to theists and deists as well (FYI, I am a theist). While there are and should be, some social standards for social interactions, it is absolutely imperative that every individual come to terms with their own sense of morality, ethics and social justice. To depend entirely on external structures to guide our actions, one falls into the same trap as those who depend on a fear of God to guide them. Essentially replacing the fear of God, with a fear of social stigma or fear of falling outside social norms, this is still an amoral approach.

  30. #30 Russell Blackford
    July 21, 2007

    The crucial point is that the existing religions are, as Kitcher says, overwhelmingly likely to be mistaken. That is enough to leave in ruins the moral authority of people who base their authority on leadership positions within those existing religions. And that is what really matters, right now.

    As for finding secular bases for morality in the absence of God, there’s a vast amount of good stuff out there. Start with Peter Singer and Derek Parfit, perhaps. The problem with it is that it provides plenty of theorising about morality without God. But that’s of limited practical use when the world is still full of religious hierarchs of various kinds getting away with making claims to moral authority. What was desperately needed – and is finally being provided by Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, Onfray and others – was a body of accessible, readable, popular, contemporary material actually talking about the elephant in the room, i.e. the fact that all this religion stuff lacks rational credibility.

  31. #31 Derek James
    July 21, 2007

    I’ve agreed that the work of tearing down has been admirably done by Dawkins, Harris, Dennett, and so on, but unless you just want to preach to the atheist choir, who is the intended audience? True believers or people sitting on the fence are unlikely to embrace the message that their beliefs are rationally bankrupt when the alternative is a moral vacuum. “Go read some Kant or Peter Singer” isn’t all that useful. Like I said, I give kudos to Harris for putting in the effort of discussing what might be the scaffolding of a moral system, but to me it feels half-hearted and tacked on to his legitimate assault on religion.

    I just don’t see why asking these guys to provide their basis of meaning and morals, asking them to lay their cards on the table, is such a bad thing.

  32. #32 Jason Rosenhouse
    July 21, 2007

    Derek-

    My remark about work and family was in the context of finding meaning in your life. Some people believe that without religion life has no meaning or purpose, and I was simply saying that from an atheistic standpoint you just have to settle for creating your own meaning.

    If the issue is justifying morality without God, I’m sure you’re aware that there is a large literature on the subject. My own quick answer would be that I take for granted certain basic principles about fairness and respect for other people. If you ask me to defend such principles in terms of something simpler I probably could not do it, but the fact remains that the principles I have in mind are not anything anyone really disagrees with.

    I don’t think this makes my morality any more relativistic than the morality of a religious person. A Christian world view requires not only that you first decide that God is real, but also that you have some way of knowing His wishes and that those wishes ought to be respected. At some point the Christian likewise has to take certain things for granted. The issue isn’t relativism vs. absolutism. Rather, the issue is what principles you choose to take as foundational in thinking about morality.

  33. #33 DuWayne
    July 21, 2007

    Derek -

    I think that you are operating under two flawed suppositions.

    First, you assume that because they are trying to dissemble the rationality of faith, they become entirely responsible for filling every vacuum created. Look at it from a academic standpoint, say in mathematics. If a mathematician disproves another mathematician’s theorem, does that mathematician become responsible for replacing it, just because they pointed out a fatal flaw in the reasoning? What if that theorem has been fulfilling an important function? Why would it be necessary for the same mathematician who pointed out the flawed reasoning to also fill the vacuum? Indeed, why shouldn’t the mathematician who’s theorem failed, take the opportunity to address the flaws?

    Second, you’re assuming that the existing framework the person of faith has operated from, must be abandoned wholesale, with the dissembling of their faith. Going back to the analogy of the mathematician, if it has served it’s function up until the flaws were pointed out, is it necessary to abandon the whole thing? Why not use the existing framework and address the problems inherent to the flaws that have been discovered?

    When I rejected my fundamentalist faith, I didn’t abandon the entire moral framework that it had provided me with. Indeed, much of that framework underlies the strong moral frame that I currently live my life by. All that I really abandoned, when I rejected the notion of revealed religion and the dogma of divine retribution, was my bigotry. I still believe that I should give of myself, to my community, in every way possible. I still believe that I should love people unconditionally. I still believe that I should treat people with kindness, compassion and empathy. I still believe that I should be true to my word and faithful to my commitments. But rather than doing this because my God demands it of me, I do it because I demand it of me. I do it because I believe that society would be a much better place, if more people tried to live those ideals.

  34. #34 R
    July 21, 2007

    I really don’t understand what the problem is supposed to be.

    The issue is that there is a body of well-written, somewhat aggressive popular literature coming out that attacks the foundations of religion, but does not contain much in the way of moral philosophy. I just don’t understand why the moral philosophy should appear in these very same books.

    It appears to me that beleaguered secular moral philosophers like me (when I’m wearing that particular hat) desperately needed someone to be writing the kinds of books that Dawkins, etc., are writing. Such books tend to take off some of the heat from religious hierarchs who want to promote a specifically religious morality. From my viewpoint, the books by Dawkins et al do no harm at all, and probably do considerable good. They give expression to a voice – that of critics of religion – which has been pretty much silenced in the popular culture thanks to the widespread (bad) idea that religion must be respected. They will tend to legitimise atheism as one of the worldviews that must be accommodated in democratic societies. They will tend to empower other atheists to stand up and publicly reject specifically religious morality. They will actually help persuade some people to abandon their religious beliefs (as Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian, for example, helped persuade me when I was younger). Apart from those who are persuaded directly, many more will become aware of atheism as an intellectually viable alternative that they might consider.

    Meanwhile, the world will not degenerate into looting and chaos. There are many reasons why a non-religious morality grounded in compassion and the need for social order would continue, even if religion entirely collapsed. Morality is something that we invent and constantly revise, but it is not just arbitrary. For beings like us, with our evolved physical and psychological needs, our natural responsiveness to each other, tendency to form societies, etc., the basics of morality are inevitable. What is not inevitable is the particular miserable, pathological morality promoted by the Vatican, which only has any credibility because the Vatican still has a certain prestige. Its prestige is (fortunately) weakened whenever its fundamental doctrines are called into serious question.

    I say, “Good for Dawkins!” I’m glad to see people publicly attacking the morality of misery at its very foundations, i.e. the supernaturalist doctrines on which religious moralists base their claims to authority.

  35. #35 Russell Blackford
    July 21, 2007

    Damn! That “R” immediately above was actually me.

  36. #36 Bob Evans
    July 23, 2007

    On July 20,at 2:12 AM Tyler DiPietro said:

    “But what I mean when I invoke secular philosophy is a method of discourse. I have my own opinions on these matters, I’m sure you have yours which greatly differ from mine”…”But conversation and reasoning should be used to establish the validity of philosophical propositions, not mere appeals to supernaturalism. That “they’ve got it all figured out” is the exact opposite of the point I was making.”

    Bravo! Tyler. That puts you pretty much in agreement with Boethius, the great 5th century philosopher and academic, in terms of the proper decorum in which an intelligent discussion or debate should take place. While he rarely brought his Christianity into the public arena as a philosopher, he did feel that Christianity and philosophy were basically the same concept where they pertain to natural truth, although he taught and lectured strictly in secular terms. He was a great philosopher who happened to also be a devout Christian, and, arguably, he eventually died a “martyr” for his Christian belief.

    My point is that, like yourself, Boethius had purely a philosophical view of what constitutes knowledge and reality. In his famous work,”Consolations of Philosophy” he made no mention at all of Christ or the Christian religion. Bertrand Russell saw him as “…a man of great learning and great zeal, free from superstition and fanaticism…” “He would have been remarkable in any age…” said Russell, of Boethius.

    Speaking of Russell, I think that we all might benefit in these debates by taking note of his own words of wisdom: “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts.”

    My hunch is that lurking theists have been heartened and impressed with the tone and direction of this thread. Perhaps there has been an unspoken fear in our ranks that an increasingly secular society will equate to an untenable situation in terms of morals, values and mores. This discussion has shown me that that fear is likely unfounded. The fact is, that children and grandchildren of both our philosophies will be sharing classrooms and playgrounds together in the years ahead. I don’t think that either persuasion will completely hold sway in our lifetimes. For that reason, it’s time to recognize that acrimony, frivality and childish pettyness are absolutely useless in these debates.

  37. #37 Caledonian
    July 23, 2007

    he did feel that Christianity and philosophy were basically the same concept where they pertain to natural truth,

    Even by the standards of the day, that statement seems completely indefensible.

  38. #38 Derek James
    July 23, 2007

    I guess my main problem with the spate of new atheist writing is that after being an atheist most of my life, I’m tired of debating about religion and defining what I don’t believe. It’s a lot like the creationism/evolution debate. I understand the need for vigilance against ignorance, but basically I’m at a point where I take for granted that the other side is grotesquely flawed, and I just want to move forward.

    I’ve visited a couple of freethinker/secular humanist meetings and have mostly been repelled by the lack of a positive agenda, and the incessant sniping at religion. I guess I’m tired of hanging out and talking with atheists who dwell on the reasons why they don’t believe in certain things rather than defining themselves in terms of what they do believe.

    One could argue that we simply don’t have that luxury, since we’re in the minority, and so on and so forth. But that sounds like excuse-making to me. Religious views will be the prevailing majority for a long time to come, simply because they are so compelling and so deeply entrenched.

  39. #39 DuWayne
    July 23, 2007

    Derek James -

    What I think your missing here, is that this just isn’t important to everyone, nor does it just apply to atheists.

    If you asked my dad where he derives his meaning in life, he would probably look at you as though you have a third arm growing out of your chest. To him, it’s an essentially meaningless question, not dissimilar to the question of what caused the big bang. It just is, don’t really care, don’t want to waste time thinking about it. I think that a fair majority of people, atheist or not, just aren’t that philosophical.

    I think that you have a point, when it comes to dealing with people who are being encouraged to give up their faith. It’s a hard, painful journey, that of rejecting things that we hold dear, that can in many ways, be defining characteristics of our lives. The problem with offering something to replace it with, is that there is often an awful lot to replace and it is different for everyone. Using myself for an example, when I rejected dogma and revealed religion, I did and continue to, cling to certain faith notions – not so much Belief, but a hope or ideal. For others, they will have other needs, different notions of what they need to see replaced in their lives.

    I guess what I am saying, is that it all boils down to what the individual’s needs are. This goes for theists too. The problem that I have with lumping all the religious together and all non-theists or even atheists together, is that we all have different needs, different desires and different moral frames. Some people can get through life, without giving the question of Meaning, a second or even first thought. Others, like myself, will ponder it until the day we die, even as we do our best to act upon the meaning that we find along the way.

    While I think it is not only possible, but very healthy, to take part in a dialog about Meaning and what we need from life and community, ultimately it is necessary for one to answer or ponder it for themselves. Finding a ready made framework to simply accept and follow, even based in secular philosophy, is ultimately dogmatic and as potentially dangerous as any religious fundamentalism.

  40. #40 Kevin
    July 23, 2007

    “Finding a ready made framework to simply accept and follow, even based in secular philosophy, is ultimately dogmatic and as potentially dangerous as any religious fundamentalism.’

    Posted by: DuWayne | July 23, 2007 04:01 PM

    see, Dwayne, that is where your bias comes in. You are conflating two very different approaches and ignoring that one fixates on a pre-concived and pre-printed “truth” while the other is based on questioning, measuring, evaluating and a sober determination of a possible solution.

    Secular Humanism has a ready made framework: What you see is what exists, all actions in the world have a cause, and everthing we see is directly related to what came before it and can be explained by natural causes.

    Secondly, the goal of the framework is to make our own lives and that of our fellow humans and other animals and plants that live in the world, HAPPIER.

    Yes, happier, whatever that may be. easier access to food and shelter, more accurate explainations of phenomena, more sex, children, toys….

    This is INHERENTLY different than and not at all as potentially dangerous as any religious fundamentalism, usually described as fanatics following rigid rules who want to control everyone’s lives.

  41. #41 Kevin
    July 23, 2007

    DuWayne I’ve judged you wrong:

    “I am a theist and a secular humanist”

    I thought you were with Rob and were calling yourself a christian. and people can of course call themselves what they want, but I think that some consistent usage is needed.

    SO! Since you did say: “Finding a ready made framework to simply accept and follow, even based in secular philosophy” now I have to argue that your are not a secular humanist because you should know that the framework is the question, not the answer. how can you follow a question?

  42. #42 DuWayne
    July 23, 2007

    Kevin -

    Secular Humanism has a ready made framework: What you see is what exists, all actions in the world have a cause, and everthing we see is directly related to what came before it and can be explained by natural causes.

    All right, so I’m following you here, but this is not, in itself a moral framework. But then you follow with;

    Secondly, the goal of the framework is to make our own lives and that of our fellow humans and other animals and plants that live in the world, HAPPIER.

    Which, while it is a moral frame, even a benevolent one that is quite similar to my own frame, is not an inherent assumption that follows the secular humanist frame you present. There is no reason to assume that everyone who follows the framing of secular humanism, is inherently altruistic.

    This is INHERENTLY different than and not at all as potentially dangerous as any religious fundamentalism, usually described as fanatics following rigid rules who want to control everyone’s lives.

    How so? While extremely altruistic, the frame you present is dogmatic, that is, the assumption that the goal is to make everyone happier. You’ve stated a goal, in the form of a moral imperative. This implies that action must be taken, to achieve this moral imperative. How difficult is it to imagine that people will come up with methods by which, they believe this is best achieved and that some will take adherence to those methods, or rules, to the point of fanaticism? Logic follows that not everyone will agree on the methods necessary to achieve that goal – indeed some might argue that the goal is mistaken. On several different levels, you end up with conflicting dogma, entirely outside the context of religion.

    I thought you were with Rob and were calling yourself a christian. and people can of course call themselves what they want, but I think that some consistent usage is needed.

    Is not Christianity a form of theism, even the rather non-dogmatic brand that I follow? If I followed Judaism or Islam, the statement would be just as accurate. In the context of other discussions the specific theism is relevant, in this one it really isn’t.

    SO! Since you did say: “Finding a ready made framework to simply accept and follow, even based in secular philosophy” now I have to argue that your are not a secular humanist because you should know that the framework is the question, not the answer. how can you follow a question?

    No, moral framework is not a question, are you paying any attention to the context of this discussion? Moral frames are subjective rulesets that we use to guide our lives. One can and indeed, everyone does, follow a moral framework.

    I will try to respond to your other comments, at Rob’s when I can. Unfortunately, my son just crashed his favorite imaginary airplane and is demanding I help him construct another just like it.

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