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Thursday, April 23, 2009

I love it when people explain why I'm amoral.

As many of you know, I keep an eye on Uncommon Descent, the blog of Wild Bill Dembski. Now, given that the Intelligent Design folk have gone to extreme lengths to claim that they aren't about religion, you'd think that this blog would focus mostly on research and science. You'd think that, but you'd be wrong, at least in part because intelligent design has about the same relationship to science as astrology. And that's not hyperbole, that's what Michael Behe says.* So, in any case, during my recent reading on Uncommon Descent I stumbled across a delightful little post that explains why atheists are either amoral, or logically inconsistent. Seriously. It's a short post, so I reproduce it here verbatim. And just so you know, the post I'm quoting itself is quoting someone else. I added quotation marks around the quoted last two-thirds or so to help keep it clear:

In an earlier post I lamented the apparent extinction of what I called “Nietzsche atheists,” by which I meant atheists with the courage and honesty to accept the bleak conclusions logically compelled by their premises. Some of our atheist friends seemed to not know what bleak conclusions I was referring to. Here is a comment that sums it up nicely. This post is adapted from kairosfocus’ comment to that earlier post. He refers to Hawthorne on ethics and evolutionary materialist atheism and writes:

"Make two assumptions:

(1) That atheistic naturalism is true.

(2) One can’t infer an “ought” from an “is.” Richard Dawkins and many other atheists should grant both of these assumptions.

Given our second assumption, there is nothing in the natural world from which we can infer an “ought.” And given our first assumption, there is nothing that exists over and above the natural world; the natural world is all that there is. It follows logically that, for any action you care to pick, there’s nothing in the natural world from which we can infer that one ought to refrain from performing that action.

Add a further uncontroversial assumption: an action is permissible if and only if it’s not the case that one ought to refrain from performing that action. This is just the standard inferential scheme for formal deontic logic. We’ve conformed to standard principles and inference rules of logic and we’ve started out with assumptions that atheists have conceded. And yet we reach the absurd conclusion: therefore, for any action you care to pick, it’s permissible to perform that action. If you’d like, you can take this as the meat behind the slogan “if atheism is true, all things are permitted.” For example if atheism is true, every action Hitler performed was permissible. Many atheists don’t like this consequence of their worldview. But they cannot escape it and insist that they are being logical at the same time."


So, in other words, if atheism is true, all things are permitted, and no behaviors can be condemned. Bring on the rape and murder! Yee-haa!

Yeah, right. That's really the way it works. The thing is, as you might guess, I find this argument to be very, very stupid and, as a consequence, tend to view people who advance it as stupid. It's the ethics equivalent of someone arguing that the sea swallows the sun once a day because it looks that way from the shore. You can see why they think that but, really, it's such a massive inferential blunder that you have to wonder if they're competent to feed and dress themselves.

The thing is, there are several basic problems with the reasoning above, and I want to talk about them very briefly. I say very briefly because I'm balanced on the cusp between wanting to do a good job, and wanting to do something more useful. So, hey, there you go.

First, it's important to keep in mind that the author's second assumption* "One can’t infer an “ought” from an “is.”" actually negates all morality. For a moment, take this assumption as true. Then assume we know god exists. Further, we know that god wishes us to do certain things. These are "is" facts. God IS real, his wishes ARE real. Based on the second assumption, however, we cannot use these "is" facts to infer any "oughts" (e.g. we "ought" to obey god). Now, one might argue that if god created the universe then he obviously knows what is and is not good, but this doesn't really follow. My parents "made" me yet, nevertheless, it's entirely possible for a parent to tell a child to do a bad thing.

Second, one of the problems here is the somewhat funky way that some strains of religious people*** view the relationship between ethics and behavior. Consider the insanely convoluted sentence, "an action is permissible if and only if it’s not the case that one ought to refrain from performing that action." It would have been simpler to write, "All actions are permitted unless there is a specific proscription against it," but that implies too much freedom. Instead, the emphasis is always on what we are not supposed to do, how we are not supposed to act. And this is a basic difference between atheism and many other belief systems. By any large, I think of things we shouldn't do as the exception rather than the rule. Further, I break the world down into three separate classes of behaviors: things I SHOULD do (because they're ethically good), things I SHOULD NOT do (because they're ethically bad), and things that don't really matter (because they're ethically neutral). So, for example, I SHOULD tell the truth and carry out my responsibilities, I SHOULD NOT steal, murder or rape, and it's entirely up to me whether I spend an hour of free time reading a book or playing a computer game.**** I think folks that argue about how under atheism, everything is good, are getting hung up on the fact that under atheism, most things are neither good nor bad.

Third, and finally, there's a basic problem with the idea that "oughts" cannot come from the natural world. Many, many behaviors that benefit both the group and the individual emerge naturally. Fish school, birds flock, chimpanzees groom each other, dogs hunt together, ants build nests. Hell- multicellular organisms are, themselves, prime examples of cooperation between different sub-organisms. From my perspective, the majority of our ethics emerge naturally out of what we are as a species and how we live. I will, however, concede that there's no way to explain weird shit like "Don't wear garments of more than one kind of fiber" without recourse to a sky beast.

And really, the final issue here is simple: I don't really understand how conservative Christians find their belief system satisfying and they don't really understand how I can find mine satisfying. Fair enough. But it's always dangerous to assume that just because you don't get it, it isn't there to be gotten. Many Christians are quite ethical, as are many atheists. Obviously the philosophies work for us. And one can't simply assume themselves out of an empirical fact.


* Since it's hard to find a clean link to back this up, check out the transcript for day 11 of the Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District et al. trial where we find the following exchange between Michael Behe and the lawyer for the plaintiffs:

Lawyer: And using your definition, intelligent design is a scientific theory, correct?

Behe: Yes.

Lawyer: Under that same definition astrology is a scientific theory under your definition, correct?

Behe: Under my definition, a scientific theory is a proposed explanation which focuses or points to physical, observable data and logical inferences. There are many things throughout the history of science which we now think to be incorrect which nonetheless would fit that -- which would fit that definition. Yes, astrology is in fact one, and so is the ether theory of the propagation of light, and many other -- many other theories as well.

Keep reading below that point because it's utterly fascinating.

** Note as well that the definition of "assume" is "To take for granted or without proof." In other words, it's just a "fact" that we impose on the situation because it's convenient. I will readily admit that any chain of logical inference must begin with one or more assumptions. That said, it's hardly the case that one cannot argue about the reasonableness of said assumptions. I may as well start with the assumption that "One cannot understand material reality if one believes in god" and go on to conclude that Christians can't be good scientists. The argument is in the assumption- the unreasonable assumption, I might add- and any logical conclusions therefrom are trivial.

*** I do not refer specifically to Christians here and, by and large, think this pertains only to the more wacky members of many religious groups.

**** For the sake of argument, I'm ignoring the possibility that my wife might want me to participate in an activity.

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