Sunday, May 13, 2007

5: Well, that just about wraps it up for Dawkins

If you enjoy this essay, please consider purchasing a copy of Where Dawkins Went Wrong and Other Theological Blockbusters from this address - a collection of  some of the best and most-linked-to essays from this blog and its predecessor. It contains my five part assault critique of 'The God Delusion', along with essays on gay bishops, the 'gospel' of Judas, the 'legend' of the three wise men.

And your feet can only walk down two kinds of roads
Your eyes can only look through two kinds of windows
Your nose can only smell two kinds of hallways
You can touch and twist
And turn two kinds of doorknobs
You can either go to the church of your choice
Or you can go to Brooklyn State Hospital
You'll find God in the church of your choice
You'll find Woody Guthrie in Brooklyn State Hospital
And though it's only my opinion
I may be right or wrong
You'll find them both
In the Grand Canyon
At sundown
           Bob Dylan

When Dawkins talks about 'religion', I think he means simply 'belief in "God" ': the opinion that the universe and everything in it including us was designed and created by a superhuman and supernatural intelligence. Confucianism and Buddhism are not to be regarded as religions because they don't include a 'God'. It's a a perfectly good definition; but it leaves us wanting some other word for all the stories, rituals, ceremonies, ethical teachings, taboos, songs and coffee mornings that account for the majority of what goes on in church.
I suggest that we use the word cultus to refer to religion in this wider sense. 'Cult' sounds too sinister and 'quidquid Latine dictum sit, altum sonatur.'
Now, you can believe in a supernatural designer without participating in cultus and you can participate in cultus without believing in a designer. You might think that the universe was designed but not feel the slightest inclination to talk to the person who designed it; you might pray to a supernatural being without thinking that he or she designed the universe. Communism has a collection of songs, stories, rituals, heroes, holy days, holy places, a holy book and even holy relics. (So does the Tolkien Society, come to that.) You could reasonably describe communism as a form of cultus; but not as a religion, because it rather emphatically doesn't believe in 'God'.
Once you've spotted this distinction, a lot of Dawkins' hobby-horses begin to look decidedly wobbly. He gets extremely and repeatedly annoyed about the phrase 'Christian child'–how, he invects, can a child possibly know whether or not he's a Christian? And isn't foisting the term on him a form of intellectual child-abuse? (Clue: No.) Dawkins is pretending that he thinks that the phrase 'Christian child' refers to a child's religion–his or her opinion about the existence or lack of existence of a supernatural designer. In fact it almost certainly refers to the cultus in which the child participates. When you ask if a child is Catholic or Jewish you are asking, very innocently, which rituals he feels comfortable with–whether he looks forward to Christmas or Hannukah, whether he says 'Hail Mary Full of Grace!' or 'Hear Oh Israel! The Lord Thy God is One!' when he wakes up, whether feeding him flesh on Friday or pig-flesh on any day would be likely to upset him.
Dawkins also got awfully cross in the newspapers because some guy who played a monster in Doctor Who remarked that he would find it comforting to believe in God. Dawkins fulminated that whether it was comforting or not doesn't make any difference: all that matters is whether it is true and the minute someone showed him some proof he'd change his mind blah-de-blah. But clearly, Peter Kay had meant 'It would be a comfort to me to participate in a cultus,': Dawkins pretended that he thought he meant 'It would be a comfort to me to be convinced of the existence of a superhuman designer.'
Towards the end of the God Delusion, Dawkins reproduces A.A Milne's poem 'Binker' in full. Binker was one of Christopher Robin's 'imaginary friends'. Binker and Christopher Robin go everywhere together, but only Christopher Robin can see him. Many children imagine that they have such friends, and Dawkins is interested in the possibility that they are 'a higher illusion, in a different category from ordinary childhood make believe' and that 'at least some of these normal children who have imaginary friends really do believe they exist, and, in some cases, see them as clear and vivid hallucinations.'
As ever, Dawkins reading of the poem isn't especially sensitive. A.A Milne's 'Binker' isn't something that Christopher Robin really believes in, but a playful fib which he tells the grown-ups. He's no different from Pooh and Piglet in that respect.
So I have to say to people when they offer me a sweet
'Oh Binker wants a chocolate, so could you give me two?'
Then I have to eat it for him cos his teeth are rather new.

'What's twice eleven?' said I to Pooh,
('Twice what?' said Pooh to me.)
'I think it ought to be twenty-two.'
'Just what I think myself,' said Pooh....

Dawkins muses that perhaps people who believe in God have retained their imaginary friends into adult life; or at any rate, that the 'God' phenomenon and the 'Binker' phenomenon could be related.
I'm a lot less offended by this idea than Dawkins presumably intends me to be. When he says that I believe in an invisible man in the sky or a creationist micro-manager, I find myself hurling the book across the coffee shop and saying 'What you are talking about has nothing to do with the God of my religion. Why don't you go and talk to some Christians, you insufferably silly little man.' But when he gets to the description of the 'imaginary friend' I have to admit that I said 'Yes. Danged if it isn't a bit like that.'
In the unlikely event of any of Dawkins' groupies reading this far, I'm sure they will rub their knuckles together with glee and say 'Famous god-blothering bogger admits Jesus is a large purple rabbit called Harvey.' I don't, of course. But I concede that 'God is a bit like Binker' is a much more useful statement than 'God is a sky-fairy.'
At the very least, the idea could provide a frame of reference that would allow atheists and normal people to communicate with each other. If I said 'I have to wear this hat, because otherwise my imaginary friend will be very, very sad,' you might think me slightly eccentric (OK, extremely eccentric) but you'd hardly get angry about it. But if I said that the name of my imaginary friend was 'Allah' and not 'Binker' after all, then some people wouldn't just get angry: they'd actually demand parliamentary legislation to ban hats. (Not all hats: just the kinds of hats that Binker likes.) If Binker gave me good advise–if he told me to give money to a good cause, or have a proper rest once a week, you'd probably smile and say 'Good old Binker!' But if Binker told me to do something silly–draw on the wall with my crayons, say, or invade Iraq, you would be more likely to say 'Well, I don't think you can have heard Binker properly'.
Are atheists simply funny people who 'can't see Binker'? Or is it that they can see him, but interpret him differently? Perhaps atheistssay 'I think Binker is a product of my own mind' whereas theists say 'No, I think Binker comes from outside of me,' and add 'We think he's somehow related to the Great Douglas who wrote the universe.' (Well, most of them would. There are people who talk to Binker, who think it's important to talk to Binker, but who think that Binker is something that comes from inside themselves. This approach is particularly popular among serious pagans like Alan Moore. There are also people who say 'Maybe Binker comes from inside me, and maybe he comes from the outside. I don't know and I don't think it matters.' These are known as 'Anglicans'.) I don't see any reason why the friendless minority can't indulgently make space for imaginary bales of hay for Binker's reindeer; while the the rest of us politely explain what Binker thinks to the funny people who can't see him. Most of the time, we'd probably get on reasonably well.
Dawkins says that the phenomenon of the imaginary friend brings him about as close as he can get to understanding what it would be like to have a religion. But I submit that this isn't true.
Consider. On page 117 he quotes an interview with Douglas Adams in which Adams says he was converted from vague agnosticism to atheism as a result of reading The Blind Watchmaker. Dawkins exclaims:
Douglas, I miss you. You are my cleverest, wittiest, tallest and possibly only convert. I hope this book might have made you laugh–though not as much as you made me.
It is, to say the least, suspicious that this is how the poster-boy for militant atheism deals with bereavement. This is unmistakably a prayer: a ritual invocation to an imperceptible being who cannot possibly exist in the empirical universe. I am not (N-O-T) suggesting that Dawkins 'really' believes in life after death or 'really' thinks that Douglas Adams can hear him. He's performing a ritual–playing a lets-pretend game of Douglas still being alive; dealing with the fact that there is no longer a Douglas in the world by talking to the picture of Douglas in his memory. But that's awfully like what people do when they participate in cultus.
So, Professor: believing in God (the God of the Christian cultus, not necessarily the creationist micro-manager) is a bit like having a Binker; which you can identify with, just a little. It's also a bit like talking to your dead best mate, something which you admit to doing. Do we have anything else in common?
Well, there's the matter of religious–that is to say, cultic–art. Dawkins is rather confused on this issue. In the introduction to the book he quotes John Lennon's Imagine and pretends that he thinks that the song is calling for the abolition of cultus in general. (Whenever anyone asked him John Lennon said that the song was a denunciation of denominationalism and sectarianism–not personal faith.) Dawkins asks us to Imagine all the Bad Things which would go away if there was no heaven and no religion too-oo.
Imagine no Taliban to blow up ancient statues, no public beheading of blasphemers, no flogging of female skin for the crime of showing an inch of it...
Slow down. The Taliban were religious, in the sense that in their opinion, a being called Allah really exists. They were also a cultus in that they believed that you should pray five times a day, study the Koran, fast during Ramadan and so on. It is a matter of record that they had the ancient statues at Bamyan destroyed. But Professor, who put up the statues? Buddhist monks, that's who. Possibly the monks were not religious, in the sense that they didn't necessarily believe in a designer-God but they were certainly part of a cultus and they had lots and lots of supernatural beliefs which you would think were Bad Things. So what you should have said is 'Imagine no Taliban to blow up ancient statues. Imagine no ancient statues for the Taliban to blow up.' This is absolutely emblematic of your confused attitude. When a religious organisation does something which annoys you, you take it for granted that it was Caused By Religion. But when a religious organisation does something which you quite like you don't think that 'religion' had anything to do with it. You hardly spot that there was any religion involved at all.
(The bit about the abuse of women in some Islamic societies is worth pondering, too. Is Dawkins saying that if there were no 'religion' (i.e. if no-one believed in a Designer) then:
  1. There would be no clothing taboos and everyone would walk around naked.

  2. There would still be clothing taboos, but they wouldn't be enforced by law: people might look at you in a funny way if you did walk around naked, but no-one would arrest you.

  3. There would be clothing taboos, and they would be enforcible by law, but they would apply equally to men and women. The situation which prevails in the UK at the present time, where men are allowed to publicly remove their vests but women can be arrested for publicly removing their bras arise because people think the world was created by a supernatural designer.

  4. There would be gender specific clothing taboos, but the legal penalty for breaking them would never involve inflicting physical pain. The situation which prevailed in England up to 1948, where the offence of indecent exposure (which can be committed by a man but not by a woman) was punishable by whipping arose because the people of the time believed that the universe was created by a supernatural designer.

All of this sounds like nonsense; and not very much less like nonsense if you assume he means that Saudi modesty laws are the product of the Moslim cultus and not from the belief in Allah alone. It looks to me as if, without thinking, he has taken the clothing taboos in modern England for granted and assumed that when Johnny Foreigner has different standards of modesty he's going against the natural order of things, presumably as a result of some queer native superstition.)
When he was on Desert Island Discs, Dawkins selected an excerpt from Bach's St Matthew Passion as one of his favourite records. He pretends not to understand why normal people thought this was a bit odd.
The interviewer asked me how I could choose religious music without being religious. You might as well say, how can you enjoy Wuthering Heights when you know perfectly well that Cathy and Heathcliff never really existed.
This is another blustering non sequitur. Emily Bronte believed that Heathcliff was a fictional character and presented her book as a work of fiction. Bach believed Jesus was a real person, and presented his Passion as a retelling of and meditation on events that he thought really happened. Bronte wrote a story which she hoped would surprise and excite and delight her readers; Bach composed a piece of music which he hoped would bring his listeners closer to God. The question of whether a work is presented as fiction or non-fiction as a profound effect on the way we read it. Would Robinson Crusoe be the same book it were discovered to be the real diary of a real castaway? Would you even bother to read The Diary of Anne Frank if it turned out to be a work of fiction? No, the fact that Bach believed Jesus to be a real person doesn't mean that his music can only be enjoyed by people who think the same. There would be nothing at all surprising about someone saying 'The story of Jesus dying and rising again is a beautiful story and I love to listen to it, but unlike Bach, I don't think that it is really true.' People say things of the same kind every day. I myself don't believe in Time was incarnate in a person called Krishna but I might put the Indian language Maharbarata on the short list of Greatest TV Shows Not Featuring a Police Box. But Dawkins doesn't think that the story of the passion of the Christ is a beautiful story. He thinks it is 'sadomasochistic', 'barking mad', 'viciously unpleasant', 'tortuously nasty' and incidentally, that the people who disseminate it are worse than child molesters. What is going on when someone says that a musical celebration of a perverted, insane, vicious, unpleasant, nasty story is the one of eight things he couldn't manage without on a desert island? Dawkins pretends that he thinks that Sue Lawley thinks that it's odd that someone who doesn't believe in Jesus would want to listen to songs about Jesus. I'm sure she doesn't think anything nearly so silly. What she probably thinks is odd is that someone who finds a particular story horrible should want to listen to it over and over again. It's a bit like a noted black man who's campaigned all his life for racial equality saying that Birth of a Nation is his favourite movie. It's possible, of course: maybe he admires the camera work, or finds that it helps him understand how racists think. But he wouldn't come over all wounded if Ms. Lawley asked him why.
Dawkins wants us to think that the 'God' element in cultic art is really incidental. In the past artists had to look for patrons and the church was rich: so naturally, they produced religious art. If the patrons had been different, the art would have been different too. This is another example of Dawkins' 'Heads I win, tails you lose' argument. Religious artists like Bach or Michelangelo were sublime despite the fact that they dealt with religious subjects. If they'd dealt with secular ones, they might have been even better. ('What a shame that we are deprived of Haydan's "Evolution Oratorio."') But a secular artist like Shakespeare was sublime because he was secular; it is 'chilling' to imagine Will with a Church commission because we would have lost his great plays and got something worse in return.
(Of course, it's sheer bloody nonsense to see Shakespeare as purely a secular writer. Merchant of Venice is partly about the difference between Jewish theological conceptions of Law and Christian theological conceptions of Grace; Macbeth is partly about Calvinistic pre-destination; King Lear is partly concerned with the fate of the just pagan and what 'goodness' means in a pre-Christian world; Hamlet is very much about where the dead go now that purgatory has been abolished. Perhaps Dawkins needs to have his consciousness raised by–well, thinking, basically.)
Does Dawkins think that the words are simply irrelevant to Christian music? That if you took the words he wants on his desert island:
Purify yourself, my heart,
I myself will bury Jesus.
For he shall henceforth evermore
sweetly take his rest in me.
World, get out, let Jesus in!

and replaced them with, say:
But it may be asked, what ought we to do,
If it could be proved that one species of kangaroo
Had been produced
By a long course
Of modification, from a bear?

–it wouldn't really make any difference? That Bach isn't using music to convey his emotional response to a sacred story but merely making a pleasing sound. If I thought Dawkins thought that, I would write him off as an alien, or (seriously) conclude that he was mentally ill.
But in truth methinks that Dawkins doth protesteth too much. When he says he thinks that the idea that Jesus died for the world (which is a longer way of spelling 'Christianity') is crazy and kinky he doesn't really mean it–any more than he means that my-friend-the-Bishop-of-Oxford is some kind of spiritual kiddy-fiddler. When he hears the story of the Passion told by a really great artist, he finds it just as moving as the rest of the human race. Bach's music expresses the Christian doctrine of the atonement better than Anselm's theological doctrine of penal substitution. Bach speaks to Dawkins heart better than Anselm speaks to his head. I am not (n-o-t) saying that Dawkins is 'really' a Christian because he is deeply moved by a work of art about Jesus dying for Sin. But he evidently doesn't hate the story nearly as much as he'd like us to think.
Dawkins thinks that religion and morality can both be explained in Darwinian terms. Things we think of as 'moral' often have a clear survival value: we feel that we should take care of our children because it's to our genetic advantage to do so. Other kinds of behaviour may have no survival value in themselves, but be the result of what he calls 'misfiring'. Small monkeys which unquestioningly believe big monkeys when they say 'There are crocodiles in that pool' are more likely to survive than ones which question their elders and conduct experiments. But this might leave them with a genetic predisposition to believe their elders unquestioningly when they talk about God or Patriotism or some other lie. (Dawkins doesn't think this is true, necessarily, but he thinks that it is the kind of thing which might be.)
Much of what we think of as 'moral' behaviour may also be the result of this kind of 'misfiring'. Dawkins uses the example of an infertile couple adopting someone else's child. The desire for a child can be easily explained as a mechanism for passing on our genes, even though in the particular case of adoption, it's being used to preserve someone else's. Or, because you are 'programmed' to help the carrier of your genes, you would willingly die to save your child's life, but this has the knock-on effect of you being prepared to die to save the life of someone else's child. And now comes the bombshell:
We can no more help ourselves feeling pity when we see a weeping unfortunate (who is unrelated to us and unable to reciprocate) than we can help ourselves feeling lust for a member of the opposite sex (who may be infertile and otherwise unable to reproduce). Both are misfiring, Darwinian mistakes: blessed, precious mistakes. Do not, for one moment, think of such Darwinizing as demeaning or reductive of the noble emotions of compassion and generosity. Nor of sexual desire...
So: I have the urge to do certain things: adopt an orphan child; help a suffering person; talk to Binker. Some of those urges, like loving my neighbour, are 'blessed, precious and noble' and I should pay attention to them. Others, like talking to Binker, are malign and I need Richard Dawkins to cure me of them.
But, but, but, but, but.... Where did the concepts of sanctity, value and nobility come from?
Well, they evolved: either the belief in nobility has a survival value in itself, or else it is a misfiring of something which does. So apparently, Richard Dawkins has evolved a second-order feeling that tells him that his urge to be kind is noble, but his urge to propagate religion is ignoble. Cool: but suppose I have a second-order feeling that tells me that David Livingstone's urge to go and bring Christianity to Africa was very noble indeed. So how do we judge between my sense of what is noble and Dawkins'? So far as I can see, we appeal to third order feelings: my feeling that feelings about religion are noble are invalid; but my feeling that feelings about altruism are noble are valid. But those third order feelings either have survival value or are Darwinian mis-firings. And when my feelings about feelings about feelings are different from Dawkins' feelings about feelings about feelings we presumably appeal to feelings about feelings about feelings about feelings?
Dawkins hasn't understood this. It doesn't occur to him that it's a problem. He happily says that kindness and altruism are noble and precious because–well, so far as I can see because they are. Because Binker told him so?
Or again: when Binker tells me to make huge statues of him, that's good. But when Binker tells me to pull the statues down that's bad. But how do we know the difference? Did Richard's Binker tell him that the Buddhist Binker was right and the Taliban Binker was wrong? Why trust his Binker any more than any one else's–especially when he whole argument is that you shouldn't pay any attention to any Binker at all?
Yet Dawkins clearly has an absolute conviction that some kinds of behaviour ought to be approved of, and some kinds of behaviour ought not to be. How else can he accuse Catholics of being worse than child molesters or complain that the God of the Bible keeps doing horrible things?
We have a man who is deeply moved by artistic expressions of religious ideas; who believes that the taboos of his nation 'just are' to be obeyed; who thinks that there is a standard called 'nobility' against which we can validly judge our urges; who makes ritual invocations to the dead; who understands what it might be like to have an 'imaginary friend', and who doesn't think that to have such a friend would necessarily be ignoble. In a rather confused way, he even thinks that the collection of stories in the Bible are worth reading and worth passing on.
But Professor: invocations, spiritual guardians, belief in morals and taboos, aesthetic responses to spiritual stories–that is very much the kind of thing which cultus is all about. None of them have any necessary connection with a superhuman and supernatural person who created and designed the universe and everything in it including us, although they often do in practice. Your proof, and I never doubted that it was a good proof, that we can explain why bananas are good to eat without recourse to a banana-designer impacts hardly at all on my urge to pray, to read the Bible or to have copies of the church fathers on my shelf that I'm really going to get around to one of these days. This is why your book is so full of misunderstandings and non-sequiturs. You are trying to prove the non-existence of the wrong God.
So: there is no quarrel and me, Richard and the Archbishop of Canterbury can all go off together and have tea (real or pretend) with Binker and the Fairies? Of course not. Theists say 'It feels to us that there are things that we really should do and things that we really shouldn't do. It feels to us that the great religious stories have special significance. It feels right to make invocations to our dead friends. We feel that we are in contact with a spiritual companion–call him Binker if you want–or else we wish that we were, or else we value the experiences that were written down by people who were, or thought that they were. We think that these feelings come from outside us. We think that they probably come from a Douglas or from something-else-call-it-GOD-for-the-moment who's outside of any universe we can measure. We think that Binker and Douglas are in some way the same and some of think that Douglas once became a person and lived a human life. This is why we sometimes talk as if there are three Douglases and sometimes as if there were only one. But we don't think that feelings are the only things which matter or that 'God' is just a sort of a mood. People who think they have been in touch with something-else-call-it-GOD-for-the-moment or have talked to Binker have tried to make maps and they've built up a fairly good picture, although it has some grey areas in it. But the map isn't the territory: we don't think that call-it-GOD-for-the-moment has a beard, any more than we think that there are green and yellow stripes on the circle line.'
And the sane, good natured atheists–the majority, I expect: Douglas Adams was one–will reply: 'Some of us have some of those feelings to. Some of us respect them. Some of us may even sometimes be happy to come to your churches and enjoy the feelings and see if you are really as good at calling up Binker as you say you are. But we don't think that the feelings have got a source; certainly not a source outside of the empirical universe. We don't. We just don't.'
And we'll reply: 'So we both have the same subjective experience of what it's like to be inside of one of these mind-things, but we interpret that experience in different ways. And that's OK. But please don't think that once you've told us how bananas evolved, we're going to start interpreting subjective experiences of God in a different way. Whatever else the argument is about it, it's not about that."


Roald Dahl claims that as a young child he lost his faith in the church as a result of being beaten by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Considered as a syllogism, this is not very convincing:
The argument from the Most Rev. Geoffrey Fisher
There exists at least one cruel Christian.
Therefore, God does not exist.

However, it's emotional force is very convincing indeed: 'If that was how one of God's top salesmen behaved, I thought there must be something very wrong with the whole thing.'
Dawkins pretends that he thinks that some Christians believe in:
The Argument from Admired Religious Scientists
Some scientists, especially in the olden days, believed in God
Therefore God exists.

I think what has actually happened is that atheists have put forward :
The Argument From Science
No scientist believes in God.
Therefore, belief in science is incompatible with the belief in God.
Therefore God does not exist

and Christians have responded by saying
At least one scientist believes in God.
Therefore, science is not incompatible with the belief in God
Therefore, God may or may not exist.

If there is to be a dialogue between theists and non-theists–and I think that there should be, long, in depth, robust argument, far into the night, with much wagging of fingers and stroking of beards–then the non-theists need a better spokesman. Otherwise, Christians will be tempted to adopt:
The argument from despised religious scientists
If there were no God, then the cleverest people would be atheists.
Here is a book about atheism.
The person who wrote it is rather silly.
If the best spokesman atheists can come up with is rather silly, then perhaps there are not many clever atheists.
So perhaps the cleverest people are not atheists after all.
Therefore, perhaps God exists.

The argument from contrariness
If I believe in God, it will irritate Richard Dawkins.
Richard Dawkins deserves to be irritated.
Therefore, God exists.

Or perhaps, at it's simplest:
The argument from Onanism
Richard Dawkins is a tosser.
Therefore, God exists.

He's a blockhead who wants a proof of what he can't percieve
And he's a fool who tries to make such a blockhead believe
William Blake


Paul Wright said...

Dawkins exhibits an attitude to religion which matches that of evangelicalism as I remember it, in that he thinks that religion is about the fact that God exists (and, in the case of evangelicalism, certain other facts, like Jesus dying for our sins) and that all the cultus stuff flows from that. Presumably he thinks that if you can show people that God does not exist, they'll give up the cultus (true in my case, but the plural of anecdote isn't data, I suppose) and that stuff that the cultus does can be blamed on a belief in God.

I find people who take what you call the Anglican view very odd, because to me doing so would feel like play-acting. People tell me that this is because I'm too much of an empiricist.

Dawkins doesn't address where an atheist might get their morality from. But that's a problem for everyone, whether theist or not. We might say his argument is "if, for some reason, you think that genocide is wrong, you might regard the God portrayed in the Old Testament as a bit of a rotter".

If the best spokesman atheists can come up with is rather silly, then perhaps there are not many clever atheists.

If you've read Ruth Gledhill's latest, you'll know that Dawkins is actually an Anglican.

Gareth McCaughan said...

1. I think your 2-way distinction between Religion and Cultus needs some refinement. It puts almost everything -- everything other than the 1-bit datum "Is there or isn't there a Designer of the sort that Dawkins considers?" -- into the category of Cultus, but much of what you go on to say seems to take Cultus as something narrower than that.

For instance: saying that a child is "Catholic" isn't just saying that she's part of a certain community or used to certain rituals; it's also liable to be taken as saying that the child is committed to a certain set of ideas about what moral status people naturally have, what institutions have what sort of authority, whether it's better to die of AIDS than to have sex using a condom, and so on. If there's something problematic in foisting opinions about a Designer on a chlid, surely these are similarly problematic.

2. You insist that your participation in Cultus is awfully like pretend-talking to a friend whom you believe to have utterly vanished from the world, and rather like having a Binker, and that it's all wrong to suggest that it's got much to do with assenting to some proposition about a supernatural intelligence who created the universe. Butbutbutbut surely, in fact, one of the key things about how Christians deal with their experience of call-it-GOD-for-the-moment is precisely that they *do* say that what they're in touch with is the creator and judge and ruler (even if not the micromanager) of the universe.

Imagine a new religion constructed by starting with Christianity and then taking out all claims that Binker/Douglas/Jesus is the creator, the ruler, the judge, the lawgiver, etc., of the universe. Would replacing your religion with *that* really not be an enormous change? And doesn't the difference have something to do with the sort of "God" that Dawkins argues against and that you say has nothing to do with what Christians actually think and do?

Perhaps for you it wouldn't be an enormous change. In which case, congratulations on your promotion to the archiepiscopate. But there are plenty of Christians, not all of them stupid and unsophisticated, for whom it would be. For them, even if not for you, the god whom Dawkins strives to debunk shouldn't be a complete irrelevance.

Stephen said...

I loved these reviews. I can't believe I didn't get the titles until I looked over my bookmarks and read them all at once.

I know you know this; but Dawkins is an atheist spokesman in about the same way that, say, Jerry Falwell is a Christian spokesman, i.e. lots of loud people take him very seriously indeed, even more people don't, lots of others like some of his points but thinks he puts them in rather over-the-top ways that end -- as you so deliciously point out -- harming his own side; etc.

All that said, let me recommend Daniel Dennett's book, Breaking the Spell. It's gotten lumped in a lot with the recent books by Dawkins, Harris and (God-if-he's-around-help-us) Christopher Hitchens, but I think it's much more careful. (It's also much less interested in trying to talk people out of faith, although there's some of that.) I'd really love to hear what you have to think about that. Think about taking a look at it.

Dr Clam said...

Would you believe, I have also just completed a series of five posts culminating in 'Well, that just about wraps it up for Dawkins?'. Gosh, now I really feel plugged into the Zeitgeist...
Haven't been here for ages, since I read all your Narnia stuff last year. Have you read 'The Skeleton in the Wardrobe'?

Anonymous said...

As usually, very funny and thoughtful, thanks Andrew.

So how about this:?

From The Times, Richard Dawkins on God:

Richard Dawkins ... believes in the possibility of a transcendent “intelligence” existing beyond the range of present human experience. It is just that he refuses to call it God.


By now it is clear that the thing Dawkins really detests is not so much God, or even religion, but superstition. I am still hopeful of persuading him that a belief in the transcendent does not equal superstition. I lob “n” into the equation: numinous.

“It’s not a meaningful word,” he retorts. So what about those other dimensions that some scientists believe might exist? Yes, he concedes, modern physicists do talk about 11-dimensional space. “But that’s nothing to do with theology.” How does he know? Might not God exist in one of those states? “That might be true, but what’s sure, well, highly unlikely, is that anything that theologians of modern day or any day have to say is going to have anything to do with the wonder of what future physicists are going to discover. It’s going to dwarf not only modern-day science but present-day theology as well.”

But was there not, in his mind, a tiny possibility that one of these future physicists could discover God in one of these dimensions?

"Well, I’m convinced that future physicists will discover something at least as wonderful as any god you could ever imagine.” Why not call it God? “I don’t think it’s helpful to call it God.” OK, but what would “it” be like?

“I think it’ll be something wonderful and amazing and something difficult to understand. I think that all theological conceptions will be seen as parochial and petty by comparison.” He can even see how “design” by some gigantic intelligence might come into it. “But that gigantic intelligence itself would need an explanation. It’s not enough to call it God, it would need some sort of explanation such as evolution. Maybe it evolved in another universe and created some computer simulation that we are all a part of. These are all science-fiction suggestions but I am trying to overcome the limitations of the 21st-century mind. It’s going to be grander and bigger and more beautiful and more wonderful and it’s going to put theology to shame.”

Andrew Rilstone said...

Thank you for everyone who has commented on these articles. And thank you also for the 100% absence of hate mail. (Perhaps I wasn't trying hard enough.) There are some specific points that have been raised that I want to answer, but it may be a while before I get a round tuit.

Ruana said...

Your reasoning in the matter of Peter Kay escapes me. I have no idea why you conclude that it is the "cultus" aspect of belief that Kay finds comforting. (Not would find comforting, BTW - you misquoted him.) Nor can I see why you think that Dawkins came to the same conclusion and only pretended to believe otherwise.

I and other atheists of my acquaintance have no trouble at all doing without "stories, rituals, cerermonies..." and so on - what bothers us is that the absence of 'God', whatever one considers God to be, implies that the world really is as scary, unfair and random as it appears, with no divine plan and no afterlife to make everything right. Death really is the end - when a loved one's gone, they're gone. "Cultus" is quite unnecessary to comfort us on this score - belief would be enough.

And can we lay off asides like, "atheists and normal people"? I found that rather condescending.

Andrew Stevens said...

I was amused by the quote from Blake at the end. I have no doubt that Blake would consider me a blockhead, but since Blake himself was clearly a lunatic, I'm not sure that means much. Wordsworth had the last word on Blake: "There was no doubt that this poor man was mad, but there is something in the madness of this man which interests me more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott." I do admire Blake's imagination, but I'm okay with the fact that I stand entirely in opposition to William Blake, the anti-rationalist.

Andrew Stevens said...

If there were no God, then the cleverest people would be atheists.

On a previous thread in this blog, I happened to be discussing my own thoughts on the relative mean intelligence of various professions. One of my interlocutors immediately jumped to the conclusion that I thought that the most intelligent were more likely to be right about, well, everything and that what I was saying was that these very smart people should make all the decisions. I had, of course, stated no such thing, but I found it interesting that the same sort of statement appeared here as a premise in Mr. Rilstone's argument, though it is not necessarily a premise with which Mr. Rilstone agrees, since he was giving an example of a fallacious argument.

The reason I bring it up is because it does seem to be assumed by an awful lot of people, and I think it is clearly not true. It seems to me that intelligence and education are generally substantial aids to acquiring true beliefs, but when intelligence is mixed with bias, I think there is good reason to think that it worsens one's ability to form true beliefs. High intelligence and extensive knowledge can be used as tools to rationalize one's pre-existing belief preferences. Less intelligent people might be forced to give up and concede error when presented with a forceful counter-argument, but very intelligent people have huge resources of information to selectively choose from in order to rationalize their beliefs and maintain their existing belief structure. The power of this ability should not be underestimated. It is, therefore, entirely invalid to proceed from the intelligence of a group of people who hold a certain opinion to conclude the truth or falsity of that opinion. In general, this sort of reasoning is always invalid, a sub-species of the argumentum ad verecundiam.

It is the strength of the argument that matters in determining its truth or falsity, not the intellect of the person presenting it. Intelligence is highly overrated.

For what it's worth, the smartest people I meet seem to be more likely to believe in God than otherwise, just as in the general population here in America, though I would guess that atheists are, on average, somewhat brighter than theists. The main driver of this phenomenon, I believe, is that people who are not by nature intellectuals (nothing wrong with that) tend to simply absorb a belief in God without much reflection so the less intelligent tend to adhere to the most populist belief system. I can also find a large number of quite silly beliefs where the average intelligence of the people believing it is greater than the average intelligence of people who don't. So the fact that atheists are probably, on average, more intelligent than theists tells us precisely nothing about the truth or falsity of atheism.

Paul Wright said...

I have written a marvellous response to this article, but this comment is too small to contain it. :-)

Jallan said...

"In fact it almost certainly refers to the cultus in which the child participates."

I find this weak. Among liberal and "reformed"-type religious people this is often true. Among other types it isn't. Should a child be brought up to consider homosexuality a sin, for example?

"But clearly, Peter Kay had meant 'It would be a comfort to me to participate in a cultus,': Dawkins pretended that he thought he meant 'It would be a comfort to me to be convinced of the existence of a superhuman designer.'"

I think Peter Kay meant what Dawkins understdood. A lot of people do mean that ... that the idea of God, whether a Muslim God or liberal Christian God or whatever, is comforting (in part, of course, because they believe they are sufficiently on the side of that God that they aren't going to end up in Hell for all eternity.) If you are going attempt to argue against Dawkin's positions, I think you it should be Dawkin's position that you are arguing against.

"I'm a lot less offended by this idea than Dawkins presumably intends me to be."

Rather [i]ad hominen[/i]. I don't think Dawkins is trying to offend people in general, but convince them.

"'Why don't you go and talk to some Christians, you insufferably silly little man.'"

You follow this with what seems to be to be some remarkably silly ideas about what people might do. In fact, "talking to some Christians" is a s likely to confirm Dawkins' ideas as confute them. Are you really suggesting that Dawkins has not talked to people who claim to be Christians?

Consider for example the case at
where some of the people at Judaism online attempt to get an official Christian response to some of the problems they saw in the Gospels: whether Jesus' post-resurrection appearances were in Jerusalem or Galilee, the discrepant genealogies of Jesus, and how Jesus could be descended from David when David was supposedly Joseph's ancestor while Jesus' father was really God. The sent these questions to Pope John Paul II, and were referred instead to French Dominican Fathers' Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem, and from there they were referred to the Roman Catholic theologian Raymond E. Brown, who informed them that "post-resurrection appearance accounts are creative, substantially non-historical attempts to reconstruct events never witnessed by their respective authors", that Jesus' Davidic descent was probably not true but was later ascribed to him, and that neither genealogy is accurate. These opinions appear in books by Brown which carry the Roman Catholoic Church's [i]nihil obstat[/i] and [i]imprimatur[/i]. And Raymond E. Brown definitely considers himself a Christian and a Roman Catholic.

On the other hand, one would probably find quite different opinions offered by the current Pope, by Mel Gibson, Tony Blain, George Bush, and so forth about what Christians really believe or what they ought to believe, each of these persons ready to call their Blinker as evidence.

"Did Richard's Binker tell him that the Buddhist Binker was right and the Taliban Binker was wrong? Why trust his Binker any more than any one else's–especially when he whole argument is that you shouldn't pay any attention to any Blinker at all?"

So, presumably, if someone's Blinker says that homosexual behavior is sinful, as apparently many people believe, we should ignore it, while if Blinker tells you that homosexual behavior isn't sinful, we should listen? You appear to me to be as confused as Dawkins, if indeed Dawkins is confused. I take Dawkins as openly giving his personal opinions, not relying on a Blinker. Must one have a Blinker to allow one to claim that God told us not to destroy great art or that God told us it was Ok to eat pork, instead of deciding this on the basis of evidence anyone can examine.

I have referred to homosexuality because at the moment it is a major religious issue, not just a minor cultus issue that few care about.

You present yourself as a liberal Christian who tries to be reasonable and who believes most of what scientific research claims to have discovered, and accordingly are probably, in many ways closer to Dawkins philosphically than you are to many other religious persons, which may be partly why Dawkins annoys you so much.

Dawkins largely isn't talking about reasonable and tolerant liberal Christians and reasonable and tolerant liberal Jews and reasonable and tolerant liberal Muslims for whom their religious have indeed become largely just a cultus, though he stil, of course, thinks they are wrong and mislead, even though their Blinkers most agree with can be ascertained by reason, in which case why bother with a Blinker at all? Dawkins is talking far more about those who believe the hard parts of their supposed faiths, such as short-term creationism, and who want to force these beliefs on others; or those who claim that because their religion forbids anyone to display Muhammed in pictorial form, that everyone, whether a believer in their religion or not, should be bound by the same rules. He's talking about those who insist that their rules about divorce and using condoms and so forth ought to be applied to everyone, whether they are believers or not (and that is the official Roman Catholic position, despite many Roman Catholics, perhaps most Roman Catholics, not accepting it).

"But, but, but, but, but.... Where did the concepts of sanctity, value and nobility come from?"

Ask Buddhists if you want, or any agnostic or aetheists or agnostics who accept these things without seeing any needing or reason bring a god or gods into the picture. Its perhaps better than one feels that one's hatred of rock music or Wagner or whatever is subjective than that it is proclaimed by God.

Andrew Stevens said...

Ask Buddhists if you want, or any agnostic or aetheists or agnostics who accept these things without seeing any needing or reason bring a god or gods into the picture. Its perhaps better than one feels that one's hatred of rock music or Wagner or whatever is subjective than that it is proclaimed by God.

As I've been telling anyone who will listen for years, this is a false dilemma. There is no either/or choice between 1) values are subjective and 2) values are proclaimed by God. My fellow atheists like Dawkins generally do accept this false dilemma, since they seem to believe that objective values, in and of themselves, are somehow "mystical" or "mysterious." Sadly, as I've demonstrated before, subjective values force one to abandon reason entirely. (Since the value statement, "on the subject about which we are reasoning, we ought to believe only what is true" is a necessary precursor for rational thought.) So if I am a mystic, at least I'm not a lunatic.

I'm afraid this may be no consolation for those atheists who fervently desire to get rid of objective values since they seem to hate the idea that we should ever judge any action as wrong. This opinion, however, by its nature, can only rely on a subjective value judgment and we can, therefore, safely dismiss it as unworthy of consideration.

Gareth McCaughan said...

I think your argument against subjectivism is flawed. What's necessary for rational thought is the intention to believe (so far as possible) what's true; it's not necessary to universalize that intention.

(Actually, I think the intention required is that of believing what one has evidence for. I'd love to believe only what's true, but realistically there are bound to be situations in which the evidence available to me points the wrong way. But that's a technical detail, not relevant either to the argument you're making or to my criticism of it.)

Andrew Stevens said...

I'm not sure you quite see what I'm driving at. There are an infinite number of possible criteria we could choose to base belief on. We could choose to believe in those things which are pleasant (say, Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy), we could choose to believe only those things which do not contradict Freudian theory, we could choose to believe only what is in the Bible, etc., etc.

Rational thought begins when we make the value judgment that what we ought to believe are those things which are true. This is so obvious that almost everybody agrees that any other criterion is irrational. This value judgment is so ingrained that we rarely think of it as a value judgment, but it is. If that value judgment were not true, then there is no reason to prefer rationality to any of the many other different criteria we could choose.

Gareth McCaughan said...

Rational thought begins, for any given person, when s/he decides to believe (so far as possible) only what's true. (Blah blah caveats blah blah nuances blah.) A person acting with that intention is being, or at least trying to be, rational, even if s/he doesn't have any sense that everyone else ought to do the same; even if s/he doesn't have any notion of "ought" that goes beyond the prudential at all. So you can think rationally without assuming any sort of universalized values.

I think your last paragraph, being interpreted, saith: "Someone who doesn't believe in objective values doesn't have a reason grounded in objective values for being rational". That's true, obviously, but that doesn't mean that they aren't rational or that they shouldn't be rational.

You don't even need universalized values for rational discussion; what you need for that is that the people involved share a preference for rationality.

Andrew Stevens said...

Rational thought begins, for any given person, when s/he decides to believe (so far as possible) only what's true. (Blah blah caveats blah blah nuances blah.) A person acting with that intention is being, or at least trying to be, rational, even if s/he doesn't have any sense that everyone else ought to do the same; even if s/he doesn't have any notion of "ought" that goes beyond the prudential at all. So you can think rationally without assuming any sort of universalized values.

I'm not actually going to argue with this, since the value doesn't have to be universal to make my argument. (Once I establish the objectivity of the value for a single observer, namely me, I'm eventually going to argue that it is applicable for all humans, but that's at a much later stage. I freely grant that we can imagine an entity who ought not to believe things that are true. E.g. a magical entity whose every belief automatically becomes true. Now we may very well wish him to believe in a world with differences from our own.) I'm not sure what you mean by the use of the word prudential. Surely, with no objective values, there isn't any reason to be prudent.

I think your last paragraph, being interpreted, saith: "Someone who doesn't believe in objective values doesn't have a reason grounded in objective values for being rational". That's true, obviously, but that doesn't mean that they aren't rational or that they shouldn't be rational.

Now you're reaching the crux of the matter. Taking the last part first, what does it mean to say "that doesn't mean that they shouldn't be rational" in a world without objective values. It's true that we can't say "they shouldn't be rational." It's also true that we can't say "they should be rational." All ought/should statements are entirely undermined. I'm going to take issue with your paraphrase "Someone who doesn't believe in objective values doesn't have a reason grounded in objective values for being rational." It's not just that they don't have a reason grounded in objective values. Without objective values, they cannot have a reason at all. They can in the sense of a causal motivator; I am using the word reason in its justifying sense. They might have a preference or a desire, but it cannot be the case that "they should be rational." Such statements assume the existence of objective values.

For the sake of argument, let us assume that there are no objective values. It is, therefore, not true that "on the subject of the existence of objective values, I ought to believe what is true." I may very well have a preference (no longer a rational one) for believing the truth, but it's not the sort of thing one would argue for. It's merely a taste of mine, something I do because I like it.

You don't even need universalized values for rational discussion; what you need for that is that the people involved share a preference for rationality.

The problem is that rationality no longer holds a privileged position. It's just a taste or a whim. I might like to believe true things, you might like to believe what's in the Bible, he might like to believe in Freudian theory, etc. It's no longer possible to argue that rationality is actually preferable to these other beliefs. The usual response now is to argue that rationality is preferable for some higher-level reason. Perhaps because it helps us to survive, or it helps us to make the world better, or some other reason. Now I agree that rationality does these things, of course, but the point is that you have no objective reason to value survival or a better world or anything else you might care to name. These are just tastes of yours, and I need take no more than a biographical interest in the fact you believe them.

It might be possible to build up a consistent and coherent world view without objective values. (Hume, for example, argued that moral sentiments weren't rational, but are, and ought to be, superior to reason. This is virtually the only escape hatch, though it's not popular among many moral subjectivists.) It is not possible to build up a rational world view without objective values. Hume's was explicitly non-rational (while preserving reason for non-moral judgments) because he understood the implications of his position.

Gareth McCaughan said...

By "prudential", I mean something like "relative to other goals". For instance, if you want to remain alive, then you "ought" to eat. If you want to have descendants, then you "ought" to have sex. Also: If you enjoy eating, then you "ought" to eat, and likewise for sex. These things don't have to be, or to be regarded as, objective truths in order to affect how we live. And I'm suggesting that if someone aims to believe only what's true simply because s/he likes believing true things and not false things, or because s/he sees that strategy as a means to a valued end (such as remaining alive), then that's sufficient to produce rationality.

what does it mean to say "that doesn't mean that they shouldn't be rational" in a world without objective values? It means (1) that if you take "shouldn't" to mean something objective, then (in a world without objective values) it isn't true that they shouldn't be rational because nothing of the form "X shouldn't do Y" is true; and (2) that if you take it to mean something preference-relative, then (even in a world without objective values) rationality could well be an effective means to whatever ends they find themselves seeking. Note that I didn't say "that means that they should be rational"; the double-negative form wasn't mere clumsiness.

What do you take to be the "justifying sense" of "reason" if it isn't equivalent to "a reason grounded in objective values"? I honestly don't see any difference between the two in your usage. And I think that means that it's begging the question when you shift from "subjective values force one to abandon reason entirely" to "subjective values mean that there isn't a reason to be rational".

I may very well have a preference (no longer a rational one) for believing the truth, but it's not the sort of thing one would argue for. Correct, except that your hypothetical preference is still "rational" in at least some useful senses. Just as your (actual, in the real world) preference for believing the truth isn't the sort of thing one would argue for. You described it as "a necessary precursor for rational thought"; I don't think you can argue -- not rationally, at least -- for or against something that's a necessary precursor for rational thought. My claim is that rationality is possible even for people who don't believe in objective values, not that it's demonstrably required of them.

It's merely a taste of mine, something I do because I like it. It needn't be exactly that, even in the absence of objective values. For instance, it could be something you do because you can't help it. Or something you do because you've found it necessary for the sake of other things you can't help valuing. If I became convinced that there are no objective values (I'm not, and indeed I am inclined to think there are) then I would go on trying to believe true things and disbelieve false things, because (1) the desire to do so is so deeply ingrained in me that I can't see either how I could change it or why I'd want to, and (2) even if I didn't care about truth as such, believing true things and not false things is extremely useful to me.

The problem is that rationality no longer holds a privileged position. You said, before, that someone who doesn't believe in objective values is forced "to abandon reason entirely". That's what I was disagreeing with. I agree that not believing in objective values requires you not to regard rationality as objectively privileged; that's an entirely different matter. (Someone who rejects objective values could still give rationality a privileged position, e.g. by making it their primary criterion in deciding what to believe. So I assume what you mean is that they couldn't give it an objectively privileged position.)

It's no longer possible to argue that rationality is actually preferable to those beliefs. Not that it's objectively preferable, no. Again, this is not at all the same claim as you made before.

and I need take no more than a biographical interest in the fact you believe them. That's right. Just as, in a world with objective values, you need take no more than a biographical interest in the fact that anyone believes anything. (They might be wrong, or mad, or whatever.) But, actually, if you don't take "need" to mean "am impelled to by some objective value" (which you shouldn't, if you don't wish to beg the question) then it seems to me that it could well be that you "need" to value survival or a better world or whatever.

Calling Hume's view "non-rational" seems pretty strange to me. Perhaps it wasn't rationalistic, but I don't think that's the same thing. If every world-view that involves believing some things that aren't arrived at by a process of pure reasoning is "non-rational" then I'm not at all convinced that there's anyone with a "rational" world-view.

Andrew Stevens said...

Gareth, it actually appears that we have no differences here. My basic point is that, without objective values, it is not rational to be rational, not that behavior otherwise consistent with rationality is impossible. If you believe that I made this argument sloppily, I am willing to plead guilty. This is why I say that, without objective values, we don't have any justifying reason to be rational. You appear to accept this, so we are left with no dispute. For my part, I certainly agree that one could, if one wished, go on using the forms of rationality, even if rationality itself is not rational. (It's nearly impossible for me to imagine a world without objective values. I'd try to hypothesize about what I'd do if I believed I lived in such a world, but I guess that's pointless since, by definition, it doesn't really matter.)

My real argument against values being purely subjective is A) purely on appearances, it appears to be false (I could give many examples of narrow moral propositions which seem about as certain as anything is) and B) there is no particularly strong argument to support the view. Most of the arguments used - the argument from evolution, the argument from differences, etc., are surprisingly weak, given how widespread their acceptance is. They tend to rely on variants of the skeptical fallacy, which claims that we can't claim to know things unless we know them infallibly. (These people never seem to ask if they know that infallibly.)

I don't believe that the existence of a god or gods is a fact. Because I am rational, I therefore don't believe in a god or gods. However, if I also did not believe in objective values, I have no response to the people who say "Who cares if it isn't true? Why shouldn't I believe it anyway?" I know why I argue against the existence of a god, but I'm baffled why the moral subjectivists do. Given their beliefs, I have to assume it's just some form of bullying or pressure politics. (Alternately, it could be a preference for rationality, despite the irrationality of that.) Some religious people, particularly the fuzzy religious, will argue that they believe in a god because they want it to be true, irrespective of whether it is true. Without objective values, there can't be anything wrong with that. (There can't be anything right with it either.)

Calling Hume's view "non-rational" seems pretty strange to me. Perhaps it wasn't rationalistic, but I don't think that's the same thing. If every world-view that involves believing some things that aren't arrived at by a process of pure reasoning is "non-rational" then I'm not at all convinced that there's anyone with a "rational" world-view.

I could probably convince you. I believe, unlike Hume, that morality is rational, for example. It's not merely sentiment. I suspect you're unnecessarily restricting the scope of reason. (I've never been sure what the adjective pure means in this context, though its pedigree goes back to Kant at least. Is there an impure reason?) Religious people restrict the scope of reason all the time. They talk about faith as a way, separate from reason, for arriving at the truth. This shows confusion about what reason is. Reason isn't one tool among many for arriving at the truth. It's the entire toolbox, the whole set of proven methods we use to arrive at true beliefs. Some of these methods (deductive logic) are all but infallible, given that their axioms are true. Some of them (most of science) are quite reliable, but not infallible. If faith could be demonstrated to work to arrive at true beliefs, then faith would be rational and it would be silly to talk about faith separate from reason.

Gareth McCaughan said...

What I agree with is this: If there are no objective values of any sort, then there is no objective requirement for us to be rational. What I don't understand is why that is supposed to be interesting :-). Whereas "subjective values force one to abandon reason entirely", if true, would be very interesting.

I think the best argument against objective values is a "skeptical" one, but not one that appeals to the (obviously crazy) principle that if we can't know something with absolute certainty then we can't know anything about it at all. That is: It's very unclear how we can know (even in part, even uncertainly) anything about whatever objective values there might be. We don't appear to have value-perceiving organs, after all. (Do we have truth-perceiving organs? Heck yes, that's what all our sensory organs are.)

Without objective values, there can't be anything wrong with that: not objectively, no. It could still turn out, e.g., that that approach is in conflict with the subjective values of the person in question.

I wasn't using "pure reasoning" in Kant's sense; I meant "reasoning on its own, without guesswork, or wishful thinking, or reliance on dubious assumptions, or other methods not known to be reliable".

Andrew Stevens said...

Ah, well, now we're getting somewhere. I believe I can answer all these criticisms. The key point to my argument that lack of objective values causes the abandonment of reason is the realization that, without objective values, it is not rational to be rational. This is, I believe, an important insight. I'm surprised you don't find it compelling. I believe it cuts reason off at the knees in exactly the same way that the inability to vet the verification principle (which was neither self-evident nor verifiable itself) eventually doomed logical positivism.

On the argument against objective values, this sounds very much like J.L. Mackie's "argument from queerness." I maintain that we have a number of a priori intuitions which we apprehend with our reason. E.g. "the shortest distance between two points is a straight line," "one plus one equals two," etc. Those are mathematical intuitions. We also have logical intuitions like the Law of Identity and the Law of Non-Contradiction. I maintain that we also have ethical intuitions such as "all else being equal, pleasure is better than pain," "honesty is a virtue," etc. Not all of these intuitions are true. For example, many people seem to have the physical intuition that "all causes are local; there is no action from a distance." The latest quantum physics (Bell's Theorem) seems to indicate that that intuition is false. I argue that, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, we are prima facie justified in accepting these intuitions as true, though it is a defeasible justification. The faculty that we are using is, I suspect, very much akin to whatever faculties we use to apprehend the axioms of logic or mathematics. On an abstract level, it is simply our reason that we are using to judge these values.

The gist of my argument against Mackie's "queerness" argument is that it doesn't seem very forceful to me. I don't see what's so strange about a moral intuition that isn't equally strange about a logical intuition or a mathematical intuition, both of which are, presumably, accepted by Mackie. (He uses logic after all and appears to assume the same axioms that we all do.) My own opinion is that Mackie is appealing to an essentially unargued-for intuition of his own, the idea that objective values themselves are "queer" or "mysterious." Obviously, many people seem to have this intuition, but I don't see why we should consider it more compelling than the intuition that "we ought to believe what is true" (which Mackie also seems to accept, presumably for subjective reasons of his own).

I have always been baffled why people accept the objective truth of mathematics, easily as mysterious as morality, but not the objectivity of morality. I suspect it's mostly because math is very easy and morality, beyond some basic axioms that just about everyone agrees with, is hard.

Gareth McCaughan said...

I don't think you've shown that "without objective values, it is not rational to be rational". At least, not if "rational" is taken with the same sense both times; you probably have (but I think it's obvious and -- again, my apologies -- not very interesting) if you take the first one to mean something like "obligatory" and the second to mean something like "such as to lead to beliefs in accordance with the evidence".

(And, as I've said before, nothing you've said undermines the claim, for any particular person, that being rational is an effective means to the ends that they (subjectively) value -- which I think is all that any disbeliever in objective values is going to think it reasonable to ask, else they'd be a believer in objective values already.)

This faculty of reason by which we apprehend these truths: what is it, and how much should we trust it, and why?

It seems to me that there are three different reasons why we might trust it in any given instance. Firstly, because we have no choice. (That's our situation with, e.g., our intuitive judgement that what we like to think of as our observations of the world really are derived in some somewhat-consistent way from a somewhat-consistent external reality.) Secondly, because we've been able to check some particular intuition -- against other intuitions, against observation, etc. -- and have found it reliable when a priori it might not have been. (That's our situation with, e.g., our intuitive judgement that shortest distances are in straight lines. Though actually I'm not so sure that *is* an intuitive judgement, and you need to be a bit subtle in how you define "straight line" if you want it to be true.)) Thirdly, because we can see how the intuition actually got there (e.g., that it's the result of lots of observation of the world, or that it's hard-wired in a way selected for in evolution) and check that the mechanism in question "works". (That might be our situation with some of our intuitions about the physical world. It's also our situation with the intuition that pleasure is generally good and pain bad, *if* you don't mind taking "good" and "bad" relatively.)

None of those seems to be the case for our intuitions about objective values. It's clearly possible to get by without a belief in objective values -- plenty of people do. There isn't, so far as I know, any way of checking those intuitions (though we can, e.g., check that some of them accord with other people's intuitions, which might confirm them if interpreted intersubjectively rather than objectively). And we know rather little about where they come from, and what conjectures there are (from the evolutionary psychologists) don't seem very encouraging for realism about values.

Now, for sure, an alternative to all the above case-by-case stuff is to declare that we have a Faculty Of Reason, which we just have to trust (except when we don't) and which somehow Apprehends all these diverse things -- objective values, mathematical truths, fundamental facts about how the world behaves. But then, as I hinted above, I think we could do with a better idea than (so far as I know) anyone has of what this Faculty of Reason actually is, and how it works.

I don't see what's so strange about a moral intuition that isn't equally strange about a logical intuition or a mathematical intuition: well, logical and mathematical intuitions can in fact be wrong; one thing that distinguishes the ones we tend to take for granted now is that they've been carefully scrutinized and found not to lead to trouble. That sort of scrutiny doesn't seem to be available for moral intuitions. And I think there's a reasonably plausible account available of how we get our logical and mathematical intuitions and why we should mostly trust them (they're derived from how the world behaves, which we can check by observation; or they're abstractions of how our thinking fits together internally, which we can check by looking at lots of different cases and finding that, e.g., we encounter no contradictions as we build up the vast edifices of modern mathematics), whereas there doesn't seem to be anything corresponding for our moral intuitions -- and indeed we *do*, time and time again, run across situations with values that seem very much parallel to contradictions in logic.

I feel the appeal of the considerations you cite, really I do; all my prejudices are in favour of realism about values, and my reasons (such as they are) are just the same as yours -- we have these strong somewhat-shared intuitions, etc., etc. But I don't see how anything you've said comes close to showing that realism about values is necessary for reason, still less that it's *right*.

Andrew Stevens said...

A quick response, and I might write up a longer essay later to address your epistemological questions. You say that my first definition for rational must be "obligatory," but my argument is that we need objective morality, not for it to be obligatory, but for it to be justified. (Rationality is the belief that we ought to hold only justified beliefs.) I don't believe it is tenable to hold a subjective morality which yields justification. You give examples of "we ought to do X in order to do Y." However, why ought we to do or desire Y?

Here is a simple argument for moral realism. "It is wrong to torture a little child just for the fun of it." Any argument that you present against this statement must have premises. If your argument is valid, I have to decide on its soundness by weighing whether your premises are more plausible than the statement "It is wrong to torture a little child just for the fun of it." What premises are you going to start with that are more certain than that one? Some moral statements are as certain as any of our knowledge is. It's considerably more certain than evolution (which I believe in), but which has a long, complicated chain of reasoning behind it, which could have gone wrong at multiple stages.

I still believe that you are being lured by the siren song of skepticism. You're applying skeptical premises to moral knowledge, completely inconsistently with what you do with other forms of knowledge (e.g. knowledge of the external world). This is perfectly understandable. Skepticism stems from a very plausible premise (the idea that we need to have absolute certainty in order to know something). Obviously, we all reject the skeptical conclusion, but many of us retain the skeptical premises. What this leaves us with is a completely inconsistent epistemology which allows us to believe whatever we like. If we like a belief, we apply our less-rigorous epistemology. If we don't like it, we apply our skeptical standards. This is a very easy trap to fall into.

By the way, I have certainly not taken any offense at your claim that I am not saying anything interesting. (Even if my argument is properly understood, I don't regard it as terribly interesting. It is, after all, the view of most philosophers, with some notable exceptions like J.L. Mackie.) I disagree with the stigmatization of intellectual error. While I believe you are mistaken on this, I also believe you have good reasons for the mistakes.

Andrew Stevens said...

By the way, I should point out that there is an answer to my argument. If you take Hume's view, you can say that moral sentiments are not rational, but that they are, and ought to be, superior to reason. (I.e. we are justified in believing them via a non-rational process.) I have mentioned on this blog and, I believe, even this thread that I cannot prove this view to be wrong. Its plausibility versus my moral realist view, I suspect, is determined by whether you believe moral judgments are usually made via a process of reason or via a process of sentiment. I believe they are usually made via a process of reason. I have been able to convince many people that their claim that "adult consensual incest is wrong" rests on an error of emotion (disgust) and I do this via a process of reason. Hume would likely argue that, in the end, I am appealing to more powerful sentiments in order to complete my reasoning process. Perhaps he is correct.

I must confess that I don't really see any particular need to refute Hume. My interest in refuting moral anti-realism is due principally to more naive views which claim that moral values are never justified and therefore we can safely ignore any moral arguments. As long as you don't hold this view (and I'm sure that you don't), it doesn't really matter that much if you agree with my moral realism or Hume's anti-realism which nevertheless grants the force of moral arguments. Very few people actually hold this naive view. They just try to use it as a trump card over any moral view they disagree with.

Gareth McCaughan said...

No, I didn't quite say -- or at least I didn't mean to -- that your first definition of "rational" must be "obligatory". But I don't see how your argument can work if it's not something along those lines. In particular, if it means "justified" then I think you need to give "justified" a meaning with some notion of objective values built in. But I think someone who's skeptical about objective values can just say "Rationality is more effective in delivering the things I value than any other policy", and I don't see how it's incoherent for such a person to regard that as a justification for rationality.

However, why ought we to do or desire Y? No moral nonrealist will care about that question, and their disinclination to answer it isn't an argument against their views unless you're taking moral realism as a premise -- in other words, arguing in a circle.

Speaking of which, your so-called argument for moral realism is, of course, not an argument for moral realism, because it starts by assuming (something that transparently implies) moral realism as an axiom. And the fact that something feels certain (which, of course, I agree many moral statements do) doesn't imply that it really is certain. Subjective certainty is no guarantee of correctness.

So far as I'm aware, you don't know what degree of skepticism I apply either to "moral knowledge" or "other forms of knowledge". I'm glad that you find the straw man you've constructed "perfectly understandable", but I'm not sure that the fact advances our discussion materially.

For the record: I am in fact a moral realist, but I differ from you in being (so to speak) a fideist about moral realism; I'm not arguing that (e.g.) torturing small children for fun isn't wrong, I'm arguing that the particular argument you've given for moral realism doesn't have the force you seem to think it does; as for other forms of knowledge, I wouldn't in fact say that we know, e.g., that empirical induction works or that solipsism is false, but that we have to assume those things on pain of epistemic paralysis; it is absolutely no part of any argument I've made that we "need to have absolute certainty in order to know something", and I see no reason to believe your claim (if I've understood you right) that what I say is the result of accepting that premise while inconsistently denying its consequences.

I'm afraid I'm not sure what you mean by "I disagree with the stigmatization of intellectual error". Are you saying that you don't think there's anything wrong with intellectual error, or that you think I'm stigmatizing you as intellectually erroneous but disagree with my assessment? (If the latter, I don't quite see how "I disagree with the stigma of intellectual error" differs from "I don't think I'm wrong".)

I don't see how to reconcile your statements that (1) you don't see any need to refute Hume, who says that moral sentiments are not rational and who isn't a moral realist, and (2) you think moral realism is a necessary precondition for rationality. Nor how to reconcile #1 with (3) your statement that moral realism is more obviously correct than any argument against it could be.

Gareth McCaughan said...

Excuse me; there's one important thing I forgot to say.

Rationality is the belief that we ought to hold only justified beliefs: If you define "rationality" this way then, duh, of course it presupposes moral realism, because that use of "ought" does so. But that isn't what any moral nonrealist means by "rationality", and I don't see why any moral realist should use "rationality" that way. I might call that belief "rationalism", but that's not the same thing. Rationality is (roughly) the practice of trying to hold only justified beliefs. That, and not the value-laden thing you're terming "rationality", is what I'm saying is consistent with moral nonrealism. Perhaps we have no disagreement after all.

dt said...

But I think that the majority of mainstream Jews, Christians, Muslims and very probably Mormons would agree with [Dawkins' definition]. 'God'–defined as 'a being who deliberately designed and created everything in the universe including us' does not exist.

Just because they're not using 'need for a designer' as an argument, must we assume they don't believe God *is* a designer? Leaving aside the arguments -- if they think there IS a God who DIDN'T design us, what do they think He DID do, and why should we care?

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