Thursday, February 01, 2018

Fairies at the bottom of the garden

Randal Rauser is obsessed with Andy Bannister. A couple of preliminary observations before I delve into the details:

1. I think part of the disagreement is due to the fact that Rauser is a "progressive Christian" while Bannister is far more evangelical. Biblical revelation isn't Rauser's benchmark. He only believes what he can justify philosophically. 

2. There's also the function of Bannister's tweets. Obviously, he's not attempting to provide a philosophically nuanced definition in a tweet. It may be that Bannister uses provocative tweets as conversation-starters. A way of getting a rise out of atheists in order to initiate a dialogue.

Many Christians feel guilty about their failure to witness to neighbors and strangers. But one problem is they don't know how to get the conversation going. One way is to wear a cap or shirt with a provocative religious message. That will prompt some unbelievers to quiz you about the message. In that case it's the unbeliever who initiates the dialogue, and you take it from there. It may be that Bannister's tweets are ice-breakers in that regard. 

3. In this post:

i) Rauser accuses Andy Bannister of "caricaturing, misrepresenting, strawmanning atheism." One problem is Rauser's idiosyncratic definition of a "strawman" or "caricature". Just recently, he did this post: 

in which he accuses Christian apologists of caricaturing atheism by quoting prominent...atheists! But how is it a misrepresentation of atheism to quote prominent representatives of atheism? In that situation, you're letting atheists define atheism. How is that a strawman? 

On Rauser's view, it's not Christian apologists who are caricaturing atheism; rather, atheists are guilty of caricaturing their own position! So whose fault is that?

ii) Perhaps what Rauser is laboring to say, in a clumsy way, is that when we attack a position, we ought to choose the most able spokesmen for that position. If that's what he means, there's certainly some merit to his observation. However:

a) It's important to distinguish between the popularizers and the high-level thinkers. Because the popularizers are far more influential than the high-level thinkers, they are fair game. They represent the position of many rank-and-file atheists. Although that may reflect a very crude, philosophically jejune understanding of their own position, it's a widely representative sample, so that's a legitimate target. There's nothing wrong with a Christian apologist who zeroes in on what many or most atheists actually believe. That may be a soft target, but it's important to destroy that target to make room for something better. 

b) When, furthermore, Rauser defends atheism by taking the position that moral and existential nihilism is a caricature of atheism, even though that's been espoused by some high-level atheists, that simply reflects his own bias. It isn't underhanded for Christian apologists who quote intelligent, sophisticated atheists who espouse moral and existential nihilism. Even if Rauser thinks that version of atheism is illogical, it's an authentic example of atheism.

There are, moreover, Christians and atheists alike who believe for good reason that this is, in fact, the most ruthlessly consistent version of atheism. And it's important from an evangelistic standpoint to rip off the mask and expose the secular alternative for what it really is, in all its bleak unredeemable vacuity. Too few atheists have the honesty or clarity to do that. It's diabolical for Rauser to deny the unmitigated evil of atheism. 

First off, atheism isn’t a worldview, it’s a denial of the existence of God which can be part of many different worldviews.

atheism is not committed to a reductionism about the human person. Atheism is simply the view that God does not exist. It is not the view that only random collocations of atoms exist. Nor does it entail that only random collocations of atoms exist. Consequently, atheism is consistent with many different views of the human person, dignity, and value.

i) To begin with, Bannister may just be using "atheism" as a practical synonym for "naturalism". And it isn't hard to document that usage. For instance: 

conversely, if you are considering suicide, this may be because you are depressed, and not for any rationally (i.e. morally) acceptable reason on any atheist worldview, consequently you have a strong moral obligation to find out (i.e. see a therapist to determine if you diagnose as depressed, or bipolar, or any other mental illness correlated with irrational suicide). A strong atheistic reason-and-evidence-based worldview is therefore a viable (and much less dangerous) vehicle for producing the effect this study claims to have found for religious affiliation (but only actually found for “having moral objections to suicide”).

It is only because of historical accident that atheism is not widely recognised as a worldview in its own right. This worldview is essentially a very general form of naturalism, in which there are not two kinds of stuff, the natural and the supernatural, but one. The forces that govern this substance are also natural ones and there is no ultimate purpose or agency behind them. Human life is biological, and thus does not survive beyond biological death (Julian Baggini).

While identifying atheism with the metaphysical claim that there is no God (or that there are no gods) is particularly useful for doing philosophy, it is important to recognize that the term “atheism” is polysemous—i.e., it has more than one related meaning—even within philosophy. For example, many writers at least implicitly identify atheism with a positive metaphysical theory like naturalism or even materialism. Given this sense of the word, the meaning of “atheism” is not straightforwardly derived from the meaning of “theism”. While this might seem etymologically bizarre, perhaps a case can be made for the claim that something like (metaphysical) naturalism was originally labeled “atheism” only because of the cultural dominance of non-naturalist forms of theism, not because the view being labeled was nothing more than the denial of theism. On this view, there would have been atheists even if no theists ever existed—they just wouldn’t have been called “atheists”. (Baggini [2003] suggests this line of thought, though his “official” definition is the standard metaphysical one.)

ii) As a matter of fact, "atheism" is often synonymous with a positive philosophy or worldview. Usage defines meaning. In fact, Rauser concedes that when he's not in his reactionary mode:

And Strobel definitely has a point. The popular idea that atheism simply consists of belief in one less claim than does the theist (or several less than the Christian) is misleading at best...Strobel is making a similar point: atheism is not simply a matter of subtracting one thing — God — from the ontological catalogue, for by making that subtraction one adds much else.

By his own admission, atheism isn't "simply" a denial of God's existence. 

iii) In addition, Bannister may be using "atheism" as a synonym for "naturalism" for the simple reason that almost everyone knows what "atheism" means whereas "naturalism" has a more technical, philosophical meaning that most folks haven't studied. 

iv) Among western atheists, that verbal placeholder is typically filled in by naturalism. And here's a standard definition of naturalism:

Many ontological naturalists thus adopt a physicalist attitude to mental, biological and other such “special” subject matters. They hold that there is nothing more to the mental, biological and social realms than arrangements of physical entities. 

In the final twentieth-century phase, the acceptance of the casual closure of the physical led to full-fledged physicalism. The causal closure thesis implied that, if mental and other special causes are to produce physical effects, they must themselves be physically constituted. It thus gave rise to the strong physicalist doctrine that anything that has physical effects must itself be physical. 

If there's more than one operating definition, it makes sense to pick a definition that represents the target audience. Sure, there are outre atheists like John McTaggart, but that's so atypical that it would be pedantic to make allowance for his eccentric position (idealism, immortality). It's perfectly appropriate for a Christian apologist to focus on mainstream atheism. 

If, say, Bannister was a Chinese missionary, he might make adjustments for philosophical Buddhist atheism. But that's not his target audience. 

for example, that an atheist adopts a metaphysic according to which there are some metaphysical transcendentals like goodness, truth, and beauty which exist of necessity. And all creatures that have the capacity to exemplify those transcendentals have intrinsic value precisely in virtue of being the kind of beings that can exemplify goodness, truth, and beauty. In that case, if one believed that human beings have the capacity to exemplify those attributes, it would follow that human beings have intrinsic value.

That seems to me to be a perfectly possible metaphysic. (Whether it is plausible is a question that each individual must answer for themselves.) And given that it is perfectly possible, it is manifestly clear that there is no contradiction even in this weaker, colloquial sense.

Several problems:

i) When atheists appeal Platonic realism, that's typically a stopgap explanation. 

ii) There's the question of whether Platonic realism makes sense. What are abstract universals? If they're not mental or material, do they stand for anything intelligible? 

How do they exist? What's the metaphysical apparatus? 

How do causally inert abstracta instantiate themselves in concrete human beings? What's the metaphysical machinery that mediates that transaction? 

How do impersonal entities obligate human behavior? 

iii) To say "if one believed that human beings have the capacity to exemplify those attributes, it would follow that human beings have intrinsic value," is an obvious non sequitur. Merely believing that human beings have that capacity doesn't validate the belief. 

Likewise, to say "whether it is plausible is a question that each individual must answer for themselves" is weaselly. 

4. Finally, in what respect does atheism (i.e. naturalism) nullify the meaning of life?

A. Moral nihilism

i) Moral and existential nihilism are intertwined to some degree. Let's take a few examples:

A New Jersey woman who set her newborn on fire and left her in the middle of a street was sentenced Friday to 30 years in prison.

The 23-year-old Pemberton Township woman doused her newborn with accelerant and set her on fire in January 2015, investigators said.

Also known as the “Darknet,” the dark web is an expanding virtual space where anything goes. Think of it like eBay designed by Caligula, where crypto currencies like Bitcoin can purchase any vice or horror man has dreamed updrugs, stolen IDs, assassins, even webcam access to child dungeons. And if everyone does it the way they’re supposed to, it’s untraceable.

“In the old days, if someone was kidnapped, they asked for ransom. Now, these teams in South America abduct kids and women from areas that are poor, knowing the media won’t give a shit about them, and then hold them in dungeons with webcams. People then make requests using Bitcoin, as to what they want to see happen to the person.”

His treatment of his mother strikes a chill in the heart. In 1958 she was picked up by the Yorkshire police in a state of mental confusion, carrying a suitcase on which was written: "I don't know where I'm going, but I'm going to those who love me." Her only son, Kenneth, on whom she doted, showed little evidence of that love. Rose Tynan ended her life in a mental institution. "I could have postponed her death at the expense of my own self-absorption in self-advancement," noted her son coldly. "I chose not to."

On a table in front of Sacramento Superior Court Judge Steve White’s bench sat the murder weapon: a microwave oven.

Jurors Friday morning silently filed past the appliance into which Ka Yang placed her infant daughter in the kitchen of her family’s Robla-area home on March 17, 2011, and convicted the 34-year-old of first-degree murder and a second count of assault on a child causing great bodily injury leading to death.

Sacramento County prosecutors say Yang, a mother of four including her late daughter, 2-month-old Mirabelle Thao-Lo, was alone with her youngest child for but 11 minutes. Mirabelle was in the oven, prosecutors said, for as long as five of those minutes. Pathologists in proceedings leading up to trial said the child suffered burns covering 60 percent of her body, including radiation burns that penetrated her internal organs.

If there's nothing blameworthy about such behavior, what makes a human life important? If there's no moral difference between doing or not doing that to another human being, what's the value of human life? If right and wrong can't make a difference, what can make a difference?

ii) Perhaps an atheist would say it makes a difference to the victim. The victim values their life and wellbeing. 

But one problem with that explanation is that the perpetrator doesn't value the victim's life and well-being, so what's the tiebreaker? If it isn't wrong to do that to another person, then it comes down to who has more power. 

iii) In fairness, I haven't attempted to demonstrate that naturalism is incompatible with moral realism. Mind you, many secular philosophers concede that naturalism negates moral realism, viz. Michael Ruse, Joel Marks, Alex Rosenberg, Quentin Smith, Sharon Street, J. L. Mackie, Massimo Pigliucci, Richard Joyce.

My immediate point is that if naturalism is incompatible with moral nihilism, then that already pans into existential nihilism. 

B Existential nihilism

i) Mortalism

a) The claim is not that immortality makes human life meaningful, but lack of immorality makes human life meaningless. Immortality is a necessary but insufficient condition for a meaningful existence. 

b) For one thing, many people lead utterly wretched lives. If this life is all there is, they never had a chance to enjoy it. 

c) But it's deeper than that. Suppose we develop artificial intelligence. Suppose an inventor designs a video game with intelligent virtual characters. They have consciousness. Real feelings. They can experience simulated physical pain and pleasure. They remember the past. They look forward to the future.

But he gets bored with the game. Every few weeks he erases the characters and does a reset, as if they never existed in the first place. Did their lives have any significance? 

ii) Cosmic surdity

According to naturalism, things happen for no reason at all. Events have causes but there's no guiding intelligence. Even human agents are in the stream of blind physical determinism. Our thoughts are reducible to chemical reactions. Who lives, who dies, who suffers, who thrives, is sheer luck. 

It's like a subway train wreck in which all the passengers are crushed or incinerated. Who lived and died is ultimately arbitrary. If you arrived at the platform a few minutes sooner or later, you miss the fatal, fateful train. Maybe you were delayed because you spilled coffee or orange juice on yourself at breakfast, and had to change your shirt. Or maybe you were delayed because a delivery truck blocked traffic while the driver was maneuvering to back into the service entrance of the supermarket. A mindless chain of events led up to the moment when passengers boarded the train. Once the doors closed behind them, they were unwittingly doomed. Survival is random. 

iii) Evolutionary psychology

In addition, natural selection has tricked us into altruistic behavior because that confers a survival advantage. We value certain things because we were conditioned to value them by a mindless, amoral process. So what we value or disvalue is arbitrary. We could just as well be programmed by the same mindless, amoral process to value sadism. Indeed, some people do. 

It's like a movie projected onto a blank screen. It appears to be real, but as soon as the projector stops, you're starring at a blank screen. Our values are projected onto a blank screen. The effect is illusory. And there's nothing behind the illusion. 

According to naturalism, we're animals who evolved to the point where we're just smart enough to discover that we've been tricked. It's like Dark City. The aliens erased the original memories of the human captives and implanted false memories. John Murdock "remembers" summer days at Shell Beach with his brother. 

But Shell Beach isn't real. His brother isn't real. The beach only exists as a postcard, billboard, or poster. Nothing in reality corresponds to his halcyon "memories".

Compare that to Jason Bourne, who suffered from amnesia, but begins to remember. That's because he has something to remember. He has a real past.

But according to naturalism, there's nothing to back up our moral instincts. Like Jason Bourne, we've been brainwashed, but unlike Bourne, there's nothing to fall back on. Although we have an instinctual sense of good, yet once we begin to reflect on our evolutionary programing, we realize that we've been hoodwinked. But like the hapless characters in Dark City, there is no true story. That's lost. That's gone. Indeed, that never was. It's delusive memories all the way down. 

Richard Dawkins likes to quote Douglas Adams, "Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?" But the shoe is on the other foot. It's evolutionary psychology that puts airy-fairy values at the bottom of the garden. 

This isn't just a Christian view of atheism. A few hardy atheists come clean about what their position amounts to. For instance:

How to Live a Nihilistic Life
Quentin Smith

I do not believe my theory differs very much from that of many or most people. There is a sense that my life, actions and consequences of actions amount to nothing when I am considering the value of an infinite universe. Our emotional responses to acts or states of affairs we believe have positive or negative value occur when we are narrowly focused on “the here and now”, on the people we interact with or know about, ourselves, and the animals, plants and material things that surround us in our daily lives. In our daily lives, we believe actions are good or bad and that individuals have rights. These beliefs are false, but we know this only on the occasions when we engage in second-order beliefs about our everyday beliefs and view our everyday beliefs from the perspective of infinity. Most of the time, we live in an illusion of meaningfulness and only some times, when we are philosophically reflective, are we aware of reality and the meaninglessness of our lives. It seems obvious that this has a genetic basis, due to Darwinian laws of evolution. In order to survive and reproduce, it must seem to us most of the time that our actions are not futile, that people have rights. The rare occasions in which we know the truth about life are genetically prevented from overriding living our daily lives with the illusion that they are meaningful. As I progress through this paper, I have the illusion that my efforts are not utterly futile, but right now, as I stop and reflect, I realize that any further effort put into this paper is a futile expenditure of my energy.

I think I would still say—part of my position on morality is very much that we regard morality in some sense as being objective, even if it isn’t. So the claim that we intuit morality as objective reality—I would still say that. Of course, what I would want to add is that from the fact that we do this, it doesn’t follow that morality really is objective.

I’m saying that if in fact you’re Christian then you believe you were made in the image of God. And that means—and this is traditional Christian theology—that means that you have intelligence and self-awareness and moral ability…it’s a very important part of Christianity that our intelligence is not just a contingent thing, but is in fact that which makes us in the image of God.

What I would argue is that the connection between Darwinism and ethics is not what the traditional social Darwinian argues. He or she argues that evolution is progressive, humans came out on top and therefore are a good thing, hence we should promote evolution to keep humans up there and to prevent decline. I think that is a straight violation of the is/ought dichotomy…I take Hume’s Law to be the claim that you cannot go from statements of fact—“Duke University is the school attended by Eddy Nahmias”—to statements of value—“Duke University is an excellent school.”

Ed [Edward O. Wilson] does violate Hume’s Law, and no matter what I say he cannot see that there is anything wrong in doing this. It comes from his commitment to the progressive nature of evolution. No doubt he would normally say that one should not go from “is” to “ought”—for example from “I like that student” to “It is OK to have sex with her, even though I am married.” But in this case of evolution he allows it. If you say to him, “But ‘ought’ statements are not like ‘is’ statements,” he replies that in science, when we have reduction, we do this all the time, going from one kind of statement to another kind of statement. We start talking about little balls buzzing in a container and end talking about temperature and pressure. No less a jump than going from “is” to “ought.”

My position is that the ethical sense can be explained by Darwinian evolution—the ethical sense is an adaptation to keep us social. More than this, I argue that sometimes (and this is one of those times), when you give an account of the way something occurs and is as it is, this is also to give an explanation of its status. I think that once you see that ethics is simply an adaptation, you see that it has no justification. It just is. So in metaethics[4] I am a nonrealist. I think ethics is an illusion put into place by our genes to keep us social.

I distinguish normative ethics from metaethics. In normative ethics I think evolution can go a long way to explain our feelings of obligation: be just, be fair, treat others like yourself. We humans are social animals and we need these sentiments to get on. I like John Rawls’s[5] thinking on this. On about page 500 of his Theory of Justice book, Rawls says he thinks the social contract was put in place by evolution rather than by a group of old men many years ago. Then in metaethics, I think we see that morality is an adaptation merely and hence has no justification. Having said this, I agree with the philosopher J.L Mackie[6] (who influenced me a lot) that we feel the need to “objectify” ethics. If we did not think ethics was objective, it would collapse under cheating.

If we knew that it was all just subjective, and we felt that, then of course we’d start to cheat. If I thought there was no real reason not to sleep with someone else’s wife and that it was just a belief system put in place to keep me from doing it, then I think the system would start to break down. And if I didn’t share these beliefs, I’d say to hell with it, I’m going to do it. So I think at some level, morality has to have some sort of, what should I say, some sort of force. Put it this way, I shouldn’t cheat, not because I can’t get away with it, or maybe I can get away with it, but because it is fundamentally wrong.

We’re like dogs, social animals, and so we have morality and this part of the phenomenology of morality, how it appears to us, that it is not subjective, that we think it is objective…So I think ethics is essentially subjective but it appears to us as objective and this appearance, too, is an adaptation.

Within the system, of course, rape is objectively wrong—just like three strikes and you are out in baseball. But I’m a nonrealist, so ultimately there is no objective right and wrong for me. Having said that, I am part of the system and cannot escape. The truth does not necessarily make you free.

There is no ultimate truth about morality. It is an invention—an invention of the genes rather than of humans, and we cannot change games at will, as one might baseball if one went to England and played cricket. Within the system, the human moral system, it is objectively true that rape is wrong. That follows from the principles of morality and from human nature. If our females came into heat, it would not necessarily be objectively wrong to rape—in fact, I doubt we would have the concept of rape at all. So, within the system, I can justify. But I deny that human morality at the highest level—love your neighbor as yourself, etc.—is justifiable. That is why I am not deriving “is” from “ought,” in the illicit sense of justification. I am deriving it in the sense of explaining *why we have* moral sentiments, but that is a different matter.

I think ultimately there is nothing—moral nihilism, if you wish.

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