Re: [asa] Dawkins, religion, and children

From: David Opderbeck <>
Date: Thu May 03 2007 - 09:15:39 EDT

Merv said: "*But atheists may be
coming back to that argument with the response: "we don't care about a
non-existent objective basis". We can appeal to morals on a different
Evolutionary level (can't be taken as an ultimate compulsion, of
course, but they are there anyway.)"*
Merv, I think you make a good point here. In my experience, most
materialists / atheists / strong agonstics opt who really think about such
things opt for a pragmatic utilitarian / consequentialist ethics. If you
press them on why one "ought" to think in terms of the greatest good for the
greatest number of people (a crude reduction of utilitarianism), they will
shrug and say "it seems to work." They will point to the history of
scientific progress in the past couple of centuries and suggest that people
live longer, happier, healthier, freer lives when society focuses on solving
tangible engineering-type problems, and that people on the whole are
less happy, etc. when society focuses on big metaphysical questions such as
religious belief. So, they say, set the metaphysics aside, including most
of those big "ought" questions, and let's just focus on fixing some things
technology and science can fix. I don't *need* ultimate justification for
my ethical stance, they will say; all I can do is try to enjoy life and fix
a couple of problems in front of me in the short time I have.

We shouldn't underestimate this stance. It's powerful on an intuitive
level, many pragmatic philosophers (from Dewey running through Rawls and
Rorty) have given it substantial intellectual support, and at this point in
history it underwrites significant parts of western ethics and
jurisprudence. You are right that it can't really be dismissed in a few

However, I still think the substance of Wayne's objection (and my earlier
objection) stands. Pragmatic consequentialism seems to assume a stable
liberal democratic order. It doesn't seem adequate to answer
*challenges*to the underlying order. What if, for example, a
particular ethnic or
political group (say, the janjaweed militias in Darfur) decide that it can
maximize its utility most effectively by committing genocide against
others. What is the ethical basis for using economic / political coercion
or military force to stop that? Who sits above the fray to make the utility
calculations that adjudicate between rival utilities? It seems to me that,
at the end of the day, it does have to come down to one of two things: (1)
mere power; or (2) a transcendent basis for the ethical decision.

Radical postmodernists follow Neitzsche in deconstructing any efforts to
define (2) as pretexts for (1) -- with, I think, some justification
sometimes. You are correct, I think, to note that many other people try to
locate (2) in human-nature-as-it-is -- effectively elevating "evolution"
from an "is" to an "ought." As I see it, that is one of the big challenges
presented by sociobiology. In this respect, I think it is fair to say that
Darwin*ism *tends to operate as a pseudo-religious superstructure that seeks
to provide transcendent justification for ethical claims.

The prior two paragraphs, of course, are grossly inadequate to settle the
whole discussion, but in my mind at least, they outline some of the key

On 5/3/07, Merv <> wrote:
> I should own my own copy of Keith's "Perspectives..." so I can refer
> back to it. As it is, I remember some of those works seemed to invest
> some signitficance in emergent properties as an answer to reductionist
> challenges. Particularly one of the essayists at the end (the
> neuro-scientist, I think) was advocating for a type of monism and using
> emergent properties as an answer to determinism. This is sloppy and
> I'm probably misrepresenting those chapters, but I trust those on this
> site who have more freshly read the work will correct me here.
> Regarding how we can think of concepts like "soul" and freewill, though,
> I remember that that was the direction they were taking. Perhaps they
> would agree with you that at root, all these properties are still
> answerable to deterministic laws, leaving chaos and quantum difficulties
> (impossibilities really) as the known barriers preventing prediction.
> But philosophically speaking, the tie back to deterministic laws, then
> still leaves us with difficulties in explaining freewill (even just
> conceptually -- nobody is talking about proof here.)
> Part of what I was trying to get at is the unsatisfactory nature of
> propping up our apologetics too strongly on a Christian monopoly of
> moral basis. We say that without an objective independent source for
> these values (God), there can be no true values at all. That may be
> true enough, and nobody will ever prove otherwise. But atheists may be
> coming back to that argument with the response: "we don't care about a
> non-existent objective basis". We can appeal to morals on a different
> Evolutionary level (can't be taken as an ultimate compulsion, of
> course, but they are there anyway.) This doesn't remove their own
> internal inconsistencies that you have pointed out -- that they so
> passionately fight against a religious meme that, after all, according
> to their own logic just evolved. But yet they can just as well say that
> their passion against religion is also the "newest and next evolution"
> that will carry us to the next level of human enlightenment, yada yada.
> So, in a sense, they may be building an internally coherent answer to
> this charge. This is what I think we need to be thinking about.
> --Merv
> wrote:
> > Merv,
> >
> > very nicely written. One comment on emergent properties: emergent
> > physics does not claim that the emerging properties are free
> > from deterministic law at a lower level; it only claims that we are
> > unable to analyze its connection to those laws. Chaotic systems being
> > exponentially sensitive to their initial conditions appear very nearly
> > singular, but ultimately they are not. We know this because nature
> > had no forethought in figuring out what to do in cases of emergence,
> > and so it could accomplish the emergence only by following some
> > unthinking laws. Therefore the type of laws that we expect in
> > reductionist physics must still exist and must be effective even in
> > cases of emergence. The issue is just epistemic not ontological.
> > Nature is still considered to be fully reducible, though we cannot
> > always do the math. (Of course there are the questions of quantum
> > indeterminism, but even then the emergence is reducible in principle
> > to the statistics.)
> >
> > So I don't see any hope for atheism to discover emergent meaning in
> > life. At best it may be an illusion because we are epistemically
> > separated from the natural law that brings the illusory sense of
> > meaning into being. But ultimately it is not any real meaning because
> > it is still reducible to brain chemistry and through that to valence
> > shell electromagnetism, and so there is still no escape from despair
> > in a materialist worldview.
> >
> > I think you implied all this, but I wanted to emphasize that emergence
> > is not really an escape from reductionism, ontologically. Emergence
> > is important for scientists who want to justify their grant proposal
> > (explaining why something complex must be studied even though its
> > reductionist basis is well known), but it is not important in forming
> > a worldview.
> >
> > Phil
> >
> >
> >
> >
> > -----Original Message-----
> > From:
> > To:;
> > Sent: Wed, 2 May 2007 8:50 PM
> > Subject: Re: [asa] Dawkins, religion, and children
> >
> > I agree with everything you wrote below, Wayne -- & yet, the neat
> > packaging gives me pause. [no God means no meaning and nothing but
> > biochemical masses doing what chemicals do... delusions or "truth" all
> > in one big meaningless pot.] I'm sure atheists aren't taking this
> > sitting down. In fact, isn't Dennet (I've only read one of his books &
> > can't even remember which it was) working on resurrecting a notion of
> > atheism minus the despair? If Christian scientific thinkers can dabble
> > in kinds of naturalism and speak of "emergent" properties that defy
> > reductionist analysis, then can't atheists pursue this angle as well and
> > begin to postulate meaning and purpose in some purely Evolutionary
> > sense? I think Dennet may be attempting it. The only difference would
> > probably be that instead of God providing the meaning, it is supposed to
> > come from "us" -- perhaps at some community level. If they ever seem
> > successful in this, then it would be in defiance of our inclinations
> > you/we express below. And we can still insist (and unanswerably so) that
> > such "meaning" is still illusionary to the extent that it claims an
> > objective basis. Nevertheless their labor (if taken to be successful)
> > would begin to deflate the sting of this Christian argument. I still
> > think that the only final "argument" that we will rest on will be on our
> > faith in an objective Truth. And utility, such as what may be found at
> > times or missing at other times, will only be a secondary support built
> > on that prior foundation of objective truth recognized only by faith.
> > But we should anticipate how we, as a Christian community, would/will
> > respond to such "de-objectified" values construction.
> >
> > --Merv
> >
> > <javascript:parent.ComposeTo("",
> "");> wrote:
> > >
> > > What you are raising is why should the truth even
> > > matter? Indeed, if there is no objective truth, no
> > > purpose, an indiscriminate universe ("pitiless" implies
> > > will), and this material is all that is, we can start
> > > with the God Delusion, but soon we can see that all
> > > our desires are also "delusion". Our human desire
> > > for friendship, fellowship and love are no more
> > > significant than the Van der Waals interactions
> > > in graphite or covalent bonding between carbon and
> > > oxygen. The temptations I struggle to overcome or
> > > the truth I might desire are all just chemical
> > > reactions in my brain. As you suggest, we cannot even
> > > define "pragmatic" as more than a functional definition.
> > > Likewise for "will", "good", "evil", etc.
> > >
> > > It's not like we cannot go on. One can use some criteria
> > > such as market efficiency, equal access to information,
> > > maximizing the chance of survival of the species, etc.,
> > > if they wish. But these rules are in fact arbitrary. They
> > > are illusions. Why should I care about them?
> > >
> > > So all the shouting about truth assumes that there is an
> > > objective truth that actually matters after all. Yet that
> > > can only come from the hand of God. All others are just
> > > "delusion".
> > >
> > > In that sense, if objective truth does not matter, then
> > > in some respects, living in "delusion" also doesn't matter
> > > either. Like chemical reactions, you just do as you like.
> > >
> > > So coming back to your point, I agree, holding a position
> > > of a "pitiless universe of mere material" is a choice of
> > > course. It does not follow that one (who choses this way)
> > > has some preordained mission to inculcate a particular brand
> > > of poison (i.e., opinions, values) on anyone else. Coercion
> > > may be a consequence of chemicals in the brain, but "best result"
> > > is nothing more than a functional definition (under these
> > > assumed condition). I'm not sure under these conditions
> > > that I can ascribe any value to living under delusion,
> > > because "rational" and "choice" also become mere functional
> > > definitions, but neither is it wrong to live this way.
> > >
> > > That I believe the truth matters does require an act of faith,
> > > so I don't see I can escape the faith word. But the logical
> > > conclusion of the nihilistic strategy is that all will come
> > > down and that the truth (in fact) doesn't even matter in the
> > > end.
> > >
> > > By Grace we proceed,
> > > Wayne
> > >
> > >
> >
> >
> >
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Received on Thu May 3 09:15:49 2007

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