Secular Right | Reality & Reason

Mar/10

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Liberalism Claims the Transcendent

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Of the great mid-2000s tranche of “celebrity atheists,” each has his own distinctive style: the professorial Dennett, the street-fighter Hitchens, the smartypants Dawkins, and so on. For me at least, Sam Harris is the least distinctive of the crowd, the one who leaves the blurriest image in one’s mind.

Here’s Sam giving a presentation at the TED conference in California. It de-blurred the image some for me.

It did other things, too: fortified my suspicion that modern liberalism is a kind of religion, or at least draws on some of the theogenic modules of the human mind for its inspirations. It also left me thinking that the word “scientism,” as used pejoratively by believers, may not be as empty of semantic content as I’ve supposed.

Tremendously compressed précis of Sam’s talk: “There are indeed moral facts, but they are nothing like as relativistic as you’d infer from a study of anthropology or comparative religion.”  

Even more compressed précis: “There are indeed moral facts, and I know what they are!” 

Child-beating, for example, is wrong, according to Sam; that’s a moral fact, whatever the Bible says to the contrary.  (And presumably notwithstanding that child-beating has been routine practice for 99.99 percent of human history.)

It’s still a style of magical thinking, an appeal to the Transcendent — a claim to know the Transcendent in fact. (That the Transcendent exists in some style, I could easily be persuaded; that anyone knows anything about it, seems to me improbable at a very high order.) Yes, religious, really.

Contrariwise, the view of morality I myself find most plausible is the “grammar of action” notion put forward by (I think) Rawls. We have the capacity to react instinctively against some classes of acts, just as we have a capacity to react instinctively against some classes of utterances. A man clubbing his child to death is wrong in our perception, in the same kind of way that a sentence like “The house be on fire” is wrong.

As with actual language, the whole business is mightily confused by the peculiarities of particular communities’  ”languages” and the weaknesses or habits of individual “language” users: this one muddles up his tenses carelessly, that one winces at a split infinitive. Also by one of those ”good enough” principles so common in human affairs, yet so shocking to intellectuals.  If the house actually is on fire, “The house be on fire!” is a good enough warning.  

Those instinctive reactions are there, though, in our nature — in our brains, most likely — not in the sky — and they have some kind of phylogeny in the history of social animals. All our ethical systems are built on them.

I have a dim memory of having reviewed one of Sam’s books somewhere … Yep.

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29 comments

  • Meng Bomin · March 31, 2010 at 6:19 am

    He also posted a rather lengthy defense of his talk against critics (with a focus on Sean Carroll’s critique)

    I wouldn’t recommend it unless you have a good bit of time on your hands and are somewhat masochistic, but it’s full of wisdom such as:

    Moral relativism is clearly an attempt to pay intellectual reparations for the crimes of western colonialism, ethnocentrism, and racism.

  • Florida resident · March 31, 2010 at 6:29 am

    Bravo on your post and on

    http://www.johnderbyshire.com/Reviews/Religion/endoffaith.html

    Tiyr truly, F. r.

  • Polichinello · March 31, 2010 at 6:52 am

    One of the most chilling passages I read was a line in Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle where he discusses how a native mother in Tierra del Fuego was weeping over her child, whose brains had been dashed out by his father, who was angry because the child had broken an egg. He also described how these same natives would eat their old women in times of famine, and how the others would mock these women’s wailings as they were taken off to be butchered.

  • JP · March 31, 2010 at 6:55 am

    Modern liberalism is a kind of religion – and a messianic, evangelical creed, at that. It brooks no competition and will leave no potential convert un-preached to.

    Child-beating is wrong? Geez, I wish my grandparents and parents had known that…

  • Al Fin · March 31, 2010 at 7:50 am

    Sam Harris is safely immersed in an academic environment. He can make any claims he wishes, so long as he does not violate the rules of political correctness — the official religion of pseudo-intelligentsia.

    There are very few “secular” persons — persons without a religion of some type or another. Followers of Obama, for example, require strong doses of faith in order to ignore the reality of Obama – enabled secular rot and decay in government and the economy.

    Each writer for this blog has his or her own unacknowledged religion or faith. It underwrites each posting he or she publishes.

  • Susan · March 31, 2010 at 8:06 am

    True, Al Fin, but it’s possible to make a distinction between beliefs that accord with reality and beliefs that deny reality.

  • A-Bax · March 31, 2010 at 9:28 am

    Polichinello: I remember reading that Darwin found the Tierra Del Fuegeans (?) particularly off-putting. He considered them the lowest of all the races he’d encountered, largely for the reasons you describe. I think Darwin actually seriously feared for his physical safety while among them. Yikes.

    Bradlaugh: I seem to recall you once hinting that you were going to write a sort of atheist apologia to counteract all the pep-talk-on-religious-faith books on offer. Is that still in the mix?

  • Polichinello · March 31, 2010 at 9:52 am

    A-Bax,

    Another interesting thing in the Voyage was how many times he went out of his way to both praise Christian missionaries in the South Pacific and to defend them against critics. For example, critics accused the missionaries of repressing the natives by have them dress, but Darwin pointed out that their teetotaling theology protected them from unscrupulous traders.

    I wonder how many Christians are aware of this?

  • Polichinello · March 31, 2010 at 9:54 am

    Followers of Obama, for example, require strong doses of faith in order to ignore the reality of Obama – enabled secular rot and decay in government and the economy.

    The reality of Obama for most academics like Harris is that they get more money in the form of stimuli, grants and now yet more college loan money that will drive up tuition rates. It’s working out just fine for them.

  • Gotchaye · March 31, 2010 at 12:32 pm

    I saw that talk too, and was very disappointed.

    He’s not necessarily completely wrong, but he’s at least intent on eliding the distinction between the everyday use of “moral” and his own use of “moral”.

    It sounded to me like he was attempting something like what Kant was trying to do with respect to knowledge. Kant famously tried to get around various skeptical problems by just redefining “knowledge” as something that was less vulnerable to attack. Likewise Harris isn’t really concerned with morality as what we ought to do in the everyday sense – he’s just interested in morality as what (some particular form of) consequentialism says we ought to do. But where Kant was very up-front about the need to redefine the word, Harris seems to want to pretend that he’s using “morality” the same way that everyone else does.

    Less charitably, his whole talk can basically be summed up as: “Given the particular consequentialist take I’m fond of, there are objectively right and wrong answers to every moral question”. That’s obviously true, but I didn’t notice that he ever acknowledged that the real issue here is that not everyone agrees with him on how answers to moral questions ought to be determined.

  • John · March 31, 2010 at 6:42 pm

    Moral relativism fails, among other reasons, from the simple fact that not everyone agrees on what is moral. If two people have irreconcilable differences about a moral issue, how do you decide what to do? Moral relativism has no answer for this.

    Is child beating wrong? Are there some circumstances in which it isn’t? Either these questions have answers or they don’t. Either morality is an aesthetic preference with no more importance than musical tastes, or it is a fact of nature as true as the fact that 5 is a prime number. There are no other options.

  • Kevin Lawrence · March 31, 2010 at 8:32 pm

    It’s odd, Bradlaugh, that Sam Harris is a “certain kind of atheist” but that he typifies liberalism.

    I wonder if a god-fearing liberal would have the opposite view of Sam Harris (typical of atheists, certain kind of liberal)?

    He’s neither my kind of atheist nor my kind of liberal. I don’t believe he is representative of either group.

  • Gian · March 31, 2010 at 10:28 pm

    1. How have you solved to your satisfaction the Haldane’s Paradox:

    It seems to me immensely unlikely that mind is a mere by-product of matter. For if my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true. They may be sound chemically, but that does not make them sound logically. And hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.

    2. I am sure you have read the criticism that CS Lewis makes to your position ( Moral sense is or is derived from Instinct). Do you care to reply?

  • Derek Scruggs · March 31, 2010 at 11:02 pm

    You underestimate Harris. He’s very well aware that he is making an audacious cliam — much more than “There are indeed moral facts, and I know what they are” — and in fact is disappointed that both fans and critics alike do not generally recognize it. More info here.

    While I think he’s treading on dangerous ground, his research and background in both philosophy and neuroscience are enough to make me want to see how the story turns out.

  • Gotchaye · April 1, 2010 at 1:37 am

    Derek – Meng posted a link to that in the first comment.

    I think Harris is basically doing the same thing there as he was in the talk. Where he’s not doing that, he’s simply wrong.

    I thought his discussion of psychopathy was particularly confused. Kant’s categorical imperative gets thrown in in passing, with no argument for its objective truth in people’s values. Then he moves on to say that the problem with Ted Bundy is just that Bundy doesn’t realize that actually he could be better off doing something else. Harris seems to be committed to the claim that a moral society leads to the maximal flourishing of each individual. Surely someone somewhere had “wrong values” and yet was more satisfied with life than he otherwise would have been.

    It’s also just not clear to me how we’re supposed to determine whose well-beings matter. Even granting that he’s right, and that all of our moral notions are based on respect for well-being, why should we (or why shouldn’t we) care about the well-being of animals? Of fetuses? Of women? Of black people? I don’t think you can argue that our moral notions are clearly based on respect for the well-being of all sentient creatures. At best, I think you might show that our moral notions are based on respect for the well-being of those that we consider part of our tribe. But Harris just throws out that it’s “rather obvious” that enslaving half of humanity wouldn’t allow for a “thriving global civilization”. My impression had always been that the ruling classes in slave-owning societies were generally rather satisfied with their lot. I certainly can’t see how the same argument wouldn’t apply to our raising animals for slaughter, but I don’t see how eating hamburgers might close off avenues of flourishing (perhaps Harris just badly underestimates the human ability to compartmentalize).

    Finally, he’s only able to include religious morality in this by claiming that it’s a concern for the well-being of persons after death – that the distinction here is just that the religious think that it makes sense to speak of a person’s well-being after their physical body dies. So, at the least, you’ve got to objectively establish whether or not this is true before you can go about determining what actually promotes well-being. That is, moral questions are no more scientific than religious questions (at least).

  • Author comment by Bradlaugh · April 1, 2010 at 9:17 am

    Polichinello:

    “One of the most chilling passages I read …”

    I actually had that in mind when writing. It’s one of those passages that, once you’ve read it, never goes away. And the oddest thing of all about the Fuegans (were they the people modern anthropologists call Alakulaf? I’ve often wondered. There is a very mealncholy picture of the last few remaining Alakulaf in Coon’s “Living Races of Man”), the oddest thing is that for all the degraded wretchedness of their existence — sleeping out naked and uncovered in the cold rain etc. — the fellow that Darwin & co. took back and civilized, eventually returned.

  • Author comment by Bradlaugh · April 1, 2010 at 9:20 am

    A-Bax:

    “I seem to recall you once hinting that you were going to write a sort of atheist apologia to counteract all the pep-talk-on-religious-faith”

    Yes: my idea was a sort of “Atheism for Dummies.” But then someone contracted me to do the Doomed book, and I forgot about the other. I shall re-ponder it.

  • Author comment by Bradlaugh · April 1, 2010 at 9:26 am

    Al Fin:

    “There are very few ‘secular’ persons — persons without a religion of some type or another.”

    False. Religion arises from core elements of the human personality, present to some degree in all normal (i.e. non-damaged) persons. HOWEVER…

    …The kicker is “to some degree.” As with other features of human nature, there is wide variation. Some of us have two left feet; some are Fred Astaire.

    It is possible to be a religious genius — someone like St Therese of Lisieux, say. It is also possible to have no innate or arousable interest in, or capacity for, religious feeling.

    I do agree though (in fact I said in my original) that the modules that generate religion can be co-opted to generate other thought-systems. To some degree.

  • Author comment by Bradlaugh · April 1, 2010 at 9:32 am

    John:

    “Is child beating wrong? Are there some circumstances in which it isn’t? Either these questions have answers or they don’t.”

    Is virtue green? Are there some circumstances in which it is purple? Either these questions have answers or they don’t.

    You have left out other possibilities: The questions beg themselves; they are meaningless; they are based on false premises; etc. Are all porpfuls xerabaic? I dunno. Define your terms, and I’ll give you an answer.

    “Either morality is an aesthetic preference with no more importance than musical tastes, or it is a fact of nature as true as the fact that 5 is a prime number. There are no other options.”

    I can think of several, without breaking a sweat. E.g. morality might be an esthetic preference that is very important to the maintenance of a harmonious society. Or that the primality of 5 is NOT a fact of nature — a perfectly respectable philosophical position. See e.g. the books of Reuben Hersh (sp?)

  • Author comment by Bradlaugh · April 1, 2010 at 9:38 am

    Gian:

    “1. How have you solved to your satisfaction the Haldane’s Paradox: ‘It seems to me immensely unlikely that mind is a mere by-product of matter…’”

    That’s not a paradox; that’s metaphysical wool-gathering.

    “I am sure you have read the criticism that CS Lewis makes to your position ( Moral sense is or is derived from Instinct). Do you care to reply?”

    If I ever read it (doubtful) I’ve forgotten it. Lewis’s apologetics strike me as shallow and silly. He lost me with the famous(!) trilemma: either Jesus was sensationally crazy, or else he was the offspring of a human female by an invisible sky spirit. Why couldn’t he just have been MISTAKEN? But if you can precis it for me in less than 200 wds, I’ll take a look.

  • Clark · April 1, 2010 at 2:11 pm

    I haven’t read the comments yet, so forgive me if I repeat someone else. However it seems odd to claim moral facts entails some kind of transcendence. A utilitarian believes in moral facts but it seems hard to call the utilitarian involved in any kind of transcendence or magical thinking.

    I’m also surprised so many see the scientism issue as empty of content. It seems a pretty well analyzed issue in philosophy and has almost nothing to do with religion. The fact some criticize religion in terms of scientism just means their arguments are poor. It says nothing about religion or atheism.

  • Clark · April 1, 2010 at 2:11 pm

    I haven’t read the comments yet, so forgive me if I repeat someone else. However it seems odd to claim moral facts entails some kind of transcendence. A utilitarian believes in moral facts but it seems hard to call the utilitarian involved in any kind of transcendence or magical thinking.

    I’m also surprised so many see the scientism issue as empty of content. It seems a pretty well analyzed issue in philosophy and has almost nothing to do with religion. The fact some criticize religion in terms of scientism just means their arguments are poor. It says nothing about religion or atheism.

  • John · April 1, 2010 at 7:31 pm

    Is virtue green? Are there some circumstances in which it is purple? Either these questions have answers or they don’t.

    Since virtue is not a physical object, it isn’t green or purple. The questions do have answers, and they are “no”, and “no”.

    E.g. morality might be an esthetic preference that is very important to the maintenance of a harmonious society.

    Ah, but if morality is only an aesthetic preference, then there is nothing intrinsically good about a harmonious society. To claim that a harmonious society is better than a non-harmonious one is a moral judgment, and we are back where we started.

    Or that the primality of 5 is NOT a fact of nature — a perfectly respectable philosophical position. See e.g. the books of Reuben Hersh (sp?)

    Hmmm, maybe I’ll give him a look.

  • Acilius · April 2, 2010 at 9:47 am

    “Lewis’s apologetics strike me as shallow and silly. He lost me with the famous(!) trilemma: either Jesus was sensationally crazy, or else he was the offspring of a human female by an invisible sky spirit. Why couldn’t he just have been MISTAKEN?”

    That isn’t quite fair to Lewis. The argument he’s so fond of repeating is one that Tertullian made in the third century, commonly known as aut deus aut malus. The behavior the Gospels impute to Jesus, this argument runs, would be inexcusably obnoxious if exhibited by any ordinary human being. So he goes around forgiving people for sins that they didn’t commit against him, interrupting religious scholars when they are trying to have professional discussions, vandalizing the money-changing part of the Temple, drowning a herd of pigs in a lake, etc etc etc. This rules out the “great moral teacher” dodge- we can’t say that Jesus was a mortal man who set an example for other mortals to emulate, because if he were a mortal man his example would be deplorable. He can have been entitled to do the things he did and to be praised for having done them only if he were profoundly different from the rest of us.

    Lewis wasn’t the only thinker of his day who was attracted to the deus aut malus argument. Bertrand Russell gives it great play in WHY I AM NOT A CHRISTIAN.

  • Jonathon · April 2, 2010 at 11:12 am

    I continue to be baffled by the myriad of ways that Harris is misportrayed. I agree that there have been people in the past who claimed that science can provide absolute, dogmatic answers to morality, but this is so obviously NOT what Harris is claiming (and he says so over and over again). He is simply saying that science has something to say about morality BECAUSE morality is a phenomenon which acts among and between material beings which inhabit a study-able world. This claim seems almost banal to me in it’s obviousness, and I’m having a hard time understanding how other materialists can really object to it.

  • Elroy · April 3, 2010 at 10:00 am

    I don’t know too many sane people who are in favor of child beating. I am in favor of corporal punishment and have found it effective a few times. Sam ignores the benefits, namely it is an effective communication technique with 4 year olds who may not understand the reason behind a particular rule but understand a whack on the but. Now that I think of it, communication has been difficult at times with my teenage son but considering that he is 6’1″ and weighs 200 pounds administering corporal punishment at this stage may not be wise.

    Anyway, this was just an example that was used to make the point. The rest of the speech I found oddly compelling until I thought about it.

  • Magnets & Morality · Secular Right · April 3, 2010 at 11:42 am

    [...] Comments our founding truth on Happy Eostre EveryoneElroy on Liberalism Claims the TranscendentPolichinello on Ancient & ModernTAS on Ancient & ModernJonathon on Liberalism Claims the [...]

  • Gian · April 4, 2010 at 10:20 pm

    Bradlaugh,

    MISTAKEN on this scale is lunacy. So the trilemma covers it. Nobody else in monotheistic traditions (Judism, Islam) had been MISTAKEN in this way.

    You dismissal of Haldane’s paradox, I dont get it. While there exist sophiscated arguments to resolve it, no doubt, I have not seen it resolved elegantly and hoped perhaps you have given it some thought.

    I will submit for your consideration a precis of CS Lewis argument re: Moral Sense later.

  • Gian · April 4, 2010 at 10:23 pm

    Also
    “On the Peculiarity of the Scientific World-View”
    By Ernest Schrodinger

    We are thus facing the following strange situation. While all building stones for the [modern scientific] world-picture are furnished by the senses qua organs of the mind, while the world picture itself is and remains for everyone a construct of his mind and apart from it has no demonstrable existence, the mind itself remains a stranger in this picture, it has no place in it, it can nowhere be found in it.

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