Thursday, March 06, 2008

Naturalism and Nihilism

In an article based on his recently published book God and the New Atheism, theologian John Haught argues that the new atheism is just as bad as “the politically and culturally insipid kind of theism it claims to be ousting.” He says the new atheism is essentially faith-based, replacing faith in god with faith in scientism. It’s “creedal,” dogmatic, without a stiff cognitive spine, a “life-numbing religiosity…religiosity in a new guise.” It’s therefore epistemically and morally inferior to the theism Haught champions, which has no truck with faith, at least not the insipid, life-numbing kind. Haught’s belief in god is instead based in what he calls a “richer empiricism” which goes beyond science, as explained in his book Is Nature Enough?, reviewed here.

But is Haught being fair to tar atheism, and therefore naturalism, with the brush of religiosity and faith? Are naturalists creedal about scientism, which Haught defines as the idea that “science alone is a reliable road to true understanding of anything”? No. Naturalists don’t (or shouldn’t) suppose that all truths are scientific truths, only that science is our best guide to understanding the ultimate constituents of reality and the things they compose – the “furniture of the universe.” (More on distinguishing science from scientism is here, here and here.) Naturalists’ commitment to science in this regard isn’t a matter of faith, it’s based on experience – the widely shared experience that beliefs about the world based in science are generally more reliable than those that aren’t. If we want reliable beliefs, then it’s rational to stick with science, not a matter of faith. So it isn’t, as Haught says, self-contradictory to assert we shouldn’t base beliefs about the world on faith, but rather on science, since this assertion isn’t based on faith.

Haught takes the new “soft-core” atheists to task for accepting mainstream values and modern lifestyles, saying that they aren’t being true to the real implications of atheism. The old hard-core atheists such as Nietzsche, Camus, and Sartre saw that “a full acceptance of the death of God would require an asceticism completely missing in the new atheistic formulas.” They would advise, as Haught puts it, that

If you're going to be an atheist, the most rugged version of godlessness demands complete consistency. Go all the way and think the business of atheism through to the bitter end. This means that before you get too comfortable with the godless world you long for, you will be required by the logic of any consistent skepticism to pass through the disorienting wilderness of nihilism. Do you have the courage to do that?

For Haught, true atheism and naturalism necessarily end up in nihilism. Since the new atheists obviously aren’t nihilists, being good bourgeois and all, they aren’t real, rugged atheists. He asks

Has [Sam] Harris really thought about what would happen if people adopted the hard-core atheist's belief that there is no transcendent basis for our moral valuations? What if people have the sense to ask whether Darwinian naturalism can provide a solid and enduring foundation for our truth claims and value judgments? Will a good science education make everyone simply decide to be good if the universe is inherently valueless and purposeless? At least the hard-core atheists tried to prepare their readers for the pointless world they would encounter if the death of God were taken seriously.

The equation of naturalism with nihilism is a standard scare tactic, but it doesn’t bear on the truth or plausibility of naturalism or theism. Even if Darwinian naturalism can’t provide “a solid and enduring foundation for our truth claims and value judgments” this isn’t proof that it’s false, or that god exists. It’s only a reason to hope god exists, on the questionable assumption that his authority provides a secure basis for moral values (see here).

It turns out, however, that the hard-core atheists (at least as Haught describes them) were wrong: an atheistic naturalism doesn’t end up in nihilism, so we needn’t run scared into the arms of god. Without a transcendent, theistic basis for our moral valuations, there are still compelling reasons for naturalists to be moral: we are animals whose flourishing within a society critically depends on behaving morally toward others. Moreover, we are built by evolution to take moral rules as universally binding (see here). This explains why the new atheists are just normal folk, not nihilists, when it comes to values and lifestyles: they, like pretty much everyone else, are moral by nature.

Haught closes with a question:

Belief in God or the practice of religion is not necessary in order for people to be highly moral beings. We can agree with soft-core atheists on this point. But the real question, which comes not from me but from the hard-core atheists, is: Can you rationally justify your unconditional adherence to timeless values without implicitly invoking the existence of God?
The answer, as we’ve seen, is an unequivocal yes. Of course it isn’t that naturalism avoids value conflict and moral ambiguity, but patently neither does theism, whether it’s what Haught considers the insipid, faith-based varieties, or the more "empirical" theological varieties. Since he admits that belief in god isn’t necessary for being moral, this puts naturalists and theists on at least an equal moral footing. That naturalists are not nihilists doesn’t implicitly invoke the existence of god, it’s simply evidence that morality is a natural phenomenon. As Dan Dennett would say, thank goodness!

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Playing Catch with Dr. Tallis

Raymond Tallis, physician, philosopher, poet and novelist, is a very smart and amusing champion of free will against determinism. You can see him in action as a panelist in Fora TV’s Battle of Ideas, where he read a paper denying that neuroscience can help us decide about criminal culpability (comments here). He’s also defended free will at the Manifesto Club in London (comments here), and most recently in the pages of Philosophy Now, in an article titled Who caught that ball? (warning: sports metaphors ahead). Tallis is a one man whirlwind of well intentioned, well expressed, but ultimately misguided arguments to the effect that in order to be free and responsible, human beings must transcend causation in some respect. Here I’ll respond to his latest sally, returning the ball to his court.

Tallis considers a cricket player who’s just made an amazing catch, and asks whether he deserves the praise coming from his teammates. On a close analysis of the rapid fire physical processes underlying the catch, most of which were necessarily carried out automatically and unthinkingly, it might appear that the player himself didn’t do much. He’s just the “lucky possesor of bodily mechanisms” that did the real work. Tallis points out that much of our behavior is in fact automatic and mechanistic, it “does itself” without intention on our part. If so, that seems to leave the conscious agent without much of a role to play. Further, as neuroscience is telling us, consciousness itself seems to be a function of the physical brain. If so, Tallis says we might worry that
...our brain is calling the shots. We persons are merely the site of those events we call ‘actions’. It all looks pretty bleak for those who believe that we really do do the things we think we do.

In rebutting this point, he goes on to point out, quite properly, that it’s only by virtue of conscious, voluntary decisions (to practice hard, schedule his time, show up for games) that the cricket player is ultimately able to make the catch. Further, to understand all this requires not just consideration of his brain, but the whole person and the field of action in which he is engaged. We are active conscious agents, not merely a collection of passive, unconscious processes.

All this is certainly true, but Tallis seems to think that broadening our explanation to include the person and environment somehow escapes determinism:

…we are always positioning ourselves to acquire the experience, skills, knowledge and even the attitudes that will enable us to perform effectively. And this is how it is with much of our lives, which consist of acting on ourselves in order to change ourselves, from going to a pub to have a drink to cheer oneself up, to paying good money to cut a better figure in Paris by polishing up one ’s French. Stuffing all this back in the brain and denying the larger background to our actions, which are to a significant degree chosen and shaped by us, is the first step to handing actions over to the impersonal material world and making determinism seem almost plausible.
But the plausibility of determinism – the law-like cause and effect regularities exhibited by events in the world that science describes at many interlocking levels – isn’t abrogated by being a person, since after all we are fully embodied beings. Nor is it abrogated by being very complex, recursively self-modifying beings that have reasons and intentions. There’s no basis to suppose that our choices to self-modify, and the reasons for those choices, aren’t fully explicable as a function of the intricate causal interplay between us and our “larger background.” As Nancey Murphy and Warren Brown argue in their book, Did My Neurons Make Me Do It? (pp. 191-237), reasons aren’t opposed to causes, they are a category of causes. Indeed, to understand ourselves rationally requires that we analyze our choices and reasons in a deterministic fashion, to see them as causal operators with their own antecedents in our desires and motives, which in turn have their causal antecedents in our life history and genetics. Absent this sort of understanding, our behavior ends up an inexplicable, indeterministic fluke. In short, there’s no antinomy between determinism and personhood, between determinism and full-blooded voluntary intentional agency, or between determinism and the ability to modify ourselves or the environment to our own advantage. To suppose otherwise, as Tallis does, is to think we must be something more than natural creatures to be properly dignified and self-shaping. But this something more can only be an inexplicable, a-causal mystery.

It’s ironic that by objecting to “stuffing all this back in the brain” Tallis actually distributes part of the responsibility for our choices to the wider context of action, including other people. This is not what a defender of a buck-stopping free will would want, one supposes. But the point (an own goal, perhaps) is nevertheless well-taken: seeing that choices arise within a larger background, that we are not “stand-alone brains” as he puts it, militates against the idea of an uninfluenced, self-caused chooser within the person that bears ultimate responsibility for action.

Tallis ends his paper on a tentative note, saying that his argument “does not entirely refute the notion that we are small mechanisms in the great mechanism of the universe, but it makes it more difficult to hold.” This concession gives away a great deal, since the difficulty of holding a properly nuanced idea of ourselves as mechanisms is not that great. Remember, Tallis thinks for us not to be mechanisms we must transcend cause and effect determinism in some important respect; if we don’t, then we are mechanisms. Now, since we don’t transcend determinism (and importantly even if we did, that wouldn’t help us be responsible agents, see here) we are mechanisms, by Tallis’ definition.

But notice what amazing mechanisms we are, namely the kind Tallis describes in his essay: capable of all sorts of self-modifying, intentional, conscious and voluntary actions. We are a far cry from simple, inflexible mechanisms, which is usually what people mean by the word. So perhaps we should use a word that better suits our capacities. How about person? So long as we don’t have something supernatural or contra-causal in mind when thinking about persons and their capacities, this is the way to go.

It isn’t clear that Tallis believes that persons have something supernatural or contra-causal at their core, since after all he’s a medical doctor and therefore most likely a physicalist. But his desire to wiggle free of determinism in defending free will necessarily introduces an obscurity into his account of human action. This is too bad, since otherwise his is a first class intelligence, one that naturalists would love to have on their team. Meanwhile, Dr. Tallis, the ball is approaching rapidly.