Saturday, March 27, 2010

Bringing philosophy to a new low

It must be a requirement among the new breed of atheist spokespersons to not know what they’re talking about.

Sam Harris—who is presented as a philosopher, and for all I know may very well have a degree in philosophy—recently told CNN: “We should be talking about real problems, like nuclear proliferation and genocide and poverty and the crisis in education. … These are issues which tremendous swings in human well-being depend on. And it’s not at the center of our moral concern. … Religion has convinced us that there’s something else entirely other than concerns about suffering. There’s concerns about what God wants, there’s concerns about what’s going to happen in the afterlife. And, therefore, we talk about things like gay marriage as if it’s the greatest problem of the 21st century. We even have a liberal president who ostensibly is against gay marriage because his faith tells him it’s an abomination. It’s completely insane.”

First of all, in Harris’ moral schemata, apparently only those problems that can be addressed by national government action constitute “real problems”; interactions between individuals seem to him to be ersatz problems. Yet in the same conversation, “Harris also said people should not be afraid to declare that certain acts are right and others are wrong. A person who would spill battery acid on a girl for trying to learn to read, for instance, he said, is objectively wrong by scientific standards [italics mine]. “‘It’s not our job to not judge it and say, “Well, to each his own. Everyone has to work out their own strategy for human fulfillment.” That’s just not true,’ he said. ‘There’s people who are wrong about human fulfillment.’”

Objectively wrong, yes. By scientific standards, no, not unless Harris is speaking of philosophy and theology as sciences in the classic meaning. The physical and social sciences can tell us how to increase the yields of renewable food resources. They can tell us how to distribute food most effectively and most economically. They can tell us how starvation and malnutrition physically affect individuals and societies. But they can’t tell us that we ought to feed the poor, that all human life is worth preserving or that social stability is good. Those conclusions can only be reached from particular philosophies and particular religions; as such, they can be denied by people from other philosophical and theological schools.

But Harris’ self-contradiction goes beyond this merely technical point. What is the real difference between people saying that assaulting a girl with battery acid is objectively wrong and people saying that gay marriage is objectively wrong? Is it because you can find substantial popular support for gay marriage, whereas assault and battery is not popular? Such a contention would be a bandwagon fallacy; surely a philosopher who had studied logic would not be guilty of such a breach of rationality!

Or has Harris confused obviousness with objectivity? For an objectivist, that which is objectively wrong isn’t necessarily obvious; whereas for the subjectivist—at least, for the consistent subjectivist—even those things which we call “obviously wrong” are mere social conventions. (See my previous entry on subjectivism.)

One point that makes me wonder how much Harris, apparently an Epicurean materialist, really knows about any religion is his contention that it takes public focus off of human suffering. The truth is that all religions, at some point, must address the problem of evil, which is itself known by the problem of suffering: Why do we suffer? What causes suffering? Do we attempt to reduce suffering, and if so, how do we do so? If a God exists, does He actively will suffering, or does He merely allow it to happen as part of some greater plan? Is suffering truly inevitable, or is it completely avoidable? Christianity and Buddhism both have plenty to say anent suffering. Surely Harris, as a philosopher, must know this, because so much high-level apologetics for both religion and atheism concerns itself with how religions answer such questions.

In Answering the New Atheism: Dismantling Dawkins’ Case Against God, theologians Dr. Scott Hahn and Dr. Benjamin Wiker remind us:

Cosmology and morality are intimately related, and rival cosmological accounts imply rival views of morality. The reason for this is both simple and profound: different views of nature imply different views of human nature, and different views of human nature will yield different moral principles.

… Once we brush away surface similarities, we discover that in principle Christians and atheists inhabit different moral universes, where in great part what is good for the atheist is evil for the Christian, and what is evil for the atheist is good for the Christian. We stress “in principle” because in practice most atheists and Christians historically and culturally combine a confused mixture of moral principles, some of which can be traced back to Christian sources, some of which can be traced back to secular sources that arose in antagonism to Christianity and culminate in atheism.[1]

Nuclear proliferation, genocide, poverty and education are important issues. Religious leaders, especially those of the Catholic Church, have spoken about them all; to speak as if such issues have never crossed the minds of theists is to assume a moral superiority to which Harris simply isn’t entitled.

But both the gay-marriage advocate and the defender of traditional marriage know that how we build marriages and families affects our social cohesiveness, as well as our ability to raise, nurture and educate children. Our social philosophy of family, the values we choose to support by legislation and executive action, necessarily entails questions of suffering and human fulfillment.

Harris says there are people who are wrong about human fulfillment. I answer: Agreed once, a thousand times agreed. That is precisely why gay marriage is the subject of often-rancorous debate. Those who support it believe that it would contribute to the spiritual fulfillment of homosexual persons; those who are against it believe that it would sanction a sexual relationship that is spiritually harmful and socially destabilizing. Both sides agree that whether we sanction such unions or not will ultimately impact our future as a nation and society for better or worse. To pooh-pooh the naysayers by calling the issue unimportant is philosophically obtuse.

Beyond this issue, though, to agree that nuclear proliferation, genocide and poverty are bad and that education is good, we must agree to a philosophy that sees the individual human being as having a special quality not present in other animals, one that is worth preserving and defending. If man is just another animal, albeit a clever monkey, then there’s no moral difference between treating animals like human beings and treating human beings like animals. It becomes inhumane to perform cruel experiments on dogs and cats but eminently humane to put down elderly and infirm men and women. If humans are individually special, then feeding the poor is a social necessity; if not, then it’s more economical to euthanize and bury them. After all, neither the living man with a full belly nor the dead man suffers; if ending suffering is the only true goal of a moral society, then isn’t one plan of action as good as the other? Or is there any fundamental hypocrisy in the woman who won’t eat a chicken ovum but will terminate the life of the egg developing in her own womb?

Materialism simply doesn’t provide the kind of cosmological basis for the moral code many people support, including many atheists. But more to the point, if God exists, and if He has in fact revealed to us His desires concerning our behavior towards others, then we can’t discard the religion that reveals that Will merely because that Will requires an inconvenient moral code. If God’s Being is an objective reality, then His Will would be equally real, and thus something our moral codes must take into account. Rejecting that Will out of some sense of moral superiority would be the real insanity.

Harris, who is supposed to be a philosopher, ought to know this.

I don’t hold Harris to be representative of atheist philosophers in general. Indeed, there must be quite a few professors whose teeth grind whenever Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins or any of their ilk spout off about the evils and stupidities of religion. As Terry Eagleton pointed out in a review of Dawkins’ The God Delusion, Dawkins would have every right to expect that a non-biologist would read something more than the Book of British Birds before even forming an opinion on a biological topic, let alone publishing a whole book on biology. Yet it seems that the New Atheists only learn about religion from other New Atheists, much as Nazi philosopher Alfred Rosenberg learned about Judaism from Henry Ford’s hate-tract The International Jew. After all, anyone who would consider St. Thomas Aquinas an “idiot” (as Hitchens has written publicly) is someone who has never picked up the Summa Contra Gentiles.

One wonders what Socrates would have thought of Sam Harris.


[1] Op. cit., pp. 96-97.