Monday, July 23, 2007

Pinker's Dangerous Ideas and Meta-ethical Theories

Several years ago I read Steven Pinker's book The Blank Slate. Pinker is a brilliant person and a very good writer. And, he has really cool hair (I mean it). I was especially interested in his views on human free will given his atheistic materialistic philosophical assumptions. I remember finding his thoughts re. these things as the least persuasive and even incoherent logically. This (to me) logical incoherence is displayed in a recent article of his.

In the 7/16/07 Chicago Sun-Times Pinker writes "In defense of dangerous ideas: In every age, taboo questions raise our blood pressure and threaten moral panic. But we cannot be afraid to answer them."

What, specifically, are the religious "dangerous ideas" we need to talk about? They include:

Were the events in the Bible fictitious -- not just the miracles, but those involving kings and empires?

Is morality just a product of the evolution of our brains, with no inherent reality?

Have religions killed a greater proportion of people than Nazism?

Pinker lists about fifteen other "dangerous questions," such as:

a. Would it be consistent with our moral principles to give parents the option of euthanizing newborns with birth defects that would consign them to a life of pain and disability?
b. Do parents have any effect on the character or intelligence of their children?

c. Is the average intelligence of Western nations declining because duller people are having more children than smarter people?

If, a la Edward O. Wilson (Sociobiology), all human behavior can be explained in terms of genetics, then the answer to (a) is yes, the answer to (b) is no, and the answer to (c) is yes.

He then adds: "Perhaps you can feel your blood pressure rise as you read these questions. Perhaps you are appalled that people can so much as think such things. Perhaps you think less of me for bringing them up. These are dangerous ideas -- ideas that are denounced not because they are self-evidently false, nor because they advocate harmful action, but because they are thought to corrode the prevailing moral order."

This last sentence creates, for me, odd philosophical thoughts, like: If morality is only a product of the evolution of our brains, with no inherent reality," then what does it mean to say a "dangerous idea" is dangerous because it is "thought to corrode the prevailing moral order?" And who could care? It's very hard for me not to smell something going on with this kind of "thinking" that is logically incoherent. The options now seem to me to me: 1) it's not logically incoherent, thus I am wrong; 2) I only think it is logically incoherent because I am genetically predisposed to think so; 3) Pinker writes this way because he is genetically predisposed to do so; 4) and so on.

My point is: I need Pinker to develop a theory of morality. Because he writes something like this: "Even if it turns out, for instance, that groups of people are different in their averages, the overlap is certainly so great that it would be irrational and unfair to discriminate against individuals on that basis. Likewise, even if it turns out that parents don't have the power to shape their children's personalities, it would be wrong on grounds of simple human decency to abuse or neglect one's children."

It would be "wrong on grounds of simple human decency...?" What the heck does that mean? And isn't it circular or, logically, if it forms an argument, question-begging? Is "right" and "wrong" grounded on "simple human decency?" But whose idea of SHD? Should I be expected to accept Pinker's ideas here?

"Morality" is all over Pinker's essay. He says that human clustering in coalitions is a "nasty habit"; it is "better" to be aware of the "truth" than be ignorant of it; "We know that the world is full of malevolent and callous people who will use any pretext to justify their bigotry or destructiveness"; and so on.

And look at this: "The moral order did not collapse when the Earth was shown not to be at the center of the solar system, and so it will survive other revisions of our understanding of how the world works." So, please tell me about the "moral order," what it is and why I should accept it. Especially if "morality is just a product of the evolution of our brains." Isn't some kind of meta-ethical reasoning here necessary, one that precisely cannot be explained in terms of the material activity of our brains? And if my particular brain (and the brains of William Lane Craig, Alvin Plantinga, et. al) is hard-wired to ask such things, then how is Pinker's brain exempt from genetic determinism?