Monday, October 18, 2010

Franz DeWaal & the Atheist Dilemma

One chimp helping another.
Primate-behavioral biologist Franz DeWaal, in today's nytimes essay "Moral Without God?" states that: "The new atheists call themselves “brights,” thus hinting that believers are not so bright. They urge trust in science, and want to root ethics in a naturalistic worldview." But "science" cannot give us the meaning of life. Less than this, science cannot tell us how to live. "Biology can help us understand what kind of animals we are and why our morality looks the way it does. But to go from there to offering moral guidance seems a stretch."

So, science cannot give us moral guidance. I agree. (And Sam Harris is fundamentally wrong.)

DeWaal writes: "Even the staunchest atheist growing up in Western society cannot avoid having absorbed the basic tenets of Christian morality. Our societies are steeped in it: everything we have accomplished over the centuries, even science, developed either hand in hand with or in opposition to religion, but never separately. It is impossible to know what morality would look like without religion. It would require a visit to a human culture that is not now and never was religious. That such cultures do not exist should give us pause."

So, the moral values of Dawkins and Hitchens are essentially Christian-theistic.

DeWaal is saying that the morality of Western society is "Christian," like it or not. His bonobo-examples are of love and servanthood and care. "Mammals are sensitive to each other’s emotions, and react to others in need. The whole reason people fill their homes with furry carnivores and not with, say, iguanas and turtles, is because mammals offer something no reptile ever will. They give affection, they want affection, and respond to our emotions the way we do to theirs." Your dog, like Jesus, came not to be served, but to serve. As does the animal-love of atheist Peter Singer. But not the "strident atheism" of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, re. whom DeWaal wonders "what good could come from insulting individuals who find value in religion? And more pertinently, what alternative does science have to offer?"

DeWaal believes that the building blocks for Christian-theistic morality "are older than humanity." Hints that this is true lie in the behaviors of other primates who "strive for a certain kind of society. For example, female chimpanzees have been seen to drag reluctant males towards each other to make up after a fight, removing weapons from their hands, and high-ranking males regularly act as impartial arbiters to settle disputes in the community."

DeWaal concludes two things:

1) We therefore don't need God to explain where we are at morally today.

2) No good will come from trying to excise religion from society. He writes: "I doubt that science and the naturalistic worldview could fill the void and become an inspiration for the good. Any framework we develop to advocate a certain moral outlook is bound to produce its own list of principles, its own prophets, and attract its own devoted followers, so that it will soon look like any old religion."

Re. (2), I agree. Which shows the folly of the "New Atheists" in thinking they could do any "good" or anything at all in eradicating religion. For DeWaal the idea of eradicating religion in the name of atheistic naturalism is essentially self-contradictory because "religions" will inevitably form. He calls this "The Atheist Dilemma."

Re. (1) I think DeWaal is guilty of the genetic fallacy. Any evolutionary explanation of how we got, morally, where we are today does not logically eliminate God. It also does not does not answer the philosophical questions re. the "oughtness" of moral values. Even if I evolved to believe that, e.g., killing six million Jews is wrong, we still have the question: "Is genocide wrong?" This raises the metaethical question of objective moral values.